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.
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.
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.