The way the Greek myths have been told has disguised the joins and touched up the weirdness. Writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne in Tanglewood Tales and Charles Kingsley in The Heroes, who enthralled me when I was a child devouring the stories under the bedclothes by torchlight, patched and pieced the myths into the coherent plots that we are familiar with. Writers continue to work a ragbag of scraps into whole cloth, disentangling the threads and recomposing the patterns. Very few readers today go back to the sources, to handbooks like Apollodorus’ The Library, or to the work of Quintus of Smyrna, who in the fourth century wrote a sequel to the Iliad in 14 books. When one does attempt to read these works, it’s often disappointing to find how little their authors tried to shape the stories: some just set down events like clerks in a court of law tallying ‘celestia crimina’, heavenly crimes, as Ovid calls them.
When you look up the first known mention of this or that strand in a myth, it’s hard to keep in mind that it might have been noted 700 years before the next passage was set beside it to form a consistent plot. Who remembers that Homer mentions only in passing the Judgment of Paris, when Paris’ choice of Aphrodite over Hera and Athena sparked the war in heaven that set in train the Trojan War? Or that the famous episode when the Trojan Horse is smuggled into Troy does not take place in the Iliad and isn’t fully dramatised in the Odyssey, but is known chiefly from the Aeneid, written centuries later by a Roman with a political agenda. Homer could assume that his audience knew the outline of the myth of Helen of Troy, and that in consequence he didn’t need to lay it all out. But perhaps there never was a consistent and complete version of any myth, one that you could walk all the way around and find that everything matched and agreed from every angle.
In the 17th century, the grandest patrons like Cardinal Mazarin and Cardinal Richelieu had their classical sculptures lavishly repaired, with porphyry and gold additions to re-create a lost limb or a missing nose. This kind of mending is completely out of fashion now: restorers prefer to make their own work distinguishable and even reversible so that the original state can be recovered if wanted. But a desire for authenticity hasn’t shaped the critical approach to the ruins of stories, except in studies like this one, which pays out the multiple strands in the myth of Helen of Troy.
Greek tragedy, Jean-Pierre Vernant wrote, presents its protagonists as objects of debate, not examples of good conduct or even heroes deserving of sympathy; the same can be said of characters in epic, like Helen. Laurie Maguire’s literary biography of Helen of Troy makes us face up to moral ambiguities as it tracks the most beautiful woman in the world across time and across media, from Homer to Hollywood, as her subtitle has it. Since historians can find no trace of the real Helen on a coin, a stone or in a factual document, the search for her leads only to dreams and fantasies. Bettany Hughes attempted an archaeological quest in her Helen of Troy (2005), but was left wistfully hoping that Helen’s tomb might be discovered one day. Maguire finds traces of Helen of Troy everywhere, far beyond the poems and plays in which she is a character, but an individual Helen disappears, to emerge as the embodiment of a fundamental principle: absolute beauty.
In Homer’s epics, in the Faust story taken up by Marlowe and in Goethe’s long, eccentric poetic drama about the same legend, Helen of Troy makes readers and audiences think about different issues: the good of beauty, the reasons for war, eroticism and women’s sexuality, responsibility and love. Maguire considers what is meant by Helen’s beauty, what her history was, how much she was to blame (was she abducted by Paris or did she go willingly?), and what implications her story has for women at different times. Her book is packed with enthusiastic reading and looking, at little-known classical material (Quintus of Smyrna) and at her own academic specialism, Elizabethan literature (John Lyly gives Helen a scar on her chin – the equivalent of the flaw in a Ming vase that perfects it). The book opens with the Iliad and closes with Derek Walcott’s novel-like epic poem Omeros, in which Helen is a servant in the house of Major and Mrs Plunkett, colonials in the Caribbean; this Helen wears a yellow dress which she has either been given by her mistress or stolen from her, a dress whose colour recalls the golden robes worn by the divine Helen of Troy, woven for her by her mother, Leda. But such continuities are only intermittent.
