WHAT is it about Helen of Troy that still fascinates us, thousands of years after her story was first told? The face that launched a thousand ships belonged to a woman for whom men were willing to die in their thousands, or so the tale goes. Simple, really: boy gets girl and an entire city is razed to the ground.
Scholars and archaeologists have argued long and hard about whether Troy really existed, and by extension, whether Helen herself was just a figment of Homer’s imagination. But both Margaret George and Bettany Hughes, while producing wildly different books, take essentially the same line: that Helen of Troy was a real, living breathing woman.
George’s expansive novel begins with baby Helen in Sparta and ends 600 pages later, with an elderly woman being reunited with her young lover in the afterlife. The author gives us a highly sympathetic account of her heroine, sticking in the main to the history and the literature.
This Helen – whose father is the god Zeus, who raped her mother Leda in the guise of a swan – grows up forbidden to look in mirrors, lest she see how beautiful she is. Neither can she leave the environs of her home, lest that beauty bring misfortune to her family. By the time she is old enough to choose a husband, she is desperate for independence, but her partner, Menelaus, after a promising start, soon neglects her and takes a servant woman as a lover.
So when Paris comes calling, Helen is more than ready for an affair, and soon she has left Sparta with him. George inevitably gives her protagonist a 21st-century sheen. Helen largely takes responsibility for her own actions, something the Ancient Greeks and then the Romans were notoriously reluctant to do. If they could blame their bad behaviour on the gods, they would.
Helen experiences with Paris what would today be characterised as ideal love. He is a far better catch here than Homer would have us believe. In this way, George lets Helen off the hook almost entirely: Menelaus wants his wife back but it’s really Troy’s trading position that the Greeks covet. That is the real reason for the war and its subsequent atrocities. George’s Helen is never entirely blameless but she is sensitive, proud and appealing, and it is testament to George’s storytelling abilities that we want to believe her story.
More convincing, however, and far more complex, is historian Bettany Hughes’s excellent examination, not just of Homer’s Helen, but all the many configurations of her that have persisted throughout the centuries. Hughes’s argument – that Helen was a poetic incarnation of a real-life Bronze Age princess – is never less than fascinating. Like George, she sees a much more independent Helen than we are used to, a woman who came from a society where it was customary to be trained as a warrior from an early age, to inherit the throne and to choose one’s own husband (sometimes more than one at a time).
While Hughes acknowledges that no remains have yet been found of a Bronze Age Spartan princess, she finds other telling pieces of wreckage to persuade us. Amassing her disparate evidence, Hughes manages to argue powerfully for her real-life version of Helen, a woman who would not only have been highly educated but also extremely strong and athletic. The origins of the tales of Helen’s almost divine beauty are not to be wondered at: it is likely, Hughes argues, that a very powerful woman did indeed exist at that time, and power always elevates the mundane to the godly. What she doesn’t labour is the point that, if, as a Greek poet, you want to find an excuse for the appalling razing of an entire city, a woman is a good device.
Hughes is careful not to toe too rigid a feminist line on history’s appropriation of Helen as the cause of it all, but she is hard on those subsequent stories and paintings that have gloried in Helen’s misfortune. If Helen is an innocent victim then she was raped by Paris, prompting lurid and pornographic depictions of her abduction; if she is guilty of abandoning her husband and daughter, Hermione, then she is a she-monster, more deadly than Medusa.
And yet, in Homer at least, Helen was described as Paris’s equal partner. Aphrodite was the real mischief-maker, pulling the strings. The Ancient Greeks, for all their abdication of responsibility to the gods, were perhaps kinder to Helen than we are today, with our need to fill her with our own desires and neuroses.