Monday, 12 February 2018

The Fall of Troy: Part 5

Paris and Helen escaping the Court of Menelaus (Kauffmann)
by Philip Womack


Part 5: The Trojan War

Menelaus woke from the feasting of the night before with a dry throat and a creeping sense of unease. He rolled over, reaching for the pitcher that lay by his bed. Once he had quenched his thirst, he sat up, scratched his belly, and listened. 

There was shouting in the corridors. Something had gone wrong. His first thought was that those Trojans had attacked his men in the night. He groped for a sword.

Somewhat blearily, he made his way along the corridors to the women’s quarters, maids and serving boys ducking out of his way as he went. None would give him a straight answer.

In Helen’s room he found some of her women; one or two were holding their hands up in despair; some were tearing at their hair; others were fruitlessly combing through chests and looking behind couches. Helen's combs were there; her fine dresses were there; the bronze bowl in which she kept her scented water was there, newly filled for her morning refreshment.
But of Helen herself there was no sign.

The rooms that the Trojans had been using were now empty. They had left nothing behind them, except a couple of maids with swelling bellies.

Menelaus snapped a spear in half, and flung the sharp part into the ground, where it stuck.

Another of the threads in this great and complex tale was woven before Helen got married to Menelaus. All the kings and princes of Greece had wanted her hand. Her father, Tyndareus, was presented with a rather tricky problem. How could he stop those who didn’t win her from tearing off each other’s heads? Ajax the Greater, in particular, was not somebody whom you would want to come up against if he bore a grudge against you. The way that he cracked open his nuts was particularly menacing.

It was Odysseus, of course, who came up with a solution. Helen would choose her husband: and all the other suitors would swear an oath. They would protect the winner from all harm.

Into the fog of Menelaus’s mind came the memory of Odysseus, dark haired, with his pointed chin and his clever eyes. Menelaus had never  liked him, but he had to admit that he was sharp. The oath had been a good idea.  And now that the worst had happened, it was time to call in the favour. Helen, his wife, had been stolen away by a miminy-piminy Trojan, a prancing, preening ex-shepherd: he could not stand for it. The heroes would have to come to his aid. And he would mount an expedition to retrieve her. He ordered the smiths to get to work.

The best horses were chosen, and messengers galloped out across all Greece. Menelaus and the rest of his court began to make their way to the palace of his brother, Agamemnon, the High King of all the Greeks.

They found Agamemnon playing dice with a smooth young chap called Aegisthus, whilst his wife, Clytemnestra, sat by the side, pouring them cool drinks. A little girl called Iphigenia clung to her mother’s skirts, watching the warriors with their flashing armour stamp into the courtyard. They paused in their drinks, and looked up, and gathered by the look on Menelaus's face that he was not here to pay a social call.
The links in the chain were forged. Agamemnon set up camp at the Port of Aulis, and went out hunting with his men, and found many fine deer, including a beautiful hind which they chased all day and caught as the sun set. Menelaus was surprised to find that those suitors who had sworn the oath were not all that keen to fulfill it. Odysseus himself pretended to be mad, until they placed his baby son in front of a plough he was pulling.  Achilles was hidden on an island filled with girls; they found him when they threw a ball at him, and he caught it by bringing his knees together. The others came, reluctantly or not, leaving their farmlands and their own wives and children, all at the behest of their High King, and an oath they'd sworn years before.

Eventually they all gathered, at the port of Aulis. There were other reasons why they wanted to attack Troy: she was rich, and had many acres of fertile plains; she had access to trades and to cattle, and there were many townspeople who could be enslaved, and whose gold could enrich the halls of the Greeks. Ajax the Greater was tickled by the idea of adding to his flocks, and went about boasting about the time he'd bested someone who'd fought someone who'd once had a drink with Hercules.

By the time the last king arrived, and they were encamped with their armies around the ships at Aulis, the men as well as the chiefs were beginning to think that this was actually a noble war, with a noble aim. 

They were all ready. The ships were drawn up, their black hulls bare on the sand. The provisions were being loaded. The men were being told tales of honour and glory, of the heroic generations before them, and the deeds that they would achieve when they got to Troy. The blare of the trumpet filled the skies. 

 There was only one problem. There was no wind. And so the great fleet of the Greeks sat in the still harbour at Aulis, and the men grew bored and began fighting among themselves, and the kings and chiefs began to think of their halls and their hunts. 

Menelaus came to Agamemnon. "What can we do? We can't march over land." 

Agamemnon was more decisive than his brother, though he was not always right. He called his chief seers together, and ordered them to inquire into the causes of the calm. If only, Agamemnon thought privately, to stop the men's petty fights, which were beginning to become troublesome. 

Soon enough, after much peering into entrails, the chief of the seers, Calchas, came to Agamemnon. "My king..."

"Get on with it," said Agamemnon.

"You killed a hind." 

"I have killed many."

"This hind, my king, was sacred to the goddess Artemis."

Agamemnon sat up straighter. He could feel a pressure on his temples.

"For the fleet to sail to Troy, you will need to propitiate her. And Artemis is not a kindly goddess. In place of the deer, she demands..." The old priest's voice faltered. "Your daughter. Iphigenia."

The wine from Agamemnon's goblet spilled over his robe, and nobody could ever get out the stain.

NEXT WEEK: Iphigenia at Aulis. 

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