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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.


  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 .

    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!!

    2. Well there wasn't anyone who was willing to go against Menelaus for the throne. Helen wasn't required to maintain the throne but to just gain it in the first place. Menelaus was one of the greatest warriors. We also have to take into account that she was forced by Aphrodite to go with Paris and she did chose Menelaus from all the suitors that were presented. We also should consider that in the Illiad she admitted that she never loved Paris and did indeed like Menelaus. She states as such to Aphrodite. We should also know that Menelaus planned to kill Helen for supposedly betraying him but he took one look at her and forgave her. The fact he wanted to kill her proves that he never needed her to maintain the throne also if Menelaus had no legitimacy as king without Helen why did the soldiers come in the first place? Menelaus genuinely loved Helen and Helen loved Menelaus and continued to do so when Aphrodite finally broke her spell. The fact she argued with Aphrodite to let her go shows that too.

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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 :)

  3. I have read HELEN OF SPARTA and I absolutely loved it and can't wait for BY HELEN'S HAND. I am however disappointed in Menelaus's character in your book, the beginning was fine he showed Helen kindness and all but the part where he raped and her and all was a bit much to me. After all he didn't kill her when Paris died and he took her back to Sparta with him. I agree with you about him only wanting to get Helen back so he can remained King. But everyone already blamed Helen for the war and even if Menelaus did killed her people wouldn't blame him and he'd still remained King.

  4. Hey!! I’m wondering if Helen left Hermione in Sparta so that Menelaus would have a claim to the throne. Like if Helen had taken Hermione, Menelaus would be booted out cause he’s useless. But the second Helen left, Hermione was Queen of Sparta and her father was her regent ruler.

    1. Absolutely possible! But it also would mean that the moment Hermione married, he'd be booted out of power again and replaced by her husband as king. A much more precarious position than that of Helen's husband!

    2. You are forgetting one thing , he was the brother of Mighty Agamemnon , the Ruler of All Greece, and whether Helen and Menelaus were in love or not , is an illusive question,but the two brothers shared a immensely strong bond, enough to sacrifice ones daughter to help the other.

  5. How old was Menelaus? Well, that depends on how old Odysseus was. In the beginning of the Trojan War Odysseus' son was a baby, I believe. Well, in Book 3 of the Iliad Antenor states that Menelaus was younger than Odysseus, and, seeing as these people did not carry IDs with their birth dates on, one assumes Menelaus was visibly younger (Also, I never saw a more wet-behind-the-ears character in the whole Iliad). Oh and he left his young and gorgeous wife alone in the company of a handsome foreigner. Did he seriously expect a female to behave with self-restraint and decorum? Did he seriously expect a foreigner to do the same? The guy is just painfully trusting and callow. And the worst part is, he remains just the same. In the Odyssey, does he slam the door into the faces of the two good-looking young men that come to visit? Nope, he lets them in at once. Is gorgeous Helen locked up in the cellar? Nope, she strolls in like nothing and begins to chat and even reminiscence about the war. I honestly cannot imagine any other Homeric hero (well, perhaps Patroclus) displaying the same behaviour.