Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.25

Laurie Maguire, Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.  Pp. xviii, 258.  ISBN 9781405126359.  $35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Antonio Ziosi, Università di Bologna (


This book is presented as a "literary biography" of the woman known as Helen of Troy, caught in various instances of her epiphanies in Western culture. It is an important work in the broad area of Classical Reception and it is aimed at both specialists and the general reader; and it is quite remarkable for the vast variety of information, sources and genres surveyed and for the wealth of secondary literature and critical approaches deployed. The analysed material ranges from Homer to 20th-century post-colonial literature and 21st-century TV fiction and cinema. The focus is specifically literary and narratological: any discourse on myth and mythology, history, and literature as an interdependent system is consciously avoided.

The fundamental thesis of the work is implicit in the title: the epithet "of Troy" (antonomastic, in English, at least since Walter Pater) already defines Helen as an "abducted" textual being: her essence is in her absence. From her sporadic (and yet causative) presence in epic onwards, Maguire (after Jauss and Iser's Reception theories of literature as a system of exclusion) chases Helen's "narrative gaps". An absent "absolute of beauty", abducted, raped, Helen "halts the narrative" (67), disrupts the texts, escapes description and definition, and -- absent from her own story (or literarily scorned for her gender?) -- becomes a paradigm of ineffability.

Maguire's approach is thematic rather than chronological and the book unfolds along 4 main lines: Narrating Myth, Beauty, Abduction and Blame. If this structure certainly helps avoid repetitions, at times it seems to encourage distant juxtapositions (e.g., when Homer is explained with a 21st-century televised mini-series, or Aeschylus with the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy). In the punning introduction and in the first chapter, Maguire explores the origins and the ambiguities of the Helen myth, presents the narratological focus and the main theoretical approaches. The theoretically central second chapter examines beauty and desire as fundamental features of all Helen narratives: because of her indescribable beauty, Helen cannot be put into details and escapes "closure" and "definition". The shorter third section explores (in historical and legal terms and in the light of gender theories) the concept of "rape" in both its etymological meanings (from the Latin rapio) of abduction and of forced coition. Chapter 4 is a lucid synthesis of the literary responses to the oldest question about Helen: was she to blame?, from the Homeric poems to Attic tragedy and comedy; from the sophists' eulogies to the Middle Ages and the English Renaissance. The book ends with two codas on Reception tout court. The first analyses Helen's apparitions in the Faust tradition, from the original German story to its various "translations" (viz "abductions"); the second moves from "translation" to "parody" and from "literary biography" to "generic afterlife" as it surveys other examples of rewritings of Helen in other genres, from classical antiquity to post-colonial literature and contemporary theatre productions.

Since the scope of this study is so vast -- and overall this is a remarkable achievement -- this review will only focus on a few selected issues in each chapter, mainly pertaining to "meaningful omissions" in Maguire's "uses of the Classics".

An interesting point to raise in Chapter 1 is the silence on the tradition that relates, in fact, both 'meanings' of Theseus' rape (cf. Aristophanes, fr. 358 Kassel-Austin; Pausanias 2.22.6): Maguire only sticks to the 'chaste Theseus' version, already mocked by Ovid in Heroides 5.129. As for Stesichorus' palinode (fr. 192 Davies), an earlier apparition of the eidolon sent to Troy instead of the 'Egyptian' Helen is in Hesiod (fr. 358 Merkelbach-West). Also, as an addition to the metaliterary "closure" of the chapter (pertaining to the etymological analysis of the name "Troy") one could exploit another metaliterary potentiality: Helen as narrator of her own story (e.g. the ekphrasis of 'her' war that she weaves in Iliad 3.125-128; her 'poetic' imitative skills in Odyssey 4.270 and Isocrates's claim that Homer composed his poems after Helen prompted him in a dream in Encomium 65).

