Who exactly was Helen?
Some poets portray Helen as a slut, others as a victim of rape. The usual story is: she committed adultery with Paris, a Trojan prince, and ran away from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. Helen, not Paris, is considered the cause of the Trojan War. It’s a pre-feminist thing. But Homer is sympathetic: in the Iliad, Helen feels her disgrace deeply, and the Greek tragedians vary, with Euripides portraying her differently in two different plays. Modern writers similarly struggle with her character.
In Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, the Iliad is retold from a woman’s point of view. The narrator, Briseis, a princess enslaved by the Greeks during the Trojan war, does not have a voice in her fate. She is assigned first as a chattel to Achilles, then to Agamemnon. She is raped by both: the best she can say of Achilles is that he is quick, and she suffers extreme violence at the hands of Agamemnon.
Surprisingly, Helen, a friend of Briseis, and also a friend of King Priam, does have a voice. She is much hated by the Trojans, but she retains her dignity, boldly observing the battles from the ramparts, and painting the war scenes in her room: she is a talented artist. One day, Helen and Briseis walked through the marketplace with only one maid, and Briseis is surprised by her daring.
…she said, “Well, why not?” There was no point in her worrying what people might think. The Trojan women—“the ladies,” as she always called them—couldn’t think any worse of her than they did already, and as for the men . . . We-ell, she had a pretty good idea what they were thinking—the same thing they’d been thinking since she was ten years old. Oh, yes, I got that story too. Poor Helen, raped on a river bank when she was only ten. Of course I believed her. It was quite a shock to me, later, to realize nobody else did.
I am particularly interested in the portrayal of Helen in Roman classics. Among Roman poets, Ovid is perhaps most sympathetic. Though not a feminist, he portrayed many strong women, especially in Amores, a collection of elegies about love. And I recently read Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of poems in the form of letters between mythological lovers. The correspondence between Paris, portrayed as an attractive dum-dum prince, and Helen, a smart, flirtatious queen with a sense of decorum, is extraordinarily vivid. Helen declines his invitation to run away to Troy: she cannot be bribed with the gifts, and she wonders what could possibly have given him hope of tori (bed, or if we’re prim, the marriage bed). Helen asks, “Was it because Theseus took me by force? Once abducted, do I seem twice to deserve rape?”
She goes on to say she returned unharmed except for a few stolen kisses from Theseus. And Theseus apologized. She asks, “Did Theseus repent so that Paris might succeed him, and my name be always on men’s lips?”
She tells him bawdily how attractive she finds him, and teases him about their flirtation at a dinner party. If only they had met earlier…but being a king’s wife is not to be taken lightly. Menelaus went away on business, leaving Helen as hostess. But she points out that if she left Menelaus there would be war, and that Paris is a beauty, made for love not war.
Helen has said no.
Whether Paris persuades her or abducts her is not treated in the poem. But I have never read a more sympathetic portrayal of Helen.