Revisiting Helen of Troy
When Ruby Blondell watched the film Troy in 2004, she cringed.
Blondell, UW professor of classics, usually enjoys contemporary adaptations of Greek myths, noting that “even in ancient sources, Greek myth was fluid and adapted over and over again.” But in this particular film, she was sorely disappointed by the depiction of Helen of Troy.
|Ruby Blondell holds a prized possession— an original poster from the 1956 movie, Helen of Troy. Photo by Nancy Joseph.|
“I hated the Helen,” she says. “They made her into a poor little girl who’d been done wrong. I wanted people to know that the Greek Helen was not like that. There’s more to her. She’s really a figure of power and danger.”
Blondell felt strongly enough that she wrote a scholarly paper on the film’s depiction of Helen. That led her to delve more deeply into Helen as a mythic figure and to begin writing a book on the topic, which will be published by Oxford University Press. (The book’s title and publication date are still to be determined.)
What makes Helen so fascinating, says Blondell, is that she is the most beautiful woman in the world and also the most dangerous. She leaves her husband and runs off with another man, setting into motion the greatest war of all time. “Helen is simultaneously the supreme object of men’s desire and the instrument, or agent, of their destruction,” explains Blondell. “There’s that constant push-pull, love-hate thing with her. She’s bad, but she’s also desirable, so men can’t bear the idea of destroying her.”
Given the popularity of the Helen character in Greek literature, can there really be anything new to say about her? Blondell smiles at the question, which she’s heard before. “The fact is, we’re always rereading these Greek texts in relation to where we are as a culture,” she explains. “That gives us new questions to ask, new conceptual tools .”
In the case of Helen, the early feminist movement made Helen an unpopular figure, with her power deriving from her beauty and femininity. But, says Blondell, feminism has more recently turned its attention to “feminine” modes of power, such as the power of beauty and sexuality. Helen provides a fascinating study of those issues. “She’s ripe for reassessment in a time when people are more open to notions of feminine power,” she says.
Researching Helen has been challenging. For past projects, Blondell has focused on a single author; now she is focusing on a character portrayed by many authors over hundreds of years, in genres ranging from epic literature to Greek lyric poetry. Blondell has read nearly all of the relevant Greek literature, studying how various authors and genres represent, celebrate, or curtail Helen’s beauty and power. She’s also reading contemporary writing on gender, feminism, and related topics. “I’ve read a ton for this book,” says Blondell. “No, more like twenty tons.”
Blondell hopes that her book will add a new perspective, both for readers of ancient Greek texts and for those interested in feminist theory. And maybe even for filmmakers interested in capturing Helen’s power and danger on screen. “Helen is, in fact, a very nuanced character,” says Blondell. “I’d love to see her portrayed that way in film.”