A stimulating issue in Chapter 2 is the long section on Helen's epicene beauty and the "relative markers reinforcing beauty" (i.e. her breasts, her scar and old age). Although "Homer is silent on Helen's cup size" (55), her supposedly small breasts become, so to speak, the objective correlative of the paradox of (non)representation: the mystery of beauty is thus enclosed in the androgyny of a Paris-like Helen. Not a femme fatale but a "T(r)oy boy" then? Here gender theories seem perhaps to impinge on the fluid and various material of the myth and, above all, Maguire's argument is somewhat flawed: its only basis is, in fact, the neoclassical artistic similarity of Antonio Canova's busts of Helen and Paris. Moreover, the supporting evidence (drawing on Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae) is quite incongruous: Donatello's David's Mona Lisa-ish smile, the angel in Leonardo's Madonna of the Rocks, Michelangelo's Giuliano de Medici's swan-like neck, Elizabeth Siddal's 'female and male' beauty in, respectively, Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Another problem is perhaps the misinterpretation of Ovid's parody of elegiac conventions (e.g. Prop. 3.25.13ff) in Met. 15.232f (Helen looking in the mirror and lamenting the loss of her youth): yet again, a text that cannot be taken at face value.

The first three chapters form a rhetorically focused unit that illustrates Maguire's main theses, always exemplified in an extraordinarily rich way, and usually very convincingly; as in the case of "beauty as the blank space of nonrepresentation" (40) embodied by Laurence Sterne's 'representation' of the Widow Wadman (associated with Helen in Tristram Shandy) as a blank page, or its sexy theatrical equivalent ("Stratford's first naked actress"), Maggie Wright as Helen in the 1968 RSC production of Dr Faustus. Other instances, however, appear sometimes less fitting, like "the stillness of Helen-as-object on the battlements in Iliad 3" (81); the 1597 title-page of Caxton's Recuyell, which omits Helen's name, as does the dramatis personae page of Heywood's 2 The Iron Age; again: C.S. Lewis' "abandoned" short stories; William Morris' "unfinished" Scenes; Mrs Ramsay's purple triangle in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse; Carol Ann Duffy's silent Helen's maid. Or even (intentionally?) bathetic, such as the repeatedly cited "absence" of the actress Diane Kruger's name on the DVD cover of Wolfgang Petersen's 2003 film Troy.

A literary objection (in a "literary biography") to the general thesis could be culled from Venus' words to Aeneas in Aeneid 2.601ff non tibi Tyndaridis facies invisa Lacaenae / culpatusve Paris, divum inclementia, divum / has evertit opes sternitque a culmine Troiam: it is not Helen's face that is to blame for Troy's destruction (by the way, Maguire never mentions the vexatissima quaestio of the two different Helens and the [spurious?] Helen episode in the Aeneid).1 Helen enters the narrative of the Virgilian Ilioupersis as the ultimate cause of (the tragedy of) the Trojan war, not as its centre. As Richard Heinze says, here "Virgil is employing the well-known convention, of which the tragedians were particularly fond, whereby one refers back to the first causes of misfortune" (Virgil's Epic Technique 1993, 29). The Iliad, after all, was never meant to be a poem on Helen. Secondly, one might argue that the ineffability of beauty (and sublime) is perhaps more a rhetorical (and aesthetic) issue rather than an ideological (or feminist) one.

An all-important paragraph in Chapter 5 is devoted to the most famous lines ever written about Helen: Dr Faustus 5.1.97f, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships? / and burned the topless towers of Ilium?". Maguire explores their Nachleben up to Isaac Asimov's "milli-Helen" and 21st-century fiction, and then traces the classical origins of Marlowe's phrase. No doubt, a contextual parallel (very likely known to Marlowe) is the ubi sunt scene in Lucian's Dialogue of the Dead 5. And no doubt, here "a thousand" is used as "a round large figure number":2 but these thousand ships probably have a different model (preceding the quoted Seneca and an inescapable intertext for Marlowe, in particular in his rewriting of Virgil in The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage -- in its turn, an important intratext for Dr Faustus): Ovid's poetry (e.g. Heroides 8.22; 13.95, Metamorphoses 13.182), where the iunctura 'mille rates / mille carinae' becomes an antonomastic naval attribute for Helen that combines Virgilian use (cf. Aeneid 2.198) with the language and the imagery of Attic tragedy.3

