Can you blame Helen (of Troy)?

images 09-45-08It’s good thing for this country that the Puritans never quite figured out how to combine a theology of predestination with an ethical system. And it’s a very good thing for novelists. Free will makes plots much more interesting than “as you know, dear reader, I’m predestined to do X.” Characters have to plan their course and make choices without knowing what is supposed to happen. The reader doesn’t know either, and this keeps us engaged.
I’m listening to Margaret George’s epic Helen of Troy (30.5 hours). Everyone knows the basic story but the abundant back and side stories and local color bumps you along. Still, at every key plot point, Helen does exactly what she wants (leave her husband, daughter and kingdom and get it on with Paris) regardless of guilt or ownership of consequences with the handy out: “Well, this was all foretold, so what’s a pretty girl to do?” One is caught between annoyance and envy. She’s not responsible for the nasty Trojan War with all those bodies and walls torn down because, sigh, she’s only Aphrodite’s pawn. Interesting that some centuries after Homer, the Oedipus plays somehow managed to grant Oedipus free will inside of the prophecy that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. So he doesn’t shrug like Helen and say: “Gee, sorry folks, Mom, Dad, but you can’t really blame me.”
It’s a struggle for George, one can see, to design new complications, and create suspense with a main character who keeps behaving like a divinely entitled, spoiled little bitch. One has to admire George’s willingness to take on what feels like a huge writer challenge. And as an addendum, one of her early books, The Autobiography of King Henry VIII, with Notes by his Fool, Will Somers, is a fabulous read for anyone remotely interested in Tutor England, or brilliant, somewhat contorted minds.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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One comment on “Can you blame Helen (of Troy)?
  1. Barbara Elder says:

    I am a huge fan and have all her books. Got hooked with Henry VIII.
    I’m so glad to see your review. I don’t think MG gets enough of the”shoutout” that she deserves.

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