01 June 2012

Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy by Margaret George is an ambitious book. The author attempts to create an autobiography for the mythical Helen encompassing her entire life from childhood through “death”. At six hundred thirty-eight pages, it stands at about the same length as Homer’s epic tale of the Trojan War. However, upon finishing Margaret George’s book, my lament was “Ichabod”, the glory has departed.


Before I explain what I mean by that and why I think that this book, ambitious as it is, fails to achieve its purpose, I would like to share the things I thought the book got right. First of all, George has done her research well. The customs, architecture, props, and landscape of Sparta in the 13th century BC are wonderfully recreated according to the best knowledge we can have of the time. She attempts to be realistic and historical in her portrayal even of stories that are, at best, legendary. In this sense the book reminded me of The King Must Die by Mary Renault, which does the same thing, albeit more successfully, with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. The second thing that George gets right is her inclusion of the gods in her telling of the story. Any reading of the legendary accounts of the Trojan War leaves the sense that there is no possibility that these events could have transpired with the gods pulling some strings behind the scenes. This is why the movie “Troy” was a failure and one of the reasons why Roger Ebert quipped that Homer’s estate should sue the filmmakers. However despite these positive aspects of the book, there are several weaknesses that are hard to overlook.

The Character of Helen

The first weakness of the book is in the characterization of Helen. Since the book is an autobiography, we know from the outset that Helen is going to be presented as a sympathetic character. I even went into the book willing to go along with Helen and sympathize with her. However, in this important point George does not succeed. To show why this is the case, it’s important to look at the traditional depictions of Helen, both positive and negative, and to compare them to the portrayal in this book.

Helen is a woman who left her husband and ran away with a man more than ten years her junior because he was more handsome than her husband. This might not have been a big deal for an ordinary person, though it would have still been immoral. But Helen is the queen of Sparta, and therefore her perceived abduction by a Trojan ambassador and prince is seen as an act of aggression against Sparta and a cause for war. How can a woman performing an act so clearly immoral and irresponsible be viewed in any sort of positive light? Homer’s answer appears to be twofold. In The Iliad and The Odyssey, we get the sense that Helen was deceived by Aphrodite in some sort of mind-control/hypnotic sort of way to go with Paris back to Troy. Aphrodite did this as a reward for Paris because he chose her as the winner of a beauty contest over Hera and Athena. In The Iliad, we also see that Helen despises Paris and is essentially a prisoner in Troy, bullied by Aphrodite and kept by Paris’s lust. This is a more positive depiction of Helen. For those who find this implausible, get rid of Aphrodite and cast the story in a modern world. How many women leave their husbands for someone they see as a “better man” only to find out later that he is not all they thought he was and are stuck with him because they are either afraid of him or don’t know where else to go? This is a common enough story and conjures up sympathy for the woman trapped in such a sorry situation. Even though she has done wrong, she is caught in her own snare and is to be pitied. However, though George includes the scene from The Iliad where Helen despises Paris, it turns out to be a simple misunderstanding, easily remedied. The Helen of this book is influenced by but not essentially deceived by Aphrodite. All Aphrodite does is to make Helen not enjoy making love with her husband Menelaus and enjoy making love with Paris. Because we know that the value of a marriage is tied up only with the amount of sexual enjoyment we get from it, right? Helen has few misgivings in this book and believes to the end that she has done nothing essentially wrong.

This seems to leave no other option than the common portrayal of Helen by the playwrights of the golden age of Athens. The Athenian playwrights represent Helen as a capricious whore who leaves her husband for another man for no good reason other than the fact that she feels like it. Sorry; lovey-dovey feelings do not nullify wedding vows. How does George get around this inevitable conclusion? She uses a tactic that is less than convincing. After pining after Paris, meeting with him a nighttime, and fantasizing about running away with him, she walks in on Menelaus having an affair with one of the servants. Thus she is clearly justified in running of with Paris, right? Here’s the problem with this scenario; she has clearly been toying with adulterous thoughts for Paris before she ever had any hint of Menelaus’s infidelity. The addition of a second wrong does not make the first wrong right. The revelation of Menelaus’s affair does not cause us sympathize with Helen so much as it causes us to simply despise Menelaus as well. So much for the character of Helen. When the Greek commanders later hurl invective at her and call her a whore, the reader is supposed to feel that these insults are unjust. However, given what see of Helen’s character, it’s hard to disagree with the Greeks here. George would have been much better off going with Homer’s version of the story and creating a conflicted, abused and tragic heroine rather than someone who revels in her adultery.