Maguire treats dozens of retellings: one mythographer has an immortal Helen marry Achilles in the Underworld, while Thomas Heywood describes her killing herself for her sad grey hairs. Maguire has kept her survey within bounds by setting aside the political uses of Helen of Troy, even though these flourished in the Elizabethan period; she has also set aside the dramatic or performance history, though she can’t resist the temptation to describe various manifestations of Helen on stage and film, including the first stark naked one (seen by the audience chastely from the back), by Maggie Wright in an RSC production of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. Such economies are prudent, but the boundaries between representations of Helen and of the politics of war keep collapsing, and it’s a pity to ignore the sharp and timely elements in Helen’s story that have inspired numerous recent dealings with the matter of Troy, as in Tony Harrison’s Hecuba, when the chorus curses:
I pray as a small revenge
For all our dead and for Troy’s burning
Helen ends up as a refugee.
Ever since Mephistopheles summoned a devil to delude Faust into believing that Helen of Troy stood before him and would make him immortal with a kiss, there has been something fugitive about her; for Maguire, her beauty, being absolute, cannot be grasped, and so leaves desire famished, unappeased. Helen of Troy comes to represent, not an ideal worth dying for, but a gap in meaning, a vanishing. ‘This book, like the Trojan narratives that it explores,’ Maguire writes, ‘is a study of absence, lack, gaps, ambiguity, aporia, and the narrative impulse to completion and closure.’ In this respect, Maguire is setting herself against the synthesising and reparatory impulses of recent fictional or poetic interpreters of Greek myth: tellingly, she quotes another critic’s remark, that the famous lines by Marlowe, usually declaimed in rapture, can be read as inflected with irony and doubt: ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’
One version of the myth that Maguire doesn’t mention nevertheless illuminates her argument that Helen’s labile and phantasmic state shapes our vision of her. According to this version, Helen never sailed to Troy with Paris, but was spirited away to Egypt, where she spent the war years as a priestess of Artemis. The Helen who went to Troy was an eidolon, which duped the Trojans and the Greeks alike. They fought over an illusion. This strand of the myth is very ancient: the poet Stesichorus, active in the sixth and seventh centuries BC, suggested it after he was blinded by the gods for defaming Helen. He retracted his accusations in a palinode that is less a chivalrous defence of Helen (and womankind) than a brilliant indictment of the folly of war – and of men. Euripides then used this version of the myth in his play Helen, a kind of comic capriccio set in Egypt, where Menelaus lands and finds his wife loyal and untainted, though prey to the attentions of the local prince (Penny Downie, flinging about a great mane of red curls and loping vigorously across the stage, gave the part full soubrette relish last year at Shakespeare’s Globe). Scepticism about Helen’s supposed treachery continues to be felt, especially by women artists: recently the performance artist Joan Jonas reworked HD’s opaque novel poem Helen in Egypt into a multimedia work called Lines in the Sand, in which ‘Egypt’ was filmed in Las Vegas, again drawing attention to the play of deception and illusion in the making of myths.
Maguire’s study does not focus only on Helen’s disappearances. In a strong chapter on ‘Blame’, she also finds the representation of Helen fertile ground for evidence of changing ideas about sexuality. Questions are rarely asked, for example, about Menelaus’ motives: Helen’s chroniclers assume it is entirely natural that her husband should make war on the Trojans to get her back; they explain that there was a pact, agreed at their wedding, that compelled the disappointed suitors to make common cause should she be stolen. By contrast, a vast body of literature tackles the question of her collusion: was she carried off against her will? Maguire draws admiringly on some obscure texts, such as the free retelling by Joseph of Exeter in the late 12th century; she calls him a novelist manqué and claims his is ‘the first – and only – version to offer a sex scene between Helen and Paris’, with Helen ‘lying on him’.
