Ruby Blondell’s Helen of Troy is that rare work of scholarship that is both extremely accessible and intellectually uncompromising. Its format is designed for a general audience: footnotes are kept to a minimum, Greek texts are not printed, and references are found in short bibliographical notes in the back of the book. The result is a text that erects few barriers to the uninitiated at the cost of occasionally frustrating the scholar. That said, Blondell takes no shortcuts in her readings of the Greek texts, avoiding facile interpretations at every turn. Just when the reader thinks that there can be nothing more to be said, she turns the tables, showing how the manifest content of a text is undermined by what it leaves out. This is critical to the success of the enterprise, which considers in chronological order an array of ancient texts featuring Helen, some of which—in less expert hands—might start to blend into one another. Under Blondell’s microscope, each text in turn yields up its strategies and implicit ideologies while at the same time revealing its differences from the earlier versions of Helen to which it responds.
Blondell’s concerns are moral in the broadest sense of the word. She considers how ancient authors assigned responsibility, agency, and blame to the central figures in Helen’s myth: Helen herself, her seducer Paris, and Menelaus, the husband who strives to reclaim her. Agamemnon, leader of the forces against Troy, and Achilles, the best of the Greeks who fought there, do not escape judgment, nor do the rest of the Greeks and Trojans immortalized by the struggles over Helen. The author shows how these judgments permeate ancient treatments of the myth from Homer to Isocrates, but also how these authors choose, by including or eliding specific aspects of the myth, to throw their weight behind one or another position about such issues as the power and agency of women, the emasculating effect of erotic obsession, the uses of beauty, the valorization of violence, the threat of tyranny, relations between Greeks and “barbarians,” the benefits of Panhellenism, homoerotic love, and the power of language.
Blondell begins with the problem of female beauty from its mythic first appearance in the creation of Woman (a.k.a. Pandora) in Hesiod. This figure, with her paradoxical beautiful exterior and dangerous interior, is a touchstone for Helen in the early chapters of the book. There follows a complete treatment of the myths of Helen’s birth and later life. The third chapter, on the Iliad, begins the examination of literary works about Helen. The remaining chapters take up the Odyssey, lyric poets (Alcaeus, Ibycus, Sappho, and Stesichorus), Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Herodotus’ Histories, Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen, Euripides’ Trojan Women and Helen, and Isocrates’ Helen. The book ends with a brief note on the post-classical afterlife of Helen.
The Iliad ’s moral universe centers on issues of deception, violation of the guest-host relationship, marital infidelity, and the disproportionate nature of revenge. Blondell suggests that the account most affirming of the humanity and agency of Helen is none other than the first. The Helen of the Iliad is acutely aware of her own culpability and conflicted about her past choices, but still in the grips of the erotic passion that led to her elopement with Paris. The poet presents her as highly self-aware, with an understanding of the power of epic poetry, great skill in the manipulation of language, and extraordinary charm. These qualities are necessary for her survival in a potentially hostile environment. Blondell shows how her warm relationships with Paris’ father Priam and brother Hector are foregrounded, while the understandable dislike of the Trojan women is mentioned but never represented. In the Iliad, only Helen blames Helen, and she does so in the stereotypical language of ancient Greek misogyny, calling herself “doglike,” shameless.
But Helen’s self-blame is not allowed to stand as the last word. The miraculous beauty that motivates the entire mythic cycle is refracted through the eyes of the old men of Troy, who although they are ready to send her back to her husband, nonetheless see no shame in losing one’s head over such a woman. The sympathy of the portrait painted by the Iliad is not disinterested, but necessary to maintain the heroism of those who fight over her. As Blondell points out, for the Trojan War to retain its glory, Helen must be worth fighting for. Interestingly, the Iliadic Helen is allowed her worth as a casus belli while also retaining her subjectivity and erotic desires. Only once we have considered all the other Helens of antiquity can we fully appreciate what a difficult balancing act this is.
The Odyssey gives us a spookier Helen, with extraordinary powers of recognition and mimicry, and access to drugs that can allay the most extreme grief. In keeping with the poem’s re-evaluation of the heroic ideal of a glorious death in battle, here Helen is judged more severely than in the Iliad. Blondell skillfully presents the threads of the marriage theme that run throughout the poem, nicely analyzing the competing tales told by Menelaus and his wife about Helen’s behavior at Troy, and showing the many ways in which Penelope’s story contrasts and intertwines with Helen’s. This chapter’s excellent treatment of the topic contains fewer surprises than some of the others, based as it is on a dense body of recent scholarship on gender in the Odyssey.
