Helen of Troy, by Margaret George


Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Not from any work contemporaneous to Helen herself, but rather many people think of Helen of Troy based on this quote from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, although IIRC, the phrase ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ did appear in previous works.

For those who weren’t paying attention when the myth first came out: Helen, born to Leda of Sparta fathered by Zeus who came to Leda in the form of a swan, is quite literally the most beautiful thing going. Stunning, and I’m not talking metaphorically–men faint when they see her unveiled face. Forty princes show up to pay her court when her parents declare the marriage market open on their younger daughter, and her father has to hold the princes to a vow that the 39 unsuccessful suitors will get the back of the one successful one. (keep an eye on this vow, it’s a crucial plot point later in the book) Menelaus wins her hand if not her heart by taking her up on the fairy tale-ish challenge of racing for a day and a night across an improbable distance; they settle down to a respectful relationship but nothing thrilling…until Aphrodite gets involved and lobs Paris in Helen’s general direction. Enter Grand Passion, a thrilling abduction and the kind of passionate lust that keeps the participants blind to the world around them awaiting only their next chance to bed one another. Enter also jealousy, suspicion and a genuinely epic battle…now go read the Iliad if you want to find out more.

I have to admit that I’m not quite as keen on Margaret George’s Helen of Troy as I am about her other works, both those that came before and after it. In fairness to George, of course Helen of Troy got off to a slow start. It’s a 600 page brick of a book. In a book of this length, the author can take zir time setting up all the crucial plot points necessary to carry such a long novel. It is perhaps telling, however, that this is one of her shorter novels. Unfortunately, the version I have is also not well edited–I spotted several grammatical errors of the sort that get spotted by humans but missed by computers within the first 200 pages without trying. Could no one serve a best selling author better than this?

On the plus side, I’m glad to read something told from Helen’s own perspective. The problem with being the most beautiful woman going is that mythologies don’t require anything more of you than standing around and being, well, beautiful. Not thinking. Nor conversing. Nor acting. Nor learning. Nor ruling…nor any of the other things that brilliant women have been known for being or doing. Helen is done to. All the tales I know of require her to do no more than stand there passively, being married, being abducted, being admired, being fought over. What did Helen want? what did she do? what did she think? I have to appreciate George, having been polished and honed on Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra of Egypt and Mary Magdalene, turning her literary skills on this woman of mythic beauty to give some indication of what she herself might have thought. On the down side, I miss the lushly lavish details and descriptions from George’s books about Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry VIII. In fairness, Helen of Troy herself isn’t nearly as well documented as the Tudors. although I might have hoped that George might have filled in with a bit of background based on what we know of Mycenae and Greek women’s life generally.

Overall, I’d say that Helen of Troy should probably be reserved for either very fast readers or anyone looking for something to entertain at great length. A transoceanic plane trip, say, or a day spent in the hospital waiting room waiting for a loved one to come out of the operating room.

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