Saturday, July 28, 2012

Helen Reviews the Champions - Book 3 - We get our first glimpse of Helen and Paris

Previous Books
The Rage of Achilles - Book 1
The Great Gathering of Armies - Book 2

The Greek and Trojan armies had gathered together at the end of the previous book. Now, as the armies approach each other we get our first glimpse of Paris

" a challenger, lithe, magnificent as a god"

Menelaus(Helen's husband), on seeing him goes into a rage, this is actually the first reference in the poem that Paris is the main reason for the war. Before that we do not know why the war is being fought other that Helen is somehow involved. But when on seeing Paris

"So Menelaus thrilled at heart -princely Paris there,right before his eyes. The outlaw, the adulterer..."

The last word is the giveaway as to what could have happened and who were the culprits. As Menelaus gets ready to take his revenge, Paris flees back into Troy afraid of facing him. Paris is a man who likes the pleasures of the body and senses, a man who would feel completely at home in a gathering of music, wine and of course women, but not in a battlefield, one of the earliest specimens of the metro-sexual male. As Hector berates him

"...... No use to you then,the fine lyre and these, these gift of Aphrodite,your long flowing locks and your striking looks,not when you roll and couple with the dust"

we get an image of his physical beauty and charm. Stung by Hector's words, Paris offers to fight Menelaus in single combat, with the winner getting Helen. As this would avoid any more unnecessary bloodshed it is accepted by everyone and offerings are made to Zeus and a pact sworn to be upheld. 
Now we get our first glimpse of Helen as the goddess 'Iris' goes to Helen in her rooms and tells her about the single combat. It's actually a kind of anti-climax as there is no describing here of her beauty. The general perception is that Helen is the sole reason for the entire war. But it's not entirely true and there are variants to the tale, one of which involves 'Aphrodite' (goddess of love) and Paris. As a reward for Paris choosing  Aphrodite as the most beautiful woman over 'Hera' and 'Athena', she makes Helen and Paris get together. So in a way, Helen is a pawn in the hands of her destiny which was written by Aphrodite. As we continue with the poem, we shall see that Aphrodite is always on the side of Troy whereas Hera and Athena are rooting for the Greeks (for the slight they suffered due to the judgement of Paris). The line of thought that maybe Helen was a prisoner of love against her will is strengthened when the words of the goddess

"... filled her heart with yearning warm and deepfor her husband long ago, her city and her parents."

In any case Helen is not a femme-fatale who callously left her husband with no remorse. Her image is an example of how male-centric opinions change over the centuries into what is accepted as common truth. If anything, Paris is to be blamed more than Helen for the all the events. But Paris even now is looked upon as a kind of ancient day Don Juan. Helen then goes to the place where the Trojan royal family including Priam have gathered to watch the contest. One thing that intrigues us about the war is how did the Trojan people react to such long lasting war of 9 years and still with no sign of end. What was their feelings toward her, did they hate her? As Helen reaches the assembly

"And catching sight of Helen moving along the ramparts,they murmured one to another, gentle, winged words:Who on earth could blame them?Ah, no wonderthe men of Troy and Argives under arms have sufferred years of agony all for her, for such a woman.Beauty, terrible beauty!A deathless goddess-so strikes our eyes!"

The Trojan elders admire her beauty, yes, but with a qualification 'terrible'. What use is beauty if it is causing so much suffering and as they say

"But still,ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long shipsand not be left behind... for us and our childrendown the years an irresistible sorrow" 

They would be very happy if Helen were to go away, but no one says that explicitly, the honor of the clan/race taking precedence now over the destruction that it is causing, for if Helen were to be sent back, wouldn't it be a loss of face for Troy? Never mind that the city itself would survive, but their honor would be lost wouldn't it. Priam welcomes Helen warmly. Priam of whom it is said

"words, endless words - that is your passion, always"

Priam is now an old man, his affection for his son Paris clouding his judgement and hence a mute spectator to all the events around him. But his kindness, understanding of human mind and fatalistic acceptance of what is going to come is borne out when he says to Helen

"Come over here, dear child. Sit in front of me,so you can see your husband of long ago,your kinsmen and your people.I don't blame you. I hold the gods to blame."

The first 3 lines shows Priam's intuition where he knows and understands that Helen would want to see her husband and country men. The last line shows a weary resignation of the events. Priam now wants Helen to tell her about the great warriors lined up. As Helen tells her about the different warriors, the most interesting remark from Priam comes regarding Agamemnon the leader of the Greek expedition. Pointing out to him, Priam remarks

"... Look,who's that Achaean there, so stark and grand?Many others afield are much taller, true,but I have never yet set eyes on one so regal,so majestic... That man must be a king!"

