Friday, February 13, 2009

A Project Completed (and a reader humbled)

I finished the wonderful Helen of Troy by Margaret George a couple of days ago. Reading the afterword was pretty embarrassing, though. Did you know that there's no evidence that any of that really happened? That's right, all my concerns about the story not being historically accurate were misplaced. It's like worrying about the historical accuracy of a re-telling of the King Arthur legend. If the author's got the Roundtable Knights setting out by car and keeping in touch via cell phone, you know that it's not, other than that, all bets are off.

Like the King Arthur story, though, this is one hell of a powerful myth. And George did her homework in bringing it to life from the point of view of Helen herself. The novel is rich in detail about the everyday life of royalty and commoners during that time period. She's imbued the tale with mysticism, without going over the top. Apparently, Homer's telling of the tale has two parallel stories: the earthly events concerning Helen, Paris, Menelaus, Achilles and the like, and the drama occuring amongst the puppet-masters on Mount Olympus.

In her afterword, George talked about the fine line she walked in bringing that element into her tale. I think she did an excellent job: Helen is visited several times by various goddesses. She's initiated into The Mysteries at the shrine of Demeter, she meets Aphrodite several times, and she is given the gift of second sight by a sacred serpent. Several of the characters have gods or goddesses as parents, including Helen, who was said to be Zeus's only mortal daughter. The gods and goddesses make their appearances at carefully chosen times, and were an excellent device for allowing Helen to describe events on the battlefield that she would not have actually witnessed.

Since the story is more myth than fact, George could take some liberties in fleshing out the character of Helen. The novel makes me want to read the Iliad and Odyssey for comparison's sake, but George goes into great detail of Helen's early life, which I would imagine is largely absent from Homer's tale. Helen's early life is strictly circumscribed: she's not allowed to leave the grounds of the palace, she wears a veil at all times, she's not even allowed to look in the mirror. The choice of a husband was the first real choice she was ever allowed to make, and he continued to forbid her much freedom. In that sense, it's easy to see why she got so completely carried away when she met Paris: he offered her a chance to do whatever she wanted, the only chance she ever really got.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and definitely learned from it. I'd recommend it to anyone. Its size doesn't make it very portable, but like I said before, it's February, where are you going, anyway? It's got enough action to make it go fast, but is steeped in enough detail to give it real depth. Although the story of Helen and Paris has never been substantiated, I tagged this as "historical fiction" anyway, for its attention to the details in everyday life.