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Roundup of 2020

Randall Writing is the platform where my two creative outlets – writing and cartoons – come together and work alongside one another. (The name RandallWritingAndCartoons unfortunately isn’t as catchy.) I’m always trying to provide fun, fresh content to showcase my drawing and entertain people; and the support and feedback I get from you lot – my community of regular visitors – is what makes it worthwhile. So thank you to those of you who keep coming back as I try to continue improving!

Here’s a quick roundup of everything that’s happened on Randall Writing in 2020. I’m really pleased with how the site is continuing to grow – seven out of the past twelve months have surpassed 2019’s record number of monthly views. Let’s whizz through the new content that’s been added since last year’s roundup!

Stories with Drawings

I’ve continued my successful Stories With Drawings series, with several more of my illustrated anecdotes. This is the place where my writing and my cartoons combine to their fullest effect. For a one-minute read with simple slapstick humour, A Terrible Night’s Sleep is a good bet; or if you want some namedropping from my surreal time working on the Harry Potter film set, check out Harry Potter and the Discombobulated Intern.

Jelly Shots

A Terrible Night’s Sleep

Selena’s Guest

Harry Potter and the Discombobulated Intern

Running the Bulls

Harry Potter and the Discombobulated Intern

Cartoonist for Hire

I can be hired as a cartoonist in two main ways: to draw cartoons at events, and to draw personalised cartoons remotely, which I then post to you.

Lockdown has, of course, shifted my focus. I only drew at one event this year – the Imperial Winter Ball by Belgrave Square – before restrictions cancelled everything. So instead I’ve been drawing at home, responding to commissions, particularly as birthday or Christmas presents. My cartoons now come pre-framed as standard, and I have a new Etsy page with more details. I drew quite a few Christmas cartoons, so they’ll be featuring in upcoming posts very soon.

If you want to hire me to draw at a wedding or another event, check out my Wedding Cartoonist page; or to browse previous work I’ve done, go to my Commissions page.

Gift a Framed Cartoon

Cartoons at Events

Lockdown Drawings

Imperial Winter Ball

Commissioned Cartoons

Cartoonist for Fun

And here are some cartoons I did for my own enjoyment (or, in the case of Wear A Mask, righteous fury).

The Hurlingham Club

Captioned Cartoons

Wear A Mask


A few other things have been going on as well. The most popular part of the site continues to be the Book Summaries section, my little side-project tucked away from the rest of Randall Writing. So I expanded it with summaries of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Other than that, I’ve spent the year enjoying Better Call Saul and not enjoying the pandemic. My piece about coronavirus, posted on 12th March, is now a strange window into the pre-lockdown era…

Wishing you all a freer, safer, and more enjoyable 2021!

Follow me on Facebook here, or Instagram here


Iliad Summary 2: Casualties

My summary of The Iliad Books 13-24 is below this short discussion about the powers of the gods.

The Powers of the Gods in The Iliad

The bickering among the gods has a profound effect on the heroes down on the battlefield, and the fighting around Troy often feels like a proxy war for the gods’ grievances. They are certainly not all-powerful – much of The Iliad’s tension relies on their inability to get what they want. So what exactly can and can’t the gods do? They cannot die, but they possess bodies that can certainly be physically harmed. Zeus’s reign on Olympus seems to be built on raw physical strength: as by far the most powerful god, he threatens to inflict immense pain on the immortals who do not obey him. It is a basic, primal form of authority – in contrast to Agamemnon’s more conditional leadership. Aphrodite and Ares are both injured by the mortal Diomedes, though the humiliation seems worse than the wounds themselves.

Mysterious stone “altars” at the foot of the south tower, which guarded the main entranceway into Troy’s citadel. They probably served a religious function

The gods can shapeshift, revealing or hiding their identities from humans, though it is often the sign of a true hero that he realises he has spoken to an immortal. They are not omniscient, though they are often aware of what Fate has in store – which they sometimes try to alter, with only limited success. They can travel incredibly fast, but they cannot teleport; they can conjure up spectacular phenomena, and renew the strength of their chosen mortals or put thoughts into their heads, but they cannot change the inherent character of those mortals. And they do not directly harm anyone on the battlefield either. In Book 1, Apollo sends a plague against the Achaeans, and in Book 16, he knocks off Patroclus’s helmet; but really it is only mortals who injure and kill other mortals. The gods are constantly interfering, invisibly knocking spears off-target or coming in disguise to inspire or trick the warriors – but a taboo seems to hold them back from actually fighting. However unfair the gods make particular duels, the duels are fought by men who must bear the consequences.

The gods are squabbling because they seem to have nothing better to do than nurse grudges; privileged by their own immortality, they are ultimately callous even to the mortals they support, so that the heroes’ existences are precarious and often based on little more than a divine whim. This sense of instability is at the core of The Iliad: at any point, the gods might abandon a man they previously loved and let him die; a conversation among the immortals might cause a god to let even their own son perish; and if Zeus committed to supporting one side instead of struggling to make up his mind, he would be able to sweep aside one of the armies with ease. Against this harsh backdrop, all the heroes can do is strive their best, live honourable lives and hope that their names will live on. Pride and fatalism are the twin cores of The Iliad’s warrior ethos.

The grand entranceway beside the stone altars

The Iliad Summary Part II: Casualties

Day Three: The Longest Day, Continued

Book 13

When Zeus stops paying attention to the fighting around the Achaean defences, Poseidon takes the opportunity to break Zeus’s command not to interfere. He goes among the Achaeans, disguised, exhorting them to keep fighting, and renewing their strength. The major leaders who are still able to fight – Ajax, Teucer, Menelaus and Idomeneus – are all in the thick of it. The ageing Idomeneus and his right-hand man, Meriones, perform mighty deeds in a fierce skirmish against Aeneas and other leading Trojans, several of whom are killed. Hector, having established a foothold inside the Achaean wall, disengages from the fighting in order to consolidate his men.

