The Magazine

The Beauty Part

Searching for Helen in a thicket of prose.

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By AMY HENDERSON
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Who was Helen of Troy? Why do we even recognize her name in 2013? She had an extraordinary start: Her mother was a mortal who was seduced by Zeus when he came to her in the form of a swan; Leda gave birth to two eggs—one hatched the twins Castor and Pollux, the other brought forth Helen. Known as the most beautiful woman in Greece, Helen married the king of Sparta, Menelaus, but ran off with Paris, the prince of Troy. The resulting Trojan War lasted 10 years, ending only when the Greeks secreted themselves in a large wooden horse and conquered Troy. 

‘Helen of Troy’ (1863)  by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Helen of Troy’ (1863) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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Helen and Menelaus ultimately reconciled, but Helen’s role as the war’s precipitant, and her willingness to use her extraordinary beauty to get what she wanted, have made her a complicated figure in life and myth. For over 2,500 years, she has been characterized as the embodiment of desire and danger—an ambivalent and amoral personality who represents both the full potential of female beauty and the destructive power that beauty can unleash.

In her new study, Ruby Blondell explains the contemporary relevance of this ancient charmer as someone who has not only become the focus of increased scholarly attention but who has also attracted more “prominence in the popular culture.” Blondell, a classics professor at the University of Washington who has written extensively about Sophocles and Plato, suggests that Helen has touched a contemporary nerve because “ ‘Third-wave’ feminism has prompted us to revisit the problematic power of female beauty” and its impact “on women’s victimization” and “patriarchal constraints.” 

While the reader is pondering this, Blondell explains that her book is “not about the ‘real’ Helen. Or rather, it is about the real Helen, whom I take to be in her essence unreal. .  .  . She is in her very essence a creature of myth.” Here, Helen is the showpiece for “an ancient Greek obsession: the control of female sexuality and of women’s sexual power over men.” Blondell’s mission is to extrapolate the various interpretations of this “iconic errant woman who must be reincorporated into patriarchal social structures.” From the first chapter, on “The Problem of Female Beauty,” Helen is viewed through “epic, lyric poetry, tragedy, historiography, rhetoric, comedy, even philosophy,” by chroniclers that range from Homer, Herodotus, Aeschylus, and Euripides to Isocrates, a rival of Plato.  

Blondell envisions her work as appealing not only to scholars but to “a wider audience.” Alas, the odd placement of pop music epigraphs as chapter headings fails to disguise the ideological “third-wave feminist” thrum. (As a nonacademic of the boomer generation, I think I can figure out the first wave—late-19th- and early-20th-century suffragettes—and the second wave is a sixties phenomenon; but what is the third wave? Does it have something to do with Mad Men?) Stylistically, it is jarring to read an epigraph quoting the Eagles’ lyrics from “Lyin’ Eyes” (My, oh my, you sure know how to arrange things / You set it up so well, so carefully / Ain’t it funny how your new life didn’t change things / You’re still the same old girl you used to be) and then be thrust into a description of Helen in The Iliad (that “essentially masculine epic”) thusly: “Yet masculinity is predicated on the feminine, and Achilles’ counterpart, Helen, is the most substantial, nuanced, and compelling female character in the epic. .  .  . [She is] less a source of erotic passion than an exceptionally precious object.” 

Blondell’s convoluted style makes it difficult to appreciate Helen’s continuing fascination as a cultural icon—except as a feminist hobgoblin. On the other hand, Bettany Hughes’s Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore (2005) conveyed a more comprehensible understanding of Helen’s continuing popularity—as a matriarch from the Age of Heroes, a cult figure who conflated Helen-the-heroine with a pre-Greek fertility goddess, the homewrecker of The Iliad, and a pin-up favored by Roman artists. Hughes actually focuses on “the real Helen” and writes with flair: “Homer’s poetry roars and whispers. He talks of passion and revenge and duty and disloyalty, of loss and love.” A British popular historian and broadcaster, Hughes has contributed to numerous television documentaries for the BBC, National Geographic, History, Discovery Channel, and PBS; she narrated a Lion Television production of Helen of Troy that was broadcast in America on PBS.

Ruby Blondell’s concluding sentence is one of the clearest in the entire volume, as she argues that Helen’s persistence “as a powerful but elusive force” can be credited to ever-changing cultural projections about beauty, women, sex, and power: “Demonized, idolized, allegorized, or humanized, Helen is still here.” I wish she were more readily apparent in the rest of this work.

Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and museum curator in Washington.