Spoiler alert: this review contains plot points and other details from works of fiction.
Amanda Elyot is the pen name of the professional actress and previously published author of chick lit, Leslie Carroll; Helen, dedicated to her mother Leda (yes, Leda), is her debut in historical romance. Margaret George is a well-established author of lengthy, well-researched historical novels, all save the first about women.1 So, “trashy” bodice (peplos?) ripper or more traditional historical fiction, take your pick.
Both novelists treat Helen’s whole story, George in a tome of “epic” heft with more scope for expansion and elaboration. She intentionally leaves out the abduction by Theseus, unlike Elyot, whose Helen, like so many others later in antiquity, finishes her education in Athens. Formally, the bulk of George’s novel is a flashback on the day of Menelaus’ funeral. Despite the title Memoirs, Elyot’s Helen ostensibly addresses an apologia to her daughter Hermione, who left Sparta before her mothers’ return, in hopes of a future reconciliation; the fiction of an addressee is not maintained (Helen rarely apostrophize Hermione, she constantly explains aspects of the culture they share, and she reveals far too many intimate details).
Both writers are adroit in using their sources, both well-known and less familiar. George includes perhaps too much of the Iliad, but her Helen’s information about battlefield scenes is not gleaned from a distance atop the city walls. Elyot’s brevity necessitates some compression, e.g., on the same day, Menelaus and Paris duel, Aeneas is rescued from Diomedes, and Aphrodite is wounded by that Greek. Elyot also rearranges events, sometimes inexplicably, as when the Amazons arrive long before the death of Hector. George’s Priam has a strange, three-eyed Zeus borrowed from Pausanias’ report of spoils brought back to Argos (2.24.3). Elyot tweaks material also from Pausanias to invent Helen’s childhood playmate Polyxo, later the wife of Tlepolemos of Rhodes who died at Troy (3.9-10). George has borrowed from Greek art as well as Greek literature—images of warriors hoisting up Polyxo to be sacrificed at Achilles’ tomb, and of Achilles’ and Memnon’s divine mothers hovering over the heroes as they fight, both recall vase paintings.2
Although Helen is not an historical figure, both novelists put her in an historical context and strive for authenticity. George’s greater experience with this genre makes her research seem broader, deeper, and better digested.3 Elyot, however, does not wear her learning lightly. She includes a great many Greek words, not always accurately defined, and tendentiously detailed accounts of rituals and customs. George incorporates such material more naturally and consequently seems more at home in the world of her novel. For example, she creates a character, Gelanor of Gythium, who follows Helen to Troy. His role as spymaster, detective, inventor and protoscientist gives George a plausible reason for including a good deal of natural lore—Gytheum and Cythera as sources of murex for the Phoenician dye industry, mastic resin from Chios, the ponies of Scyros, and details about Greek biological and chemical warfare gleaned from Adrienne Mayor’s recent book on that subject.4
George, like Homer, does not differentiate ethnically and culturally among the Trojan War combatants—Greek, Trojan, Lycian. Popular culture in visual media, however, has tended to make the Greeks, Trojans, and Trojan allies recognizably different, e.g., the films Troy and Helen of Troy (1954 and 2004 versions), and the graphic novel series The Age of Bronze;5 those visual distinctions are not only inherently appealing, but also help the audience identify opposing forces. Elyot, too makes such distinctions; her Greeks and Trojans wear different kinds of armor and use different tactics; the Trojans are said to be unexcelled at chariot-fighting, perhaps to relate them to the historical Hittites. Elyot frequently uses the (explicitly) Hittite name “Wilusa” interchangeable with “Troy” (from which she derives the idiosyncratic form “Troyan”), and bases Deiphobus’ marriage to Helen on a supposed Hittite practice, perhaps by analogy with ancient Hebrew levirate marriage. Other “Oriental” features of Elyot’s Troy are the segregation of the sexes at meals and the (Sumerian) Bull of Heaven reference in Priam’s bull-horned crown. In Elyot, the Trojan allies ethnically include tall Nubians and short “almond-eyed” pony-riding Khita. The former are Memnon’s Ethiopians; the latter seem to be modeled on Huns or Mongols and may be intended as Lycians, although their name is a variant of “Hittites.” George and Elyot both make nominal linguistic distinctions between Greeks and Trojans.