Book 14

Nestor, hearing the fighting grow near his tent, leaves the wounded Machaon and goes to find Agamemnon. He finds Agamemnon with Odysseus and Diomedes, all three too wounded to fight. Agamemnon, despairing, suggests pushing their ships into the sea so as to abandon the war and escape home. Odysseus furiously disagrees. The four kings resolve to rejoin the battle, to urge the Achaeans on from the sidelines. Hera, seeing that Poseidon is helping the Trojans, decides to buy him time by distracting Zeus. Tricking Aphrodite into making her irresistible, and bribing the immortal personification of Sleep to help her, Hera seduces Zeus and sleeps with him. While Zeus is slumbering, Sleep tells Poseidon what Hera has done, and Poseidon takes the opportunity to rally the Achaeans more openly. He leads them in a charge against the Trojans, and Ajax concusses Hector with a stone.

A view from Troy over the plain outside the city

Book 15

As the Achaeans capitalise on Hector’s incapacity and push the Trojans back, Zeus wakes and is furious when he sees what’s going on. Hera, frightened, disingenuously swears that she didn’t collude with Poseidon. Zeus says he’s only helping the Trojans until his vow to Thetis is fulfilled; then, he assures Hera, Hector will die and Troy will fall. He orders her to summon Iris and Apollo from Olympus. He sends Iris to Poseidon to order him to withdraw from the fighting; Poseidon is furious and nearly refuses, but reluctantly gives way.

Zeus sends Apollo to heal Hector and rally the Trojans. The Achaean counterattack is pushed back by the rejuvenated Hector, and with Apollo’s help the Trojans sweep past the Achaean wall which has been the focus of the fighting for the past four books. Ajax does his best but cannot stem the tide on his own. Patroclus, hearing the battle growing closer, stops looking after Eurypylus and hurries to find Achilles. Hector and the Trojans reach the first Achaean ships and try to set fire to them, as Ajax stands on the decks and attempts to hold them off with a long spear.

The ruins of Mycenae’s mighty citadel, the home of Agamemnon

Book 16

An emotional Patroclus pleads with Achilles to take pity on the Achaeans, now that the Trojans are at the ships. If Achilles still can’t bring himself to fight in Agamemnon’s army, he says, echoing Nestor’s suggestion from Book 11, then he should at least let his soldiers, the Myrmidons, go to their comrades’ aid, with Patroclus wearing Achilles’s armour to dismay the Trojans. Achilles relents. He puts the Myrmidons under Patroclus’s command and prays that Zeus will grant Patroclus both success and safety.

Hector chops the head off Ajax’s long spear; Ajax, exhausted and now with a useless weapon, is driven off the first ship, which the Trojans set alight. But at that moment the Myrmidons pour into the combat, attacking the startled and weary Trojans, and turning the tide of the battle. Patroclus achieves his aristeia, slaying numerous Trojans as they are routed. Zeus watches, agonised, as his son Sarpedon rides against Patroclus, but Hera warns him it would be a terrible precedent for Zeus to rescue a mortal from fatal combat. Zeus chooses not to interfere, and Patroclus kills Sarpedon. With his dying words, Sarpedon urges his cousin and second-in-command, Glaucus, to prevent the Achaeans from seizing his corpse. Glaucus summons Hector and others to the fight, and there is a vicious battle over Sarpedon’s body. Patroclus, still in the midst of his finest hour, ignores Achilles’s warning not to go beyond the camp wall: he chases the Trojans all the way to the city. Zeus then sends Apollo to retrieve Sarpedon’s battered body, wash it, and carry it to his family in Lycia. Apollo then returns to where Hector and Patroclus are fighting one another, and he strikes a blow against Patroclus, knocking off the helmet of Achilles. As Patroclus is reeling, a Trojan called Euphorbus wounds him with a spear, and Hector finishes him off. As Patroclus lies dying, he prophecies that Hector will not long outlive him.

A Mycenaean bowl showing some rather unglamorous combat (Nafplio)

Book 17

Patroclus’s death changes the nature of the entire battle. Menelaus kills Euphorbus. There is a furious fight over Patroclus’s body: Menelaus and Ajax lead the Achaeans, while Hector, Glaucus and Aeneas lead the Trojans. Hector has put on Achilles’s armour, which he has taken from Patroclus’s corpse. The momentum shifts this way and that, as Zeus keeps changing his mind about what he wants to happen. He sends Apollo to aid the Trojans, then Athena to aid the Achaeans. Eventually Ajax, Menelaus and the others get hold of Patroclus’s body and start carrying it back to the camp. They send Antilochus, son of Nestor, to carry the news to Achilles.

Book 18

When Antilochus tells Achilles that Patroclus has fallen, the hero’s grief is overwhelming. His mother Thetis hears his cries of rage and pain, and emerges from the sea to console her son. He swears vengeance against Hector, which saddens Thetis as she knows Achilles is not destined to outlive Hector by very long. She tells him he cannot go into the fight until his armour has been replaced; and, promising to bring him new armour, she leaves him.

Meanwhile Ajax, Menelaus and the others are struggling to complete the return of Patroclus’s body, as the Trojans harass them. Achilles, divinely inspired, steps up onto the Achaean wall and lets out a shout that is magnified by the gods. The Trojans, seeing him, shrink back; the Achaeans disengage and get the body safely into the camp. The day’s fighting is over at last. Hector, his reason clouded by the gods, makes the rash decision to continue camping in the plain instead of falling back to Troy. Thetis goes to her foster-son, the Smith-God Hephaestus, and Hephaestus spends the night forging mighty new armour for Achilles. Most spectacular of all is an intricate golden shield, with detailed images representing the many facets of human society – agriculture, law, ceremony, warfare and so on.

The “Dendra Panoply,” a famous set of Mycenaean bronze armour (Nafplio). It is probably too early and too cumbersome to be what the Acheaeans wore in The Iliad

Day Four: The Vengeance of Achilles

Book 19

At dawn, Thetis returns and gives Achilles his wondrous new armour. She promises to preserve Patroclus’s body until Achilles is ready to hold a funeral. Achilles has no more interest in quarrels with the other Acheaeans while Hector lives. He gathers the Achaeans together and offers to reconcile with Agamemnon. Agamemnon, perhaps disingenuously, insists that he was deliberately led astray by the gods when he quarrelled with Achilles. He hastens to assure Achilles that he will still give him all the gifts he promised; but Achilles, eager for nothing but battle, isn’t interested either way. Odysseus says the army must grieve and eat before renewing the fight; Achilles would rather go straight into battle, but Odysseus insists.

