For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 24, Helen of Troy by Margaret George
What is beauty without love? What is marriage without passion? What is battle without a prize? These are questions a reader might ask after reading this account of and by Helen of Troy, whose perfect face launched a thousand ships—a thousand battle ships, that is, heading from Sparta to Troy to separate her from her lover, Paris, and return her home.
This ambitious retelling of the Helen of Troy tale is long (600 pages) and populated with familiar names from Greek mythology: Paris, Aeneas, Priam, Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Menelaus. It includes classic scenes from literature: the whisking of Helen onto a ship to escape from Sparta; the trick of the Trojan horse; the tribute to the incorruptible warrior Hector. But this novel is not a lesson from a school book, and it is not a fairy tale with no connection to reality. If not for the famous names, and the presence of gods and goddesses, Helen’s plight could be stripped down to a commonplace family drama: The foolish younger brother of a well-to-do family runs off with a married woman, and her outraged husband follows and demands her return to him and their child. In this telling, that simplification makes this a story of woman torn by her choices and a destiny she cannot control. Helen is full of pathos. From birth, her beauty was so great, she herself called it terrifying. She is protected from view—even mirrors—as a child, and then bartered off to marriage with a powerful but emotionally distant man. She meets his opposite—Paris—because they have been set up by vengeful gods and goddesses. They are powerless not to fall in love. Nevertheless, they do and it is real to them. Helen’s sincerity is evident, and so is her growing horror at what their love means for Troy and Sparta.
Why is Helen of Troy a good read for women? The Helen story is big and sprawling, and the body count from the Trojan War is high. As with all stories of war, it leads to the inevitable question: Was it worth it? This is the cautionary question anyone—man or woman—might ask before trading a comfortable, placid marriage for a passionate affair of the heart. Helen’s helplessness at her own fate, her inability to control neither her love nor her despair at what it wrought, makes her beauty a curse and her story a compelling read.