Laurie Maguire


On her book Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood

Cover Interview of March 16, 2010

In a nutshell

This is a literary biography of Helen of Troy.  It is not a historical life of a Bronze Age princess or a study of mythology; it is not an account of Troy or an exploration of the ancient world. It does not consider whether Helen of Troy had a historical existence or was a mythical figure.  My subject is the literary afterlife of the woman we know as Helen of Troy, the beautiful Queen of Sparta whose abduction by the Trojan prince Paris led to a ten-year war and the downfall of King Priam’s Troy—and to twenty-eight centuries of poetry, drama, novels, opera, and film.

The German Romanticist Goethe wrote, “We do not get to know works of nature and art as end-products; we must grasp them as they develop if we are to gain some understanding of them.”  He was talking about revisions of a single author’s work but his statement is equally true of revisions of one story across centuries and cultures.  I wanted to get to know Helen’s story.

However, this is not the same as getting to know Helen herself.  Indeed, one of the arguments of my book is that Helen is strangely absent (emotionally, physically) from the story she has initiated.  Although she is the narrative motor, she is an absent center.  She is the literary equivalent of the Mona Lisa’s smile: absence is her essence.  This is a book about what is not there, what is not said, what defies representation, and what cannot be told.

In chronicling Helen’s story I have necessarily had to spread my net wide. The most recent works discussed are from the twenty-first century: a radio drama by Mark Haddon (the award-winning author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time), an American cable TV series, Helen of Troy, poems by Carol Ann Duffy and Eva Salzman; the earliest texts are Greek (Homeric epic, Euripides’ plays). In between come Shakespeare, pre-Raphaelite poetry, the Victorian novel, Virginia Woolf, silent movie, opera and operetta, C. S. Lewis, Derek Walcott—almost everyone has written about Helen at some stage!