Memoirs of Helen of Troy [NOOK Book]

Overview

In this lush, compelling novel of passion and loss, Helen of Troy, a true survivor, tells the truth about her life, her lovers, and the Trojan War. This is the memoir that she has written?her legendary beauty still undimmed by age.

Gossips began whispering about Princess Helen from the moment of her birth. A daughter of the royal house of Sparta, she was not truly the progeny of King Tyndareus, they murmured, but of Zeus, king of the gods. Her...
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Memoirs of Helen of Troy

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Overview

In this lush, compelling novel of passion and loss, Helen of Troy, a true survivor, tells the truth about her life, her lovers, and the Trojan War. This is the memoir that she has written—her legendary beauty still undimmed by age.

Gossips began whispering about Princess Helen from the moment of her birth. A daughter of the royal house of Sparta, she was not truly the progeny of King Tyndareus, they murmured, but of Zeus, king of the gods. Her mother, Queen Leda, a powerful priestess, was branded an adulteress, with tragic consequences. To complicate matters, as Helen grew to adulthood her beauty was so breathtaking that it overshadowed even that of her jealous sister, Clytemnestra, making her even more of an outcast within her own family. So it came as something of a relief to her when she was kidnapped by Theseus, king of Athens, in a gambit to replenish his kingdom’s coffers.

But Helen fell in love with the much older Theseus, and to his surprise, he found himself enamored of her as well. On her forced return to Sparta, Helen was hastily married off to the tepid Menelaus for the sake of an advantageous political alliance. Yet even after years of marriage, the spirited, passionate Helen never became the docile wife King Menelaus desired, and when she fell in love with another man—Paris Alexandros, the prodigal son of King Priam of Troy—Helen unwittingly set the stage for the ultimate conflict: a war that would destroy nearly all she held dear.



I learned that I was different when I was a very small girl: when the golden curls, which barely reached my shoulders at the time, began to turn the color of burnished vermeil. Your grandmother Leda, whom you never knew, told me that I was a child of Zeus. Since I thought my father’s name was Tyndareus, her words upset me. Seeing my pink cheeks marred by tears of confusion, my mother handed me a mirror of polished bronze and asked me to study my reflection.

“Do you look like me?” she asked.

I nodded, noting in my own skin the exquisite fairness of her complexion, and her hair the same shade as mine that tumbled like flowing honey past the hollow of her back.

“And do you resemble my husband Tyndareus?” she said to me.

I looked in the mirror and then looked again. For several minutes I remember expecting the mirror to show me my father’s face, but Tyndareus was olive complected where I was not, his nose like the beak of a falcon where my own was straight and fine-boned, and his cheekbones were hollow and slack where, even then, beneath a child’s rosy plumpness, mine were high and prominent.

“It’s time for me to tell you everything,” my mother said . . .