Agamemnon sacrifices a boar, asking the gods to bear witness to the fact that he never slept with Briseis, who is now returned to Achilles, and who weeps over Patroclus’s body. Achilles, still showing no interest in material things – food, gifts or women – broods on Patroclus’s death. He is at peace with his own coming doom, which he senses is drawing near: grief and vengeance are all he has left to live for. Athena gives him strength to overcome the hardship of his fast, and he puts on his new armour.

Book 20

As the two armies march to face one another once more, Zeus summons all the immortals and revokes his ban on them interfering in the battle. Several gods join the Achaean side, several others join the Trojans, and the battlefield grows so cataclysmic that Hades fears the earth is going to crack right open and reveal the Underworld. The gods, rather than risk the carnage of a full-on battle among themselves, withdraw from the ranks and mostly watch from the sidelines.

Achilles is running rampant, and Apollo sends Aeneas to fight him. Aeneas’s spear is unable to pierce Achilles’s divine shield – but before Achilles can kill him, Poseidon rescues him. Poseidon has taken pity on Aeneas, even though he is fighting with the Trojans; and he knows Aeneas is fated to one day rule the Trojans and keep the Trojan royal line from extinction, after Priam’s family is wiped out. Furious, Achilles fights on, cutting his way through the Trojans. Apollo warns Hector not to fight Achilles – but when Hector sees Achilles kill his younger brother Polydorus, Priam’s favourite, he forgets this advice and comes to meet him. Achilles is delighted to encounter the man whose death he craves, and Hector is undaunted by Achilles’s unquestionably superior might; but Apollo whisks Hector away to safety.

The East Tower of Troy’s citadel, with its mighty fortifications

Book 21

Achilles drives a chunk of the fleeing Trojan army into the River Scamander. Plunging in, he sets about massacring them in the river. He encounters another son of Priam, whom Achilles once sold into slavery and who only made it back to Troy eleven days earlier. The prince pleads for mercy once more; but Achilles slays him, telling him that his days of mercy towards the Trojans are at an end. He will kill all who cross his path, just as – quite soon – one of the Trojans will kill him in his turn.

He continues to slaughter the Trojans in the river, until the river-God, appalled by his pollution of the waters, attacks him. Achilles is forced to flee across the battlefield with the river’s waters in pursuit, until Hephaestus conjures a great blaze that sweeps across the plain and scorches the riverbank, compelling the boiling river to yield. This escalates into a wider brawl among the gods. Athena, revisiting the conflicts of Diomedes from three days earlier, overpowers Ares and Aphrodite, while Hera thrashes Artemis. Apollo refuses to fight Poseidon, and the gods all return to Mt Olympus.

The Trojans, meanwhile, are pouring through the open gate and into Troy. A Trojan nobleman called Agenor bravely resolves to stand and fight Achilles, doubting he can outrun him. Achilles defeats him, but Apollo spirits him away. Then, so that Achilles does not gain entrance to the city, Apollo appears in the form of Agenor and leads him in a chase away from the gate.

A wide stone ramp inside Troy

Book 22

Having bought time for all the Trojans to get inside the city, Apollo reveals that he is an immortal, and Achilles furiously heads back to the gate. Only one Trojan remains outside: Hector. His parents frantically call to him from the wall, begging him to come in to safety. But Hector stays where he is, his mind in turmoil. He blames himself for the rout of the Trojans, since he now sees he should have withdrawn the previous evening inside the walls.

Determined to face Achilles come what may, he waits – but when Achilles reaches him, his nerve fails and he flees. Achilles chases him round the walls three times, shouting at the Achaeans not to interfere and rob him of any of the glory. Athena comes to Hector in the form of his brother Deiphobus, claiming to have come from the city to help him take on Achilles. Hector is delighted and touched by this show of solidarity, and stands to face Achilles head-on. Before they fight, Hector asks that the winner should treat the lover’s body honourably, but Achilles contemptuously rejects his request. They hurl spears at each other, and Athena returns Achilles’s spear to him. Hector turns to ask Deiphobus for his spear – but he has disappeared, and in dismay Hector realises that the gods have abandoned him.

Achilles mortally wounds him in the throat; as Hector dies, he foretells Achilles’s death at the hands of Alexandros. Achilles is scornful: he has accepted his fate. He reclaims his old armour, and other Achaeans cluster around gleefully, hacking at the corpse. Up on the walls, Priam and Hecuba lament their son, horrified. Andromache is preparing a bath for Hector; hearing the wails of grief, she comes to see what the matter is and is grief-stricken when she realises her beloved husband is dead and their son is fatherless. Achilles pokes holes through Hector’s heels, threads a cord through them, and ties him to the back of his chariot, dragging the body through the dust as he rides back to the Achaean camp.

A view from Mycenae, across the valley to Argos – the capital of Diomedes – and the sea

Days Five and Six: Mourning Rituals

Book 23

In the camp, Achilles leaves Hector’s body in the dust for the dogs, and he mourns Patroclus further. That night, the shade of Patroclus comes to him in a dream, urging him to hurry up with the funeral rites, and asking that their two bones should share the same urn, as Achilles will soon fall too. Achilles tries and fails to embrace the ghost. The next morning he oversees the funeral. He cuts off the lock of hair which his father had promised to give as an offering on the day of Achilles’s safe return: as Achilles is doomed, the vow is pointless. He puts it in Patroclus’s hand, and sacrifices four horses, two dogs and twelve Trojan captives to add to the grim bier. Answering a prayer, the wind gods help set the pyre alight. It burns through the night, with Achilles grieving beside it.

