So Who Was Helen of Troy?

Helen_of_Troy,_De_MorganThe most beautiful woman in the world? The face that launched a thousand ships?  Bitch-goddess and general whore?  Sad victim of an abduction? Or just one of the many made-up figures of Greek mythology?    Of course, like all the heroes of her long-ago epoch, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, Priam, Hector, we have no historical or archaeological  evidence for her existence, just the stories told by poets like Homer hundreds of years after the possible events of the Trojan war.

Even her birth is fantastic. Was she the daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, and his wife Leda? Or was she the result of a rape by Zeus in the form of a swan? Did she come from an egg? Was her brother Pollux also the son of the god? But whatever the story, all the legends agree that she was exceptionally beautiful; so much so that when she was only a child, the lecherous Theseus abducted her; though she was protected by his mother Aethra, and eventually rescued by her magical twin brothers.  And then there are the stories of her marriage, and the suitors who couldn’t agree and became violent. Cunning Odysseus came to the rescue as he so often did, getting the young men to sign an agreement that they would abide by Tynareus’s choice, but if ever she was in danger they would come to her rescue; words that sounded  good, but were eventually to lead to one of the greatest wars of ancient days.

Nothing in Greek mythology is ever simple; characters  act, not from free will, but because they are caught in tangles of actions and reactions and recriminations ordained by the gods. And when the goddess Aphrodite promised the young Paris of Troy that he could have the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife, she was   throwing out one of those  disastrous  threads into the world. Helen left her husband Menelaus to elope with Paris, but maybe she was simply trapped in the goddess’s plan.

But there are many strange things in Helen’s story; one of the oddest, told by several ancient writers, is that she never went to Troy at all, but stayed in Egypt for the duration of the war, and the Trojans saw only a ghostly facsimile of her. Perhaps this indicated an Egyptian cult of her as a goddess.  There was certainly a cult of her and her husband Menelaus in ancient Sparta – archaeologists have found a shrine to them both, though they haven’t yet managed to find the splendid palace where she went on to live with Menelaus for many years in apparent harmony, after all the other Trojan participants in the war had been slaughtered or enslaved. (in ancient times, it seems that Sparta wasn’t ‘Spartan’ as we understand it now – that came later in classical times under Leonidas – in heroic times it was a wealthy and luxurious place.)

So was she the subject of a prehistoric cult, and her beauty only an attribute added to the story by later poets? Had an abduction of a royal woman by a piratical Trojan led to a long war? Was a city of Troy – whose ruins were more or less destroyed in the twentieth century in the name of archaeology by Heinrich Schliemann – destroyed in the 13th century BC by victorious Achaeans? What happened to the abducted princess then?  Who were the heroes that surrounded her story; Hector, Achilles, Odysseus? We’ll probably never know,  but the mystery is an exciting one for poets and writers and artists.

Castle Building

Caernafon_Chamberlain_Tower ’Where do you get your ideas from?’ is the question writers are asked most often. Well, anywhere and everywhere is the answer. But the truth is, an idea has to come to life before you can make it into a story, and sometimes it just won’t come But then sometimes it does,  and that’s the exciting part of the process.

One of my favourite stories about how this happens comes from the writer Anthony Trollope, talking about the origins of his books, a process he describes as ‘castle building.’ He writes about a young would-be author, obviously himself, crossing Regent’s Park one damp and grey afternoon. Coming hurriedly  towards him, he sees a little girl and her nursemaid. The little girl is well dressed, although her skirt is splashed with mud. As they draw level to him, he hears the little girl say  to the nurse ‘Oh I do wonder what he’ll be like!’ to which the nurse replies ‘Well, we’ll see.’ At once he was intrigued. Why were they hurrying so fast through the rain? Why couldn’t they have got a cab, as respectable people did? Where were they going? And most of all, who was the he that the girl was dying to see? A cousin, a long lost brother, a future lover? What would happen when they met?

At once the writer in him was sparked into life, and before he reached home, he’d composed a long an elaborate narrative about the pair ( making the girl into a slightly older maiden, so he could spin a story of drama and protection in which he played the hero)  The tiny incident had taken form and become a story, which, while it probably didn’t play a part in any of his later books, for those few hours and days was as real to him as anything in his everyday life. And he went on to write his great books, while holding down a full time job in the Post Office, and inventing the pillar box – he wrote in trains, coaches, using any odd moment; managing more words than most of us do in a lifetime.

Of course, I can’t pretend to be anything like Trollope – but the process of a story coming out of nowhere and then suddenly sparking into life must be familiar to all writers. I was feeling rather down after I’d finished my last book – I thought everything had dried up and I had no more ideas. Then Helen Hart of Silver Wood books invited me to write an ebook for a new series they were doing. I thought about my Girls of Troy trilogy, and wondered who else there was whom I could write about. There was Helen of Troy, of course, who’d played an intermittent part in the trilogy. Could I write about her? Could I write about her girlhood? Well, it was an idea, of course, but there was no life in it. Without that spark, there couldn’t be a story. So I put the idea aside in a corner of my mind, and thought about something else. I was weeding the vegetable patch at the time. And then all at once, there were voices in my head. Helen’s brothers, the magical twins, Castor and Pollux, were speaking to me. I listened to what they had to say.  And then Helen herself joined in, and I listened to her, put down my trowel, and tried to jot down what she had to say to me before it vanished.. The spark was fired – the story was there. My castle building had begun.