Character Profile on Helen of Troy…

Helen, a name synonymous with Troy itself; ‘golden-haired Helen’, Homer describes her; the most beautiful woman in the world circa 1200 BCE, with ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’.  I will briefly comment on how she is perceived by Polyxena.

When Polyxena first meets a squad of Amazons, a rather homely looking bunch, she makes an allusion to Helen: No ship would be launched for their sake.  And when she sees their commander, the stunningly beautiful Antiope, she again makes that allusion: Even Helen would have found serious competition in her. So Helen is the personification of beauty, the definitive standard by which it is compared and judged.

Is Polyxena envious of Helen’s beauty?  I do hint that she might be, but in a different sense.  By that I mean:  Helen is a generation older, in her mid-thirties; Polyxena, having a good self-image of her own, would not have regarded Helen a rival for suitors, seeing her as a family member, growing up with her, but she also would have become aware of how men reacted to her, observing their behavior in her presence.  This awareness is not often well received by Polyxena.  She makes inferences to that throughout my story; an example of this happens when she is being celebrated on her return to Troy: “What an extraordinary adventure you’ve had,” said Deiphobus, glancing more at Helen than me, tactless to be sure and quite annoying to me. Another illustration is when Helen must choose a new husband:  No raving beauty like Helen was going to avert the competition to possess her that would result out of her being single again.  An ordinary woman might have been left to her own devices….but never Helen, the most sought-after woman that ever lived.  Men craved her; they always had.   Most frustrating to Polyxena is how men always hold Helen blameless in things, even her father, Priam:  Despite this, he was ever cordial to Helen and never once alluded to her having contributed to the misery that plagued him.  She had that effect on men; they were endlessly willing to forgive her -for everything!- and sought to endear themselves to her.  That is how it has always been, from the very beginning to the present……Helen was absolved of any transgressions in the fate befalling Troy, the responsibility being continuously attributed to the gods instead.   In today’s language, we call that ‘sucking up to her’.

The power that Helen’s beauty wields over men is best demonstrated on the night Troy falls, when Polyxena describes the scene where Menelaus, the Spartan king Helen had forsaken, again meets her:

Menelaus strode up to Helen, bent on avenging the injury and humiliation she caused him.  He raised his sword -did I misjudge him?- and for an instant there, I thought he might indeed kill her.  But then she looked at him, tears streaming from her face, and if ever there was a sight to melt a man’s heart, it was that of Helen in grief, peering into his eyes, her lovely face at its pitiful best, amplifying her suffering.  He paused in his observation and then sheathed his weapon.  Helen’s future was secure.

My choice of words ‘pitiful best’ reveals Polyxena’s feelings.

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