Margaret George is an established historical novelist, penning such successful books as THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTLAND AND THE ISLES, THE MEMOIRS OF CLEOPATRA and MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE. Slightly more than 600 pages, HELEN OF TROY is a sweeping novel --- a panorama of historical Greece and Troy with breathtaking scenery.
Helen, daughter of the Grecian King Tyndareus, tells her story in the first person, which draws the reader deep into her persona from the beginning. From her early days in the palace at Sparta, Helen is forbidden to look into a glass or uncover her veiled face in public. Her beauty is like that of a goddess; she's known to her mother, the queen, as Cygnet, the little swan. Legend has it that Helen is the love child of the god Zeus and her mother during a time when the king was away from home. Helen is believed to be the most beautiful mortal female on earth.
Her beauty is both a curse and a blessing. She's cursed because of a prophecy that she will be the cause of a great war that will obliterate a noble city. When her sister, Clymenestra, becomes of marriageable age, the king hosts the various suitors who arrive from near and far-off city-states to vie for her hand. Many eligible men of all ages arrive in Sparta for the feasts and games necessary in the royal culture. Agamemnon of Mycenae wins the right to her hand. Helen's childhood changes when her sister moves away from Sparta; soon, it will be her turn to be chosen in marriage.
For the first time in her sheltered life, Helen removes the veil and shows herself to the 40 or more men who come to Sparta with offers to Tyndareus. She changes the rites and chooses her husband for herself. Menelaus of Mycenae, brother to Agamemnon, wins her hand. She discovers early in the marriage that his brother has warlike tendencies and talks of conquering lands across the waters, a city like Troy. Soon a mother, Helen settles into a routine of weaving and caring for her baby daughter, Hermione.
The characters have a close relationship with the gods and goddesses they worship. Oracles proclaim present and future actions that must not be taken lightly. There is great belief in visions seen and heard from the god; if a happening is preordained by a god, there is severe risk in opposing it. Helen puts her faith in the goddess Aphrodite and converses with her in visions. She knows it is the purpose of Aphrodite to unite her with an envoy from Troy who has come as ambassador to negotiate for the return of a Trojan woman taken captive by the Greeks. Paris, prince of Troy, is the young man who steals her heart during their first meeting.
Consequently, Helen forsakes her homeland, Sparta, her family and countrymen to sail across the waters to the far city of Troy. The story follows the myth studied in English classes but with artistic license taken by the author. George weaves a beautiful story filled with the human emotion that a woman such as Helen may have experienced in the circumstances of her life. The notoriety that she accepted, and then rejected, likens her to a modern celebrity who yearns to hide from faithful followers. Helen took pleasure in the daily living she attained as a married woman, but she could never escape her destiny.
Landscapes, architectural accomplishments, weapons of war, civilian livelihood, manners of costume and dress, religious beliefs and practices, and hierarchies of royalty are written as a panorama of Greek life. If, indeed, Troy and Sparta did exist as depicted in HELEN OF TROY, they are civilizations that come to life on the pages herein. Curiosity automatically follows about this mythical time in history. Margaret George's novel may be based on fantasy, but it reads like reality. HELEN OF TROY is the story of a beautiful woman whose destiny was to be remembered in the entire literary world as the face that began a great war. Fact or fiction? Decide for yourself.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 22, 2011