An Introduction to Helen of Troy
Fertility symbol. Goddess. Nymphomaniac whore. Guiltless victim. Bronze Age princess. For millennia, Helen of Troy has been many things to many people. The primary source for her legend is, of course, Homer. In the Iliad she is generally portrayed as a sympathetic if marginal character ashamed of the adultery she committed and horrified at its consequences. In book four of theOdyssey, back in Sparta with her husband Menelaus, Helen relates an interesting tale about her colluding with Odysseus during the Trojan horse episode because “my heart had changed by now-/I yearned to sail back home again!” Another ancient source, Stesichorus, claims that the real Helen never actually went to Troy but was kept in Egypt during the entirety of the war, while a ghostly double took her place in Troy. In his comedy Helen, Euripides draws upon this variation, portraying her as a misunderstood and virtuous woman warding off the advances of Egyptian princes until Menelaus rescues her. Finally, the second-century A.D. satirist Lucian imagines further trials for Helen in the underworld. After the judge Rhadamanthys awards Helen to Menelaus over Theseus, who had abducted her while she was a child, Helen runs off with another ghost.
While all these variations on the Helen story-as well as those by later commentators-agree on her powerful erotic appeal and its potential to cause havoc, they differ wildly on questions about the nature of her character and adultery. Was she, like her mother, the victim of a brutal rape? Was she taken to Troy against her will? Did the riches of an eastern kingdom lure her? Had she genuinely fallen in love with Paris or was he a convenient way out of a passionless marriage? Was she somehow deceived by Paris? Was she just the passive instrument for the gods to play out another of their quarrels?
Some of these questions are immediately answered in the prologue to Margaret George’s retelling of the myth. Helen, who speaks for herself, is a widow preparing to bury Menelaus and then return to Troy in the hope of somehow seeing her beloved Paris once again. From there she proceeds to tell her entire story, beginning with her childhood in Sparta. Helen, we learn, is the product of a violent rape. Her mother Leda does her best to protect Helen from the secret of Zeus’ rape of her (in the guise of a swan) and from the prying eyes of the public. Before long she uncovers the secrets of her birth and the dark prophecies about herself and her sister Clytemnestra. (Both girls are fated to leave their husbands.) When Clytemnestra chooses to wed the Mycenaean king Agamemnon, she joins together two doomed families. (Agamemnon’s family, known as the House of Atreus, is also cursed.) The strong-willed Clytemnestra believes she will be able to thwart this tragic destiny.
Shortly thereafter, Helen, still an adolescent, must choose a husband from a large gathering of suitors. The suitors are all notable warriors and restless for war during this long period of peace. This, coupled with an earlier terrifying prophecy about Helen’s causing a dreadful war, provokes Helen’s father to insist they all swear an oath to respect Helen’s decision and to defend the chosen man if anyone attempts to violate the decision. Later on, of course, Agamemnon’s enforcement of this oath is the means he uses to gather a great army against Troy. The two cursed families are now forever intertwined and Helen begins to see and hear ominous signs of the destruction to come.
Soon after the wedding it is clear that in Menelaus Helen has found a trusted friend but not a lover. Aphrodite answers her prayers for a sexual awakening with a newfound lust not for her husband but for a visiting ambassador from Troy-Paris. Little does Helen know that she has already been promised to Paris in exchange for his selecting Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. Although her forbidding visions of a future with Paris become clearer and clearer, Helen rushes into his arms with reckless abandon. The consummation of their love on the small island of Cranae-the centerpiece of the novel-is a revelation to Helen. She gives thanks to Aphrodite for uncovering her desire and says, “I know now that to die without tasting this is truly not to have lived. In this we have lived, to feel all, to dare all, to try all.” Love, particularly erotic love, is a heroic adventure as worthy of song as the tireless wanderings of Odysseus. There are, however, steep prices to pay for this decision, not least of which is the loss of her daughter Hermione and family.
