Barry Unsworth
Barry Unsworth; drawing by David Levine


We are in the pause before war, days of deceptive calm. The Greek ships, en route for Troy, are trapped in the harbor at Aulis by an unseasonable, inexplicable wind. Calchas is a diviner, at present in favor with King Agamemnon, the Greek commander in chief. As the futile hours pass, he seeks a chance to exercise his skill. For six days the wind combs the shrubs; pebbles rattle along the shore. The whole army waits for an omen, for some indication of why their enterprise is arrested. The English novelist Barry Unsworth directs his reader’s attention to liminal states, the hour just before sunrise, “a time disputed between Hecate and Helius”; times of fading light, when sticks are gathered for a divinatory fire, and a lamp burns in the mouth of a cave. We hear the distant howling of wolves, the snapping of the canvas of the tents; the army itself is a murmur on the wind, its discontents carrying, like the odors of the ill-sited latrines, to where the King reclines in his cushioned tent.

The army needs distractions, sideshows. Trivial disputes are blowing up into tribal quarrels, fought out by champions. Ajax the Larger and Ajax the Lesser are organizing games; too mean to give money prizes, they decide the victors will be crowned with leaves, a novel idea that attracts some derision. The men are betting on the outcome of the games, gambling on their future as looters. They have no currency but the promised spoils of Troy. They are not a reluctant army but have no solidarity. Each man is driven by individual greed. Agamemnon’s power is fragile. He is chief by temporary agreement, and if he is in charge he has to take the blame for what goes wrong—even if he can’t help it. A contrary wind can’t be simple coincidence; the Greeks don’t think like that. The fleet is trapped because someone has offended the gods. That “someone” must be at the top; if the expedition is blighted, it must be because of what Agamemnon has done, knowingly or otherwise. The gods are not interested in intention; they punish a person’s deeds or derelictions regardless of the motivation behind them.

The ostensible reason for war is Helen’s abduction by the Trojan Paris; but no one except her husband, Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, believes she was taken away by force. Unsworth follows Euripides’ version; this is a story about war, not blighted love. In the Greek camp there is a blind Singer, who must rehearse every day the original offense, keep it fresh in the minds of the soldiers. For Chasimenos, the bureaucrat, there is a crude, plain agenda:

The conquest of Troy will give Mycenae, as the most powerful member of the alliance, rule over the shores of western Asia…. It will secure for us the trade in amber from the Baltic, in copper and tin from northern Anatolia and in the gold that comes down through Thrace. Control of the straits will fall into our hands, we will be able to levy dues on all the shipping that passes through into the Euxine Sea.

Odysseus, the cleverest member of the party, the one who best understands the power of words, has his own purpose: nation-building. What does it mean to be Greek? “This is a nation waiting to be born…. On the plains of Troy we shall fight under one banner.”

But now that the fleet has embarked, war has become its own justification. The original reasons for the enterprise come second to the leaders’ need to look good. Just for now, confined and quarreling, they are more in need of gaining approval from each other than from any external source. Menelaus—a nasty little blusterer, whose chief recreation is rape—gets his opinions from the gutter, explains them in gutter language. “Asians stink…. Their houses are like pigsties.”

Given time, he soaks up, like some barkeeper’s sponge, the richer lees of hypocrisy. When he is squeezed, out oozes a justification for his vicious purpose: the Greeks are going to fight the war to benefit the Trojans:

…We could bring light into their darkness. I mean, we are streets ahead of them, especially in metalwork and catapults. We have a duty towards these people. Once the territory has been occupied and the troublemakers rounded up—I don’t believe in leniency towards those responsible for the war, I have every intention of personally hanging Paris up by his balls—we could set about civilizing the population and changing their ways…. I see it as a mission.

Like Euripides, Unsworth shows men “as they are,” not “as they ought to be.” Like Euripides, he will show us a women’s world which is intimate, which has a psychological reality—whereas his men do not communicate, but rather make speeches at one another. It is as if communication has been hived off and made the province of Odysseus, the spin doctor.


Barry Unsworth is a veteran of the historical novel. Sacred Hunger, a novel about the slave trade, won the Booker Prize in 1992, and his recent successes have included an elegant murder story called Morality Play (1995), about a group of traveling players touring England at the end of the fourteenth century, and Losing Nelson (1999), an unsentimental reappraisal of England’s greatest naval hero. His version of the prologue to the Trojan War will not provide much comfort for those who agonize over the “appropriate” language for authors to use when they rework history and myth. With a swift irony, he reaches straight for our contemporary medium—the brutal coinages of military spokesmen and the slack formulations of public convincers. Perhaps truth is not quite the first casualty of war; long before the combatants sight each other, the meaning of common words is cut up and left bleeding.