The next day, Achilles oversees funeral games in Patroclus’s honour. He officiates with good judgement, resolving potential disputes as tempers occasionally flare, and making the occasion one of Achaean togetherness. The first event, the chariot race, is a detailed and exciting chase, with a controversial outcome. Diomedes wins with Aeneas’s horses and Athena’s help, but three others – Menelaus, Antilochus and Eumelus – all have a claim on the second prize; Achilles successfully mediates, generously keeping everyone happy. The wrestling is a draw between Odysseus and Ajax; Odysseus wins the foot race; Diomedes and Ajax duel in the armed combat, which Achilles calls short when it gets dangerous, awarding Diomedes the prize. There is boxing and a throwing competition, and Meriones – with Apollo’s help – defeats Teucer in the archery. Achilles’s kingly behaviour is particularly striking when he awards Agamemnon first prize by default in the javelin-throwing, rather than let him be challenged by Meriones. In the context of their recent feud, the double irony is apparent: Achilles is giving Agamemnon a prize he has not earned; and he is doing a better job of overseeing the Achaeans than Agamemnon normally does.

fragments of pottery depicting chariots (Nafplio)

Several Days Later: Achilles’s Rage Subsides

Book 24

Achilles is still consumed by grief and fury, and in subsequent days he drags Hector’s corpse behind his chariot round Patroclus’s funeral pyre. The gods are displeased by this, preserving Hector’s body, and keeping it from being rotted by the sun or devoured by the camp dogs. Eventually Zeus decides that enough is enough. He sends Thetis to command Achilles that he must accept a ransom for the body. Then Zeus sends his messenger to Priam to tell him to go to Achilles and buy back Hector’s body. Priam must go under cover of night, with only one attendant. Hecuba, fearful of Achilles, fails to persuade Priam not to go.

When Priam and his attendant are alone with their wagonload of ransom in the darkness of the plain, Hermes comes in disguise and leads them to Achilles’s tent undetected. Priam enters Achilles’s tent, where he is having supper with two companions, and supplicates himself at Achilles’s feet. Kissing the hands that have killed so many of his sons, Priam appeals to Achilles’s humanity, urging him to think of his own aged father. The reminder of his own father is too much for Achilles: softening, he starts to cry, and the two men weep together. For the first time since Book 1, Achilles lets go of his rage. No longer angry, no longer reluctant about releasing Hector’s body, he thinks of his father’s mortality, the pain his own death will bring the old man, and the suffering and courage of Priam. The two men are bonded in the face of relentless war, both knowing that they and their loved ones are likely to soon die; they are still tense in one another’s company, but they share an understanding.

Achilles accepts the ransom and has Hector’s body prepared and placed on Priam’s wagon. The two men have supper together. Achilles kindly offers to hold off the Achaean army from battle for as long as the Trojans require in order to give Hector a proper funeral. Priam gratefully asks for an eleven-day truce, and goes to sleep outside Achilles’s tent. Hermes wakes Priam and urges him to make his escape before Agamemnon learns of his presence; so he and his attendant escape with the wagon while it is still dark. They return to Troy, where Andromache, Hecuba and Helen all mourn over Hector’s body. The poem ends with Hector’s funeral. His part in the war is over; but many more will soon join him in death.

The Warrior Vase from Mycenae, dating from about the time of the Trojan War, is the most famous depiction of Mycenaean soldiers (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Up Next: A Summary of The Odyssey

Back to Book Summaries

Iliad Summary 1: Stalemate

A Very Quick Introduction to The Iliad

My book-by-book summary of The Iliad is below, after a short introduction.

The Iliad is the oldest text in Western literature. Along with its sequel, The Odyssey, The Iliad is one of the two epic masterpieces that come at the very start of the Ancient Greek literary tradition. All other classical literature developed from this starting point; and almost every part of the literary culture that preceded The Iliad is lost.

The composition of The Iliadprobably close to 700 BC – turned out to mark the very beginning of the second golden age of Ancient Greece: the one we all know and recognise, the time of Athens, Sparta, Socrates, and countless inventions including theatre and democracy. But the poem’s story is set five hundred years earlier, around 1200 BC, in Greece’s first golden age. For archaeologists, this is the era of Mycenaean Greece, a flourishing Bronze Age civilisation named after the mighty city of Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon. Later Greeks knew this time as the Age of Heroes, when gods and monsters mingled with a remarkable generation of men who were capable of extraordinary deeds. Some of the Ancient Greeks’ memories of this splendid earlier time were startlingly accurate, but by the time of The Iliad, these were inextricably entangled with myth.

Mycenae, the foremost city in Greece at the time of the Trojan War, according to The Iliad. All photos in this article are by the author

The Iliad alludes to many of these myths. From the evidence of The Iliad itself, two mythic sagas dominated the tales of the Age of Heroes: the deeds of Heracles, and the tales of the Trojan War. The audience is assumed to be familiar with both, though the Heracles stories are only referred to in passing.

Troy really existed, and has been archaeologically excavated in what is now north-west Turkey. It’s likely that it came into conflict with the Mycenaean Greeks during the Bronze Age, and the city was sacked more than once in the decades either side of 1200 BC; though we don’t know for sure whether the legends of the Trojan War were based on real events. The Iliad is not “the story of the Trojan War” – it’s a snapshot of a few days near the end of the ten-year conflict. A good way to think of this is the way that films about the Second World War never try to tell the war’s entire story – they assume the viewer knows roughly what happened, and then they focus on a single story within the war.

The Three Casts of Characters

The Iliad is set in and around the embattled city of Troy. It features three groups of characters, whose actions throughout the poem are inextricably interwoven: the Achaeans (known to us as the Greeks), the Trojans, and the gods. Each group is infected by significant tensions, which cause the conflicts that dominate the poem.

The Trojans show the most unity, but they are not totally harmonious. There is widespread hatred for Prince Alexandros, nowadays more often known as Paris. Alexandros is very casual about the consequences of his actions – above all, causing the Trojan War by eloping with Helen, who now bitterly regrets her choice. His carelessness rubs his countrymen up the wrong way, especially his brother Hector, the only man capable of protecting Troy indefinitely from the Achaean horde. Their father, King Priam, should have turned Alexandros and Helen over to the Achaeans long ago, but he couldn’t bear to do it. As a result, Troy’s fate hangs in the balance.