The Character of the Greeks

One of the most notable things about The Iliad, and one of the tragedies of war in real life, is that there are noble and good people on both sides. Hector, the hero of Troy, is a great and brave man, but so are the Greek leaders Achilles, Menelaus, Agamemnon, the Aiantes, Diomedes, and others. In George’s book, the Greeks are almost to a man despicable, petty, cruel and lecherous. The level of her negative portrayal of the Greeks is so cartoonish that one is tempted to picture the entire Achaean force wearing black capes and top hats with appropriately long mustaches to twirl.

I think the reason that George falls into this trap is that, while getting all the physical details of the culture right, the customs and the costumes so to speak, the character of Helen in this book thinks predominately like a modern. The book does not enter fully into an ancient mindset, and so the characters are all being judged by a modern worldview that really does have a hard time understanding the glory of the soldiers in the Trojan War. Achilles gets the worst of this treatment. In Homer, Achilles is a noble warrior, denied his “arĂȘte” by Agamemnon, caught in a choice between a short life with glory or a long life in obscurity, haunted by the realization that he should have been a god as powerful as Zeus had it not been for Zeus’s meddling interference. Where is this noble and conflicted character in Helen of Troy? He is gone, replaced by a whining, screeching, spoiled brat with the mental capacity of a Neanderthal. Because of this same tendency to refuse to portray the nobility and glory of the Greeks, the essential tragedy and human interest that characterizes The Iliad vanishes. The only human emotions allowed to be portrayed in this book are emotions that fit comfortably within the realm of modern paperback romance. Anything that conflicts with these norms, including true manliness to some extent, is seen as inhuman and ugly.

There is a scene in The Iliad that I consider to be the most moving scene in the book, and possibly the most moving scene in all of human literature. It is the scene where the old king Priam goes to Achilles to ask for the body of his son Hector whom Achilles has slain in battle, or “murdered” if you prefer George’s wording. While Priam is supplicating Achilles, a moment of understanding passes between them during which Achilles sees in Priam his own aged father whom he will never see again, and Priam sees in Achilles the glory of his own dead son Hector and is comforted in the fact that Hector has been killed by such a noble soldier. They weep openly together, and the reader, if he or she has a heart, weeps with them, two ordinary and good people caught up in something bigger than themselves and unable to extricate themselves from the situation. It is not surprising that this scene is completely downplayed in George’s book. She can’t risk a sympathetic portrayal of Achilles because it would destroy her cartoonish sense that Achilles is simply “the bad guy” and nothing more. Priam goes to beg for Hector’s body, but it is seen as shameful and we get no hint that anything remotely human ever passes between Priam and Achilles.


There is more that I could say about this book, but after all this is a blog and if you’re still reading this you’ve gone much further than most internet readers would. So, I’ll summarize. This book unfortunately fails at what it sets out to do. The portrayal of the events is too simplistic to feel real in the same way that Homer’s Iliad feels real. The “follow your heart” and “love conquers all” theme is worthy of a modern romance, but not an ancient story. The characters do not seem to fit into their carefully crafted historical surroundings because all of the “bad” characters are seen through a modern lens as brutal barbarians and all the “good” characters share more than a few modern attitudes themselves. Ultimately this book is not satisfying because the author does not fully enter into the worldview of the time period about which she is writing. I would not recommend this book as an introduction to the story of Helen of Troy, but would rather encourage interested readers to plunge directly into Homer’s writings or the plays of writers like Euripides and Aeschylus. Don’t be intimidated by the classics. They are most often easier to read than you’ve been led to believe, and they are classics for a reason. Unlike this book, they touch upon something essential and indelible in the human soul.

1.5/5 stars


Erica said...

"one is tempted to picture the entire Achaean force wearing black capes and top hats with appropriately long mustaches to twirl."

This is possibly the best mental image I've had all day. One of those that makes me regret not learning to draw.

I've noticed with a lot of "historical" novels the authors drag in their own worldview. Especially anything regarding women. Either the classics were all written by mean old men who dedicated their entire lives to oppressing women, or the classics were secretly criticizing how mean old men are dedicating their entire lives to oppressing women. Try to drag in any more complex thoughts and everyone's brains turn to mush. At least they have Kate Chopin to back them up.

DebD said...

you said "Ultimately this book is not satisfying because the author does not fully enter into the worldview of the time period about which she is writing."

This is one of my biggest pet-peeves with modern books. So terribly frustrating. When I was in my 20's I happened upon the movie adaptation of "The Trojan Women" (with Vanessa Redgrave and Kathryn Hepburn). It was absolutely riveting! I hope they never do a remake because I just know they'd slaughter it in Hollywood.

Great review.. thank you for it.

dalemelchin said...

Your blog is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more than 400-700 words. You need to dumb it down to increase traffic. ;-)