In this essay, we analyze and compare the icon of beauty, Helen of Troy in one historical source as well as one contemporary source. More specifically, we refer to William Butler Yeats poem, No second Troy and Wolfgang Petersens movie Troy. We compare the symbol of Helen in these two sources in terms of intertextuality, polyphony and ideology. In the following part of the essay, we first give a brief background of the ancient myth of Helen; then we compare the poem No Second Troy and the film Troy in three aspects; finally, we give a conclusion of our analysis and comparison.
Helen, also known as Helen of Troy and Helen of Sparta, is a mythological figure in ancient Greece. Her myth finds its origin in the Mycenaean age and the name ”Helen” was first shown in Homer”s poem. According to most prehistoric myths (e.g., Iliad and Odyssey), She was born in Sparta and was the daughter of Leda, queen of Sparta, and Zeus. Ovid’s Heroides indicates that Helen spent her youth in Sparta and had the classical physical education, such as practicing arms and hunting. When Helen came to her marry age, a number of kings and princes all over the world were enchanted by her beauty and sent in precious gifts to court her. In order to select an ideal husband for Helen without offending other suitors, Odysseus suggested to let all the suitors swear not to retaliate the chose one. In the end, Menelaus became Helen”s husband. After several years of their marriage, the young Trojan prince, Paris, came to Sparta for diplomatic reasons. Previously, Zeus asked Paris to claim the most beautiful goodness and Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman. Paris then chose Helen of Sparta. Some historical sources state that Helen was abducted by Paris to Troy, while others claim that she was willing to follow Paris and to leave Menelaus. The abduction of Helen became the direct cause of the war between the Trojan and the Greek. The English dramatist Christopher Marlowe depicted Helen as having a face that launched a thousand ships. In Iliad, Helen actually regretted to run away and gradually discovered that her lover Paris was not as brave and capable as his brother Hector at all. The descriptions of Helen in the Trojan War were ambiguous and usually conflict each other. After the fall of Troy, Helen returned to Sparta and was back to live with Menelaus, as stated in Odyssey. Yet in the play Orestes, Helen left the mortal world and was taken to Olympus.
William Butler Yeats (1865 ‘C 1939) was an Irish poet, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. Yeats met Maud Gonne, an Irish nationalist in 1889 and ever since then, she became a major subject in Yeats” poems. No Second Troy was approximately written around 1908 and it indeed refers to Maud Gonne.
Troy, the epic war film directed by Wolfgang Petersen in 2004, was adapted from Homer”s great poem The Iliad. The film basically follows the story line in Iliad and re-presents the grand scenes in the Trojan War. It mainly features the characters of Achilles, Hector, Paris, Agamemnon, Menelaus and Helen.
Intertextuality refers to the relationship of one text to other similar texts, which shows the interaction among different sources. Both the film Troy and the poem No Second Troy are mainly based on the description of the Trojan War in ancient Greek myths and Homer”s Iliad, yet they all make adaptations to express different emotions. Yeats used the story of Helen as a background of his poem. The content of the poem is consistent to the mythology history in terms of its literal description that beauty causes a crucial war (”Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways””, ”With beauty like a tightened bow””). However, in the original story, Helen was involved in the Trojan War and she regretted her decision when seeing so much death and sadness caused by the war. Since Yeats intended to compare the symbol Helen to Maud Gonne, Helen”s character in his poem was changed to fit in with Maud Gonne”s personality. In Yeats” poem, Helen takes initiative in the war and uses her beauty to her advantage (”Was there another Troy for her to burn?”). The readers can clearly feel her determination and perseverance (”Being high and solitary and most stern”). Troy”s plot also has several obvious deviations from the book. Firstly, the Gods are not introduced into the film. While in Homer”s writing, the Gods actually played a key role in the Trojan War. For example, Poseidon supported the Greeks and Aphrodite was on the Trojan side to protect Paris. The omission of Gods makes the characters look more realistic thus become closer to our life and easier to understand; but on the other hand it cannot present a clear origin and history of each character. Secondly, in Iliad, later Helen discovered Paris” cowardice when he dared not to fight to death with Menelaus and disgusted his behavior; while in Troy, the love between Helen and Paris was pure and sweet all the time. Indeed, Helen was even glad that Paris gave up fighting to save his life. Such adaptation is common in the context of intertextuality. These texts are built upon each other but they each serve different purpose and convey complex feelings. In our case, Yeats changed Helen”s character to show his sorrow caused by Maud Gonne”s rejection and nationalism; Wolfgang changed Helen”s feeling for Paris to makes his character as well as their love more pleasant to the audience.