In the chapter on Helen in lyric poetry, Blondell persuasively shows how four different poets use Helen for their own purposes, eliding either her beauty or her agency in the process. Under the author’s sharp gaze, each of these texts is shown to transmit ideas that diverge from their manifest content. Alcaeus’ treatment of Thetis as virtuous foil for Helen is complicated, in her analysis, as the two women are shown to be “mutually implicated in the glorification of Achilles.” Ibycus pivots from the beauty of Helen to an exaltation of male beauty, which unlike female beauty leads to unity among men. He then goes on to elevate first the beauty of his patron Polycrates, and finally his own poetic skill. Sappho’s fragment 16, which clearly grants Helen more erotic agency than any other ancient text, repudiates military values, suggesting that perhaps Helen is not responsible for the male choice to win her back at such great cost. A completely different tactic is employed by Stesichorus in his fragmentary Palinode, which defends Helen by maintaining that she never went to Troy at all, thus redeeming her reputation by “refusing her an active role in her own story.” In the process, Stesichorus fragments her into a phantom, a virtuous woman and a goddess, leaving open, as Blondell suggests, the possibility that there is no “real” Helen at all.
Aeschylus’ Oresteia does not put Helen on stage but her presence is felt throughout the Agamemnon —as a statue, a charming cub grown into a ravening lion, a dream, a fury, and ultimately a foil for her almost equally dangerous sister Clytemnestra. More a force of nature than an actual woman, she bears all the blame for the events of the Trojan War and even for the murder of Agamemnon. In the remaining two plays of the trilogy, she is not mentioned, but in a slightly strained move, Blondell treats the Furies as stand-ins for her dangerous female power but also a kind of redemption of it.
The chapter on Herodotus, which shows the historian trying on a range of points of view, is among the best in the book. The historian’s famously flippant account of episodes of woman-stealing as the origin of hostility between east and west diminishes the value of Helen and other abductees, while emphasizing their agency and subjectivity. Blondell cleverly shows how later episodes, including the story of Gyges and Candaules’ wife, force a re-evaluation of the opening, while linking the transgression of boundaries (erotic and otherwise) to tyranny. In an allegedly Egyptian version of Helen’s story, she is stripped of agency and reduced to a piece of property that has been carefully preserved for Menelaus’ return from Troy. In the process, the author shows how Helen appears in these various accounts as part of a discussion of the relative morals of Greeks and barbarians.
A fascinating analysis of Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen in the following chapter shows how what purports to be praise of Helen is really a defense of Helen, and a defense so perverse that it would strip all human beings of any responsibility for their actions. Gorgias’ defense of Helen emphasizes the ability of divine power, persuasion, magic, and drugs to overcome anyone. He ends by calling his speech an amusement, thereby disavowing any of the positions he has taken in it. What starts out as a praise of Helen ends up being nothing more than praise of his own rhetorical ingenuity for an audience sophisticated enough to recognize his game for what it is.
The next two chapters take up two Helens who are diametrically opposed, despite both coming from the mind of Euripides. The Helen of the Trojan Women is arrogant, vain, and emasculating, and justly despised by the captive women of Troy. She emphasizes her beauty at every turn, confident that her erotic power over her husband will save her. Blondell shows that her performance has much in common with that of the sophists, and especially with Gorgias. The protagonist of Helen could not be more different. We are once more in Egypt, where a phantom Helen has been brought by Menelaus from Troy, where it runs into the real Helen, a virtuous wife who has been waiting chastely for her husband throughout the war. This Helen is both beautiful and also of excellent character. The doubling of the figure of Helen allows for play on the contrast between appearance and reality, while the rescue plot recasts the elements of the traditional narrative to make her blameless. Nonetheless, her traditional traits of beauty, persuasion, verbal skill, and the ability to manipulate men are required to make the plot function. The outcome of the successful plot, as Blondell notes, is to return her to Greece where she will renounce her independence. This new Helen is a “fantasy of female perfection that turns out to be, in essence, an illusion.”
The last chapter deals with Isocrates’ Helen, which focuses on Helen’s beauty, ignoring her responsibility and desire. This beauty has something of the divine about it, and its worth can be seen by the excellence of those who desire her. Principal among these is the Athenian hero Theseus. The ambiguity of his character is shown especially in his abduction of Helen when she is still a child, but in Isocrates’ hands this act is redefined as a rational choice: Helen’s descent and her beauty will be a source of benefit for his family and city. Using a circular argument, Isocrates maintains that because Theseus is a good man, the deed must be good as well. Paris is similarly defended as superior precisely because he was thought worthy of Helen. Isocrates moves from there to a praise of beauty for its own sake and specifically the effect of male beauty on men. Finally, he removes all blame from Helen by appealing to her future existence as a goddess. The series of absurd steps in his argument are exposed by Blondell, who argues that he redeems Helen by trivializing her and, together with her, all female agency and desire.
These brief summaries do not begin to do justice to the subtle twists and turns of Blondell’s analysis, but I hope that they at least give an idea of the kinds of issues she deals with repeatedly throughout this challenging and rewarding book. While the absence of the Greek texts and the traditional scholarly apparatus is occasionally frustrating, I would not hesitate to recommend this book either to an advanced undergraduate or to a professional scholar. In fact, I have already done so.