IT WOULD BE tempting to say that Lindsay Clarke has written not one masterpiece but two, but on reading The War at Troy and The Return from Troy one after the other, it seems closer to their genius to say that he has written one complete masterpiece in which both books require each other, and should be read together.

At the simplest level, the first book tells the story of the origin and course of the Trojan war, which supposedly began with the marriage of Peleus and Thetis to which all the goddesses and gods were invited except the Goddess Eris, or Strife, who, true to her name, rolled the apple of discord into the feast inscribed with the fateful words “To the Fairest”. Hera, Athene and Aphrodite all claimed it, and the Trojan Paris was summoned to judge between them. He gave the apple to Aphrodite, who rewarded him with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, unfortunately already married to the Greek Menelaus – and so the war was on.

Yet nothing is simple in Clarke’s scintillating fictional world, since he brings to this ancient tale a supreme distillation of his novelist’s gifts, which transforms the stories we think we know into immediately implicating dramas of love, passion, loyalty and responsibility, questioning for our own time the moral nature of the human heart. It is as though the majestic figures of myth step out from the frieze of the past into the dazzling flux of contemporary life as human beings like ourselves.

Every generation, every century, if is it lucky, has its Bard who tells again the ancient stories of our race in the language of the present, allowing them to speak with our voice so that we can hear them anew. In this, Clarke is a true modern. The original stories, in the Iliad and in the Odyssey, assumed an absolute objectivity through an omniscient narrator, to whom even the minds of the gods were transparent. It was the language of epic.

In Clarke’s narrative the story is told by the Bard of Ithaca, Phemius, a poet, who heard all the tales of Troy from Odysseus - who was, of course, actually there: “In those days the realm of the gods lay closer to the world of men, and the gods were often seen to appear among us, sometimes manifesting as themselves, sometimes in human form, and sometimes in the form of animals...I was twenty years old, and all round me was blood and slaughter, and the frenzy of a vengeful man...”

From the first words, all the well-trained levels of the critical mind fall hopelessly and happily away. Yet this brilliantly crafted narrative frame - and frames within frames - allows Clarke to include the irrepressible life of the myths in all their variations, and still to keep us listening to our own Bard with rapt attention: “There are bards who will tell you that Iphigenaia was not killed at Aulis,” Phemius murmurs, but “I believe what was told to me by Odysseus.” Or again, “Odysseus always insisted that the war at Troy began where all wars begin - in the hearts and minds of mortal men.”

PHEMIUS’S STORY BEGINS with Hermes, Imagination’s own god, appearing to Paris on the high slopes of Mount Ida, handing him the golden apple and telling him the story of Peleus, one of the greatest of Argive heroes, who married Thetis, and whose son was Achilles. We follow Paris’s agonies of decision between the goddesses as choices of values in his own heart. After Aphrodite has shown him a vision of Helen, he muses: “Surely it was unthinkable that a man should be gifted with such a vision unless it was possible to make it real?” And then, “like a man passing sentence on himself, he said, ‘I don’t think I could live without her now.’ ‘Very well, Aphrodite smiled. ‘Give me the apple and I’ll see what I can do.’”

There are scenes and characters that are unforgettable and that will outlive, and totally confuse, any sense of what the ‘original’ story was. Paris is one such character, and the initial meeting between him and Helen is unsurpassable. It becomes all the more imperative to know what happened to them, and Clarke imagines his characters onwards with both rigour and sympathy, so that the intensely moving love between Paris and Helen, and its subtle decline, are exquisitely rendered in the prose.

The War at Troy ends with the Greek victory inside the Trojan walls in the haunting image of Odysseus, standing at the door of Helen’s room, watching Menelaus looming above her on her blood-drenched bed, moaning as he raises his sword, yet, as Helen bares her neck and breast consenting to the sacrifice, eventually lowering his sword which slips to the floor while he “sits down on the bed beside his wife and quietly begins to weep.”

IN THE RETURN FROM TROY, Phemius, now ten years older, continues his story as a prayer to Odysseus, fulfilling his pledge to Odysseus to sing a song that “vindicates the justice of the gods”. This second book begins where the first ended, and tells the story of the terrible destruction after Troy fell, the ramifications of the bloodshed, and Odysseus’s nine-year journey home to his wife Penelope and their olive-tree bed.

It is in Odysseus’s delayed return that the justice of the gods is most poignantly explored, and here again Clarke’s comprehensive understanding of mythology and his immense poetic gifts find their unique synthesis. For what, long ago, was expressed as the competing wills of the gods imposed upon human beings now discloses itself as the tragically contradictory impulses entangled in the bewildering choices the characters find they have made almost against their choosing. Odysseus is revolted by the carnage inside Troy and protests furiously to Agamemnon, who had ordered it in direct betrayal of Odysseus’s own pledge to the Trojan Antenor. Yet suddenly he joins in: “He stood swaying a moment, possessed by brief startling intimations of another life in which, with a frenzy entirely alien to his nature, he too had joined the massacre.” He dreams himself back in Ithaca walking to greet his wife with open arms, but he sees her eyes “gaping with horror” at the blood dripping from his fingers, and he realises “such an embrace of blood could never be acceptable.”

In other words Clarke locates the reason for Odysseus’s delay deep within his conscience: he must cleanse himself of blood before he is worthy to return to his wife. The gods re-emerge from the passionate depths of the human psyche (where, some might say, they always have been), but now they speak through dreams and visions, unforeseen intuitions and the compelling claims of conscience.

The two books together compose a Descent and an Ascent, in the manner and form of the ancient Mystery traditions. For if, in the first book, Odysseus and his comrades in arms descend into the underworld of strife and combat, with ‘the enemy’, with each other and with themselves, in the second book the long and prolonged journey of Odysseus may be seen as a gradual ascent into a state of reunified being in which his ‘voyaging soul’ comes at last to find peace and love. This is truly a myth for our time.

Jules Cashford is the author of The Moon: Myth and Image and co-author, with Anne Baring, of The Myth of the Goddess.