In music, polyphony refers to music consisting of different independent melodic voices. Borrowing this concept to literature, we define a text as polyphony if it organizes diverse points of view and voices. In No Second Troy, Yeats expressed both praise and criticism for Maud Gonne in the name of Helen. Before the poem was written, he had proposed to Maud for four times in total, starting from 1891, then 1899, 1900, and finally in 1901. Unfortunately, she refused to marry Yeats repeatedly. While Yeats was in deep sorrow because of his unfruitful love, he understood such behavior was rooted in Maud”s nationalism and feminism (”Why should I blame her that she filled my days / With misery, or that she would of late”). Maud Gonne was a famous female revolutionist in Ireland. She wanted to resist British colonization and liberate Ireland; in order to achieve this goal, Maud took active part in campaigning for nationalism in Ireland. Maud is an unusual woman who does not want to enjoy in a peaceful life with husband and children; she devoted herself to revolutionary activities in Ireland. It is her beauty as well as her determined character that attracted Yeats (That is not natural in an age like this, / Being high and solitary and most stern?), but her ardency in revolution also resulted in their lasting turbulent relationship, the source of Yeats” sorrow. In the film Troy, the Trojan people, especially Priam and his royal families had mixed feelings for Helen as well. When Helen was first brought to the palace, Priam looked very kind and welcomed her warmly. Nevertheless, when later he was alone with Hector, he blamed him for allowing Paris to take her home. We can see that on one hand, as a father, he was glad to have such a gorgeous daughter-in-law; on the other hand, as the king of Troy, he did not want to see his country involved into a war. When they got married, the Trojan people gathered around to have a look at their beautiful princess; but later when the war began, Helen was blamed for all the subsequent death and sufferings. In reality, people usually do not have a pure and definite feeling for a person or some things, thus in literature, some works do not maintain a single voice and express opinions in several different angles. Helen is undoubtedly an icon of beauty, yet at the same time there are sins underlying such beauty; people also remember the tragedies induced by her.
Ideology is one of the most important concepts in cultural studies. It represents a system of beliefs, and influence the way people think. Ideology forms the political and social relation in a society. The two sources in this essay show different ideologies in two distinct periods and places in human history. To understand Maud Gonne/Helen”s character in No Second Troy, first we need to review the dominant ideology in Irish society, which is based on conservative, capitalistic Christianity. Therefore, women”s traditional role is defined as mothers and wives. They play a minor role in political and social activities, such as social reforming and the Irish revolution. Under this circumstances, Maud was an unusual women in her time (”That is not natural in an age like this”) and always bore a mind of resurrection; she was not controlled by the tradition in her society, but persisted in fighting for the freedom of Ireland and tried to stimulate high spirits among Irishmen. She cofounded the nationalist organization, Daughters of Erin and after turning down Yeats” proposal several times, she married a fellow activist, Maj. John MacBride. In the movie Troy, the story of Helen happens in ancient Greek and Sparta. Its social ideology is indeed similar to that of Maud”s society in terms of women”s role. In the gender-stratified society at that time, women were usually powerless and can only subordinate to men. Helen, as an especially beautiful woman, was put in an even more disadvantageous situation, since her beauty was used by men and became her burden. Being a possession of men, she had no control over herself. In the movie, we can see that Helen”s destiny is much bound with the man she was with. In Sparta, Agamemnon”s rule resulted in a loose alliance since Achilles held a different ideology which is conflict to the dominant one and he always wanted to fight for his own. Under this fragile regime, Helen had a weak character and lacked conviction, thus she was easily persuaded by Paris to run away her husband and country. In Troy, Priam”s rule represents a good dominant ideology. People live in a harmonious society. During the war, Prince Hector encouraged his people to focus on the future of Troy instead of personal interests. In Priam”s family, Helen felt warmth, saw sacrifice and gradually she learnt to care for others. In history, women”s personality is often defined by the political affairs at that time. In No Second Troy, Helen initiated the war and had clear aims; in Troy, Helen was involved in the war and failed to prevent the tragedy.
The two sources No Second Troy and Troy are both based on Iliad and other Greek myths about the Trojan War. The major story line is the same in both materials, with subtle changes tailoring to the audience and purpose of the material. The two works also show a mixed feeling for the character Helen. People admire and love her beauty but also regard her as the source a trouble in the terrible war. In addition, the figure Helen in Yeats” poem and the film represents two opposite characters. In No Second Troy, Helen / Maud Gonne has a strong personality. She is open-minded, resistant, and unwilling to obey the tradition. In Troy, Helen is described as a subordinate to the men loved her. She is weak, following the flow and cannot take responsibilities. The two disparate personalities are mainly formed by the social and political status at that time. Although in both No Second Troy and Troy, women play a minor role in forming the trend of the society, Helen in Troy did not realize the rights of women and was totally helpless among men”s politics and wars, while Helen in No Second Troy is not content to follow men”s order and act as a good lady. Instead, she took her steps and fight for freedom for her people and country.