When we hear Unsworth’s jaunty, contemporary turns of phrase, we imagine that his portraits of the heroes will be deflating and scathingly satirical, like those of the servants and menials in Troilus and Cressida. It is true that his Greeks are brutes, egotists, and buffoons—Achilles a narcissistic killer, Nestor senile—but Unsworth doesn’t simply cut them down to size; he embeds them in a context of multi-generational desperation. His main characters are, after all, the inheritors of the curse on the House of Atreus. The founder of their line, Tantalus, invited the gods to a feast and served up his own son Pelops. For this the gods condemned him to perpetual hunger and thirst in Hades. They brought Pelops back to life, only to have him murder his future father-in-law, then dispose of the charioteer who had helped him with that murder; it is the charioteer, Myrtilus, who places a curse on the family. The two sons of Pelops quarrel, and history repeats itself.

One brother, Atreus, invites the other to a banquet and serves him his own sons. The distraught father lays a second curse on Atreus. The two sons of Atreus are Agamemnon and Menelaus. His granddaughter, child of Agamemnon, is Iphigeneia—who now moves to the heart of the narrative. She is fourteen years old, romantic and spoiled, but with little innocence in her character; how could she be innocent, with such a family history occupying her thoughts? Her slave girl, hearing her tell the story of the curse, remarks, “It’s always the children who suffer.” The trite sentiment seems just right for the family whose ultimate horror is a domestic one: the offspring chopped and spiced in the kitchen, the children baked in a pie.

But the House of Atreus, being a ruling house, doesn’t keep its quarrels confined between dining room and kitchen. Murder breeds murder. The bills for wars are not picked up just by the people who fight them but by the generations who come after. The story is, by definition, beyond any one storyteller, or any generation of auditors. But within the larger tale, Iphigeneia’s story is neat and contained. No wonder Euripides wanted to tell it, and Racine, and Gluck. We can watch afresh in every generation the child sleepwalking toward death, an unwitting prisoner of history.

Unsworth’s story finds her at home in Mycenae with her slave girl, Sisipyla, who was given to her when she was six years old. They have grown up together, look remarkably similar. The slave assists her mistress in performing the rites of Artemis. We are taken to a grove where

tall trees grew in a straggling circle round an inner group of four, marking the quarters of the moon, where the effigies of the Divine Child, Hyacinthos, nursling of Artemis, were hung at the time of the full moon. The children of past moons were never taken down and the trees were cluttered and lumpy with forms of straw. Birds had raided these to build their nests, and time and weather had taken much of the human likeness from them. Much, but not quite all; and this it was that disturbed Sisipyla and made her always glad to quit the place, the likeness still in the dangling, ruinous dolls.

It is a sinister, eloquent image: an image of miscarried or aborted fetuses, or of child figures on old tombstones and stone memorials, small faces eroded by time. These are the eyeless companions to the child Iphigeneia in her blighted life—her own unborn children, perhaps. The process of time and the process of retelling wipes away the individual features; history effaces itself, steps back into the shadow of myth. Like the straw dolls, its actors become generic, just shapes with a vaguely human design; they are anybody and nobody, very like us and very unlike us at the same time.


Iphigeneia knows about the family curse but misconstrues her own part in it. You notice, she tells her slave, that at each turning point, as the curse works itself, there is always a trick, and the trick is always followed by a murder. But she does not see it as a trick when the message comes from her father, Agamemnon, to say that Achilles—“quite the most eligible hero alive today”—wants her to go to Aulis and marry him, before the whole army. Her vanity is piqued. But so is her desire to save her family. She hopes that by marrying Achilles, such a favorite of the gods, she can lift the curse. She packs her wedding dress, and embarks toward her murderers.

Back in Aulis, Calchas is losing his influence. Though initially favored by Agamemnon, he is now being edged out of the councils of war, because he doesn’t tell the leaders what they want to hear. The initiative has been seized by Croton, the priest of Zeus. He alleges that as a priestess, Iphigeneia makes offerings to the “universal mother,” relegating the male god to a lower status. Agamemnon knows this and has done nothing. This is his offense. This is why the wind keeps the ships in harbor. How can he atone for this fault? By bringing his daughter to Aulis and sacrificing her to Zeus.

Agamemnon’s objections are stilled, and by a variety of arguments. Chasimenos, the bureaucrat, provides chilly reasoning:

If the cause of the war is just, nothing that happens in the pursuit of the war can make the war less just. The slaughter of the innocent cannot detract from the justice of the cause….

Odysseus asks, “What about the massive collective pain that would follow from the collapse of this expedition…?” In the name of this collective pain, the individual must be sacrificed. He appeals to Agamemnon’s vanity: what will posterity think of him? And he deftly removes the troubling idea of personal responsibility. “But what choice has a man when the gods have singled him out for greatness?” Croton, priest of Zeus, quashes doubt by more emotive methods: Iphigeneia, he tells the army, is a witch. “Simplicity, when it was passionate, would always win.”