The second and longest part of the novel concerns Helen’s life in Troy as an unwelcome guest bringing danger to their peaceful kingdom. She eventually is tolerated by the royal family and even forms a strong friendship with Hector’s wife Andromache, who is also a foreigner. While the saber rattling on both sides escalates, the dire prophecies continue to come to Helen and to the priest Helenus, and Cassandra, the tragic princess whose prophecies are destined to be ignored. As each prophecy inexorably is fulfilled, as Hector is killed by Achilles, Achilles by Paris, Paris by Philoctetes, and Troy finally falls to the deception of the Greeks, Helen becomes a tragic, almost stoic, figure. Her prayers to Zeus to save Paris are returned with the message “Paris is slated to die, and die he must. . . . You will live, because your blood decrees it.” She is a survivor and she learns this most emphatically during her nekuia, or journey to the underworld. Like the epic heroes Odysseus and Aeneas, Helen communes with the dead in search of answers for her future. After seeing Paris, changed by death and lusting after the life she still possesses, she concludes that “there is no virtue, no solace in the afterworld, thus no merit in hurrying there betimes”-even if it means having to marry the next Trojan heir, the baleful Deiphobous.
Helen’s survival grants her the opportunity to reconcile with her daughter Hermione and even with Menelaus. It is too late, however, to see Clytemnestra, who is killed by Orestes and Elektra in revenge for their father’s murder. The eventual wedding of Orestes and Hermione, after Orestes appeases the gods and Hermione forgives her mother, breaks the curse of the two families. Menelaus remarks, “Our grandchildren can be ordinary people. No curses, no half-gods, no prophecies. . . . The age of heroes is over.” When Helen buries Menelaus shortly thereafter she mourns for him and also for the passing age to which they had both belonged.
A Conversation With Margaret George
You have written fictional treatments of historical and religious characters before. Did the writing of a mythological figure such as Helen pose unique challenges to you? Which sources did you find most compelling? Which least?
Writing about a mythological character was unique in that I could choose which “facts” to include, since they were not facts as we understand them but traditions. Sometimes the traditions were directly contradictory, which works in myth but not in a novel. There were three (at least) versions of the death of Helen, occurring in different places. Then there were the gods-how real should I make them? As for sources, of course Homer is the most compelling, but he is very coy about Helen, not telling you so much that you long to know. He does not even describe what she looked like. And her character is different in the Iliad and Odyssey. Still, one assumes he was closest in time to the living Helen and knows more than he is telling.
One of the most puzzling sources is Euripides, who shows us completely different Helens in his two plays Helen and The Trojan Women. In one she is noble, in the other a self-serving opportunist.
I am not aware of any ancient sources for Helen’s relationship with Gelanor or her return to Troy. Are there sources for these? What elements in the novel are pure invention on your part or differ radically from their sources?
Gelanor is indeed a fictional invention on my part, and Helen’s return to Troy as well. Both of them introduced themselves to me as if they were real, and I do think the elegiac aspects of Helen’s return fit well into the epic dimensions of the story, completing her own life’s voyage. Evadne is also a fictional character, and the sacred household snake as well-although people did keep such snakes. The bestowal of the gift of prophecy on Helen after encountering the snakes at the shrine of Asclepius is also my invention, as is-of course-her meeting with Aphrodite in the cave. Hints that Antenor might be her father were my addition, to add to her confusion about her origins.
I omitted the Theseus abduction story because that story relates to the Athenian myth cycle and was a digression rather than a contribution to the story I wanted to tell. Myths are continually added one upon another and tend to be repetitious, so that in some versions Helen is abducted twice and in other stories ends up having as many as ten children rather than the one Homer gives her. We can freely edit these later additions without guilt.
Many classicists now believe in the historicity of the Trojan War, and Bettany Hughes, in her Helen of Troy, argues that Helen was an actual Bronze Age princess. From your researches do you think there was a historical Helen whose abduction was the cause of a great war? Have you visited the archaeological remains of Troy in Hissarlik, Turkey?
I like to think there was a real historical Helen. It has never seemed unreasonable to me that a war would start over an abducted woman, especially a queen or a princess. Men have gone to war over much flimsier excuses than that, and this was a warlike culture. I have indeed visited the ruins of Troy in Turkey, as well as Helen’s original home in Sparta. The shade of Helen still walks there!
