Thursday, March 22, 2012

Can of Worms

Helen of Troy by Margaret George is an enormous novel exploring the life of Helen of Troy, and the Heroes that lived in her time.  George is a master of the long, historical fiction novel.  Prior to Helen, I had also read The Autobiography of Henry VIII and The Memoirs of Cleopatra by George.  The difference here is that while the books about Henry and Cleopatra were true historical fiction, Helen may just be fiction.

To my mind, and I would guess, in the minds of most Americans, Helen is every bit as real as Cleopatra. We know her legacy:  she was the face that launched 1000 ships.  We know about the Trojan war, even if we think that it was Trojans hiding inside of the famous horse.  But apparently, historians generally believe that Helen is a myth. 

In the myth, Helen is a beautiful woman who was born of her mother Leda, and the god, Zeus.   When Helen was deciding which suitor to marry, her father made all 40 eligible bachelors, who were mostly princes and kings, swear that they would uphold Helen's choice, and defend the marriage.  Helen chose Menelaus, but never fell in love with him because she forgot to thank the goddess of love, Aphrodite.  As vengeance, Aphrodite casts a spell on Helen, causing her to fall in love with the younger Paris, Prince of Troy.  Helen loves Paris so much that she flees Sparta to move with him to Troy, leaving Menelaus and their child, Hermione, behind.  Helen and Paris don't believe that the suitors will actually uphold their promise and defend her marriage, but that is exactly what they do.  All of the suitors bring their armies and besiege Troy, resulting in the 10 year Trojan war.  The war finally ends when the Greeks pretend to retreat from Troy, but leave behind a giant wooden horse, as a tribute to the goddess, Athena.  Instead, the horse concealed some of the strongest Greek warriors, who would wait until the Trojans fell asleep, then sneak out of the horse, and open the gates of Troy so that all the other Greek warriors could enter. The Greek warriors included Odysseus, Achilles, Patroclus, Ajax, and many of the other "characters" from The Odyssey and The Iliad.

Although I have told you all of this, I haven't really spoiled the story for you.  First of all, you probably knew everything that I have just said already.  Second of all, what I say in one paragraph, George spreads over 638 pages.

So my question to you is this:  why do we call Helen a myth?  According to Wikipedia, the legend of Helen dates back to at least the 7th century B.C.  In her Afterward, George states that there is great debate among historians not just as to whether Helen existed (she is generally thought not to have) but whether Troy existed, and even if Troy existed, if there was a Trojan War.  Wikipedia seems to say that Troy did exist, and that there probably was a Trojan War, even if there was no Helen.

So I guess, if I am honest with you, my question is why do we believe in Jesus and not in Helen?  What makes the Bible more "historically accurate" than The Odyssey?  George says that Helen is believed to be fictional because "no evidential corroboration" exists.  Is there evidence of Jesus?  The story of Helen, Odysseus and  the other Heroes is even older than his story, so evidence should be even less likely to exist.  Homer wasn't the only person to write of these people, even though the story was likely handed down orally for years before it was committed to paper, much like the Bible. 

One reason that we may not be ready to "believe in" Helen and the Heroes is the idea of there being many gods who interacted in the lives of normal people.  But really, couldn't the gods have just been an excuse?  "I didn't mean to leave my husband, Aphrodite made me do it."  Any undesirable feelings could be explained by blaming them on the gods.  Achilles (according to George) was feared like a god, but known to be mortal during his life.  After his death, his legend made him into a god.  Don't we do this now?  We take famous people who do great (or not great as much as well publicized) things and worship them.  Would the ancient Greeks have felt that Kim Kardashian must be the child of a god?  Perhaps.

So George has told a great story, but I think that for me, she has opened a can of worms.  I want to know more about the "gods", the "heroes", Sparta, Troy, and why the stories are widely considered myths.  Although this story took me over a month to listen to on CD, I still want more.  Can I give a stronger endorsement?

To make it even better, this one is another Challenge double countsey.  I have had the book in my drawer, so it counts for the Off the Shelf Challenge, but I listened to it on CD, which I checked out from the library, so it counts for the Support Your Library Challenge too!

Next Up On CD:  Following Atticus:  Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan

Almost Done Reading:  Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta.  This book is so good that I made myself stop reading it last night so that it will last longer.  I will certainly finish tonight.

Correction:  Last entry, I told you that The Typical Book Group will be reading Paris Wife by Paula McLain next.  We will not.  Instead we will read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

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