Despite her claim to be a “stickler” about historical accuracy, Elyot perpetrates a variety of anachronisms. Her Helen is awestruck by the “glory that was Athens” (sic!) so much larger and culturally richer than Sparta. In this, and in her account of the Spartan agogé system and phalanx tactics, she clearly has classical Greece in mind. Her “Author’s Note” claims that this departure contributes to the plot (in some unexplained way), while George’s “Afterword” warns readers against their possible preconceptions about the two cultures. Despite its abundant detail about Greek culture, Elyot’s novel betrays a failure to have assimilated some fundamental concepts. Helen uses the word areté, but she doesn’t really “get” the heroic code. She thinks that Achilles’ fame is assured, so that power must really be what he’s interested in. A revisionist Helen can of course criticize the values of her culture—Homer’s Achilles does!—but she should present them as the accepted social norms. Similarly, when this Helen calls the sexual double standard “ironic,” she seems not so much to criticize the norms of her own culture as to view them from some other perspective (Elyot’s). Short travel times are another kind of anachronism—Elyot’s heroic-age mariners get around the Aegean far too quickly. Despite the importance of weaving for ancient Greek women, including the Odyssey‘s Helen, Elyot’s heroine never mentions it; a fictional Helen could conceivably reject weaving in rebellion against gender norms, but if so, she would do it explicitly. Weaving is important for George’s Helen, as a refuge in difficult times at Troy; her tapestry depicts the two parts of her self (she says, her “life”)—Helen at Sparta and Helen at Troy—which she hopes this project will integrate.
“What role will the gods play?” is a question every contemporary adaptation of classical myth must address. Like Peterson’s Troy and Shanower’s Age of Bronze, neither of these novels includes the gods in person, as it were, but each treats them differently. Elyot sets her story at the end of the transition from Goddess-worship to worship of “sky-gods.” This has become a topos in popular depictions of the Greek heroic age; it is critical to the plot of the Hallmark made-for-television movie Hercules and is also featured in Barry Unsworth’s novel Songs of the Kings.6 Elyot’s novel opens with Leda, a former priestess, showing her daughter the ruins of a Goddess shrine destroyed by her sky-god-worshiping husband, and recounting how Zeus raped her on its altar; on that same altar Helen will consummate her passion with Paris. Zeus is understood to be a real god; Helen believes she is his daughter, she speculates that she has inherited his sexually passionate nature, and she prays to him on behalf of the Dioscuri. At the same time she is an avowed atheist who occasionally mentions how “a religious person” might interpret an occurrence for which she has another explanation. Readers familiar with the original epics will enjoy seeing how Elyot deals with such well-known instances of divine intervention as the duel between Paris and Menelaus, Laocoon’s death, and Proteus’ revelation to Menelaus. A prominent theme is destiny vs. free will, which first comes up during a conversation with Aethra in Athens—Theseus’ mother endorses fate and Helen, free will; the novel ends with Helen posing this very Greek version of the perennial question to Hermione—”Are we fated to behave as we do, or is it the exercise of free will that compels us to follow our destinies?”
