Helen of Troy Over Time
Timeless tales become legends because they have been told several times throughout the course of history. However, we all know from experience that when a story is passed on from person to person, the details of the story are changed ever-so-slightly every time, eventually resulting in a story vastly different from the original. Such is the legendary tale of the Trojan War, involving Helen of Troy. The original story has been told, translated, retold, and translated again, so that now there are several different accounts of what could have happened way back during that time when Zeus and the gods were thought to reign over the earth.
In 2004, Warner Brothers released the movie Troy, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, depicting the events associated with the Trojan War. The movie opens with the infamous Helen of Sparta, said to be the most beautiful woman on earth. In Homer's adaptation of the legend, The Iliad, it is alluded to that Helen willingly left her husband Menelaus to be with Paris, the king of Troy. Although there are several accounts where Helen is said to have been abducted, or stolen away, the movie sticks with the rendition of her leaving on her own accord. The beginning of the movie shows a celebration as Sparta and Troy declare peace to each other, and the men of Sparta are scheduled to set sail back to their homeland early the next morning. In the midst of the celebratory events, Helen retreats to her bedroom, Paris following close behind, locking the door behind him. The script leads the audience to believe that Paris and Helen have been sleeping together for the past week, during the duration of the Spartans' stay, and he gives her a pearl necklace as a keepsake. She then says to him “They're beautiful, but I can't wear them. Menelaus will kill us both.” He tells her to not be afraid of him, and she responds by saying, “I'm not afraid of dying. I'm afraid of tomorrow. I'm afraid of watching you sail away, knowing you'll never come back. Before you came to Sparta, I was a ghost; I walked and I ate and I swam in the sea, but I was just a ghost.” This scene illustrates the love Helen harbors for Paris, and her fear that she will never see him again. It is at this time that he persuades her that she should sail away with him, back to the land of Troy. He says, “If you come, we'll never be safe. Men will hunt us, the gods will curse us, but I'll love you 'till the day they burn my body. I will love you.”
In reading The Iliad, one would not be led to believe that Helen loved Paris so much. One thing that is consistent with in all versions of the legend is the rage Menelaus feels when discovering that his wife has left him, whether by choice or theft, and responding by sending a fleet of one thousand ships over to Troy to retrieve her. When the fighting begins, The Iliad portrays Helen as quite remorseful, as she goes through a period of immense self-loathing, and even admits that she wished she would have died the day she left with Paris.
With so many conflicting interpretations as to whether Helen left Sparta by choice or by force, one must consider the reasons why Wolfgang Petersen chose to go by the choice route. In today's society, it is not uncommon for one bound by wedlock to leave his or her spouse for another person; one is not often snatched away from a marriage by a jealous suitor. Petersen's version of the story, having Helen steal away with Paris due to love, makes the story much more convincing to modern-day viewers.
People are constantly struggling to clarify whether Helen is human or divine. According to Homer's variation of the myth in The Iliad, Helen is the daughter of Zeus and Leda, the Calydonian princess who married King Tyndareus of Sparta. In this way, Helen would be considered half-god, half-human. At this point, it is important to mention the role of the gods in the story throughout the course of time. In The Iliad, the gods play a very important role from the beginning of the story to the very end. During the fight between Menelaus and Paris, Paris is seconds away from being slain when Aphrodite:“...caught up Paris easily, since she was divine, and wrapped him in a thick mist and set him down again in his own perfumed bedchamber” (Book III, 380-382). Aphrodite then goes off to summon Helen and bring her back to him so they can be together. It is instances such as these where the gods and goddesses, the higher and more supreme powers, run an interference in the mortals' lives and change the course of fate. However, in the 2004 movie-rendition of the legend of Troy, gods fail to play a critical part in the story altogether. Helen, Achilles, and all of the rest of the characters are portrayed as one-hundred percent human. Although the gods are mentioned a few times, such as in the beginning during the peace celebration, when Menelaus declares to the assembly, “May the gods keep the wolves in the hills and the women in our beds!” they do not actually interfere and come into action during the course of the movie. As a result of eliminating the role of gods throughout the movie, certain details throughout the myth had to be slightly altered. For instance, due to the absence of the divine beings, Achilles does not die, and is therefore present during the Trojan horse scene, where in the ancient versions of the story he was already dead.
The elimination of the gods in the movie is extremely important to mention because in ancient times, people really believed that there was a god who controlled the rising of the sun each day, the growing of the grass, and that a terrible storm occurred because the gods had been upset. I think that the deletion of the role of the gods in the movie is a reflection on modern culture. Today's society understands more about the way things work, and we do not hold the gods to the same esteem that they were once held. If Petersen had chosen to keep the aspect of divine assistance in the storyline, the audience would not buy into the plot very much.
The 2004 movie release of the story of the Trojan War is a perfect example of how stories, myths, and legends can change over time. The story of Helen leaving Menelaus has been portrayed in many ways; from her being kidnapped by Paris, to her willingly deserting her husband in interest of the King of Sparta, Paris himself. In viewing the movie, it is apparent that stories also are not limited to changing only in plot, but they can also change in the way the plot is interpreted. In the ancient versions, the divine powers of the gods controlled the story, where the modern-day interpretations portray it as a more real-to-life situation that could potentially happen in present day.
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Last updated October 23, 2005