Once the sacrifice is decreed and the victim summoned, the mood in the camp changes. The army is now focused, waiting for the girl’s arrival. Calchas wins no friends when he tries to complicate the issue by insisting that Agamemnon has, after all, the power of choice. And his own will, his own imagination is compromised. He has seen a vision of warriors tumbled together, Greek and Trojan, in a river of blood, “bearing them away into the far distance, where the stream ran silver and was quite empty.”

Agamemnon becomes obsessed with the manufacture of the knife that will kill his daughter: “the last word in sophisticated ceremonial weaponry.” But then, just as the girl’s ship is sighted, the wind drops. What does this mean? Has the need for the sacrifice been removed? It seems not. The original objective—to get to Troy and sack it—has become temporarily obscured. Achilles is afraid he will look a fool if his “bride” is turned around and sent home. It will look as if she has rejected the fictitious marriage proposal. The scribe Chasimenos says:

Sending Iphigeneia back again would be both illogical and sinfully wasteful…. The knife has been fashioned at considerable cost…. The sacrificial altar has been built at enormous labor….

So preparations for the deed now justify the deed itself. Men have been injured in preparing the track that Iphigeneia will take, her last journey:

Think of the planning and organization involved, the sheer human cost in blood and sweat. The knife, the altar, the road, these things have been brought into being for one purpose only. They must be used for that purpose. To divorce the product from the purpose for which it was produced undermines the logic on which our civilization and all its values are based.

After this grand rhetorical flourish Chasimenos adds: “It would leave us with a deficit on the books…. There is no way it could be justified in terms of cost-effectiveness.”

Calchas argues in vain. Odysseus says, better safe than sorry. It may be that the gods changed the wind in expectation of the human sacrifice. If they embark without performing it, perhaps Zeus will change the wind again and the fleet will be wrecked. Besides, says a minor chief, the army will mutiny. It is the only thing that has held them together, “the prospect of this colorful and unusual spectacle, a king’s daughter on the slab.”

Now Odysseus has the task of reconciling Iphigeneia to her death. She has no choice about whether to die or not, but she can control her own attitude, determine the spirit in which she is sacrificed. Sisipyla, the slave girl, offers to change places with Iphigeneia. The men have conceded that the princess, as a votary of the moon goddess, will go to her death in her ceremonial makeup, a luminous white paste. Under this mask, individual features are obscured. If she wears it, the slave girl will pass scrutiny for the length of the ceremonial road. As for Iphigeneia herself—a young soldier who is in love with the princess will help her escape by boat. The plan seems sound; but at the last moment, the princess refuses to change places. Crushed by her own sense of destiny, she believes a substitute is not good enough. No common clay will satisfy the gods, only her royal flesh.

In Unsworth’s retelling, it is Sisipyla who escapes, still wearing the face she prepared for her death: the glowing, eerie mask of moon goddess makeup. While all other eyes are turned to the sacrifice, the girl embarks in a boat. It is the slave, a kind of twin to the princess, who has exercised free will, while the royal person is left to what she sees as her destiny.

And in the course of time a standard version found its way into the repertory of the singers. Iphigheneia had not been sacrificed, she had been saved at the last moment by Artemis and spirited far away, as far as anyone could imagine, to the northern shores of the Euxine Sea, to live among the barbarous Taurians and be their priestess.

It is not the Singer—the official recorder of events in the camp—who has made this version. It is the anonymous fisherman, passing on his mistake, his misinterpretation of what he saw: he saw a sacrifice who had escaped, unbloodied, whole, a young woman trusting herself to the ocean. In his last paragraph Unsworth tells us that this is the sanitized version, adapted for later sensibilities, sensibilities which seek tales of heroism, not barbarism. This version wipes out the memory of bleeding flesh: it is a fairy tale, a piece of wish-fulfillment, adapted to the more mealy-mouthed taste of later generations: a softening of the truth, a consolation.


This is not simply a novel derived from a myth; it is about the creation of myth. Its manner is formal, distanced, unemotional—which doesn’t mean it is not effective and engaged. On one level it is quite clearly, directly related to the present world situation: to wars and rumors of wars, religious intolerance, the power of the storyteller to distort, lose, bury the message. Sometimes this leaves the reader with unsolved puzzles, loose ends. Odysseus describes Calchas as “an intellectual, and the fate of the intellectual awaits him, powerless to act, unable to make himself understood, lost in useless speculation….” So, only an intellectual? We thought he was a visionary; to conflate the two seems to be to lose something of the nature of both. Calchas is easily pushed aside, compromised by his timidity, his lack of conviction. He stops arguing when he doesn’t like what he sees.