Yes, Agamemnon is not the fiercest warrior (Achilles is), neither is he the greatest strategist ( Odysseus is), nor the strongest (that would Great Ajax). But then why is he the leader of the expedition? The others have other pressing concerns. Achilles is plagued by the knowledge of his destiny that he will not survive the war and hence wants only to become immortal anyway by etching his memories into mankind for generations to come. Odysseus never wanted the war, he didn't even want to come to Troy, feigned madness to escape, but finally had to come to escape the wrath of Agamemnon. His only ambition right now is to do the job (capture Troy) by any means and get out there alive, back to his wife. (Little does he know that his return journey will take another 10 years, but we are getting ahead of ourselves here, lets focus on the current events). But Agamemnon's ambition is different. Yes he wants to avenge his brother, wants to get back his honor, but along with that he is also one of the first imperialist. At that time, Troy was the only city that rivaled Agamemnon. So with the pretext of helping his brother he wants to sack it, destroy it and make himself the omnipotent ruler of the ancient world. If it was honor then, it is 'WMDs' in the 20th century which act as a pretext for imperialism. Some things don't change ever, do they? 

After Helen tells about the warriors, the sacrifices to the Gods are made, a pact is signed that the winner will take Helen and everything is ready now for the contest to begin. What contest? It would be more appropriate to term it as 'non-contest'. How can Paris who worships 'Aphrodite' be equipped to fight Menelaus who is battle hardened and also thirsting for revenge. Even Priam knows that as he says

"This is more than I can bear, I tell you-to watch my son do battle with Menelausloved by the War-god, right before my eyes.Zeus knows, no doubt and every immortal too,which fighter is doomed to end all this in death."

Now Homer describes in detail how the contestants get ready. It gives an idea of the armory worn in those days. People sure wore a lot of protection and it's actually a wonder that they managed to walk at all wearing all those, leave alone fight.

"one warrior harnessed burnished armor on his back,magnificent Paris, fair-haired Helen's consort.First he wrapped his legs and well-made greaves,fastened behind the heels with silver ankle-clasps,next he strapped a breastplate round his chest,his brother Lycaon's that fitted him so well.Then over his shoulder Paris slung his sword,the fine bronze blade with it silver-studded hilt,and then the shield-strap and his sturdy, massive shieldand over his powerful head he set a well-forged helmet,the horsehair crest atop it tossing, bristling terror,and last he grasped a spear that matched his grip."

Phew, some preparation by the contestants, wouldn't the person be tired by the time he has worn all these, but ah, this was a time when men were not merely men but close to giants (in stature and strength) and sometimes close to even the gods . Doesn't an image of a battle ready warrior form in your mind slowly as he you read the above lines, little by little till we see the warrior in his full armored glory. The touch about 'horsehair crest tossing and bristling', is particularly interesting as it contrasts with the heavy weapons that are described above, much like sweet desert that comes after a heavy meal.

The contest begins. The pessimism of Priam is proved appropriate when the fight turns out to be an extremely short one. In fact, there is only a single throw of the spear by Menelaus which fells Paris. But Paris is not dead. Just as Menelaus is dragging Paris to the Greek lines, 'Aphrodite' intervenes and takes Paris to the safety of his rooms. She then callously asks Helen to go and tend to Paris who is waiting for her in the bed room. Helen's reply to that again suggests that maybe she is not a willing participant to the whole drama.

"Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?Luring me to my ruin yet again?Where will you drive me next?.."

The above lines show her exasperation at Aphrodite. But can the gods be denied. Aphrodite frightens her saying

"Or in my immortal rage I may just toss you over,hate you as I adore you now - with a vengeance."

What can one do when the goddess of love says that she will hate you? Helen does what we all would do, returns back to Paris and insults him. But Paris is not known as a ladies man for nothing. For all the help 'Aphrodite' gives him, he also has considerable charms of his own and once again seduces Helen saying

"Never has longing for you overwhelmed me so,no, not even then, I tell you, that first timewhen I swept you up from the lovely hills of Lacedaemon,sailed you off and away in the racing deep-sea shipsand we went and locked in love on Rocky Island...That was nothing to how I hunger for you now-irresistible longing lays me low!"

This coming from man who has just been humiliated by his lovers husband. But more that, what this stanza tells is is about the events of the past, how Paris and Helen met, how they eloped etc. 'The Iliad' never tells us fully neither the entire back story nor the events after Hector's death. But there are hints like these dropped here and there, from which we can try to piece together the events. Of course, a prior knowledge of the basic story is a must so that we understand the references clearly.  As Paris and Helen reconcile

"And now, while the two made love in the large carved bed,Menelaus stalked like a wild beast, up and down the lines-where could he catch a glimpse of magnificent Paris"

This Paris must have been some character. First he snatches away a married woman, a woman of great beauty, plunges his country into 9 years of war because of that, gets beaten up the husband of the woman, that too in front her and right after that seduces and makes love to her. Right or wrong, moral or immoral, how many could do such things? Also spare a thought for Menelaus, victory was within his reach only to be cruelly snatched away. But fear not, for doesn't the pact says that the winner will get Helen and since  Menelaus is the winner, shouldn't the Trojans hand over Helen. Agamemnon asks the same to the Trojans

"Hear me now, you Trojans, Dardans, Trojan allies!Clearly victory goes to Menelaus dear to Ares.You must surrender Helen and all her treasure with her...."
"So Atrides demanded. His armies roared assent"

What happens now? Do the Trojans keep up their agreement. Lets find out in the next book.

Am not sure who organized the poem into books, whether it was by the translators or was it like this in the original itself. Whoever did it, he obviously has a sense of drama and taste for theater, finishing the books at interesting points.

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