Seth Schein
The Mortal Hero

Helen is deeper and more complex than Paris. She is portrayed neither as trivial nor as completely selfish in the way he is; she commands sympathy 'by her own attitude to her guilt and shame,' and by angrily chiding Aphrodite (3.399-412) and mocking Paris (3.428-36). If she goes to bed with him immediately afterward, it must be remembered that she, a Greek woman alone in Troy, is compelled by Aphrodite, on whom she is utterly dependent. When the Trojan elders see her on the wall, they appreciate how her beauty can make men suffer for her sake and remark that she should be returned to the Greeks lest she destroy the Trojans and their city (3.156-60). But they do not return her, and she, unlike Paris, cannot be held responsible for the war or the destruction of Troy. Rather, she too is a victim of the gods, in particular of Aphrodite, who now forces her to go make love with Paris after his defeat by Menelaos, just as she had brought about the elopement that led to the war. In other words, Helen is a victim of the inevitability of her situation, of a compulsion to behave in a way like that in which, for example, Patroklos goes to his doom in Book 16. Both react freely to their circumstances, but their chosen actions are conditioned by what the war and the gods force on them; for both there is that characteristic blend of responsibility and lack of ultimate power that imparts a tragic quality both to their condition and to that of everyone in the Illiad.

Helen's outstanding beauty and desirability, like Achilles' supreme prowess, are a distinctive, god-given excellence (arete). In each character's case, individual self-realization and self-actualization through a full expression of this excellence involve the suffering and destruction of social communities—the Greek army and the Trojan city and people. Just as Achilles, though responsible for the destruction of Troy, is not morally blameworthy, so with Helen: she simply is who and what she is, simultaneously more-than-human and all-too-human. Her weaving representations of the battles being fought for her sake (3.125-28) makes her an artist, like Hephaistos creating Achilles' shield (18.478-608) or Homer composing the Illiad. Helen's remark to Hektor that Zeus placed upon herself and Paris 'an evil doom, so that even in the future/we might be the subject of song for people of future generations' (6.357-58) is a further instance of her distanced, artistic perspective on the events of her own life and of the poem. This perspective is unique among mortals in the lliad. Only Achilles, whom we see at one point 'delighting his heart with the clear-sounding lyre' as 'he sang the glorious deeds of men' (9.186-89), approaches such a view, when he consoles Priam for the doom the gods have given both of them (24.525-51). But Achilles' detached vision of reality in Book 24 is grounded in suffering and disenchantment; it is not artistic. Like Helen, he stands somehow outside the poem as he speaks, but he does so only temporarily and cannot ever escape the consequences of the war and of his own actions. Helen, on the other hand, really is immune from such consequences. Her destiny, as R. Bespaloff has said, 'does not depend on the outcome of the war; Paris or Menelaus may get her, but for her nothing can really change.' Her immunity and exemption from the normal human consequences of her behavior, along with the necessity of her situation imposed directly by the gods, set her apart from other humans in the poem and make possible her distinctive, detached view of herself and of the war being fought for her sake.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.