Trojan plain
The view towards the sea from the citadel of Troy. Three thousand years ago, part of this plain would have been sea; the rest is where the battles of The Iliad are supposed to have taken place.

Outside the walls of Troy, on the seashore, is the besieging army of Achaeans. Their tensions largely stem from the fact that their leader, King Agamemnon, isn’t really the best man for the job. He is in charge of the uneasy coalition of Achaean kings because he rules the most powerful kingdom, Mycenae – but several of the other kings are stronger and have better judgement. Agamemnon seems to know this, and his insecurities make him small-minded. In particular, he hates the effortless leadership shown by the prince Achilles, the greatest hero in the Achaean army. Achilles is proud and hot-tempered, less inclined than the other leaders to defer to Agamemnon’s authority.

The gods, meanwhile, are bitterly divided. Troy is fated to fall, but it is loved by many of the gods, so several are trying to resist the course of fate. Some (Hera, Athena, Poseidon, and Achilles’s mother Thetis) support the Achaeans, while others (Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares) are on the Trojans’ side. Zeus, king of the gods, is torn; and as he hesitates, listening to different gods at different times, the immortals’ interference causes the tide of battle to swing back and forth down on earth.

The Iliad Summary Part I: Stalemate

Several Days Earlier: The Fatal Argument

Book 1

Agamemnon refuses to accept a ransom for the captured daughter of a priest of Apollo, who has been awarded to him as the spoils of a successful raid. In response, Apollo sends plague to the Achaean camp. Achilles takes charge, leading a meeting to discuss the plague, and it becomes plain than Agamemnon has to free the priest’s daughter. Furious at being shown up by Achilles, Agamemnon argues with him. As tempers flare, Agamemnon asserts his authority to take Achilles’s prize – a woman called Briseis – to replace the priest’s daughter. Achilles is outraged. Both men are touchy and proud, and as they argue we see their worst traits: Achilles is hot-tempered and insolent, while Agamemnon is insecure and spiteful. Both men feel keenly the humiliation of being the only Achaean leader left without a prize. Achilles withdraws to his tents in a rage, refusing to fight for the Achaeans any longer.

Agamemnon sends back the priest’s daughter and has Briseis escorted from Achilles’s quarters to his own. Achilles cries out to his mother, Thetis, a sea nymph. When she comes to see what the matter is, Achilles demands that she persuade Zeus to bring about the day when Agamemnon and the Achaeans will bitterly regret having alienated Achilles. Thetis does so, and Zeus reluctantly agrees. There is tension among the gods because of their differences over the Trojan War, but they set them aside for a feast.

Mycenaean pottery fragment
A fragment of Mycenaean pottery, showing a soldier with a boar-tusk helmet and two ox-hide shields, one of which is shaped like a figure of eight. From the Archaeological Museum of Nafplio

Day One: Duels and Pitched Battle

Book 2

To make Achilles’s curse a reality, Zeus sends a false dream to Agamemnon, urging him to prematurely march on Troy. Engaging the Trojans in battle would be a mistake, as without mighty Achilles the Achaeans are at a disadvantage, but Agamemnon is fooled by the dream. Agamemnon calls a council – but proves what a poor leader he is by suggesting that the Achaean army should give up the war and go home. He’s trying to spur them on, but the tactic backfires: the delighted men stampede to the ships to abandon the war. Only the cunning Odysseus, urged on by Athena, is able to regain control of the host, cleverly persuading the leaders while threatening and even beating common men into submission.

When order is restored, the army advances from the camp towards Troy. There follows a lengthy catalogue of all the Achaean levies who sailed to the war, and how many ships each of them brought. News of the advance reaches Troy, and Hector sallies out with the army of the Trojans and their allies; these, too, are listed.

Fragments of Mycenaean armour, including a figure-of-eight shield boss and the remnants of a boar-tusk helmet. These appear to corroborate the image on the pottery fragment above. (Nafplio)

Book 3

The armies face each other on the plain. Alexandros steps forward to show off, but shrinks back when Agamemnon’s younger brother Menelaus steps forward to accept his challenge. Menelaus, Helen’s former husband, is the man whose grievance against Troy triggered the war. Hector harshly criticises Alexandros for backing down, and Alexandros is shamed into accepting the duel. Agamemnon and Hector agree that the war can be settled here and now between Helen’s two husbands, and nobody else need die.

Back in Troy, Helen joins King Priam and his elderly advisors on the wall, overlooking the two armies. Helen feels guilt and misery for the suffering in her name, but Priam is kindly, blaming the gods instead of her. He asks questions about the Achaeans they can see, and she points out Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax and Idomeneus. Priam is summoned to the battlefield to oversee the sacrifice sanctifying the duel; he and Agamemnon do the honours, then he returns to Troy because he cannot bear to watch his son fight Menelaus.

The two men step forward, watched by the armies, and fight. Menelaus is winning the duel, but Aphrodite is watching over Alexandros. She is the goddess who gave him Helen by inspiring her to leave Menelaus and elope with Alexandros. Fearing for Alexandros’s life, Aphrodite spirits him back to his bedchamber. She tells Helen to go to him; Helen is bitter at Aphrodite’s treatment of her and ashamed of her marriage to Alexandros, but she is powerless and submits to them both. Alexandros is complacent, keener to sleep with Helen than defend his honour. Meanwhile his disappearance has caused consternation among both armies – including among the Trojans, who widely hate him for causing the war. Agamemnon, reasonably enough, asserts that Menelaus has won the duel by default and the Trojans should therefore hand Helen over.

Troy model
An archaeologically-accurate model of what Troy would have looked like around the time of the Trojan War, with its citadel and the lower town below (near the waterfront in Çanakkale, Turkey, the nearest modern town to Troy)

Book 4

Peace and war hang in the balance. To restart the fighting, and simultaneously to put the Trojans in the wrong, Athena tricks the archer Pandarus into shooting at Menelaus. Agamemnon is horrified when he sees Menelaus struck by the arrow, and even after he realises it’s not a serious wound he is re-committed to the fight. The Trojans, spurred on by the sight of Menelaus’s wound, are gearing up to attack in any case. Agamemnon rallies the kings, praising, rebuking and getting ready for combat. He criticises Odysseus and Diomedes more harshly than they deserve, spurring both to anger. Diomedes, along with Ajax, is one of the best warriors left in the Achaean army, now that Achilles is absent, and this day is his chance to prove himself. The two armies clash and the fighting begins.

