Review of Helen of Troy by Ruby Blondell

Helen of Troy by Ruby BlondellTitle: Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation
Ruby Blondell
Oxford University Press
 02 May 2013
literary criticism, mythology, feminism, history
review copy via NetGalley

I don’t read much non-fiction, although not for lack of noble intentions. I’ve got a bookshelf packed with philosophy, essays, art theory, literary theory, history, etc. But  most of the non-fiction I’m interested in is fairly academic and demanding, so it takes quite a lot of determination for me to actually read any of it. But I’m inspired to try harder when I come across wonderful books like Ruby Blondell’s Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation.

Combining literary analysis, classical studies, feminism and philosophy, Helen of Troy beautifully bridges the gap between academia and general interest. It’s a scholarly work but you don’t need to be a scholar to appreciate it (although you might be inspired to become one afterwards). Going in, my only knowledge of Helen’s story came from pop culture and a few light books on Greek mythology I read when I was a child. I have never read The Iliad. I didn’t know Helen appears post-war in The Odyssey living comfortably with Menelaus. I’d never even heard of any of the lyric poetry or Athenian tragedy that later re-addressed or revised her story. No doubt I could have gotten much more from this book if I was familiar with these texts, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it anyway, and in my ignorance I was able to learn a hell of a lot too.

Blondell begins with an overview of “Greek gender ideology, focusing on female beauty, the conceptual position of women between objectification and agency, and the intrinsic ambiguity of the female as embodied in the first woman, Pandora.” The Greeks treated beauty as something that could be measured objectively, which is why they can conceive of a character like Helen. In the 2004 movie Troy, Diane Kruger played Helen. I think she’s lovely, but there are more beautiful women who could have played the role. My partner always complains about the casting, because he doesn’t find her especially attractive. But the ideal casting for Helen doesn’t exist (which is why the movie wisely chose political rather than mythical reasons for the war). No woman is so beautiful that everyone would agree she was the most beautiful woman in existence. But that’s exactly what Helen is, and because she embodies the very idea of perfect beauty, she also perfectly embodies male anxieties about female beauty and sexuality. Of which there are many.

These issues are so fraught with paradoxes (then and now) that writers like Blondell are immensely valuable if only for their ability to unpack and discuss them. I barely know where to start, but one of the recurring themes is that of the parthenos – a virginal adolescent girl who is ready for marriage. The parthenos is at the peak of her sexual attraction, which also means she is at her most threatening (because of the effect she has on men) and the most volatile (she may act ‘inappropriately’ on her own desires and is ‘exposed’ as she makes the transition from her father’s house to her husband’s). The parthenos “embodies a feminine wildness that must be “tamed” by sex and marriage”, but Helen is like an eternal, untameable parthenos who brings about the very things that men fear about parthenoi and women in general. Neither her age nor her marital status seem to have any effect on her overpowering beauty; she causes Paris to break the inviolable bonds of guest-friendship by sleeping with Helen while a guest in her husband’s house; Helen then leaves her husband’s household either by inciting Paris to a criminal act of kidnapping/theft or by acting on her own desire and leaving willingly with him (both are bad); her beauty causes the greatest war of all time, but also ensures that neither side can end it prematurely because she is too valuable to give up. And although Helen is the reason men can achieve glory on an epic battlefield, she is also the reason they die by the thousands. In the Odyssey it is generally agreed that she wasn’t worth it.

The problem of beauty isn’t only related to Helen. Paris is a particularly beautiful man and this in itself is considered problematic because physical beauty is considered a feminine asset. Men should aspire to moral and marital beauty, and it’s telling that Paris makes poor moral decisions and isn’t much of a warrior. The goddess Aphrodite promised Helen to Paris if he would declare her to be the most beautiful of the goddesses in a beauty contest. Zeus had already planned to use her for destructive purposes – he wanted to reduce the human population and fathered Helen to cause the war, while Achilles functioned as the principle slaughterer.

This is not the first example of Zeus using a beautiful woman to cause destruction, or of female beauty being portrayed as inherently dangerous. Pandora, “the first woman and prototype of all women” was created by Zeus as revenge for Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to men (who lived in a homosocial paradise at this point). Pandora was so beautiful that even the other gods were impressed, but her beauty was a trick: Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus took her into his home (the first marriage) where she opened the sealed “jar” full of evils.

Like all women, and like Helen in particular, Pandora is a “kalon kakon”, a “beautiful evil”. The term is used frequently throughout the book. Pandora’s very desirability is deceptive and dangerous, the cause of men’s downfall. Caught in such paradoxes, women can’t win, and this problem is hardly limited to ancient times. Our worth is frequently measured by our physical beauty, but that beauty is also cause for distrust (a beautiful woman is more likely to inspire lust and commit infidelities), fear or even hatred. Women have the power to use their beauty against men, can cause strife among men, and are assumed to be morally weaker, and therefore must be controlled by husbands and fathers. At the same time, women aren’t expected too act like dolls. They should express some desire and use their beauty to please men but not to the extent that they appear promiscuous or vain. They should use their allure as if they are innocently unaware of its power. It’s a difficult, if not impossible balance to achieve: “As Hesiod declares, in a strikingly close parallel, a bad wife brings a man utter misery, but even a good one is a mixture of good and evil (Theog. 607–12).”

Given that Helen leaves her husband for another man, she can’t be considered a ‘good woman’, so why fight over her? These issues are raised by Homer, and in fact Blondell identifies Homeric epic as providing the most complex representation of Helen. These chapters were the ones I found most interesting.

