Desperately Seeking Helen: Retelling Greek Myth by Claire Heywood

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[Note from Frolic: We’re so excited to welcome author Claire Heywood to the site today. She’s talking all things Helen of Troy. Take it away, Claire!]

Though the legendary face that launched a thousand ships may once have belonged to a real historical woman, Helen of Troy is primarily a figure of myth. She has existed for three thousand years within the stories told about her, and yet she remains difficult to pin down. Was she a pretty prize for men to squabble over? A self-determined woman who risked everything for love? A supernatural demi-goddess hatched from an egg (yes, really)? She has been all of these things. But when I began to write my debut novel, Daughters of Sparta – a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of Helen and her sister Klytemnestra – I had to decide who my Helen would be.

Helen’s changeability is not unusual. Every Greek myth was told in myriad different versions by different authors, even within the ancient world. The stories were added to over time, changed to fit new audiences, new purposes, or simply as part of the organic process of storytelling. Though the poems and plays that record these stories survive to us in texts, copied and recopied over millennia, there were many other versions that we will never hear – oral traditions that were not written down, texts that we know once existed but have now been lost. There is no single canonical version of any Greek myth or mythical character – only what we have and what we choose to interpret.

Sometimes one author might even write contradictory versions of the same myth. My favourite myth twister from among the ancient writers is Euripides. A tragic playwright living in Athens during the 5th century BC, he is said to have written over ninety plays (though fewer than twenty survive today). From his retellings of traditional myths it is clear he felt no need to maintain consistency across his oeuvre. Two of his most famous plays, Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris, focus on the titular daughter of Agamemnon but offer completely different accounts of her fate – one irredeemably tragic, the other not. Similarly, Euripides wrote two plays titled Hippolytus, about a son of Theseus who attracts the romantic attentions of his stepmother, Phaedra. The earlier play, which does not survive, apparently outraged the Athenian audience with its lustful depiction of Phaedra and was a resounding failure. Euripides bounced back, however, with a new version of the story which treated Phaedra much more sympathetically, and was awarded first prize at the City Dionysia festival when it was performed.

Euripides wrote about Helen, too, of course. In his play The Trojan Women, set in the grim aftermath of the war, Helen tries to defend herself against the curses of Trojans and Greeks, who blame her for their suffering. So far, so standard. But in another play, simply titled Helen, Euripides tells another version of the war in which Helen did not go to Troy at all! Instead she was whisked away to Egypt by Hera, while Paris carried off a mere phantom in her place. This version is highly subversive. If Helen was not taken to Troy, what were the Greeks fighting for all those years? This version is also arguably the most sympathetic treatment of Helen, painting her as a blameless victim, faithful to her husband. After all, how could she be blamed for something she never did? And yet the play may not have been about her at all. Euripides wrote his Helen in the aftermath of a disastrous military defeat for Athens, the infamous Sicilian Expedition, and the text contains strong condemnations of war. Rather than an attempt to reshape Helen as a character, the play is more likely a commentary on the futility of foreign campaigns.

When we think about retellings, then, we should ask ourselves a few questions. What is the aim of this story? Why tell it this way? Euripides seems to have had various motivations – creating versions that were more palatable, or which would resonate with the sensibilities of his audience, or which would make them think about the realities of their own time. Myth has always been about more than heroes and monsters. These stories dig at deeper truths. The question is, which truth do we want to uncover?

To me, the best and most valuable purpose of literature is to explore our own human condition. How do we carve our paths through the world? What makes us behave the way we do? How do we relate to one another? Some authors do this wonderfully. George Eliot and Thomas Hardy are particular favourites of mine, and there is a reason that their novels endure to this day – they are full to the brim with humanity. It is always my aim to capture some of that human reality in my own writing, and so this has shaped my retelling of Helen and the Trojan War myth.

My war has no gods looking on from Olympus, or stepping down to influence events as they do in Homer and Euripides. My Helen is not fathered by swan-formed Zeus or hatched from an egg, but born to a mother who, due to her own trauma, struggles to love her – a cycle which Helen finds herself repeating. I wanted my novel to vindicate Helen and her sister Klytemnestra – both so vilified in ancient stories – but not by denying what they had done (as Euripides does with his miraculous phantom). Rather I wanted to humanise these two women, and frame them within their experiences. What must it have been like to live as a woman in such a dangerous and confining world? What injustices did they endure? What drove them to act as they did? These questions lie at the heart of Daughters of Sparta, and they led me to find my own version of Helen. But, as is the nature of myth, I know that she will not be the last.

About the Author:

Claire Heywood is the author of Daughters of Sparta, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood, out now!

For millennia, men have told the legend of the woman whose face launched a thousand ships—but now it’s time to hear her side of the story. Daughters of Sparta is a tale of secrets, love, and tragedy from the women behind mythology’s most devastating war, the infamous Helen and her sister Klytemnestra.

As princesses of Sparta, Helen and Klytemnestra have known nothing but luxury and plenty. With their high birth and unrivaled beauty, they are the envy of all of Greece. But such privilege comes at a cost. While still only girls, the sisters are separated and married to foreign kings of their father’s choosing—the powerful Agamemnon, and his brother Menelaos. Yet even as Queens, each is only expected to do two things: birth an heir and embody the meek, demure nature that is expected of women.

But when the weight of their husbands’ neglect, cruelty, and ambition becomes too heavy to bear, Helen and Klytemnestra must push against the constraints of their society to carve new lives for themselves, and in doing so, make waves that will ripple throughout the next three thousand years.

Daughters of Sparta is a vivid and illuminating reimagining of the Siege of Troy, told through the perspectives of two women whose voices have been ignored for far too long.

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