I find Helen of Troy one of the most compelling literary characters of all time. I don’t remember when I first became aware of her existence but it was well before I had actually experienced any real Greek mythology, definitely before I’d read The Iliad. It’s fascinating to me how literary characters become a part of our collective memory, how we can know of them before we actually meet them. She is supposed to be the most beautiful woman of all time, the face that launched a thousand ships. Why else would two countries fight for ten years? Why else would hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent men die? Because a woman, who loved one man first, all of sudden loved another.
Homer brings Helen to life for the reader for the first time in Book Three of The Iliad. She is not at all what I remembered, nor what I was expecting. She is so incredibly present. So angry and sad. So much more than just a pretty face. When we see her for the first time she is alone in her rooms, weaving a dark red robe out of the fury and tragedy of the battle that has been raging.
Working into the weft the endless bloody struggles / stallion-breaking Trojans and Argives armed in bronze / had suffered all for her at the god of battle’s hands.
I find this first image very powerful. Helen is literally working her fingers into the catastrophe of a war that’s been waging at her expense. It’s such a vivid illustration of her responsibility. But also of her futile attempt to transform it. Her needlework can be seen as her desire to render the warfare beautiful. Or to control it. Both of which we know are impossible.
The messenger informs Helen that Menelaus (her old husband) and Paris (her current husband) have promised to duel, to settle the outcome of the war (and her fate) once and for all. She races to see what’s going on and finds King Priam (her father-in-law). He calls her to him lovingly and asks her to point out the fighters to him. This small scene highlights another of Helen’s unique qualities. She is one of few people involved in the conflict who know the strengths and weaknesses of both armies. She’s valuable, not just because of her beauty but because of her intimate knowledge of both The Trojans and the Achaeans.
But Helen doesn’t answer his question right away. Which is good because this is the first time we hear her speak.
I revere you so, dear father, dread you too / if only death had pleased me then, grim death / that day I followed your son to Troy, forsaking / my marriage bed, my kinsmen and my child, / my favourite, now full-grown / and the lovely comradeship of women my own age.
Her regret and sorrow are palpable. She’s in mourning and has been in mourning for all she gave up to be with Paris. The conversation continues with King Priam noticing more men and Helen supplying some details about who is who. Until she breaks off onto another reverie of her own.
I know them all by heart, and I could tell their names… / but two I cannot find, and they’re captains of the armies, / Castor breaker of horses and the hardy boxer Polydeuces / My blood brothers. Mother bore them both.
She suggests that maybe they never came over to Troy or are refusing to take part in the battle to avoid hearing insults about her but Homer slyly informs the reader that they have both died and Helen doesn’t even know it. Rendering her just that bit more pathetic.
Book Three returns to the battle scene and Paris and Menelaus do fight. Everyone, including Paris, knows that Menelaus, being a better fighter, will win. But Aphrodite intervenes, creating a series of silly accidents that insure Paris isn’t killed right away. She then envelopes him in a mist and spirits him back to his chambers. At the same time she beckons Helen to go to him.
The exchange between goddess and woman is fascinating. Aphrodite tempts Helen to Paris’s bed and Helen refuses. She fights the idea of giving in again, after all the damage their lust has caused. And she sounds pretty convincing. Yet Aphrodite warns –
Don’t provoke me – wretched, headstrong girl / Or in my immortal rage I may just toss you over / hate you as I adore you now – with a vengeance / I might make you the butt of hard, withering hate / from both sides at once, Trojans and Achaeans
So there it is. Helen can no longer choose between one man or the other, but between all or nothing. This must be terrifying for her. A life even lonelier than the one she has now. She gives in. Goes to Paris. However, the first thing she does is rage at him. Calls him a coward for running away from the battle just to hide in his bed with her. Armed with his Aphrodite-bolstered seductive powers, he placates and woos her until she joins him. And they make love, hidden away in their sealed off chambers while the war outside ignites all over again.
I love how The Iliad parallels these two powerful emotions – rage and love. Both are presented as a double-edged sword. All consuming passions, each has the power to transform, to protect, to shelter but also, to destroy.
And I’m simply in awe of Homer and the complex character he’s created in Helen. In essence, she is powerless but at the same time the entire war rests on her head. Her reaction to that situation is complicated and sincere. In this first glimpse of her in Book Three, Helen’s loneliness is absolute. Despite the admiration of the men and women around her. Despite the still-powerful lust she feels for Paris. It’s an intriguing portrait of a mature woman. One who transgressed in her youth – choosing lust and adventure over stability, comfort and love – but who has now grown up and understood the irreversible folly of her decision.