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Did Helen of Troy really live?

By sam bauman

Appeal Staff Writer

“Helen of Troy, a novel,” by Margaret George (Penguin, 644 pages, trade paperback, $16)

Mention Helen of Troy and the phrase “the face that launched a thousand ships” leaps to mind. And most often that’s all most of us know about Helen since classical history isn’t part of our public education.

And perhaps that isn’t all bad; Helen may not have actually existed, despite references to her in antiquity. But Margaret George, who also wrote “The Memoirs of Cleopatra,” bring her vividly to life in this best-seller. George writes in graceful, even elegant prose, as modern as hip-hop but as classical as Shakespeare.

This is a novel that truly sweeps through history, the times of ancient Greece before it was Greece, when it was city states such as Troy or Sparta or Athens. Helen, perhaps the daughter of the god Zeus (as a swan) and Lyda, queen of Sparta, is the most beautiful woman in the world. Those who see her are awestruck by her face.

The novel is told from her clear and intelligent point of view – well, most of the time. At 16, Helen is put up for marriage, and 40 suitors come to the palace at Sparta. One by one they plead their case. She selects Menelaus, who would become king of Sparta once they wed. Wed they do, after Agamemnon makes all 40 swear an oath to respect Helen’s decision, by arms, if need be.

But Helen finds no passion in the arms of Menelaus, although she gives birth to a daughter. A wandering group of envoys comes to Sparta, among them Paris of Troy. Love instantly strikes her and she and Paris run off to Troy, among the mightiest of cities.

Helen is accepted in Troy and enjoys a rich and sexual life with Paris. But Menelaus and Agamemnon vow to bring her back to Sparta and assemble a mighty fleet of a thousand ships. They land at Troy’s shores and besiege the city. Battles rage, hundreds die, Hector, Achilles and finally Paris perish. Troy falls and in keeping with the times is demolished. Helen is taken back to Sparta to live out her days with Menelaus.

Thus the story. But it told with such grandeur, such sympathy, such a sweep of history, backed by research, that Helen truly lives. The closing words:”Then all fell away, and I saw Paris standing before me. Paris in all his glory — young, handsome, and glowing. Where have you been all these years … what has happened since .. and where are we going? All surged through my earthly my mind. And none could be answered.

Romantic, yes. Graceful, yes. Near perfect, yes.