By contrast, George’s divinities are quite real, but as spiritual presences in the lives of individuals, rather than as anthropomorphic incarnations; they are only rarely and fleetingly visible. George effectively presents the deities, and the supernatural in general, as plausibly potent forces in the lives of mortals. Her Helen has vividly powerful experiences at Delphi, where she hears dire predictions about herself while still a little girl; at Eleusis where she receives a revelation from Persephone during her initiation there; at Epidaurus where the sacred snakes bestow certain “gifts” (psychic powers) and a tutelary snake of her own; and twice on Mt. Ida, once with Andromache during a nocturnal fertility rite and later with Paris at the site of the Judgment where they try to appease the two goddesses offended by his verdict. The most vivid experience, and the turning point in her life, is an epiphany of Aphrodite at Cythera, followed by a quasi-baptismal immersion in the sea; after that she dreams of the Judgment of Paris and soon meets him, whereupon she feels sexual desire for the first time in her life. Aphrodite had previously abandoned her after she failed to pray for the goddess’ guidance in choosing one of the suitors, but after Cythera, she is constantly active in Helen’s life, usually as a sensed presence or voice in her mind. As for Helen’s divine paternity, George undercuts our certainty about that for a time by hinting that the Trojan Antenor may be her father.
“What is it like to be the half-mortal daughter of Zeus?” Both George and Elyot answer this partly in physiological terms. George’s Leda suggests that her daughter’s “aging may be different” from her own, and Helen speculates that it may be her semi-divinity which makes her pregnancy late to show. In this novel Helen is neither immortal nor eternally young; characters refer to lines and grey hairs. Elyot’s Helen, however, tells Hermione at the very start that she has “perpetual beauty,” which does suggest divine agelessness. Also, her physical injuries heal very quickly. As a child, she falls into a bed of nettles, but the scratches have healed by the time she gets herself out of it. Later, she has no bruises to show Priam as evidence of her abuse by Deiphobus. Finally, this Helen thinks she is immortal, several times lamenting her inability to escape the sufferings of her life; back in Sparta when Menelaus asks, “why do you think I didn’t kill you?,” she replies, “because you couldn’t.” In the Iliad Homer conveyed Helen’s beauty, not by describing it, but by reporting its effect on the Trojan elders. George makes effective use of the same strategy in recounting the effects of Helen’s appearance on others and the impact on her of growing up as “the most beautiful.” For this Helen, her beauty is a burden, not a blessing. Her face is in some unstated way uncanny; it produces an immediately powerful response of fear and awe. Hecuba later refers to a visible “aura,” which George has presumably extrapolated from the characteristic radiance of ancient Greek gods. Her parents react by keeping her away from mirrors, confining her to the palace grounds, and concealing her features behind a veil. Tyndareus opportunistically exploits this veil and the “most beautiful” tag to create a buzz and inflate the bride-price he will be offered.
“The lady or the tramp?” is another issue any version of Helen must confront. Both of these Helens intend to portray themselves in a sympathetic light. Helen’s relationships with both Menelaus and Paris have time to develop more realistically in George’s longer version. Both Helens make unpleasant discoveries on their wedding night. George’s Helen finds out that, as a result of Aphrodite’s abandonment of her, she doesn’t like to be touched; Elyot’s Helen is disappointed to discover that she has married a “mediocrity”—her assessment after Menelaus doesn’t live up to her first sexual experience with Theseus.7 Although she nevertheless resolves to make the marriage work, her efforts don’t last very long. George’s Helen, by contrast, persists for years before resigning herself to a passionless marriage, a marriage which she had originally thought could become a true partnership. She continues to have respect and fondness for her husband, even persuading Tyndareus to abdicate to give his life some purpose; at the first stirring of libido, she does not surrender to Paris, until she discovers not only that she still fails to respond to her husband but also that he has been consorting with a slave-woman.
