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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Helen and Menelaus

I really want to like Menelaus. I really want him to be a hero. To be Helen's hero, and more than just the King Arthur to her Guinevere and Paris's Lancelot. Unfortunately, I'm not sure wanting it is enough.

So who was Menelaus? And what was his relationship to Helen before he became her husband?

Antonio Canova-Helen of Troy-Victoria and Albert Museum
Helen, from Wiki Commons
Photo by Yair Haklai
We don't have a lot of evidence. Helen's early life is usually summed up with Theseus's abduction as a few lines at best. We know that there is an account of Agamemnon and Menelaus being expelled from Mycenae when their father was killed and the throne usurped. And Tyndareus took them in, later helping them return to Mycenae and reclaim the city. But nothing I've read indicates the difference in age between Helen and Menelaus. How much older was he? Was Helen even born when Menelaus and Agamemnon stayed in Sparta?

Even if she weren't, the likelihood that Menelaus and Agamemnon were in and out of Sparta was probably high. The likelihood that Menelaus ran across Helen during her childhood, even higher. And it's entirely possible that he had his sights set on her as his bride from very early on, knowing that even if he couldn't persuade Tyndareus, Agamemnon, by all accounts a powerful man, probably could. And I suspect that Agamemnon knew full well his brother's desire, or else why would he have married Clytemnestra, and not the more beautiful Helen? She was certainly the greater prize.

Admittedly there was a complication of inheritance. The husband of Helen would become the king of Sparta, but Agamemnon probably wouldn't have minded in the slightest expanding his sphere of direct influence. He seemed driven by a lust for power and conquest. But did Menelaus share that lust? Was it Helen herself who captivated him, as much if not more than the throne of Sparta? Or did he simply want his own city to rule? An escape from his brother's control and command?

Brogi, Giacomo (1822-1881) - n. 4140 - Roma - Vaticano - Menelao - Busto in marmo
Menelaus, from Wiki Commons
If Helen was simply a means to an end, then no wonder she ran off with Paris. But if she wasn't-- if he loved her even more than Sparta's throne-- and let's not forget that Helen's beauty was such that even the mightiest of men fell within her thrall-- might he have developed a close relationship with her prior to their marriage? Kept a jealous eye on her interactions with other men? With his potential competition? What might that have driven him to? And how much harder might it have been for him when he realized she'd been abducted once already, by Theseus, a well known and highly acclaimed hero, if not an even more powerful king than Agamemnon.

In the Myths, Menelaus is relentless in trying to retrieve Helen while she's in Troy, he makes for a sympathetic character in the Iliad, and in the Odyssey, after he's brought Helen home again, and they begin to build their life together anew. But I don't buy that it's only about love. If Isocrates is right about Helen's beauty as POWER, ALL those heroes should have been on their knees before her, panting to have her back.

The thing that people overlook in the Iliad is that it's entirely possible that without Helen, Menelaus had no legitimacy as a king. If he HADN'T gone after Helen earnestly, what power would he have left? Everything he'd worked for and built in Sparta would have been forfeit, and whatever freedom he'd enjoyed as a king in his own right, as an independent political unit, would have been surrendered too. He'd be just another second son, serving his brother, the rightful king.

Could it still have been, in part, about love? Might Menelaus have been genuine in his affection? Sure. He might also have been just as "brainwashed" by Helen's beauty as Theseus, too. But there had to have been more going on between him and Helen before their marriage than is recorded, and I think whatever it was, it was the foundation for the trouble that came after.

4 comments:

  1. I'think Helen and Menelaus loved eachother before Alexandros/Paris came along . i'remember reading in the iliad or perhaps the odessey Helen saying to Menelaus after the fall of troy, that she regretted letting herself being seduce by Aphrodite and Paris and that she had left her daughter and her husband whom has everything in wisdom and looks . so that most means that Menelaus was a handsome king .

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    1. I don't think you're wrong -- I think they did love one another. I'm not convinced that their love lasted, though, or that it was pure. But it could just be that Aphrodite found it convenient for Helen to forget her love for Menelaus, or fall out of love with him, and made it so, too. (I know exactly the passage you're talking about, too, in the Odyssey. and I hope you'll read HELEN OF SPARTA and BY HELEN'S HAND to see how I addressed it in my own retelling!)

      Thanks for your comment!!

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    1. Hi Sabrina! Thanks so much for your comment!

      I actually didn't really want that for Menelaus's character either. As I said above, I had initially expected and wanted him to be Helen's Hero. But his character kind of took a turn as I wrote, and what resulted is what you got in HELEN OF SPARTA -- but I think it's an important element for Helen's story, allowing her to see the destructive power of her beauty and forcing her to take the implications of it into consideration. I'd like to believe that if things had been different, if Menelaus had not gone to fight for Agamemnon and Mycenae, or the pressure of knowing Helen might be abducted hadn't been placed on all of the characters who cared for her, they might have lived happily ever after. But don't forget that by some accounts Menelaus was indeed tempted to kill Helen after Paris died, when he finally reclaimed her in Troy. According to one story, she stripped naked to persuade him with her beauty to let her live, and he took her home as a result. But if he HAD killed her -- he might NOT have remained king, whether no one blamed him for her murder or not. Likely the succession would have fallen to Hermione, and we'd have seen Neoptolemus or Orestes become King, displacing him just as Menelaus displaced Tyndareus.

      The great thing about these myths is that there are so many variations that there're endless opportunities for interpretation and re-interpretation of the characters involved. HELEN OF SPARTA and BY HELEN'S HAND are by no means definitive retellings (though they're certainly the retellings that feel the most right to me, personally, or I wouldn't have written them as I did!) -- just one story of Helen of Sparta in the tapestry of a great many that have come before and will likely come again after. And while I'm sorry my take on Menelaus didn't work for you, I hope you'll enjoy the continuation of Helen's story in BHH!

      P.S. I actually had written a couple more chapters of Helen and Menelaus in the front of the book, but during edits and revisions, I ended up cutting the first three. Maybe I'll share them on the blog or via my newsletter one day, and at least you'll get a little bit more of the good Menelaus that way :)

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