Thursday, October 22, 2009

Helen of Troy - a new perspective

I started reading Margaret George's 'Helen of Troy'. This is a different version of history - Helen of Troy is told as a first person account of Helen herself.
When I first read an abridged version of Homer's 'The Iliad' and later watched the movie, 'Troy', I was full of admiration for the Greek heroes - Achilles, Odysseus and even Menelaus, to some extent.
I never really cared about Helen and Paris - impulsive lovers who had eloped. Helen was just a beautiful face in the whole story who was coveted by many and the one who had the power to have armies fighting for her return to Sparta.
But, now after reading this beautiful, touching story, I learnt certain things: Helen was a princess of Sparta and could inherit the queenship if a man who did not have a kingdom of his own, were to wed her. That is how Menelaus became king of Sparta - by marrying Helen. Hence, it was a kind of a matriarchical system.
I also learnt that they had a daughter, Hermione (I liked the name Hermione from Harry Potter, now I know its source) and that they were married for ten years before Helen eloped with Paris. Helen was married at a very young age, at fifteeen after an open contest of suitors akin to the ancient Indian practice of swayamvar (where royal brides chose their groom from an assembly of suitors).
But now, it occurred to me - what sort of queen would risk her reputation, the companionship of her family, even the closeness to her own child, not to mention her personal safety for a man, no matter how attractive he was? The story goes that Paris was promised the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife by none other than Aphrodite herself, the goddess of love and beauty in the Greek pantheon. Well, if you are a fatalist, you would believe that destiny or God had a hand in the whole saga. But, Paris and Helen also made a choice to elope. Helen, particularly. Why? Margaret George speaks of the stifling unhappiness in Helen's marriage. Although born a princess with stunning beauty, Helen was far from being truly free and happy. She was like a bird in a golden cage, a cage nevertheless.
We, in the modern era, have much to be thankful for, most importantly, personal liberty. Ultimately, democracy is not just about elections, but about freedom of the individual. Helen, unfortunaletly, did not live in an era where she could file for divorce due to incompatibilty and tell her hubby, "Honey, you are a great guy but we are not right for each other and I'm just just not that into you."
She had few choices - either live a peaceful, unhappy life under a facade or revolt.
She chose the latter, albeit in an impulsive, not-so-well-thought-out manner. Could she have openly decided to walk away, telling her husband the truth? That would have certainly appeared to be more honorable and, perhaps, would have saved Troy and the Greeks many lives, but we will never know.
Helen was, in a way, symbolic of the repression that women faced, quietly sanctioned by society. I do see Helen in a vastly different light and applaud her courage and pity her for her fate. Ironically, even though Helen was a God-fearing woman who loved her family, was not vain and manipulative (according to the novel by Margaret George), she still shook the conventions of the time and proved the adage, "Well-behaved women seldom make history".

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