The fascination of Helen of Troy goes on forever

Review Novel


Helen of Troy

Margaret George

Viking / 611 pages / $27.95

Our current media vultures would have relished covering the conflagration caused by Helen of Troy: the otherworldly beauty, Helen, recklessly throwing herself at love like any of the best gossip-fodder starlets; the self-perpetuating war rife with individual heroics. We, as humans, will never grow tired of such a story. Best-selling historical novelist Margaret George has recognized our eternal appetites and delivered a feast with her Helen of Troy.

George, a patient storyteller, begins her tale from Helen's point of view at the very beginning. Queen Leda of Sparta and her husband, Tyndareus, are determined that no one, including Helen, will know how beautiful she is, veiling her and keeping her away from mirrors. On a trip to the oracle of Delphi, a sybil reveals that she will be the destruction of Asia, the ruin of Europe and the cause of many Greeks' deaths. Helen begins to piece together that she is the love-child of her mother and Zeus, and the beauty bestowed by half-divinity makes her easily recognizable. Leda and Tyndareus had hoped to hide her forever to avert her fate.

But she's an independent, headstrong sort, and, unveiled, she attends the marriage contests for her older sister, Clytemnestra. There she meets Menelaus, whose brother, Agamemnon, is competing. Helen appreciates Menelaus' simple manner, and when the time comes for her own marriage contests, she proposes a test that Menelaus more than passes. To avert a mutiny among the 40 suitors when the winner is announced, Tyndareus orders them all to swear a blood oath to defend Helen's decision, whatever it might be. So the seeds of destruction are sown.

Years later, Paris of Troy visits Sparta on a diplomatic mission to avert a war over a queen who was taken from Troy decades before and lives in Greece. He, too, carries a prophecy of doom - that he will cause the destruction of Troy. Helen falls under his spell immediately. The story follows her elopement with the handsome teen, her years in Troy, the rumble of war and then the full 10-year battle as the 39 suitors, backed by their kingdoms, rally to defend Helen's original marital choice.

The moving denouement brings Helen, now a gray-haired captive, back to Sparta, where she recognizes a decency in her former husband and enemy, reunites with the daughter she abandoned as a child and eventually succumbs to the mortal side of her existence after she has traveled back to Troy a final time.

The excitement of fiction based on an ancient story is to see which motivations an author chooses for the dramatic events that must unfold. In this, we readers are not unlike the gods of Mount Olympus, who prophesy, say, the tumbling towers of Troy or the death of Paris by a poisoned arrow, and then watch gleefully from on high to see how these horrors will occur.

George chooses the most modern interpretations of most events. Helen is a romantic: She is not abducted by Paris but smitten by him. George's Menelaus is rejected by Helen, not because he is detestable, but merely because he is bad in bed. Menelaus doesn't fight to regain his wayward wife simply to maintain his claim on the Spartan throne but because he truly loves her and is humiliated by her departure.

In maintaining Helen's viewpoint, George could have been trapped behind the Trojan walls while battles raged and missed potentially thrilling plot twists. But George, like a headstrong young Trojan, can't resist joining the violent fray, and so she grants Helen second sight to transport her to the battlefield. The choice - amid such fantastic elements as water nymphs, bleeding jewelry and holy serpents - seems entirely natural and sets the narrative into overdrive.

George seems to love Helen as much as her goddess-protector Aphrodite does. George bestows many fine attributes: modesty about her beauty and, for a time, strong motherly instincts. Helen rejects 39 of her suitors for all the right reasons: She does not care for such superficialities as wealth, she disdains their arrogance. And even her infamous infidelity, succumbing to Paris' wiles, occurs only after she witnesses Menelaus creating the first fissure by canoodling with a maidservant.

But nothing can allay the fact that no matter how well an author dances through Helen's soul, Helen can't help coming off as the most self-centered heroine in literature, in a class with Scarlett O'Hara if she had personally ignited the Civil War. It is to George's credit that Helen's glossed-over yet significant faults do not snuff our interest in her fate or story.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.