For Helen to function as a casus belli (the reason for war) it was necessary for both sides to objectify her. She can’t be thought of as “just a woman” because it’s embarrassing for thousands of men to fight and die over one woman. It just proves how much power she has over them (which she does, of course). Instead, she is considered an artefact, a demi-god, the daughter of Zeus, a perfect thing of such great value that she is worth fighting over no matter the cost. For most, she doesn’t inspire lust or love but awe.

Paris is seen to have stolen her from Menelaus as if she were his property. As a result, pretty much everyone blames him for starting the war, but neither the Trojan nor Greek men can blame Helen. blaming her is like admitting that she’s ‘damaged goods’, and they’re idiots for dying over her. But a perfect Helen is the reason they can find glory in war, and martial prowess was considered a great form of male beauty (making Achilles the most ‘beautiful’ or perfect man). It’s different for the women, who all seem to dislike Helen; they can’t achieve any glory in the war, but they do lose husbands, sons and brothers, and are later brutally raped murdered, so they have every reason to hate Helen.

Helen actually blames herself, although this might be strategic, as Blondell explains. In doing so, she saves the men from having to do it, but more importantly, her self-blame is part of what makes her perfect. In the tangles of Greek gender ideology (and many others…) the best women are “misogynistic, self-policing, and male-identified. They are sensitive to public opinion and embrace their subordinate status, along with the accompanying restrictions on their freedom of speech and movement.” So although the men can’t afford to agree with Helen’s self-blame, her self-deprecation fits neatly into the male idea of a good woman.

There’s another paradox here – it could be that Helen is more powerful than she appears, actively using self-blame to manipulate the way other characters and the audience see her. In that way she’s using her inferiority as a woman against the very people who impose that inferiority. And that’s another male fear about women – that they can create deceptive illusions, that their outwardly beautiful appearances conceal evil, deceptive natures.

The issue of Helen’s culpability is one that frequently made me think of women in the fiction I read, and it’s no co-incidence that I picked up on the issue of women’s agency in Poppet by Mo Hayder, which I read right after Helen of Troy and have already reviewed. A good/virtuous character is a disempowered character if they are good simply because they can’t choose to be bad or if they are not held responsible for bad actions. There are times when I appreciate villainous female characters because they have the power to act, have influence over others, and are held responsible for what they do as free, intelligent agents.

If Helen isn’t responsible for the war then she is virtuous. But being virtuous typically means she has no agency – Paris is blamed for kidnapping her or the gods are blamed for manipulating her and Helen is just a puppet. Some stories actually try to remove her from the war entirely, claiming that she never left with Paris but spent the war in Egypt while a double created by the gods took her place in Troy. She retains her virtue not only because she doesn’t have any choice in leaving with Paris, but because she’s not even present.

Chapter 8 deals with a defence of Helen by the orator Gorgias, the first on record to offer a sympathetic portrayal by defending her elopement with Paris, rather than simply arguing that she never went to Troy at all. But in exculpating Helen, Gorgias strips her of all power – nothing is her fault because she has no real control over her actions. In fact, according to his argument, no human being is ever responsible for their actions whether good or bad. It’s ridiculous, but intentionally so – Gorgia’s defence of Helen is a joke, a common form of entertainment where orators would (paradoxically) display their rhetorical skills by making superficially moving but flawed arguments. In Helen’s case, Gorgias is defending the indefensible. There’s something hopeful in his argument though – if the idea of Helen being completely innocent is a joke, then so is the idea of her being powerless.

There are three chapters on Athenian tragedy, and in one play by Euripides, Helen is, for the first time, given the opportunity to defend herself for leaving with Paris. But she does the same as Gorgias and the opposite of what she does in the Iliad – she blames everyone but herself, rendering herself powerless in order to claim that she is innocent. But there’s a fundamental contradiction here – the very fact that she taking up a male role by using rhetoric to defend herself proves that she is far more powerful than she claims. Again we see the paradoxical ways in which women are simultaneously empowered and disempowered in these texts. And I’m simultaneously frustrated and fascinated by Blondell’s analysis.

These issues aren’t limited to dead societies and ancient literature – they frequently appear in modern fiction, and I see them regularly in opinion columns and on blogs. The recent SFWA sexism scandal (there are so many articles I don’t know what to link; just google it) arose partly because of the tendency for women to be judged by their looks rather than their abilities in ways that men almost never are. This is one of the reasons I found Helen of Troy to be such a fantastic read – it offers ideas that are (sadly) still central to contemporary feminist issues, and it does so with compelling textual analyses of one of the world’s most popular and powerful myths. Not only did I enjoy reading it more than I enjoy most novels; it was an immensely valuable experience.

I’ve only been able to discuss a fraction of what has been packed into this relatively short book. The passages I highlighted are far longer than this review, so I just touched on what was most memorable for me. There’s a chapter on the Odyssey where Helen is seen back in Sparta with Menelaus, and is given a more empowered but less sympathetic role now that the war is over and the characters are more concerned with marriage and community. Blondell goes on to analyse ancient texts that the Homeric epic inspired. The chapter on lyric poetry was my least favourite, but it was nevertheless interesting how dramatically Helen’s character changes in the hands of different authors, and how they manipulate her for their various ideologies. There are three chapters on Athenian tragedy, and here Helen is used for more political ends. Blondell also points out the way in which the stage production highlighted male control of female representation – men write the stories and male actors perform all the roles for an audience that is mostly male. And hey, that’s not very different from contemporary female characters written by men to fulfil the fantasies of mostly male target markets.

In her epilogue, Blondell briefly lists more recent incarnations of Helen (such as the painting – by a female artist – which graces the cover) and ends by stating that “[d]emonized, idolised, allegorized, or humanised, Helen is still here”. At that point, she hardly needed to point that out. I’d love to read a follow-up text on more modern representations of Helen.

And I’ve bought a copy of this book. Just going through my review notes made me want to read it again.