There are several passages concerning warfare in this novel-from the failure of diplomacy to biological weapons and the handling of prisoners of war-that resonate with the current war in Iraq. Did you have Iraq in mind when imagining the siege of Troy? Did you find parallels between ancient or mythical warfare, as chronicled by Homer, and twenty-first-century warfare?
I did not have Iraq specifically in mind because that section was written before the war, but if ever anything provides an example of how little has changed in war and the reasons for war, this certainly does. I do cite “our neighbors to the east”-the Trojans talk about them and their methods of siege-and that is of course the same area as modern Iraq. But all the elements of present conflicts were there: bristling for a war, brinkmanship, distortion of information, new weapons to be tested, provocation, false claims of victory, betrayal, spies. And then the devastation of war and the price paid by innocent civilians and bystanders, and the long aftermath of waste and loss.
Some of the early Christian Gnostics worshipped Mary Magdalene as a reincarnation of Helen. In your research for your novel about Mary, did you come across evidence for this cult? What in the Mary legend bespeaks of Helen?
Helen and Mary Magdalene both are linked with Sophia, the spirit of wisdom. Mary Magdalene, although a historical character, absorbed the qualities of other legendary women such as Mary of Egypt (a noted fourth-century A.D. prostitute turned holy hermit) and Helena of Tyre, rescued prostitute and companion of Simon Magus. Magus was revered by Gnostics as a holy man of wisdom and reviled by the early church as a charlatan and magician, mentioned in Acts 8: 9-24 as the man who gave his name to the sin of “simony.” His Helena was supposedly a reincarnation of the misunderstood and mistreated Helen of Troy, part of the manifestation of Sophia. Mary Magdalene was also infused with Sophia and recognized by Jesus as such in the Gnostic gospels. Mary Magdalene and Helen of Troy are further linked by their threatening and disturbing sexuality, at least as the church comprehended them.
In the Judgment of Paris myth, Paris is awarded Helen for selecting Aphrodite as the most beautiful of all the goddesses. In your novel, Helen never fully learns of this agreement. Why did you omit this from the novel? Did you feel this would have compromised the sincerity of their relationship?
In every relationship, even between soul mates, there are secrets kept one from another. As you suggest, I felt that Paris knew it would be taken the wrong way by Helen and might sow seeds of doubt in her mind that he had freely chosen her. It would belittle the feelings they had for each other and make them feel like slaves of the goddess.
Are you interested in fictionalizing other mythical characters? How successful do you find the attempts by other authors?
I am intrigued by the relationship between Persephone and Hades; this needs exploring. Being Queen of the Underworld has a Poe-like fascination. Someone noted that even though Persephone is only in the Underworld half the year, people die all year, so what happens to them if they die when she is away? I have also heard a suggestion that she actually preferred the company of Hades to that of her mother, Demeter, and that far from being tricked, she ate the pomegranate seeds on purpose so she could stay with him. She became a literal femme fatale, ruling from her black marble throne over the dead.
Atalanta, the swift-racing maiden who also hunted the fearsome Calydonian boar and joined Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, would certainly lend herself to a modern reinterpretation. She was the foremost female athlete in Greek mythology, and also beautiful, of course.
All retelling of myth proves how alive these stories still are and how they resonate with us today. Some retellings are just that and others seek to reinterpret the myths in new ways. In general I think the ones that do not seek to overthrow the basic mind-set of the stories fare best, such as the works of Mary Renault. The main decision, whether to keep the gods as main players or not, is the key one. Without the gods, much of the motivation of the human characters collapses. Attempts to substitute something else, for example, making the war at Troy just about trade, fall flat. Homer did not say, “Sing to me, O Muse, about the trading rivalries of the Black Sea. . . .” Sometimes stories are “derived” from myth-Cold Mountain was supposedly a retelling of the Odyssey, but it was so far removed I did not make the connection at all.
