Monday, April 14, 2014

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

***Spoiler Alert!  But you had more than 2000 years to read about this one, so I don’t feel all that bad for you if you find the story ruined after reading this review.***

Every so often, I get it in my head that I want to read about a certain period in history.  When I’m very lucky, I’ll find a book sitting on my shelf that meets that criteria, and that I want to read.  My latest read, Helen of Troy, by Margaret George fit the bill perfectly, as I was in the mood to read about ancient Greece.  

Margaret George, for those who don’t know, is an author with a wheel-house, and that is the fictionalized autobiography.  She’s written about Henry VIII, Cleopatra, and Elizabeth I, to name a few, and so when I saw her book of about Helen of Troy, I was excited to pick it up, as George’s works are always well done, informative, and an interesting read; this book was no different.  Helen is famous throughout history as being the woman with the face that launched a thousand ships – in George’s telling of her life, the reader is provided with an account of her life beginning in childhood, to her marriage to Menelaus, to her meeting and flight with Paris of Troy, to her capture and return home.  It’s a real soup to nuts account of a life which is most famous for what is really only a small portion of it.

As with stories based on Greek history, the sourcing is a bit all over the place.  Of course, the foundational pieces that George based her work on were Homer’s epic poems, but the history of Troy has long been a pet project for many historians and archeologists, with a new theory about the location and/or history of Troy being forwarded every few years.  Given this hodge-podge of materials, George stepped up and stream-lined a lot of the theories and pieces in a story that reads well and quickly, without getting bogged down in useless flowery language or theoretical discussion.

What I wasn’t a fan of, and this is no fault of George’s at all, is/was the story itself.  I’ve always considered Helen and Paris to be two of the most selfish people (ever), and this book didn’t dissuade me of that.  No one would ever call me a romantic, but with stories of such earth-shattering love as Helen and Paris’ that ends in such total destruction of countless innocents, who can blame me if I don’t get all misty-eyed over them.  What I did like about George’s account was the way she portrayed Agamemnon as the real cause of the war; Helen and Paris created the impetus by running away together, but Agamemnon was desperate for the glory of war which would make him a hero, and so he pounced on their actions to justify himself.  George’s focus on this aspect of the story helped spread the blame around, which I really appreciated.

One aspect for which I’m still on the fence about was what role the ancient Greek gods played in the story.  The legends say that Helen was the daughter of Zeus, her family and Sparta were protected by Persephone, and Aphrodite’s hurt feelings pushed Helen and Paris together.  In some cases, George presents pieces of these myths (and others) as the easily dismissible human-foible for explaining away the unknown with the unknowable; in other cases, the seems to imply that the gods really were influencing the daily lives of the characters.  If George had picked one approach and been consistent, I think I would have appreciated the presence of the legends more as a specific literary device.  As it is, I found it a little confusing at times, and hard to believe at others.  But, regardless, the (non?) presence of the gods added to the story.

So, final verdict?  I would say this is a book to read.  While I had The Iliad and The Odyssey assigned to me in a couple of classes during university, I can’t guarantee that I actually read them closely enough to have passed any sort of test on them.  But George’s Helen of Troy was a wonderful read that helped me fill in the gaps in my knowledge about this most enduring of stories.  If you’re looking to learn about the story of Troy, this is a great way to do so without getting bogged down in the Homer of it all.

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