May 25, 2007

Inside the Walls of Troy by Clemence McLaren

This book was not on my original “Once Upon a Time” list, and, until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Clemence McLaren. What motivated me to read this book was the fact that after reading The Penelopiad I really felt like approaching this story again, but this time from Helen’s point of view. Shortly thereafter, this book popped up on my Amazon recommendations, and it seemed to do exactly that, so I couldn’t resist getting it.

Inside the Walls of Troy is a short children's book that retells some of the events of The Iliad from the perspective of two women: first the famous Helen, the reason why the war first begins, and then of Cassandra, the Trojan princess-seer who is doomed by Apollo to never be believed. Though intended for younger readers, this retelling does not strip the story of its tragedy or its violence. There is a sense of despair that deepens as the years pass and the heroes die one after another.

The way Helen is portrayed in this book is very, very different from the way she is portrayed in The Penelopiad. Of course, they are very different books, so perhaps I shouldn’t be comparing them, but having read both recently, it’s hard to resist. I think it is easier, perhaps, to portray Helen as selfish and vain like The Penelopiad does. It was nice to see her humanized for once, to have access to her thoughts and emotions and motivations. And in this book, Helen is not at all happy to have men die for her by the thousands.

As the title indicates, this book offers the Trojan perspective. I’m sure there are hundreds of books out there that do the same, but I’m used to always seeing things from the Greek side, so the change was nice.

Clemence McLaren says,
When I was a sixth grader, I used to read The Odyssey with a flashlight after I’d been sent to bed. I was fascinated with the women characters, their endless weaving to make brief appearances in the men’s hall – where all the action was – but they had almost nothing to say. I always wondered how they felt about what was going on. Did Helen of Troy like having the world’s most beautiful face? Did Penelope blame Helen for launching the Great War? Why did Circe want to change men into pigs?

I suppose I began retelling these stories to answer my own questions, and, as a teacher and a writer, I’m still at it.
The story of the Trojan War, like many other myths, does raise a lot of questions. And because it is one of the greatest stories ever told, attempts of answering those questions never get old. You can turn the tale around like a prism, and always capture a new detail, a new perspective, a new way to enrich it. Like Fence said the other day, myth is flexible, not static, so additions to the story are, for me, not adulterations, but enrichments.

In the epilogue, Clemence McLaren says, I think we’ll still be doing it – retelling the story of the Trojan War – when we’ve established space colonies on Mars. This made me smile. I agree, of course. These stories, along with Arthurian Legend, are stories I can’t see myself ever tiring of seeing retold.

Also in the epilogue, the author writes about the sources used for this retelling, and about how the accounts of the destiny of the women inside the walls of Troy varies according to the source. She invites the reader to pick whichever pleases her or him best.

Clemence McLaren's writing style is both simple and very, very effective. She also has a book called Waiting for Odysseus, which roughly covers the same territory as The Penelopiad, except the perspective offered is not only Penelope’s, but also Circe’s, Athena’s and Eurycleia’s. I will definitely be reading it in the future.


  1. Most of my knowledge about this tale omes from movies. I think reading this book would be a great idea. I like the female angle idea.

  2. Yes, I think this book is a good starting point. I recently discovered (or rather, re-discovered, because I knew but had forgotten) that Marion Zimmer Bradley has a book, "The Firebrand", that does the same as this one, but with much more detail (600+ pages as opposed to the less than 200 this one has). I really want to read it one of these days.

    And of course, I hope to one day gather the courage to read "The Iliad" itself.

  3. Hi. Thanks for the visit. I read this book many years because I have always been interested in Greek Myth and stories. I always found this to be a really good and tragic adaptation especially considering its YA. McLaren has a sequel to this, also focusing on the women of the Odyssey, including Penelope. I've read The Penelopiad which is certainly a distinct piece of work.

  4. Hi athena, thank you for your visit as well. Buying this book was a bit of a shot in the dark for me, but it really surpassed my expectations. I do plan on reading McLaren's other books, especially the one you mentioned.


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