One of the surprises readers will encounter in Helen of Troy is the unflattering portrayal of Odysseus. Full of deception, yes, but Odysseus is certainly one of the most likable characters in ancient literature. Why did you portray him as little more than a conniving liar?
Because Homer does! Odysseus’s behavior in Book Ten of the Iliad-misleading, tricking, then delivering the hapless Trojan Dolon to death after his confession-is despicable. Other stories make him more and more low minded, so that he lies in wait for revenge on Palamedes because he once outsmarted Odysseus by revealing his trickery, thereby sending him to the war. With trumped-up charges, planted evidence, and false witnesses, he gets Palamedes condemned to death by stoning. A modern military analyst has said that today Odysseus would be court-martialed for his failure to bring any of his men home, after needlessly endangering their lives throughout his mission. Not much of a recommendation!
However, he has always been a popular and likable character in the sense that rogues in general are likable characters. (If they were not, we would not call them “rogues” but find a more damning term.) We like seeing how he gets out of scrapes, and he is endlessly resourceful and entertaining, and his wiliness serves him well. The blundering Agamemnon, returning from Troy, walks mindlessly into his palace, suspecting nothing, where he is immediately murdered. Odysseus, returning from Troy, scouts out the situation in Ithaca, disguises himself, and prevents such a fate. Now how can we help but like, even admire, such a character? He’s a man we want on our side. Of course, in the novel he isn’t on Helen’s side, so she dislikes and distrusts him-with good reason. And the novel is told from her point of view. How could she like the man who invented the Trojan Horse and thereby caused the fall of Troy?
Having vividly imagined both the early Christian world, in Mary, Called Magdalene, and now the pagan one, how do you compare each culture’s religious ideas? Do you find the pagan world to be spiritually impoverished?
Some people in the pagan world itself found the official state rites and sacrifices lacking in meaning, and they turned to mystery religions that offered a deep personal connection to the gods and promised a richer afterlife. The Eleusinian Mysteries, described in the novel, were wildly popular and continued to be celebrated even after the Roman Empire became officially Christian. Early Christians freely adapted some elements of the mystery cults, infusing them with their own interpretation. Also, by the time of the beginning of Christianity, many Greeks and Romans had ceased to believe in the Olympian gods as having any sort of reality, which left a great hunger in their lives, especially as these gods did not offer them moral guidance or a consistent code of ethics to follow. The pagan world was not devoid of religious strength or beauty, but as people’s spiritual needs changed, it could not meet these needs completely and hence new religious and ethical codes arose that did. Christianity, more immediate and more reassuringly personal, guided them in new spiritual directions.
The classical world in general, and Greek myth in particular, seems to be experiencing a renaissance in twenty-first-century popular culture. Wolfgang Peterson’s film Troy, The Memoirs of Helen of Troy (another novel about Helen), the book by Bettany Hughes, and the PBS documentary Helen of Troy attest to the current appeal of these myths. What makes these myths so enduring? What makes them especially popular in contemporary culture?
The myths all center on basic questions, desires, or needs on our part, so they endure forever. Passion-how important is it to the complete life? War-why do we seemingly need it? Destiny-how much do we control, how much are we controlled by outside forces? The answers are endlessly relevant and fascinating to us, and we explore them over and over again by revisiting myth. In myths we see them in their starkest, stripped-down form, where we can study them directly. And besides that, they are just cracking good stories that carry us along. If you give in to passion, what will happen? If Troy is too strong to be assaulted, what sort of trick will do the job instead? Imagine . . . what if three goddesses tried to bribe you with big prizes, which one would you choose? Earthly power? Wisdom? Beauty and passion? Myth is personal that way. You invent your own version of the myth as you relive it.
There have been several portrayals of Helen in the distant and recent past. What were you hoping to accomplish with this one? What do you think is the most controversial or startling element of your portrayal?
When I was in Sparta doing my research on Helen, my hotel room had a view of the hilltop where her palace had stood. I never dream about my characters, but that night Helen came to me in a dream, and I have to think it was because she wanted to tell me something-or show me something. In the dream she was not at all as I had imagined her. She was neither blond nor redhaired nor brunette, but had masses of hair that was more the color of cognac or topaz. Her features were strong and the word “beautiful” is inadequate. Rather she was just more than anyone I’ve ever seen. Her presence was powerful and electrifying. So that is the Helen I felt she wanted the world to know, and the Helen I tried to portray.