As for Paris, George realistically shows the Trojan War taking its toll on Helen’s marriage to him—after the death of Troilus, he regrets bringing her to Troy, and when she is caught leaving Troy to surrender to the Greeks in hopes of ending the war, he takes this personally and shuns her and their bed for a long time. In addition to these fluctuations in his affection for her, Helen’s attitude toward him is more complicated in this version than in Elyot’s. The attraction for latter’s Helen’s is strictly sexual—she rhapsodizes endlessly about Paris’s “sun-kissed” and “chiseled” flesh. The intensity of their passion never wanes (as “happily ever after” as possible, under the circumstances!), and their single night’s separation results from a quarrel over Helen’s jealousy of Penthesileia. There is plenty of the carnal in George’s Helen, but she also has quasi-maternal feelings; at age 25 she meets a 16-year-old Paris, recognizes the adult man he can become, and later takes pride in having seen the potential Priam and Hecuba missed,
Elyot’s Helen is very self-centered; “you always have to be the center of attention,” Clytemnestra charges after Helen’s unexpected first menstrual period disrupts her wedding to Agamemnon.8 Elyot has actually shaped the events of her character’s life so that everything really is all about her—she is the mother of Iphigenia (by Theseus); she realizes that Astyanax is frightened by Hector’s helmet which the hero then removes and hands it to her while merely greeting his wife, she is the one who ransoms Hector; she is the one who learns about Achilles’ vulnerability and reveals it to Paris; she is one of the people who signal Greek fleet on Troy’s last night. Furthermore, Elyot has made her naturally prone to self-absorption by maximizing her isolation, although to a lesser extreme than Margaret Atwood has recently done with Penelope.9 At Sparta, her mother commits suicide when she is only five; her father loathes her as a bastard, her sister persecutes her, her brother-in-law has her husband’s loyalty and her daughter has his love. Theseus’ mother Aethra serves as a mother-surrogate, but only until Helen leaves Sparta. At Troy, Helen meets hostility from all of her lover’s family save Hector; almost entirely dependent on Paris, she is understandably jealous of Oenone and Penthesileia. Despite being so focused on herself, she is also remarkably compassionate, frequently moved to comfort even those, such as Tyndareus and Hecuba, who have never shown her any sympathy, By contrast, neither the mother nor the brothers of George’s Helen die before she leaves Sparta; her sister Clytemnestra is not a tormentor, but an ally; at Troy, she has Andromache as a friend, and an old Spartan slave-woman as a confidante; and both in Sparta and at Troy the support and friendship of Gelanor proves vital.
Finally, these two novels are quite different in style. George matches her “epic” length with elevated diction which is neither stilted nor faux archaic. She employs numerous similes, of which some are cliches but many are nicely developed Homeric ones. Metaphors, imagery, and sound effects also contribute to a heightened poetic quality. This author creates vividly evocative episodes—the sacrifice and butchering of the horse for the Oath of Tyndareus; her first moonlit meeting alone with Paris, the panicked night-time flight back down Ida with Andromache; the urgent search for Oenone after Paris is wounded. She has room to elaborate with subplots and invented episodes—the “open house” for the Spartans to meet their new king Menelaus; the woodland scene of Hermione taking her mother and Paris to see her pen of pet tortoises10; the annual trade fair at Troy; Priam’s purchase and installation of a sphinx (foreshadowing the Horse); and realistic scenes of Trojan civilians’ behavior during the horrors of the last night. Many of these subplots and episodes feature the protoscientist Gelanor, including detective work which exposes a would-be poisoner at Sparta, and a spy in the palace at Troy.
Elyot too manifests an eye for detail and skill at invention; several examples of the latter occur during Helen’s childhood where that is most needed—the sandal above Helen’s head which is the first thing she sees when she comes upon her mother’s hanging body, and the appalling incident during which Tyndareus wrestles a pet rabbit away from Clytemnestra and spatters her with some of its blood while sacrificing it—a childhood trauma neatly foreshadowing the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. After Helen has grown up, the bulk of the original material is devoted to explicit sex scenes, either cheesily romantic (with Theseus and Paris), or brutally violent (with Achilles and Deiphobus). This content may reflect the novel’s romance genre as well as the author’s previously published works of chick lit. Most of the invented brutality and violence are directed at women, such as Achilles’ rape of the dying (or already dead!) Penthesileia, and Deiphobus’ repeated rapes of Helen after she is forced to marry him. George, however, spares her character from any sex against her will by contriving for both Deiphobus and Menelaus to be rendered impotent. Elyot invents or exaggerates other Greek atrocities—her Achilles wants to behead Trojan victims at Patroclus’ funeral, and Diomedes kills Helen and Paris’ four children when they try to stop him from stealing the Palladium. Elyot’s prose lapses into sometimes embarrassingly bad cliches and overwriting. Her diction errs toward both the faux archaic—the word “loins” crops up far too frequently—and the anachronistic, e.g. “ceasefire” and “in their sights.” Such anachronisms are the verbal equivalent of a wristwatch-wearing sword-and-sandal film extra and could have been eliminated with better copyediting; it isn’t consistent enough to be intentional.
