Fertility symbol. Goddess. Nymphomaniac whore. Guiltless victim. Bronze Age princess. For millennia, Helen of Troy has been many things to many people. The primary source for her legend is, of course, Homer. In the Iliad she is generally portrayed as a sympathetic if marginal character ashamed of the adultery she committed and horrified at its consequences. In book four of the Odyssey, back in Sparta with her husband Menelaus, Helen relates an interesting tale about her colluding with Odysseus during the Trojan horse episode because "my heart had changed by now-/I yearned to sail back home again!" Another ancient source, Stesichorus, claims that the real Helen never actually went to Troy but was kept in Egypt during the entirety of the war, while a ghostly double took her place in Troy. In his comedy Helen, Euripides draws upon this variation, portraying her as a misunderstood and virtuous woman warding off the advances of Egyptian princes until Menelaus rescues her. Finally, the second-century A.D. satirist Lucian imagines further trials for Helen in the underworld. After the judge Rhadamanthys awards Helen to Menelaus over Theseus, who had abducted her while she was a child, Helen runs off with another ghost.
While all these variations on the Helen story-as well as those by later commentators-agree on her powerful erotic appeal and its potential to cause havoc, they differ wildly on questions about the nature of her character and adultery. Was she, like her mother, the victim of a brutal rape? Was she taken to Troy against her will? Did the riches of an eastern kingdom lure her? Had she genuinely fallen in love with Paris or was he a convenient way out of a passionless marriage? Was she somehow deceived by Paris? Was she just the passive instrument for the gods to play out another of their quarrels?
Some of these questions are immediately answered in the prologue to Margaret George's retelling of the myth. Helen, who speaks for herself, is a widow preparing to bury Menelaus and then return to Troy in the hope of somehow seeing her beloved Paris once again. From there she proceeds to tell her entire story, beginning with her childhood in Sparta. Helen, we learn, is the product of a violent rape. Her mother Leda does her best to protect Helen from the secret of Zeus' rape of her (in the guise of a swan) and from the prying eyes of the public. Before long she uncovers the secrets of her birth and the dark prophecies about herself and her sister Clytemnestra. (Both girls are fated to leave their husbands.) When Clytemnestra chooses to wed the Mycenaean king Agamemnon, she joins together two doomed families. (Agamemnon's family, known as the House of Atreus, is also cursed.) The strong-willed Clytemnestra believes she will be able to thwart this tragic destiny.
Shortly thereafter, Helen, still an adolescent, must choose a husband from a large gathering of suitors. The suitors are all notable warriors and restless for war during this long period of peace. This, coupled with an earlier terrifying prophecy about Helen's causing a dreadful war, provokes Helen's father to insist they all swear an oath to respect Helen's decision and to defend the chosen man if anyone attempts to violate the decision. Later on, of course, Agamemnon's enforcement of this oath is the means he uses to gather a great army against Troy. The two cursed families are now forever intertwined and Helen begins to see and hear ominous signs of the destruction to come.
Soon after the wedding it is clear that in Menelaus Helen has found a trusted friend but not a lover. Aphrodite answers her prayers for a sexual awakening with a newfound lust not for her husband but for a visiting ambassador from Troy-Paris. Little does Helen know that she has already been promised to Paris in exchange for his selecting Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. Although her forbidding visions of a future with Paris become clearer and clearer, Helen rushes into his arms with reckless abandon. The consummation of their love on the small island of Cranae-the centerpiece of the novel-is a revelation to Helen. She gives thanks to Aphrodite for uncovering her desire and says, "I know now that to die without tasting this is truly not to have lived. In this we have lived, to feel all, to dare all, to try all." Love, particularly erotic love, is a heroic adventure as worthy of song as the tireless wanderings of Odysseus. There are, however, steep prices to pay for this decision, not least of which is the loss of her daughter Hermione and family.
The second and longest part of the novel concerns Helen's life in Troy as an unwelcome guest bringing danger to their peaceful kingdom. She eventually is tolerated by the royal family and even forms a strong friendship with Hector's wife Andromache, who is also a foreigner. While the saber rattling on both sides escalates, the dire prophecies continue to come to Helen and to the priest Helenus, and Cassandra, the tragic princess whose prophecies are destined to be ignored. As each prophecy inexorably is fulfilled, as Hector is killed by Achilles, Achilles by Paris, Paris by Philoctetes, and Troy finally falls to the deception of the Greeks, Helen becomes a tragic, almost stoic, figure. Her prayers to Zeus to save Paris are returned with the message "Paris is slated to die, and die he must. . . . You will live, because your blood decrees it." She is a survivor and she learns this most emphatically during her nekuia, or journey to the underworld. Like the epic heroes Odysseus and Aeneas, Helen communes with the dead in search of answers for her future. After seeing Paris, changed by death and lusting after the life she still possesses, she concludes that "there is no virtue, no solace in the afterworld, thus no merit in hurrying there betimes"-even if it means having to marry the next Trojan heir, the baleful Deiphobous.
Helen's survival grants her the opportunity to reconcile with her daughter Hermione and even with Menelaus. It is too late, however, to see Clytemnestra, who is killed by Orestes and Elektra in revenge for their father's murder. The eventual wedding of Orestes and Hermione, after Orestes appeases the gods and Hermione forgives her mother, breaks the curse of the two families. Menelaus remarks, "Our grandchildren can be ordinary people. No curses, no half-gods, no prophecies. . . . The age of heroes is over." When Helen buries Menelaus shortly thereafter she mourns for him and also for the passing age to which they had both belonged.