Saturday, December 4, 2010

Helen of Troy - Margaret George

Troy, with walls still far from old
Had been destroyed, that noble, royal town
And many a man full worthy of renown
Had lost his life - that no man can gainsay –
And all for Helen, the wife of Menelay
John Lydgate, Troy Book, circa 1412-1420

Helen: daughter of Zeus, queen of Sparta, lover of Troy’s prince, price of a great war. For ages, her promiscuity has been blamed for causing the Trojan War, and her beauty linked to the war’s mammoth scale - making it one of mythology’s longest and fiercest battles in which many a great warrior died, and subsequently, Troy was ruined. All other factors - Agamemnon’s greed, the politics of Kings and Princes, and even the Gods’ involvement (in Homer's original) - seem to fade in comparison, and Helen’s image remains inextricably and hauntingly tied with the Battle of Troy.

The story of Helen is ageless, and several versions have been told over the centuries. Amongst all the ones I've come across, Margaret George’s does complete justice to Helen; portraying her not as a manipulating queen or an object of desire, but as a woman who is human in her feelings and desires, in her actions and follies. Helen, born of Zeus, was said to have possessed a beauty so terrible she was urged to hide her face beneath a veil – lest it dazzle those who glance at her. In this enchanting first person account of Helen’s life, the veil of mystery is lifted from the face that is said to have launched a thousand ships, exposing a royal, outspoken and confident woman – typical of the Bronze Age – who followed her heart and lived fully and passionately, even if her joy was short-lived. She affirms her spirited nature and the blissful life she shared with Paris in this beautiful phrase: “The moment was all we truly had: a succession of moments, a triumphal march of them, to create a life beyond compare.”

Linked with violence and tragedy from the time of her conception, prophesized to cause a great war and the doom of Greeks, Helen seals an irrevocable bond with the cursed House of Atreus by wedding Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae – thus intertwining their doomed destinies and laying a path to their inevitable fulfillment. She finds companionship in her marriage, but not what she yearns for most: trust, friendship and love. Aphrodite cruelly ignores her prayers for love, but more cruelly so fulfills them after the arrival of Paris, the Prince of Troy. Seeking and finding love in a stranger, she leaves her life in Sparta to begin a new one as wife of Paris and Helen of Troy.

Even as she gradually tries to gain the acceptance of King Priam and his people, Agamemnon, coveting the treasures of Troy, seizes this opportunity to wage a massive war. He compels Helen’s suitors – who had taken an oath to defend her original husband – to join forces with him and Menelaus. The aftermath is devastating for both sides; thousands are killed, noble heroes – Hector, Achilles, Priam, Paris, and many others – lost forever, and a glorious civilization is utterly ruined. The book doesn't end with the burning of Troy; it relates Helen’s life in Sparta after the war, culminating many decades later in her voyage to Troy, as she seeks something precious that was left behind… “Some things can be recovered. Some things can be restored. But some lost things, we seek forever”.

Margaret George’s writing is as beautiful and enchanting as her Helen; it is deeply and inherently poetic as befits a mythological tale, and transports the reader to ancient Troy and the bygone era of heroes. Helen’s descriptions of places and events are strikingly vivid, her insights sharp, and her emotions expressed with eloquence and poignancy. “Paris illuminated my world, he lighted the corners of myself that had lain dark”, she reflects, and one vainly hopes for them to remain together, knowing very well it is not to be. Helen of Troy is much more than a page-turner; it is a superbly written piece of almost-classic literature rich in detail and substance.