Monday, July 5, 2010

In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood

[Note: I read the original, non-updated version. I cannot speak for any changes in information included in the revised copy available now. -Rob]

We all know, to various levels of depth, the story of the Trojan War. Some may have even read the great epic poems and plays that spin out of its events. But was Troy real? And if so, did they fight what could rightfully be called a world war at its gates?

Those are the questions that Michael Wood attempts to answer in this companion book to the mini-series of the same name. Using all the information and resources available to him at the time of the writing (early 1980s), Wood travels across the places named in the Iliad, trying to nail down the authenticity of Troy, its rulers, and those who opposed it, from the arrogant King Agamemnon to the wise Nestor.

This is obviously one of those books that is only going to be interesting to a very select group of people. I love Greek myth and the Homeric poems, along with the many plays "his" stories inspired. I really didn't know much about the fact behind the myths, so I found this book to be a compelling, if sometimes a bit dry, read. You probably need a bit of an interest in archaeology as well to really appreciate the work that has gone into finding Troy, which I also have.

If you like the idea of looking for the history behind the fact, then this book will be for you. It's broken down into sections, starting with the appeal of Troy, its first major (and controversial) investigator, Heinrich Schliemann, and also a section on Homer "himself." Wood tries to find the other locations mentioned in the Iliad, and shows that life for some of the people in this area has not changed greatly. Wood ends the book with his own believes, which, from what I understand, are now considered to be wrong. (This is likely what has been updated.)

I like the way that Wood weaves the story of the ancient Greeks to that of the modern day, even finding links in oral storytelling, a dying art that Wood seeks out in other countries to understand what the Homeric poets must have done. I also appreciated his recognition that often early archaeology was about looting, yet we still can learn from those who first took spade into soil.

There are plenty of illustrations to help you get a feel for what Wood is describing, making it unnecessary to watch the documentary (though I did after finishing the book). They are mixed into the narrative in a way that compliments rather than distracts, from what you are reading.

At times, Wood is a bit dense, which I admit put me off the text a bit here and there. History can be dull sledding, and I wish he'd given the prose a bit of a smoother feel. This is probably more an indication of the age of the work, since I'm now used to historians trying to make their books read more like creative non-fiction.

Despite the dull tone here and there, this was a great read for me, as I love this time period and happily read anything I can from it or about it. If your other favorite Homer is the guy who "wrote" the book on Troy's fall, then pick up this book. I think you'll find it as fascinating as I did, and you'll have the advantage of reading the revised edition to boot.

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