It is a coup of sorts to turn the Trojan cycle into a raunchy romance novel, and I might have enjoyed Elyot’s novel more if she had scrapped the trappings of historical “accuracy” and played up the incongruity of Helen as steamy romance. She approaches parodistic extremes in the chapters during which Helen ransoms Hector (sic!) by engaging in oral and anal intercourse with Achilles. During that time in Achilles’ tent, she learns about his vulnerable heel and in the next chapter, reveals it to Paris, for whom this piece of intelligence is powerfully aphrodisiac. Not your grandfather’s Trojan War, but assuredly inventive. It wasn’t the “spicy” romance novel elements I found objectionable so much as their combination with tendentious displays of superficial knowledge.
Contemporary adaptors of Greek myths are free to change them more radically than could the ancients. Examples are Peterson’s Troy with Briseis as Hector’s cousin and both the sons of Atreus dying at Troy, and Mark Merlis’ novel An Arrow’s Flight with Philoctetes refusing to come to Troy and Troy not falling.11 Only one of our two Helens is going to spend eternity with Menelaus in Elysium; the other meets quite a different fate. Readers of this review may want to guess which is which, before finding out for themselves.
1. Since her debut with Helen, Elyot has published a new historical romance every year: By a Lady: Being the Adventures of an Enlightened American in Jane Austen’s England (2006); Too Great a Lady: The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton (2007); and All for Love: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson (forthcoming in 2008). George began with Henry VIII (1986) weighing in at 1000+ pages, followed by Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (1992), The Memoirs of Cleopatra (1997), and Mary Called Magdalene (2002).
2. Polyxena: Attic black-figure Tyrrhenian amphora by the Timiades Painter, before mid-6th c BC (London 1897.7-27.2). Thetis and Eos with their sons: one example is a calyx-krater from Vulci in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
3. George’s “Afterword” contains a page-and-a-half of suggested reading, in narrative form and organized by categories. Elyot’s “Acknowledgments” credit Getzel Cohen of the University of Cincinnati for discussions about excavations at Troy, and her maternal grandmother for an early interest in Greece and Helen in particular.
4. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (New York: Overlook Press 2003).
5. Troy (Warner Brothers 2004); Helen of Troy (Warner Brothers 1954); Helen of Troy (USA Network 2003). The Age of Bronze is published by Image Comics of Orange CA; three volumes have appeared— A Thousand Ships (2001); Sacrifice (2004); and Betrayal: Part 1 (2007).
6. Hallmark Entertainment 2005; New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2003.
7. This Menelaus is a virgin on his wedding night (!). Elyot seems to hint that he has homosexual inclinations—he is very attracted to both Paris and the boyish Penthesileia—but she never is explicit about that. Both authors make Menelaus strangely passionless, but I’m not aware of earlier versions which depict him that way.
8. An embarrassingly unexpected first menstrual period is a topos of popular culture, as in the movie Carrie (United Artists 1976).
9. The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (New York: Canongate U.S., 2005).
10. Tortoises are George’s hobby; n 2006 she published not only Helen but also Lucille Lost, an illustrated children’s book featuring her own pet tortoise.
11. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.