Book 5

Athena triggers Diomedes’s aristeia (his moment of peak excellence in battle). He runs amok on the battlefield, tearing through Trojans until Pandarus wounds him with an arrow. Athena neutralises the wound, redoubles Diomedes’s energies and gives him the gift of recognising immortals on the battlefield. She warns him not to attack any immortal except Aphrodite. Pandarus, seeing that Diomedes is still running rampant, is determined to stop him. He teams up with Aphrodite’s son, the Dardanian prince Aeneas. Pandarus and Aeneas ride Aeneas’s chariot, pulled by his divinely reared horses, to Diomedes – but Diomedes kills Pandarus, and then shatters Aeneas’s hip with a rock, causing him to pass out. As Diomedes’s companion leads off the horses as plunder, Diomedes tries to finish Aeneas off – but Aphrodite attempts to spirit him away, as she did with Alexandros. Seeing her, Diomedes wounds her in the hand. She retreats to Olympus, deeply upset; Apollo starts carrying off Aeneas, and Diomedes attacks him until Apollo threatens him and he remembers Athena’s warning.

As Apollo oversees the healing of Aeneas, Ares joins the combat and leads the Trojan counterattack. Diomedes falls back before Ares, and Hector presses the advantage along with Sarpedon, leader of Troy’s Lycian allies. Sarpedon kills a son of Heracles, but is lightly wounded in the process. Hera and Athena demand that Zeus let them turn the tide back in the Achaeans’ favour. Zeus complains that Hera is badgering him to allow the destruction of a city he loves; Hera retorts that in exchange, she’s happy for Zeus to destroy any of her favourite cities anytime he chooses. Zeus reluctantly gives his permission for the goddesses to interfere. Athena returns to Diomedes, who says he’s hanging back because of her command to him not to fight any gods except Aphrodite. Athena tells him to disregard what she said. Acting as his charioteer, she rides straight to Ares, and Diomedes wounds him in the stomach. Weakened and in agony, Ares retreats from the fray.

The ruins of Tiryns, another Mycenaean city, not far from Mycenae itself. According to The Iliad, it was ruled by Diomedes.


Book 6

The Achaeans, led by Diomedes, drive back the Trojans with great slaughter until Hector and the freshly-healed Aeneas rally them. Sarpedon’s cousin, Glaucus, rides forward to challenge Diomedes – but when Diomedes hears he’s the grandson of Bellerophon, he delightedly declares that they are family friends and should exchange marks of friendship rather than fighting. So the pair swap armour and agree to stay out of each other’s way.

Hector, meanwhile, has returned to the city to urge his mother and the other palace women to pray at the temples and avert disaster at the hands of Diomedes. He stops at Alexandros’s house and is furious to see him relaxing with Helen and her women. Paris, unruffled as ever, agrees to return to the fight. Before leaving Troy, Hector goes looking for his wife Andromache. Achilles has already killed her father and seven brothers, and she is desperately worried for Hector. He is fatalistic but touchingly devoted to his family. They have a poignant family moment with their baby son, who is scared of Hector’s helmet. Then he and Alexandros head back to battle.

Book 7

Apollo and Athena agree there has been enough fighting for one day. They get Hector to break off the fighting and challenge the Achaeans to send a champion against him. Menelaus is eager but Agamemnon talks him out of it. The Achaeans are all fearful, but eventually nine champions put themselves forward. They draw lots and Ajax wins. Hector and Ajax do battle, but neither can overcome the other. Eventually they accept that it’s a draw and exchange tokens of honour. It’s now evening. Maintaining the truce, both sides retrieve their dead and burn them. On the suggestion of Nestor, the oldest Achaean chieftain, the Achaeans use the earth from the burial mounds to construct a wall around their camp.

A flock of birds flies over Troy as evening falls, looking like some kind of omen

Day Two: Advantage to the Trojans

Book 8

With threats Zeus forbids the gods from intervening directly in any more of the combat. The fighting resumes; it’s evenly matched, until Zeus sends omens to frighten the Achaeans. They are routed; Nestor, whose chariot has been disabled, is left behind. Diomedes rescues him with the horses of Tros, and the pair of them ride at Hector; Zeus sends more omens to threaten them, and Nestor persuades a reluctant Diomedes to retreat. The Achaeans are driven back to their ships, but then they counterattack from behind their new wall. Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer, kills ten Trojans with his bow – but Hector injures him with a stone and the Trojans drive them behind the walls again. Hera and Athena try to leave Mt Olympus to help the embattled Achaeans, ignoring Zeus’s command – but Zeus finds out and furiously calls them back. At nightfall, Hector’s Trojans do not withdraw to Troy: they light a thousand campfires and camp out around the Achaean wall. The besiegers have become the besieged.

Book 9

The Achaean chieftains gather. A depressed Agamemnon suggests they should give up as they cannot beat the Trojans, but Diomedes rejects this. Nestor proposes sending an embassy to Achilles to apologise. Agamemnon accepts that he was in the wrong, and makes an extraordinarily lavish set of promises if Achilles will return to the fight – adding with characteristic arrogance/insecurity that Achilles has to obey his orders.

Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix – an old man who helped to raise Achilles – go to Achilles’s tent. Achilles and his companion Patroclus host them warmly. Odysseus tries to reason with Achilles, listing Agamemnon’s offers (though tactfully leaving out Agamemnon’s insistence that Achilles has no right to disobey him). Achilles responds with a long and emotionally-charged list of grievances against Agamemnon, countering Odysseus’s reason with eloquent and furious reason. Phoenix then appeals to Achilles’s emotions, talking of Achilles’s father and his childhood as well as telling an old story as a parallel. Achilles’s answer is also from a place of emotion, and he talks of his choice between a long life and fame. Ajax loses patience and bluntly demands that Achilles see sense; Achilles, appreciating his friend’s honesty, replies equally bluntly. Rebuffed, Odysseus and Ajax report to the chieftains that they have failed. The gathering breaks up for sleep.

