September 21, 2007

Another Take On The Greatest Story Ever Told

Margaret George wrote a novel based on the legends of the Trojan War, from the first-person perspective of Helen, last year. I just finished it. It was an interesting and ambitious take on a subject that was probably quite challenging to research and bring to life.

The young Helen was very difficult for me to relate to. The adolescent Helen, the subject of the competition between all the Greeks vying for the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world, would have been an interesting study in psychology, but not an inspiration for empathy. A lot of the early parts of the book were Helen talking about her feelings, which was uninteresting and left Helen seeming unsympathetic and cold.

I felt the most empathy for Menelaus, Helen's cuckolded first husband, who seemed to have done nothing wrong at all, other than failing to inspire passion in his wife. Even at the last day of the war, when he popped out of the horse and found his wife in the city, he didn't do anything really bad to her but yell at her for what she had done. Menelaus' only real fault was that he did not want to stand up to his belligerent brother Agamemnon and therefore spent most of his life in Agamemnon's shadow, both politically and personally. (Yes, he fooled around with a slave girl before he knew what was up with Paris, but then again, Helen fooled around with Paris before she learned about the slave girl, so there seems to be some equivalency there.)

Helen's sudden romance with Paris, at least while they were in Sparta, really did not ring true. Paris was sixteen and Helen a twenty-four year old mother of a five-year-old girl. Certainly, people do foolish and sometimes terrible things because of love, so I suppose I could get over her running away from her daughter. But, once Helen fled Sparta and got on the boat to Troy, both she and Paris came into their own as characters, and the reasons for Helen's affection for the handsome boy became much easier to see. The romance started to seem more real and the story started to be more interesting.

Particularly in light of what happened later, Helen deciding to run away with Paris has to rank as one of the most colossally bad ideas -- ever.

Also off-putting, at least to me, was the treatment of the Olympian Gods. The author chose to portray them as real, and interactive with the characters, although only sporadically so. She did a good job of suggesting that the gods were engaged in struggles and activities of their own, and interacted with the affairs of men only when it suited their purposes to do so. But at the same time, the intervention of the gods into the story made it less credible and less human in its exploration of why people did the things they did. In part, though, the story may be an accurate reflection of the attitudes of the day -- I should remember that the ancients did not always think the same way that we moderns do about things like the sanctity of life, the flow of fate, free will, or the value of individual happiness.

Things really got going after the Greeks landed and the war started. At this point, the story shifted away from Helen and her feelings and turned more towards the development of political and military events, taken from the legends. I learned more about the legends of the Trojan War, too -- the most famous events are those in the Iliad, but I hadn't been aware, for instance, that Achilles had a son who fought in the war, or of the five prophecies that foretold the end of Troy. Nor was I aware that Helen had a third husband -- Paris' older brother, whom she did not love but whom she married so that he would take over leadership of the defense after Paris' death.

The final days of the war, when the siege had taken its greatest toll on the city and the Greeks withdrew before playing the ruse of the Trojan Horse -- as well as the bloody sacking of the city -- were very well-done. But what has never rung true, in any telling of the story I have ever heard and in this novel, too, was the story of the Trojans taking the horse into the city. It seems such an obvious ruse; it seems too clear a trick to infiltrate enemy soldiers into the city; there were too many people (not just Cassandra but undoubtedly Helen herself) who warned of the obvious deception.

The story was most touching when it portrayed Helen reconciling with her family back in Sparta after the sack of Troy. A part of the legend that gets glossed over is what happened to the rest of the Greeks, not just Odysseus, after the storm broke the return fleet up. Menelaus' ship, with Helen and some of the other Spartans, drifted to Egypt, where they were held captive for seven years until their ransom could be arranged by Helen's father. Menelaus seemed to be gentle and kind to Helen at this time, and she reciprocated his tentative affections. It must have helped that Menelaus had been badly wounded during the war and was no longer able to exercise his "prerogative" as Helen's husband, so that was no longer an issue between them. But all the same it was a nice touch at the end of the book to see them become friends again and to see them display some true affection for one another.

Historians have no real idea whether the Trojan War, or anything like it, really happened. They are pretty sure that there was a prosperous and powerful city of Troy, and that it was sacked and rebuilt many times. It seems more likely, though, that the city would have been sacked by the Hittites rather than the Greeks. And the legends surrounding whatever historical events really did happen have obviously grown so distorted over the years that by Homer's day half the characters of the story were demigods.

Margaret George's novel is not her best (that seems to be Henry VIII, which was gripping and delicious from cover to cover) and it drags in some spots. When it's good, it's quite good, and for that reason it's worth your time. Like any novelist would, she had to make some choices about how to tell the story and may have compromised the integrity of the story in places from what you may have learned of it elsewhere. It's hard to say that she deviated from "history," because it's impossible to say what "history" really was.

But it's a good story all the same. There are so many elements of the story that are timeless: love and passion, betrayal and fear, individual achievement, nationalism, sacrifice, keeping and breaking promises, deception, youth and age, piety, bravery, rage, jealousy, pride, mischief, nobility, wisdom and folly. It is no wonder that, whether they are real or not, the story has become immortal and so have the names of Helen, Paris, Agamemnon, Hector, Achilles, Odysseus, and Cassandra.

The Trojan War is truly the greatest story ever told.

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