—From The Memoirs of Helen of Troy


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
Men do not go to war over an abducted woman,” states Theseus, king of Athens, after kidnapping young Helen of Sparta. His words are both prophetic and true. Helen, in middle age, writes her autobiography for her daughter, Hermione, revealing how she became the notorious Helen of Troy. The half-immortal daughter of Zeus by Leda, queen of Sparta, Helen grows up nearly friendless, for her looks arouse women’s jealousy. Her youthful sexuality awakened by Theseus, Helen quickly learns that her beauty is both a source of power and a curse. When she abandons her dull husband, Menelaus, for handsome Paris Alexandros of Troy, Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, finds his excuse to conquer that faraway city. Intelligent yet occasionally vain, Helen lives out her greatest dream only to lose nearly everything she cherishes when Troy falls. Blending mythology with history, Elyot (pseudonym of actress-novelist Leslie Carroll) details Helen’s unforgettable journey from innocence to tragedy and, finally, happiness. Fans of historical women’s fiction will savor this engrossing novel about the rewards and dangers of following one’s heart.
Publishers Weekly
Actress and author Leslie Carroll (Miss Match) checks in under an assumed name for her debut historical. Writing for her abandoned daughter, Hermione, in a rich but sometimes overwrought prose, Helen of Troy recalls her girlhood as a Spartan princess. Her stepfather, Tyndareus, doesn't love her (Helen is the daughter of Leda and Zeus); her sister, Clytemnestra, is jealous of her; her mother introduces her to the old ways of "the Goddess" and then kills herself. Helen grows into a lovely young woman; at 14, she's kidnapped by Theseus. At first miffed he has done so for ransom (she fancies herself the prize), she later falls in love with him, and when her brothers come to save her, she's pregnant with his child. Giving her daughter to Clytemnestra and married off to Menelaus-a rocky union from the start-Helen then falls for visiting Paris. When she runs away with him, it's almost convenient for Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon-the perfect reason to attack Troy. Though divinely conceived, this Helen is skeptical of those she calls "the sky gods"; she's a study in contrasts generally, all cool analysis and white-hot passion. The problem is that she's not quite convincing as either one or the other, though the story is engrossing. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Too often Helen, daughter of Zeus and the woman whose face launched a thousand ships, has been portrayed as an ornamental pawn of the gods. Yet Elyot, drawing on a relativist understanding of early religions and some feminist sympathy, depicts her as a woman of intelligence. This Helen is never oblivious to the violence and devastation but refuses to accept all the blame. Writing her memoirs to her estranged daughter, Hermione, Helen argues that before she was Helen of Troy, she was Helen of Sparta. Her family constellation included her tragic mother, Leda; belligerent sister Clytemnestra; and brothers later known as Castor and Pollex, just for starters. Paris enters the story nearly halfway through the book, adding to the effect that her love affair with him, while intense, was not the focus of her life. Considering that the story of the Trojan War is familiar to many readers, Elyot keeps the action moving with lots of exciting drama. Readers who enjoyed Margaret George's Memoirs of Cleopatra will enjoy this fresh take on a legendary woman. The author also writes chick-lit fiction (Miss Match) under her own name, Leslie Carroll. For all public libraries.-Mary Kay Bird-Guilliams, Wichita P.L., KS Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In her first historical novel, Elyot, an actress whose real name is Leslie Carroll, tells the story of the Trojan War, including its causes and its aftermath, from Helen's viewpoint. The daughter of Leda and Zeus, Helen never feels accepted by her stepfather, the Spartan king Tyndareus, especially after Leda's suicide. While her jealous older sister Clytemnestra worships power, pretty Helen is a sensualist who secretly worships "The Great Mother" and ancient deities her mother told her about. When Clytemnestra marries and has a baby, she softens with newfound love until brutish, power-hungry Agamemnon, the novel's villain, kills Clytemnestra's first husband and child so he can consolidate his political control by marrying Clytemnestra himself. Meanwhile, Thesues, Prince of Athens, kidnaps 14-year-old Helen for a ransom. Despite a large age difference, she falls deeply in love with him before her brothers "rescue" her, unaware that she is pregnant with Theseus's child. Helen secretly bears a daughter, Iphigenia, and gives her to Clytemnestra to raise as her own. Then Tyndareus marries her off to Agamemnon's younger brother Menelaus thanks to some wheeling and dealing by wily Odysseus, who has his own objectives. Helen tries to be a good wife although she finds Menelaus hard to know and lacking in passion. While he occasionally shows flashes of statesmanship, he is usually a toady, jumping to his brother's bidding. By the time Paris drops by Menelaus's court, Agamemnon is already hungry for the rich trading outpost of Troy. When Helen deserts Menelaus and their children to run off with Paris, she gives him an excuse to put together an army and attack Troy. With the exception of saintlyHector, Helen's take on the heroes and villains of the war are often at odds with Homer's version. She depicts Achilles as a vicious rapist, for instance, and is less than warm toward the Trojan women. In this People magazine version of the Greek classic, Helen is too self-justifying to be trustworthy and not charming enough to cause a war-or carry a novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307337535
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/4/2005
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 438,358
  • File size: 485 KB

Meet the Author

Amanda Elyot is a pen name of Leslie Carroll, author of several novels of contemporary women’s fiction. An Ivy League graduate and professional actress, she currently resides in New York City.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I learned that I was different when I was a very small girl: when the golden curls, which barely reached my shoulders at the time, began to turn the color of burnished vermeil. Your grandmother Leda, whom you never knew, told me that I was a child of Zeus. Since I thought my father’s name was Tyndareus, her words upset me. Seeing my pink cheeks marred by tears of confusion, my mother handed me a mirror of polished bronze and asked me to study my reflection. “Do you look like me?” she asked.

I nodded, noting in my own skin the exquisite fairness of her complexion, and her hair the same shade as mine that tumbled like flowing honey past the hollow of her back.

“And do you resemble my husband Tyndareus?” she said to me.

I looked in the mirror and then looked again. For several minutes I remember expecting the mirror to show me my father’s face, but Tyndareus was olive complected where I was not, his nose like the beak of a falcon where my own was straight and fine-boned, and his cheekbones were hollow and slack where, even then, beneath a child’s rosy plumpness, mine were high and prominent.

