Laurie Maguire


On her book Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood

Cover Interview of March 16, 2010

The wide angle

This book took me many years to write—longer than the Trojan War itself took.  At Oxford University, where I teach, students study every period of English Literature from 800 CE to 2010.  And every century of literature that I teach is full of references to Helen of Troy.  Those are usually expressions of hate towards her.  But what aroused my curiosity was the persistent narrative difficulty that authors have in dealing with the most beautiful woman in the world.

Part of this difficulty seems to be the problem of representing in language someone whose beauty is deemed beyond description.  This problem of representation is constant in all Helen narratives and it becomes particularly acute in drama.  Authors can simply abdicate narrative responsibility, saying “I can’t even begin to describe her.”  But stage and film actresses have to represent Helen; drama is representation.

So I became interested in gaps and blanks.  For some literary theorists, literature is a system of exclusion.  It is about the relationship between what is present in the text and what is absent from it, and it comes to the reader to negotiate this relationship. The reader provides continuity and connection (at the most basic level: of character), coordinating viewpoints and filling in blanks.  (This, in fact, is how all perception works: in night driving the brain connects remarkably little visual data into a road, a bend, a hill.)

From the very beginning, Helen’s story has been an attempt to fill in gaps.  These gaps are both emotional and practical.  Was she abducted or did she elope?  What did she feel for her husband, Menelaus, at home in Sparta, or for her lover, Paris, in Troy?  How did she manage what Rupert Brooke called (disparagingly) “the long connubial years” when she was finally recaptured and returned to Sparta?  What did the most beautiful woman in the world look like?

Within a century of Homer’s Iliad, stories arose to fill in these gaps, dealing with everything from Helen’s lost child to attempts to kill Helen when she was recaptured.  (It was not until the sixteenth century that a poet managed finally to kill Helen; in two Renaissance versions she commits suicide, devastated at the loss of her beauty in old age.)

Alongside attempts to fill in large narrative gaps in Helen’s story come localised attempts to suppress Helen’s presence linguistically.  In The Women of Troy Euripides’ Menelaus arrives to fetch “the Spartan woman, once my wife—even to speak / Her name I find distasteful.”  C. S. Lewis’s Menelaus thinks of his estranged wife as “the Woman” (in his short story, “After Ten Years”).  In George Peele’s Renaissance poem The Tale of Troy (1589) Helen enters the poem only as a pronoun not a proper name: “She.”  Helen, the cause of the Trojan war, is systematically linguistically suppressed from its literature.

The most surprising suppression of Helen comes on the DVD cover of Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy (2004) where, at least in the UK edition, Diane Kruger’s name does not appear at all.  This might make sense in terms of film narrative—Kruger is little involved in the plot—but it was the search for Helen of Troy / Diane Kruger that was publicized internationally, and Kruger does occupy prominent screen time.

So stories about Helen do two things simultaneously: they write her in and then they write her out!