No doubt Joseph of Exeter meant this wantonness to point up Helen’s diabolical nature, but it reads differently now. The story of Leda’s rape by Zeus in the shape of a swan, from whose union Helen was born, used to be made ‘entirely beautiful’, in Auden’s phrase, by hundreds of Renaissance artists. The attempt to capture the imagined sensation of penetration by the powerful bird proved seductive to artists like Michelangelo, who in an extraordinarily highly charged drawing renders Leda overcome and languid under the swan’s nestling tensed body, coiled neck, lifted neb, unfurled erectile plumage and mighty webbed feet. A large egg lies nearby, starting to crack with a baby visible, curled inside: is this Helen?
After Yeats saw in Rome one of the marble reliefs that inspired Michelangelo’s vision he condensed this scene of rape into a prophecy of war:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
The sack of Troy leads tersely, fatefully, to the murder committed by Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister, her twin. Yeats packs together the mythic logic of the sequence that joins love and war, Venus and Mars, with the female carrying the greater responsibility because she embodies the casus belli, joining public and private spheres through the energy of the desire she unleashes. For Maguire, the sexual shudder connects to the shiver of terror that accompanies the classical heroes’ knowledge of their fate; Helen’s arrival in a story almost always carries that shiver of dread, a foreknowledge that her presence augurs catastrophic consequences, regardless of what she wants or does.
Helen is always said to have been conceived after a divine metamorphosis, but in some versions the shapeshifter is the goddess Nemesis as well as Zeus. When Zeus gives chase, Nemesis takes flight, changing herself into a fish, a bird, a cuttlefish and finally a goose, but he keeps after her, shapeshifting too, until he overcomes her. According to this version, Nemesis gives Leda the resulting eggs for safekeeping.
Doublings and repetitions are used to structure myths, as Maguire points out, and Helen’s story rhymes with those of others, especially Achilles’. The rape of Nemesis matches, with some inversions, the story of Achilles’ origins: it is his mother, Thetis, who is a goddess and who is assaulted by a mortal, Peleus, who holds her fast as she changes from one animal into another to escape him, but to no avail, as Ovid describes with furious intensity in Metamorphoses. The involvement of Nemesis in Helen’s story fits with the subsequent tragedy of the war in Troy and the extinction of the city and all its inhabitants. Maguire sees other mirrorings in the behaviour of Helen and Achilles. The Iliad begins with the withdrawal of Achilles from the fighting, and the story of Helen is also, she writes, ‘a story of withdrawal … even passivity (absence of agency)’. Helen also inspired avatars like Cressida, another treacherous – lovely and flighty – girl, who was invented in the Middle Ages, and in Chaucer and Shakespeare moves in the opposite direction to Helen, leaving Troilus, her Trojan love, for Diomedes the Greek. Robert Henryson picks up the story where Chaucer left it: in The Testament of Cresseid, he introduces into the story of punitive, divine revenge an unusual depth of tragic pity for the hussy.
The character of Penelope also provides a counter-model and comparison with Helen, just as Odysseus’ wanderings on his way home mirror Menelaus’ quest to regain Helen from Troy. In the Odyssey, Homer pictures the couple tranquilly restored to their court, where Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, visits them to ask for help in getting rid of his mother’s unwanted suitors. In this enthralling passage, Helen is portrayed as a mistress of magic and transformation, drugging her guests’ wine to dispel their melancholy and sorrow; she is a powerful, exemplary consort, like Penelope at the end of the epic, when Odysseus returns home and they put each other to the test. Froma Zeitlin, in a tremendous essay about the Homeric Helen (in Playing the Other), points out the continuities between the protégée of Aphrodite – who in the Iliad is weaving her own story into a tapestry as events unfold before her on the plain of Troy and in the city – and the later Helen back in Sparta, who lulls the company with her magic pharmakon, given to her by a cunning Egyptian, Homer tells us. This Helen is a storyteller, who is both part of her plot and outside it, a shapeshifter and ventriloquist, a double dealer. When she meets Odysseus stealing into Troy she does not betray him to her new family and fellow citizens but keeps secret his plan for the Trojan horse. Then, with her next breath, she approaches the horse and tries to lure the hidden Greeks out by throwing her voice in perfect imitation of their wives. Only the percipience and force of Odysseus prevents them from leaping out and revealing themselves to the Trojans. No condemnation follows the relating of this episode. By impersonating other men’s wives and activating their desire, she shows that she is desire incarnate, Aphrodite’s agent on earth. The scene captures the mobility of Helen, who, as the ultimate femme fatale, embodies the ungovernable consequences of desire; destruction is seen as beauty’s chief effect, even its defining quality.
