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Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Polypoetes and the Trojan War

“You ask me why, if she did not want this war, she has not given herself up to Menelaus since,” Polypoetes said, “but perhaps the question you should ask instead is why has Menelaus not given up Helen? Why, knowing where it might lead, did he insist upon marrying her to begin with? When she had made it clear she did not want him or the future that would follow. When she went so far as to arrange her own abduction, barely more than a child at the time, to escape his claim upon her body, her beauty, her life? This war was not caused by Helen, even if she escaped Sparta with Paris of her own free will—which Helen’s own brothers denied. It was caused by Menelaus, when he would not accept her refusal. Not as a girl, or as a woman, or as his wife. He could have ended this war long before it ever started and saved us all so much pain and suffering.” 
--A Broken Horse

You all know I swore I would never write the Trojan War. I was sure I had nothing new to say and didn't want to retread the same ground that had been overtrod already before me. But then, some time after I finished writing By Helen's Hand, I remembered Polypoetes.

Alexandre Jacovleff's Trojan Horse, via Wiki Commons
Who is Polypoetes?
I've talked about him before, I'm sure. A lesser king. Unremarkable by most accounts. There is no real mythology, no real fame attached to his name beyond being named as one of Helen's suitors. We know he earned a prize at Patroclus's funeral games. He is explicitly named as one of the men inside the Trojan Horse, though we don't know what he did inside it or after he slithered out of it. And he's the only named son of Pirithous, who together with Leonteus (a grandson of Caeneus, who we also talked about recently) led their region and the Lapith people in the fighting at Troy. (There were quite a few ships of them, if I recall correctly, too.)

He is a Background King who inexplicably takes a front row seat in the clutch moment of the Trojan War, where he continues to be treated as a Background Character still.

Fam, it's weird. And weird, to me, offers opportunity.

One of the things that strikes me about Trojan War retellings on the whole is how they focus themselves so entirely on the same handful of players. The great heroes who were all about fame and glory and embodied what we consider to be the prevailing cultural drives and sentiments of the time. Might makes right. Conquer and enslave! Get that Fame and Glory! 

Even the retellings that try to offer "a new perspective" are often just showing us these same characters and stale motivations through the eyes of the women around these heroes, sometimes romanticized, sometimes in order to reveal "the reality of abuse" they suffered inside a war camp, or the ugliness of war (which the Iliad itself doesn't shy from, either.) Often, the repeated stampedes of the rest of the men to their boats when Agamemnon tests them, in the Iliad, are entirely scrubbed out of the narrative. But those moments offer a key perspective: Agamemnon and Menelaus and the rest of the hero-kings and -princes we all know and love were leading a DEEPLY UNPOPULAR war.

And there were A LOT OF PEOPLE in that camp who were desperate to go home, with or without the sack of Troy.

There is no reason to think a Background King could not have been one of them.

And now we have a new story and untrod ground. We have something DIFFERENT.

"But Amalia," I hear you say, "What about glory and fame?! Those were driving forces!!"
WHY does EVERY HERO get a CHOICE, if a long life and a death of old age at home surrounded by your family is not some kind of temptation still? If they all, ALWAYS, choose glory and fame then the choice means nothing. We have to allow for the fact that there were some people in this society who chose OTHERWISE. It's right there in the construction of the myths. 

Part of what makes those particular heroes exceptional is that they chose glory--when other people MIGHT NOT.

It isn't even going against the grain. It's not modern to look at what is presented as options inside the myths themselves and connect the dots, to take the OTHER path presented. Odysseus never wanted to go to war, but we don't act like that's a break with history. If fame and glory were all that mattered, all that drove the people of this culture EVER, then Odysseus would not have playacted his own madness in order to get out from under the oath he designed.

Do you see what I mean, now, when I say: we are making choices TODAY to create in these myths something more monstrous, more violent, more cruel when we discard the variations that present something other? 

Dozens, maybe hundreds of people have retold this story. But if they keep leaving out the part where PEOPLE REALLY DID NOT WANT TO BE THERE, half of it, and all the nuance, is lost. To suggest that everyone in the past was driven by a bloodthirsty desire for fame and glory at any cost is a profound disservice to history and our ancestors. Perhaps even more so than by allowing people inside problematic power dynamics to fall in love (as attested inside the myths themselves.)

I think we all know why as a society we focus on a mythic hero falling in love as the bigger problem, though. Why that's the thing we need to expunge from the record, above all, by pushing to make sure those relationships are more "realistically" portrayed primarily as violence and assault, in our so modern and enlightened age. We are INVESTED in the idea that these heroes never looked at women as anything but objects, never saw value in them as people beyond the child they might provide. And we've been invested in that idea for a VERY long time.

Tamer of Horses Helen of Sparta By Helen's Hand Daughter of a Thousand Years A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus
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