“It’s time for me to tell you everything,” my mother said, and without another word, she clasped my hand and led me along the corridor of the gynaeceum, the women’s quarters of the palace that overlooked a pretty courtyard inlaid with colored tile. I remember running my little finger along the polychrome frescoes that were painted on the courtyard walls, tracing the crests of the cerulean waves that depicted tales of Spartan sea voyages to Cyprus, Ithaca, and Crete, places whose names I’d heard, but which were no more than exotic sounds to me at the time. Even rendered in artists’ colors, the Great Sea held an allure that I could not then explain. As a child, my favorite part of the painted waves was the spray that tipped each one; I was certain it was real enough to evaporate like soap bubbles on my fingertip. My mother told me that Aphrodite, our goddess of love and beauty, was born of the seafoam. She was the most beautiful goddess in the world, Leda said, and one of the oldest—as old as Zeus, although men had forgotten that, preferring to honor the newer, warrior goddesses— sexless Athena and Artemis the chaste. I had seen only five summers then, but on that day, my mother told me that I was old enough to learn the story of Aphrodite’s extraordinary conception.

“Long ago,” my mother began, “there was a tremendous battle in the heavens. Zeus’s father, Kronos, who was the son of earth and sky, quarreled with his own father, Uranus; with a sharpened flint, Kronos destroyed his father’s fertile manhood, severing it from Uranus’s body and flinging it into the sea below. As it plunged into the hungry waves, the winedark water boiled up into a white froth—seafoam—from which emerged the goddess Cypris, who we call Aphrodite; she was accompanied by Eros—Lust,and Himeros—Desire.”

“I don’t understand,” I said to her, focusing I suppose on the grotesque act of dismemberment and wondering how someone so beautiful could end up being born through such a disgusting exploit. “Love and Beauty, Lust and Desire are almost as old as the world,” my mother answered. They were part of an old religion, she said, long before Zeus became king of the gods. “Come, I’ll show you.”

Her decision seemed a sudden one. My mother had always considered me too young to initiate into the mysteries of the old ways, when men and women alike saw wisdom in plants, divinity in trees and streams. That was before they devised gods in their own image and assigned each one a separate sphere of influence, diminishing the power of the earth goddess with the invention of each new deity.

I’m remembering now that she wouldn’t let go of my hand, even when I whined that her nails were digging into the soft pink flesh of my palms. “I’m sorry,” she said, and gripped me tighter. She was walking too fast for me, and I had to take two steps to every one of hers to keep up with her. I was practically skipping. Past the palace gate, we descended the terraced hills to the valley below, then traversed the entire length of the grassy plain that lay just beyond a small structure of sundried brick and hardened clay, a dun-colored farmhouse situated at the farthest edge of the city.

I’d wanted to slow our pace so I could pick a sprig or two of wild columbine to wear in my hair. “Are we in a hurry?” I asked my mother. She stopped for a moment and turned to me, still gripping my hand. She studied my face as though she wanted to weave my image into one of her tapestries to hang forever behind her deep green eyes.

“No, I suppose we’re not,” she said, and slowed our trot to a more leisurely walk. At the far end of the plain was a grove of trees.

“Where are we going?” I asked her.

“The altar,” she said.

“But we already passed the altar,” I insisted, turning and pointing back toward the palace. We sacrificed animals there on holidays and festivals, to bless a birth or honor a death, or to ask the gods for better weather. I always covered my eyes when Tyndareus or the priests slit the beasts’ throats. Their blood, smelling of metal, issuing from the still-pulsing veins, would flow in a crimson stream onto the stones of the pergamos where we gathered to witness the ritual. It always made my stomach rise up to meet my throat. I never got used to it. Even today, I need to look away and hold my breath to avoid the sight and stench of hot entrails freshly spilt.

I’m remembering now that during the sacrifices, our mother made my older sister Clytemnestra hold my hand so I wouldn’t run away and disgrace the family. And Clytemnestra would snicker beneath her veil and laugh at me for my folly, for my squeamishness. “Spartan women don’t cringe at the sight of a little blood,” she said. After that, when I shielded my eyes from the sacrifices, I turned them on Clytemnestra’s face instead. As the life of a goat or lamb or calf was ended with a single sweep of the knife, my sister’s expression grew oddly serene, although her eyes would shine like those of a woman in love. Clytemnestra liked blood. Clytemnestra . . . who always wore red from the time she was only ten summers old. . . .

“A different altar,” my mother said. “Here, in the grove.” I never knew there was any other. She led me from the sunlit plain into the cool blue-greenness between the poplars. I whined that my legs were tired and that I couldn’t see anything except trees and asked if we could go home; but she begged a few more minutes of my patience, bringing me deeper into the grove until we came upon the ruins of a temple, at the center of which was a stone as high as I was tall. “This is the altar I spoke of,” my mother said. “And there,” she added, pointing at one of the taller trees, “was where we worshipped the Goddess. Her mask hung like an effigy from that tree. There, see? The one where the mother bird is building her nest. Birds are sacred to the Goddess.”