It has always been women, not men, who have most carefully examined the features of such beautiful women, of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, for example, or Hollywood’s choices for the part of Helen. My first Helen was Rossana Podestà, in the 1956 Cinemascope spectacular. She wore what looked like a swimming cap of platinum curls, and played Helen as an expressionless ice maiden, except when falling into furious bouts of French kissing (as we called it) with a very campy Paris. Judging by the trailer that can be found on the web, the film is packed with carnage and marital abuse, but my only vivid memory is of the words that appeared before the titles and proclaimed: ‘Her name was burned into the pages of history …’ Podestà’s small white face then appeared, her opalescent blondeness contradicting the sultry Italian aura of her name and the conflagration it was about to cause. The sentence ended with the words ‘in letters of Fire’, as Helen’s name flashed up and literally burst into flames, continuing to burn as the ships, towers and walls of Troy came into view behind her.
It was inexpressibly exciting, and a call to power, or so I felt at the age of ten. It represents a major cultural change that little girls are no longer expected to find such powers exemplary and that, on the whole, men are not praised for fighting over women. Current ideas of the beautiful are closer to the attitude of the artist-photographer Claude Cahun, who staged a series of self-portraits in all kinds of personae, and wrote a little book of Heroines, in which Helen of Troy begins her tale: ‘I know I am very ugly, but I try to forget it. I play at being this beautiful young girl.’ When Angela Carter reworked the myth of Helen of Troy in Nights at the Circus, she showed a similar relish for self-fashioning: her heroine, Fevvers, a huge, ambiguous giant (‘six feet two in her stockinged feet and turned the scale at 14 English stone. God, she looked huge’), has wings which she dyes purple, and flaps languidly aloft in the course of her circus act. She claims that, like Helen of Troy, she was hatched. Carter relishes the oddness of the myth, and wants to take her readers somewhere unbelievable, where rational analysis must yield to the contradictoriness of fantasy.
Maguire singles out for praise a contemporary translation – a very free translation – of Goethe’s Faust by the Scottish playwright Jo Clifford, who tracks his own history as a transsexual through the figures of Faust (female in his version) and Helen, whose determined self-immolation at the end is ‘an attempt to save the world’, Maguire writes, rather too strenuously. Helen, she adds, ‘had to wait until 2006 to be given unequivocal agency and a strong political voice’. This book went to press before Glyn Maxwell wrote Blind Eye Crying, another very free translation, which splices together Euripides’ plays Hecuba and The Trojan Women. In the Greek original, while Troy is being sacked Menelaus looks for Helen, intending to kill her. Hecuba and others warn him that she will unman him, and when he finds her she lets her dress fall and the sight of her beautiful breasts weakens his purpose. She embarks with him for Sparta. Maguire discusses the different versions of this antique act of striptease, with its fetishising of the female breast. Maxwell introduces a significant change. His reworking, too, shows Helen seducing Menelaus all over again, but he ascribes her power to her tongue, letting Helen speak for herself. Borrowing from her role in the Odyssey, Helen wins her husband with a charm which is a ditty, a simple nursery-like round.
Amid all these normative uses of Helen of Troy and her changes of shape, it’s easy to forget the irreducible strangeness of Greek stories. It remains an unfailing source of wonder – and perplexity – how brilliantly they imagined things and how ingeniously they constructed a possible reality. The egg from which Helen was hatched used to be displayed in the temple of her brothers Castor and Pollux (they came out of the second egg produced by the union of Leda and Zeus) on the island of Corfu. Pausanias tells us he travelled there and saw the shell hanging over the altar, tied up in ribbons. The only relic of Helen on earth was probably a dinosaur egg.