Odysseus and Achilles
A Greek vase, depicting Odysseus as he urges Achilles to put aside his anger. (From the 2020 Troy exhibition at the British Museum)

Day Three: The Longest Day

Book 10

Agamemnon is too troubled to sleep. He leaves his tent and bumps into Menelaus, who also can’t sleep. Between them they wake several of the leading Achaeans for a midnight conference. It’s proposed that they should send two spies to the Trojan camps; Diomedes volunteers and picks Odysseus as his companion. As the two of them slip out of the Achaean camp, Hector is likewise choosing a spy to slip in among the Achaean ships. He sends a rather grasping man called Dolon – who runs straight into Diomedes and Odysseus. They chase him down in the dark until he capitulates, telling them valuable information about the layout of the Trojan detachments. Rejecting Dolon’s suggestion of a rich ransom, Diomedes kills him. Diomedes and Odysseus, following Dolon’s information, creep in among the Thracian detachment which has just arrived to reinforce the Trojans. Diomedes kills thirteen of them, including their king, and then he and Odysseus gallop back to the Achaean camp in the chariot pulled by the Thracian king’s magnificent horses. The two heroes have carried out a fine exploit.

Just inside the gateway in Mycenae, across the Aegean Sea from Troy

Book 11

The fighting the next day reaches a new pitch of intensity. Agamemnon goes on a rampage, driving the Trojans right back to the city walls – but when he is wounded, Hector launches a devastating counterattack. Only Diomedes and Odysseus stand firm; but when Alexandros shoots Diomedes in the foot, he is forced to retreat, leaving Odysseus alone and surrounded by enemies. Menelaus and Ajax come to Odysseus’s rescue – he too is wounded, but they are in time to save his life. Menelaus helps Odysseus to safety, while Ajax is beaten back by the weight of the Trojans. With his bow, Alexandros wounds two more prominent Trojan chieftains: Machaon and Eurypylus. Old Nestor carries Machaon to safety in his chariot, leaving Idomeneus as one of the only major Greek leaders left in the fighting.

Sitting by his tent, Achilles sees Nestor’s chariot returning to the camp. He sends Patroclus to find out who Nestor’s wounded passenger is. Patroclus finds Nestor, who questions why Achilles wants to know about one particular wounded man, when so many Achaeans are wounded or dead thanks to Achilles’s refusal to get involved on the battlefield. Nestor tells Patroclus a long story about the deeds of his youth. Then he urges Patroclus to ask Achilles to let the Myrmidons fight, even if Achilles himself will not – and he even suggests that Patroclus can wear Achilles’s armour to intimidate the Trojans. Patroclus is interested in the idea, and heads back to Achilles. On the way he finds Eurypylus, wounded and alone, and stops to help him.

Book 12

The Trojans have reached the new Achaean wall, and there is ferocious fighting for possession of the battlements. The Trojans dismount from their chariots and Hector launches a five-pronged attack. Sarpedon, Glaucus and the Lycians nearly break through, but Ajax and Teucer come up in time to beat them back; Teucer wounds Glaucus with an arrow. Hector, ignoring an omen that his success will only be temporary, batters open one of the doors in the wall: the Achaean defences are breached.

Mycenaean spearheads (Nafplio)

Continue to The Iliad Summary Part 2

Return to Book Summaries

Gift A Framed Cartoon

What’s the idea?

Are you in search of a unique, personal gift? Do you have someone’s birthday/wedding/anniversary on the horizon? Christmas, of course, is now coming up…

Commission me to draw a personalised cartoon! It’s a hassle-free way of creating something special, which they’ll be sure to treasure. Just tell me what you want me to draw, and I’ll post you the framed cartoon. Turnaround is normally only a few days.

I’ve discovered that people love having their memories rendered in sketch-form. Everyone’s friendships and relationships are full of warmth, meaning and humour, and by telling me what to draw, you enable me to capture that.

Wedding gifts are my most popular commission: they’re a way of saying something thoughtful to the happy couple. But I’ve done plenty of other jobs too – check out my Commissions page.

How much does it cost?

For this recent wedding gift, I was given several photos, a video and a poem. I blended these elements to create the composition.

A standard personalised, framed cartoon is £79, including postage. The paper size is A4.

A cartoon without the frame is £40, and other arrangements (multiple pictures in the same order; a different paper size; a different frame style; postage beyond the UK) are all easily negotiable if you get in touch.

How does it work?

What makes each framed sketch special is your input – but this is extremely easy to provide! Just tell me what you want me to draw, send me photos of the people in the drawing, and let me know if there’s anything else in the image that you want me to include. It can be a meaningful moment, a hilarious memory, something that’s relevant to your relationship with the recipient, or things that represent them as a person/couple.

Below is an example from a couple of weeks ago. You can scroll through the brief I got – notice how it doesn’t have to be particularly detailed to be personal and meaningful – and then see the finished product at the end.

And here’s the end result:

It’s as simple as that! Get in touch using the form below if you’re interested.

Alternatively, you can browse some of my other commissions, or find out about my in-person sketching service at weddings and events.

Lockdown Drawings
Imperial Winter Ball
The McCarthys at Christmas


Running the Bulls

Back to Stories With Drawings


Two weeks after finishing school, my friend Michael and I arrived in Pamplona to run the bulls. We were excited and nervous – running the bulls sounded both glamorous and terrifying – but we didn’t really know what we were letting ourselves in for.

Pamplona is in the mountains of north Spain: Basque country. Every July it hosts the San Fermin festival for two weeks, and the heart of the festival is the world-famous bull-running event. The Running of the Bulls takes place at 8am each morning. Each day of the bull-running showcases a different stock of the cattle lovingly reared in the surrounding countryside. San Fermin is a rich, complex event that inspires great passion, devotion and controversy. The festival is so multifaceted and charged with meaning that it would take a whole book to do justice to it. Michael and I were interrailing around Spain; and although Pamplona is full to bursting in July, we’d somehow succeeded in booking a hotel so that we could experience San Fermin for ourselves.

