The first episode of new BBC/Netflix swords-n-sandals epic Troy: Fall of a City aired on BBC1 on Saturday night, and amid all the rather graphic childbirth, warring gods and steamy love scenes you might have found yourself wondering – how much of this came from the Greek myths, and how much did they just make up?
Well, without giving too much away and spoiling future episodes (I know, these spoilers are quite literally older than Jesus, but not everyone knows the stories and the BBC wants newcomers to follow the twists and turns), there are a few significant changes in this retelling of the story, as outlined below.
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Of course, this is par for the course really. These stories have been told and retold by different writers and orators over and over again down the millennia, and even the most famous of the adaptations – Homer’s Illiad – only recounts the events of a few days towards the end of the war.
So here’s how the BBC and Netflix are partaking in this ancient storytelling tradition, by adding their own spin to the tales. Starting with…
Was Paris raised as a shepherd?
Yes – as in the series, our hero Paris (Louis Hunter) was raised away from his royal birthright by Agelaus, and unaware of his true identity, though he later discovered that he was the son of King Priam (David Threlfall) and Queen Hecuba (Frances O’Connor) of Troy.
One detail that seems to have been left out, though, is that during this time Paris had already married someone else – a nymph called Oenone, who he basically ghosted to go and chase after Helen instead. What a cad.
Was he really stolen by wolves as a baby?
Well, as the first episode hints, there’s slightly more to the story than that – viewers might have pondered why the King recognised Agelaus, or how Cassandra’s visions of doom tied into Paris’s reappearance – but for now we’ll avoid giving away that storyline, as the BBC is keen for newcomers to the myths to not have the story spoiled for them.
If you do want to read ahead, well, the information is out there.
Did he really have to choose which goddess to give a golden apple to?
Yes – the so-called Judgement of Paris came about after the goddess of strife, Eris, wasn’t invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (they were trying to avoid her usual drama, basically).
In revenge, Eris threw the golden Apple of Discord into the party, inscribed with the word Kallisti, meaning “for the fairest”. This kicked up a right argument between Aphrodite, Athena and Hera, each of whom thought themselves the fairest and asked Zeus to choose.
Wisely, Zeus decided to duck this bear-trap of a question and instead selected the mortal Paris to decide, after he’d previously shown good judgement adjudicating a bull-fighting contest (yes, really).
As in the TV series, Paris picked Aphrodite (Lex King) after she bribed him by offering the most beautiful woman in the world – though in various tellings of the story she more specifically offered Helen, rather than allowing him to guess who it would be.
In the original myths the goddesses also took all their clothes off to help Paris make his choice, either by his request or of their own volition depending on what you read. For a show that contains a fair bit of arguably unnecessary nudity, it’s strange that the BBC got all prudish when it came to following the myth in this particular case.
Did he have two names?
Yes – Paris was known as both Paris and Alexander, though unlike in the TV series (where he discovers that Alexander was his birth name), in the myths Alexander was a sort of surname he earned after routing a gang of cattle thieves (it means “protector of men”).
Was Cassandra really his sister?
Yep – Aimee Ffion-Edwards’ Cassandra was another child of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, and was given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo. Unfortunately, he also cursed her to never be believed, eventually putting her under considerable mental strain.
Other versions of the myths saw her prophecy come from snakes licking her ears while she’s asleep.
In the myths, though, it was often Paris’s mother who had the vision of Troy’s doom after her birth, while the BBC series attributes it to Cassandra.
How did Paris return to Troy?
This rather crucial plot point is surprisingly not expanded upon in the existing original sources, though there are suggestions that Paris’s reconciliation with his family occurred when he took part in some of the city’s games, as has been depicted in Troy: Fall of a City.
How did he run away with Helen?
Here’s where the series starts to diverge a little more. In the original myths Paris sets out to Menelaus’s (Jonas Armstrong) house with the express purpose of stealing Helen (Bella Dayne) away, with some interpretations of the story suggesting she falls in love with him and leaves willingly (or is bewitched by Aphrodite for the same purpose) while others just have Paris assault and kidnap her.
The series, meanwhile, depicts Paris as heading to Sparta for diplomatic purposes, and his conflict-sparking decision only coming after an attraction grows between him and Helen and Menelaus heads off to his father’s funeral.
On the flipside, some accounts (like those of Greek orator Dio Chrysostom) tell the story as Paris defeating Helen’s other suitors to win her fairly, taking her back to Troy after getting her father’s blessing.
What was Helen of Troy really like?
In the myths, it’s believed that while Tyndareus, King of Sparta is acknowledged as her official father Helen is actually the daughter of Zeus, King of the gods and Tyndareus’ wife Leda. Zeus sleeps with Leda while in the form of a swan because, well, that’s sort of his move. Other versions of the story have her born from Zeus and the goddess Nemesis, with both in the form of geese when they sleep together. Basically, one way or another the Greeks were pretty sure some water fowl were involved.
In her youth, she is at one point abducted by Athenian founder-hero Theseus (he of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth) to take as a wife, but is rescued by her family.
When she’s a little older, and it’s time for her to marry, many suitors come from all around the world to win her hand with lavish gifts and promises. Among them is Odysseus (Joseph Mawle), who has little to offer, but suggests to Helen’s father that he make all the suitors swear an oath to defend the chosen husband against all who would quarrel with him. This ends up being why so many Greek forces are roped in to Menelaus and Agamemnon’s (Johnny Harris) attack on Troy.
Personality-wise, Helen has usually been portrayed as passive or a bit scheming, so Troy: Fall of a City’s more sympathetic portrayal is a bit of a step forward.
Troy: Fall of a City continues on BBC1 on Saturdays