Helen of Troy by Margaret George is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read…oh, approximately forever. It was the first of George’s weighty tomes about prominent historical figures to cross my path in used book form, so it’s where I began with her work.
About the Book:
Helen of Troy is just that: the story of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, the face that launched a thousand ships, the alleged cause of the Trojan War. The tale begins with Helen’s earliest memories and follows the infamous Greek-turned-Trojan throughout her life.
I’ll begin with a warning: I’m going to assume most people know the general shape of Helen’s story. If you don’t, and if you’d rather not hear anything about it, I’d suggest you skip this review! There are spoilers in what follows, and I’m not calling them out individually.
My feelings toward Helen of Troy were mixed. Let me start with what I really liked.
What I Liked
First, Margaret George’s version of the infamous Trojan War is far easier to read (at least, for mere mortals like me) than something like Homer’s The Illiad. It’s an excellent story, with plenty going on and an impressive cast of characters. (George doesn’t neglect the minor, less impressive characters, though; the few closest to Helen truly take on lives of their own.)
Second, George manages to tie in all kinds of myths. It seems like pretty much everyone who was anyone pops up at some point. From Mount Olympus, Zeus, Athena, and Aphrodite all make an appearance (or several). We hear the prophecies surrounding and deeds attributed to the likes of Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus, Ajax, and more. Names from other stories peek in around the edges, even if they’re not directly involved in the war.
Finally, and along similar lines, there is George’s attention to historical detail. Even though (as she cites in her Afterword) there is technically no proof that the likes of Helen, Paris, Priam, and the others actually lived, their lives are so rooted in the ways and customs of what we know of Greek and Trojan life from history that it isn’t hard to see what their lives may have been like. I appreciated the way George tucked a ritual into her tale or dropped a few details into a particular scene without going overboard and losing herself in description.
What I Really Didn’t Like
Unfortunately, the not-so-good part for me was kind of major: Helen herself bugged me. I found George’s portrait of this famed beauty disappointingly spineless and naive. I tried to make allowances for the roles of gods and omens in her culture. And I realize divorce was probably not so much a thing in Ancient Greece. But I chafed at the way Helen handled her decision to flee with Paris and the subsequent fallout nonetheless.
Let’s say Aphrodite really did enchant Helen, leaving her no other option but to go with Paris. Fine. It’s not Helen running away with Paris that bugs me. It’s her disbelief at what follows that I found so hard to swallow.
Imagine with me: You steal away from your husband (that’s Menelaus, the king of Sparta and kind of a high-profile figure) in blackest night with a (much, much younger) guest from a rival city. You leave on the heels of said husband, who is sailing home to attend to the funeral rites of his father. Oh, and then there is said husband’s bloodthirsty monster of a brother (i.e. Agamemnon) who, as you’ve seen with your own eyes, is getting restless for battle and would do almost anything to start a war. Yikes, and let us not forget that all 40 of your suitors swore an oath long ago to defend your choice of husband should the need arise. (You did pick Menelaus yourself, after all. He wasn’t forced on you.) And there’s some prophecy about about lots of Greeks dying for you. Helen! How can you be repeatedly shocked and dismayed when bad things happen??
It’s not that I expected Helen to foresee everything. But her disbelief toward the Greeks’ aggressiveness and the Trojan royal family’s standoffishness bothered me throughout. When Helen was shocked by the lengths to which Menelaus and Agamemnon were willing to go to reclaim her, I sighed. When she bemoaned the misery befalling her adopted Trojan family as the war progressed, I rolled my eyes. When they gave her the cold shoulder, I wanted to shake her and yell, “Well DUH! Did you really not see this one coming?” And while it’s true she grew a bit of a backbone in later years, to me it seems too little, too late. I wanted her to own her actions more, to step into her decisions and face what was coming and not be so eye-rollingly shocked at the consequences.
Obviously, I kept listening. I made it through all 25 discs of the unabridged audiobook. Because the history, the myths, the tale really are that good. But Helen…ooh. She drove me a little nuts.
As for the audiobook itself, I found it to be adequate. Justine Eyre’s voice somehow matched Helen’s character for me. She handles the mail voices pretty well, too. The only thing that bothered me a little was her accent. It seems to be some kind of hybrid of American and British pronunciations. And for a few characters — I never really figured out the pattern — she affects something different (but equally unidentifiable). There’s also the issue of the Afterword, which is not included in the audiobook version. I like reading the historical notes for novels like these, so I was happy I had a paper copy of the book and could read it there.
The Verdict: Mediocre
I certainly intend to read others by George. I’m hoping Helen was the problem here and not the way George portrays her female subjects in general. Would I recommend Helen of Troy by Margaret George? Eh. If you want the story of the Trojan War without having to slog through The Illiad or something similar, then yes. But as a top ten read of 2013? Not likely.
Have you read others by Margaret George? If so, which one would you suggest I try next?