When we arrived, there was an American woman in the lobby, wearing the distinctive San Fermin white clothes and neckerchief. We got talking with her, and she had lots of intimidating advice about bull-running. She’d run the bulls that morning, and said things like “Don’t wear a watch, it could get snagged on something,” and “Remember not to stick together – other people will distract you from your own safety,” and “if you fall over, DO NOT move until someone taps you on the shoulder with a rolled-up newspaper,” and “The biggest danger isn’t the bulls, it’s the other people.”

The most worrying thing was her horrible, very fresh black eye, which made half of her face puffy with bruising and cuts. It was a starker warning than anything she could have said. We went to bed, not very reassured.

The Wait

By dawn the next morning, we were at the start of the bull-running course. A large proportion of the people gathering in the square were English-speakers – Australians, Americans and South Africans. There were macho Spanish guys, alpha male tourists with dreadlocks and loud laughs, self-confident patriarchs taking their last chance to pit themselves against the bulls, and a couple of blokes in morph suits. I’m pretty tall, but for once I wasn’t one of the tallest people around: everybody seemed to be my height, or even taller. The crowd got packed closer and closer together, hemmed in by a police cordon.

Before running the bulls

Hundreds of watchers, wearing matching San Fermin outfits, waved and called down to us from balconies all along the narrow street. Beside me, a man and his grown-up son were trying to calm his terrified wife. The crowd was very tense, but chanting defiantly. As we reached fever pitch, the line of policemen dissolved and let us through. We ran as a horde, up the street, releasing our pent-up adrenaline. The policemen moved through the crowd, dragging away people who looked like they might be drunk or be otherwise unsuited for running the bulls. The course between the square and the bullfighting arena was penned in by sturdy fences, to make sure the bulls didn’t escape – and to give us a barrier to duck behind if we needed it.

Running the Bulls

At 8 o’clock we heard the gunshots that signalled that the bulls had been released. The atmosphere was electric. Bizarrely, because everybody was straining to look the same way down the street, they all started jumping for a better view. As far as I could see, there was a wall of grown men bouncing up and down. Waves of panic and exhilaration swept up in our direction, scattering people like gusts of wind through leaves. It was clear now why the stampeding people were even more dangerous than the bulls. People were properly scared now, and the camaraderie was gone.

Into the whirlwind of panic burst the bulls. I tried to run but I did not dare take my eyes off the flailing horns, and in the blur people were throwing themselves out of the way. The beasts thundered past, terrifyingly close. Then more of them came, ploughing through the confusion. I chased after them, running as though my life depended on it, convinced that there were more bulls still behind me. People were lying prone on the ground, and others were tapping them with newspapers as the signal that it was safe to get up.

Running the bulls

I sprinted towards the bullfighting stadium, through a passage into the arena. At that moment I heard another gunshot, which meant all the bulls had been rounded up successfully. I later found out that the bulls had taken just 136 seconds to complete the 875-metre course, goring two people along the way in “the fastest and most dangerous running of the bulls” that year. In the stands, the crowds were in a frenzy, chanting down at us. Replays were already being projected on great screens, the crowd oohing and aahing at the footage.

Michael and I quickly found each other and shared a triumphant hug. Michael pointed to one of the giant screens. “See the guy falling over?”

“Ouch,” I winced, as the figure on camera slid across the cobbles alongside the bulls.

“That’s me,” he grinned. Michael had managed to fall over twice – “but the second time I had it coming because I tripped over somebody who’d tripped over me the first time.”

The morning wasn’t finished yet. A furious, frantic bullock with rubber-tipped horns burst out, scattering all of us still in the arena. Because of the rubber-tipped horns, the idea was that this one wasn’t dangerous – as long as you were a pro and you knew how to fall safely.

The bullock stampeded around, goaded by dozens of cocky Spaniards who were all trying to catch its attention. Everywhere it charged, the crowd gave way with a surge of adrenaline and fear. When the bullock got tired, it was replaced by another, and then another. The crowd cheered and jeered – some people held onto its horns, some were brutally thrown onto the sand, and others were forced to flee from its charge. One man was caught by his rucksack – he eventually wriggled free, and the animal ran amok with the bag still hanging from its horn. Somebody else leaped forward and nabbed the rucksack, to adulation from the crowd.

After running the bulls: the arena

The Living Statue Pimp

That evening, we returned to the centre of town and joined the nightly party. We tagged along with an exuberant marching band, got squirted by a water pistol filled with sangria, and worked our way through a succession of overcrowded bars. We stopped to admire a living statue in a motorbike helmet, who appeared to be doing a very impressive balancing act.

At that moment, a man came up and started chatting to us – or more accurately, chatting at us. I have no idea why he decided to do so. He was very intense; and he told us something that has intrigued me ever since: he was the living statue’s pimp.

Living statues have pimps. If you knew this, it’s probably because I’ve spent the last nine years telling everybody about this unexpected insight into the world of street performers.

The pimp was from Mexico, but he told us he was much happier in Europe. He painted a rather idyllic picture of life in a van, with some living statues and costumes in the back, driving from festival to festival and living by his motto: “Don’t. Pay. Taxes.” Everything he told us, he kept coming back to the same point: “Don’t. Pay. Taxes.

“What are you going to study at university?” he asked Michael.

“Physics,” said Michael.

“That’s cool,” said the living statue pimp, “but then you have to go and study economics and learn how to Don’t. Pay. Taxes.

When I commented on the living statue’s apparently incredible balance, his pimp was airily dismissive: “It’s a trick; of course it’s a trick.” There was a hidden frame inside the suit, supporting the living statue’s weight. He emphasised that he never let any of his performers become a star. “If one of them becomes a star, you are dead in the water.” Then he shook our hands warmly and moved off.

I was aware at the time that running the bulls was a coming-of-age experience for me. We were eighteen, and it was the most intense thing I’d ever done. The thrill and the emotion is unlike anything I’ve encountered since, and it’s hard to put into words.

There was no running of the bulls in 2020, due to coronavirus. The Times Literary Supplement asked me to write an article about the cancellation of San Fermin, and what it might mean for Pamplona. Have a read – and let me know what you think!

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