The Greeks’ diviners don’t seem much good at reading the future. Unsworth hesitates to give them any special authority. The supernatural is a problem for him. As in Euripides, the gods in this tale don’t seem to have much to do with ethics; as in Sophocles, their divine communications are dangerously ambiguous. Calchas must live with “the terrible obscurity of the god’s purposes.” Unsworth’s soldiers don’t know they are going to a ten-year campaign. They expect the conquest of Troy to be easy and profitable. But surely, in a superstitious society, the diviner has power to scare people, alter their actions, and so change the future? The intellectual, by contrast, is readily disregarded; either ignored, or locked up as unpatriotic.

It’s not so easy to create equivalences between a rationalist society and one which defers to the power of destiny. Current non-Western societies may have strong notions of fate, but Allah is nothing like the capricious and cruel Greek deities. Nor are the novel’s disputes between the priests of Zeus and the followers of Artemis much like the disputes between our exclusionary, divisive monotheistic religions. The priest of Zeus, Croton, is bigoted in his denunciation of the goddess cults, but Unsworth hints that the issue is one of masculine versus feminine values. The waters of argument are muddied. Even if we accept that all past modes of thought are concealed in present ones, we still feel we want to locate and understand the book’s argument.

The blind Singer is a key figure, yet he is deeply ambiguous. Is he a propagandist, or an imaginative artist, or both? He is corruptible, we are told. His songs can be altered, manipulated. Odysseus tells him, “You of all people should know that anything can go into a Song, it just depends on the way you deliver it.” Calchas says, “You will never get the truth of things from Singers. They have interests to serve, their voice is a collective voice…. Their Songs are about what people already believe or what it is wished they should believe.” Odysseus’ nationalism is served by the Song. “People intent on war always need a story and the singers always provide one.” We see in the course of the story that agreed fictions have great power. Words turn into deeds because of them. Iphigeneia walks willingly to her death because she is caught up in a story larger than herself. Yet the Singer has no monopoly on story-making. New words are invented, perhaps debased ones, or emptily vainglorious, windily rhetorical. (How will the Greeks lead Iphigeneia to her death? They will “incentivize” her.) In the course of the story Ajax—the most stupid of the Greeks—invents the megaphone; however impressive his amplification, what he shouts is still nonsense.

Contradictions multiply; the Singer himself is unsure of his role. He says, “There is always another story. But it is the stories told by the strong, the songs of the kings, that are believed in the end.” History is written by the winners, in other words; the story is the historical record, knocked into shape by the top brutes. But earlier, the Singer says that the song can’t be confined to the utilitarian form that rulers approve. “People like Odysseus never understood this underground life of songs…. Song escaped their control.”

This suggests that the form of a story, in itself, defeats the attempt to use it as simple propaganda. Its elements recombine; some are forgotten or suppressed, others are recovered. There is a moment when Unsworth—speaking, it seems, as author, not as one of his characters—refers to a “true, ungoverned realm of story, where the imagination is paramount, taking us to places not intended, often not foreseen, by the framers of the words and the makers of the music.”

Art, then, escapes its originators. Myth is boxed into the small shape of the novel form. The novel ends and the box is opened; the story flies out again, ready for recirculation, reformatting. A fair point, if perhaps unnecessary to state. It is hard to see what Unsworth means to add to it. As the book’s political analogies are too relaxed to make much impact, perhaps Unsworth is really concerned with the nature of history. We are aware that the historical record is compromised. We see that the fisherman who misidentifies a slave as a princess is not making a simple error—he is exercising his imagination, seeing what he wants to see. We know that if the construction of stories is compromised, our ability to hear them must also be compromised.

Myths are powerful but not necessarily benign. Our natural wish to pattern and organize our experience into narrative makes us vulnerable to people who offer to do it for us. And in a short space, the truth blurs, and what’s left in our so-called “collective memory” is a handful of vivid pictures, the “colorful and unusual spectacle” of “a king’s daughter on the slab”: what’s left are nicknames, epithets, truisms, the slick morals drawn, the truth buried under accretions of legend. In the space of minutes, the “news” is turned into comment, into a moral, into an urban legend or folk-panic. History is becoming as entertaining and meaningless as a cat chasing its tail. Odysseus observes, “Any movement, in any sort of direction, could be called progress. It was a notion that blunted present discontents….” The princess is forever dying. The slave walks into the ocean again and again. Truth and image cannot be pulled apart. The past is obscured by sea spray and mist; the future is smoke and mirrors; the present cannot examine its discontents because the concept of stillness, of accurate reflection, has dropped out of the world.

Unsworth has concerned himself as a novelist with themes of greed, delusion, and self-delusion. With this latest novel he has moved on from the corrosive realism of Sacred Hunger, the mordant iconoclasm of Losing Nelson, to a wistful nihilism—contrary, but regretful about it. He has stopped short of the port called futility. We are sailing, his admirers must hope, toward some other story about story.

This Issue

October 9, 2003