In conclusion, this an important work, especially praiseworthy for its wide-ranging critical perspectives and admirable depth of information, and above all for its all-round literary explorations. It is also a very enjoyable read. Besides a very few typographical errors and some omissions in the critical bibliography (especially in non-English titles),4 for the review's sake, I should only add a couple of further 'lacunae'. A theoretical objection is that this only-literary Helen at times runs the risk of "escaping" even the primary sense of the term "Reception": the reader will not find any sort of intertextual (or palimpsestic) analysis or justification in this literary continuum of texts (all the more surprising when, for example, an entire chapter is devoted to Parody)5. And despite some reassurances, the textual juxtapositions are at times jarring. Secondly, there is a certain inconsistency in treating Helen-in-translation. Whereas the analysis starts, naturally, with the fundamental Greek and Latin texts (always in their English translations; as seen, with accidental misinterpretations), largely English-speaking Helens are considered for modern and contemporary illustrations; with a few welcome exceptions. Another rather cumbersome feature regards the inconsistency of the quotation conventions (though explained at xvii-xviii). This is especially problematic for references to classical poetry: Homer and Virgil, for example, are quoted from a single prose English translation, and in the Harvard system.


1.   On which, cf. e.g. R.G. Austin, "Virgil, Aeneid 2.567-88", CQ 55 (1961), 185-198; G. P. Goold, "Servius and the Helen Episode" HSCP, 74 (1970), 101-168 and, more recently, G.B. Conte's works (e.g. RFIC 106, 1978, 53-62; MD 56 (2006), 157-174).
2.   Though Maguire's antecedent for that is problematic: Virgil's "death in a thousand forms" (227) is actually W. F. Jackson Knight's English translation of Aeneid 2.368s crudelis ubique / luctus, ubique pavor et plurima mortis imago. Virgil's "round number" defines already the Greeks' thousand ships at Aen. 2.198, mille carinae, glossed by Austin (1964) ad loc. with: "could Helen's face have launched 1186 ships?" (Homer's catalogue gives in fact a total of 1186, rounded off to 1200 by Thucydides (1.10.4)). For the use of mille as a "round number" cf. also E. Wölfflin, "Sescenti, mille, centum, trecenti als unbestimmte und runde Zahlen", Archiv für lateinische Lexikographie und Grammatik 9 (1896) 177-190, 184.
3.   Aeneid 2.198 is already indebted to Attic tragedy, cf. the adjective χιλιοναύτης (and Eduard Fraenkel ad Agamemnon 45), and χιλιόναυς (7 times in Euripides). That Ovid is Marlowe's primary model is also clear from a prior Marlovian intratext, Dido Queen of Carthage 5.1.202-04, "Tell him, I never vow'd at Aulis gulf / The desolation of his native Troy, / Nor sent a thousand ships unto the walls". Which is the all-Marlovian translation of Aeneid 4.425f: non ego cum Danais Troianam exscindere gentem / Aulide iuravi classemve ad Pergama misi, through Ovid's reading of the same scene in Metamorphoses 13.182, Aulidaque Euboicam conplerunt mille carinae. I treat this topic more broadly in a forthcoming study on Virgil, Ovid and Dido Queen of Carthage.
4.   E.g., J.-L.Backès 1984; M. Bettini - C. Brillante 2002; M. Becker 1939; J. Lindsay 1974; M.L. West 1975; L.L. Clader 1976; L. Ghali-Kahil 1955 ; B. Cassin 2000; S. Georgoudi - N. Loraux 2003.
5.   Maguire's definition of parody in Chapter 5 is also problematic as it is somehow similar to "change of genre". It is also rather surprising not to find any mention of Genette's Palimpsestes (1982)) a vital basis for any discussion on parody, which contains an important chapter on Helen (383-92).

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