This strong, intelligent, questioning Helen is the most startling element of my portrayal, but I also wanted people to know she had a life beyond the fall of Troy. Her story does not end with the Trojan Horse but reaches years beyond that. She is an elegiac figure, a noble and grand presence, and I made her Shakespearean-more Shakespearean than Shakespeare himself, actually. In Troilus and Cressida, she is a silly giggling thing. Of course Troilus and Cressida is not noted for the nobility of any of its characters, but rather for Shakespeare’s jaundiced and revisionist view of the entire Trojan War.
Questions for Discussion
1. Helen has been the subject of numerous works of literature and art. Compare Margaret George’s portrayal with others you are familiar with, such as Euripides’ Helen, the recent film Troy, and the portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
2. It has often been said that true romantic love cannot last; it usually suffers the fate of infidelity, indifference, or a premature death. While Helen and Paris have their ups and downs, and eventually meet a tragic end (in life), their relationship certainly lasts longer than other classic couples’, e.g., Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra. Discuss Helen and Paris’ relationship in light of these other famous couples. Do you find this a convincing portrait of romantic love?
3. Helen’s divinelike beauty guarantees her a certain amount of power. Her mesmerizing looks command attention. In this novel what is the source of Helen’s power? Does her power ever stem from more conventional sources like courage or wisdom?
4. Helen’s origins are usually traced to Zeus’ rape of Leda. Most of Helen of Troy follows this tradition but certain details of the Trojan Antenor suggest he may have known Leda intimately and may even be Helen’s real father. What do you make of Antenor? Could he be her real father, a former lover of Leda’s?
5. Because of her powerful allure, the young Helen is made to wear a veil and prevented from looking at her reflection. Once she is liberated from these routines she feels “more trapped without a veil than [before].” Explain what she means by this. How is Helen’s divine beauty a curse rather than a gift?
6. Paris is usually characterized as a weak playboy or uxorious husband. In this telling, he is somewhat rehabilitated, especially when refusing to be ashamed of his lowly upbringing and showing genuine bravery and leadership after the death of Hector. Do you find Paris heroic in this novel? How does he compare with the feats of Hector? What do you make of Helen’s favorable comparison of Paris with Achilles, the greatest of all Greek warriors (ch. 47)?
7. Throughout this novel Helen forms powerful, loving relationships with several men: Menelaus, Paris, Gelanor. Discuss the nature of each of these relationships and what it says about male/female relationships more generally.
8. Helen decides to leave Hermione behind in Sparta instead of taking her to Troy. Why does she do this? Does this complicate your judgment of Helen?
9. After Paris’ death Helen is forced to marry Deiphobous, one of the least likable characters in the novel. Did you find her defense against his unwanted advances-i.e., making him impotent-unnecessarily cruel?
10. Apart from his running ability, Menelaus doesn’t distinguish himself among the other suitors. In fact, he isn’t even present for most of the contest. Why does Helen choose him for a husband?
11. Discuss the role of women in both Greek and Trojan society. In Sparta and Mycenae, the line of power is passed down on the woman’s side but how much actual power do women have? Is it symbolic only? How are women treated in Troy? Contrast these societies with the two exclusive female societies in the novel: the Amazons and the fertility cult on Mount Ida.
12. The Olympian gods can be petty, capricious, heroic, honorable, generous-in short, everything humans can be. Discuss the gods’ behavior and their power over mortals. What is their relationship to fate, destiny?
13. Consider the Greek proverb “Never count a person happy until dead.” How does Gelanor manifest this wisdom? Compare his fate with those of the other main characters.
14. Freud, Jung, and others have used Greek mythology to explain human psychology. One concise interpretation of the myth of Helen is that sexual desire can be seemingly powerful enough to destroy families, cities, even civilizations. What other possible interpretations are available in this version of the Helen myth?