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Saturday, April 7, 2012

“Helen of Troy” by Bettany Hughes – A Review

Hughes bills her book as “The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World” – which is certainly ambitious. She devotes 312 pages to the main text followed by 130 pages of appendices. The book contains roughly 30 colored illustrations and even more black and white images -- altogether a very impressive and comprehensive treatment of the topic. Hughes furthermore sets out not only to try to discover the historical reality behind the story of Helen of Troy, but to describe the Bronze Age in which she allegedly lived, and then to describe how the story of Helen of Troy was handled in literature and art down the ages from Homer onwards.
Although at times I found the narrative long-winded and had the feeling Hughes was trying to justify what must have been a significant investment in time and money by dragging out some commentary unnecessarily and belaboring some points to the point of exhaustion, the book nevertheless provides some very useful information. Particularly impressive was the amount of information she collected on life in the Bronze Age, something I knew little about.

One of her principle thesis is that Helen (or the Helen Pro-type) was a Bronze Age aristocrat (princess and Queen) – and every subsequent treatment of Helen tells us more about the age in which the work of art depicting her was created than about Helen herself. Less successfully, Hughes tries to analyze why the story of Helen of Troy should have fascinated artists and audiences for three thousand years.
Perhaps due to my ignorance of the Bronze Age, I found Hughes descriptions of recent archeological discoveries about this period particularly exciting and informative. She succeeded in convincing me that the Bronze Age civilizations were very sophisticated and international, with significant trade across the Mediterranean. A recent trip to Egypt helped me visualize just how rich and yet familiar such ancient societies could be. The art of Minoa and Egypt, with which I am more familiar, provided collateral, flanking evidence, to Hughes’ thesis about a Bronze Age Helen, who was more powerful and independent than the women in ancient Greece.  In short, Hughes succeeded in making me change my own views of Helen, by enabling me to see her as a figure from a pre-archaic society with significantly different social structures and traditions.
Almost as fascinating was the way in which the character and role of Helen changed depending on the values of the society re-telling the story. For example, the fact that Helen received a comparatively positive treatment in the 12th Century AD due to Eleanor of Aquitaine's the patronage of Benoit de Sainte-Maure, author of the Roman de Troie. As Hughes perceptively points out, Eleanor, like Helen, had been the bride of one king, but effectively – if less surreptitiously -- ran away with his arch-rival and became the Queen of the empire that most threatened her first husband’s realm. Eleanor had good reason to see Helen as a positive role model and not some tawdry whore or instrument of the devil.
After reading Hughes, I admit, I am more sympathetic to Helen than I was before reading Hughes. When she described a 1974-5 staging of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus in which Helen is portrayed as “a marionette with blond wig, a mask and a chiffon nightie.” (Hughes, p. 307), I found myself feeling indignant. How could a director show so little respect for Helen? Would a dumb blond in a negligee really have been worth fighting for? For ten years? And worth recovering? Reinstating as Queen? In short, Hughes achieved her presumed of objective of making me see Helen as more than “just a pretty face.”

As such, despite its stylistic faults, I think Hughes work makes a significant contribution to our understanding both of the historical and the literary Helen.


  1. Hughes is extremely bias historian, severely influenced by myths...About Sparta especially.

    Her knowledge of ancient Greek language is appauling as well. Her reading of epitaph of Simonides in some tv show about Sparta,was laughable. She may seem as an expert in Britain, where no1 on subject is Cartledge who claims Spartas had institutionalized pederasty and that there was a short sword type called Laconian.Both as false as false could be.

    Not a good source or read anyhow.

  2. Hughes is not a scholar but a journalist. In consequence, her handling of specific topics is superficial. Her description of Archaic Sparta, the Sparta I know best, was full of the usual misconceptions and misrepresentations. Nevertheless, I found her fundamental thesis, that Helen needs to be viewed and judged as a Bronze Age figure, compelling. Likewise, her resume of artistic portrayals of Helen was very useful.