I must have looked at her in utter confusion because we didn’t worship just one unnamed goddess. In fact, there were so many gods that I couldn’t remember all of their names. We offered tributes to Demeter at sowing time to ensure a bountiful harvest, and we brought her its gifts at reaping time to thank her. We poured libations to Dionysus at the advent of the grape harvest, made sacrifices to Zeus and Poseidon and Athena for victory in battle and safe passage on the high seas, to Artemis for a bountiful hunt, and even to Aphrodite to grant us success in affairs of the heart, but I’d not heard of “the Goddess.”

“She is the center of the old religion,” my mother explained impatiently, having fully expected her five-year-old daughter to comprehend this complicated theology. “I told you that Aphrodite was old, but the Goddess is even older. She has many names; in nearby Mycenae, for example, she is called Potnia—but she is the same being, the giver and sustainer of life. In the days of my mother, Eurythemis, and in her mother’s, and in her mother’s before her, stretching back for longer than any living man or woman can remember, there was a festival sacred to the Goddess that was held every spring in this grove. Only the women of Laconia were permitted to participate. The men knew enough then to keep away, respecting our celebration. There was music and there was dancing and there was wine.”

My mother told me that my grandmother and all the women of her line were priestesses devoted to the Goddess just as she was, although Tyndareus had tried to put an end to the old ways a few years ago by destroying the temple, telling my mother that we would worship only the new gods from then on and that there was no room for the Goddess in Sparta.

I didn’t see what difference it made which gods people worshipped as long as believing in different ones didn’t make them fight the way I would hear my mother argue with Tyndareus. “And it’s so pretty here,” I said, dropping my voice to a whisper. My words disappeared in the rustling of leaves. The grove was deliciously fragrant, though I couldn’t identify the aroma. Not pine, not lemon, not olive. The breeze bore the scent like a gift to my nostrils.

My mother placed her right hand on the altar. I reached up and did the same. I’m amazed that I can still recall how cool the stone felt against my skin. She described the sacred relic—a woman’s torso sculpted from the wood of one of the pear trees near the grove—that once rested on a pedestal near the altar before an eternal flame. Snakes—another symbol of the Goddess’s power—were brought to the grove on festival days, borne by temple attendants skilled at handling them. Coiling and uncoiling in their wicker baskets, the serpents represented her energy: powerful, unpredictable, and at times fatal.

“Every year,” my mother began, “a woman was chosen to represent the Goddess at our festival. By tradition it would be the queen, who was also the chief priestess of the Goddess’s temple. But after I married Tyndareus, he forbade me to enact her role, so another woman was selected every year to take my place.” I remember how my mother’s voice seemed to alter as she recalled her own past. Her words floated like musical notes on the air. Her eyes, too, were not focused on me, but were directed inward.

I interrupted her. “Why do you always call father Tyndareus and not Father when you speak of him to me?”

“I’m telling you why,” my mother said, looking directly at me for the first time since she had begun her narrative. “There had been a terrible drought. The crops were dying and there wasn’t enough to harvest. People were rationing food, and many of them believed the Goddess was angry because we had begun to worship the new gods as well. They were sure she was offended that I, their queen, had forsaken her by substituting other women in my stead at her annual rites. As a mob of citizens seeking both answers and revenge, their collective voices rising as one to a fevered pitch, they laid at my feet the blame for the Goddess’s displeasure—which had brought drought to the people of Laconia. I had no choice but to submit my body once more or fall prey to the wrath of a hungry rabble unable to feed their children.

“Sacred to the Goddess is the image of the bird, and each year at the climax of the festival, her high priestess would be ceremonially mated with her bird-consort. I prepared to accept him, anointing my limbs with perfumed oil so that my body glistened as though I myself had stepped from the sea. My attendants oiled my hair until it shone like molten bronze, and they perfumed my throat and breasts with attar of roses. We drugged my husband’s wine so that he would fall asleep in his cups, and by torchlight I made my way to the sacred grove and entered the temple.

“The women played their flutes and tambourines and, possessed by her spirit, danced ecstatically around the altar after they had removed my flowing ceremonial robes and laid me upon it. They poured libations, then handed me the sacred goblet of wine mixed with the juice of poppies brought from the Hittite kingdom. I drained it in one draught, the warm liquid searing my throat.”

I found my mother’s story both beautiful and terrifying. “And then what happened?” I asked, my question a breathless whisper. As many times as she had represented the Goddess in the mating ritual, nothing could have prepared her for what occurred next, she replied. For it was Zeus himself, disguised in the body of a great white swan, who took her upon the altar. Leda remembered lying naked on the plinth surrounded by the feverishly dancing acolytes of the Goddess, when they were startled by the sound of beating wings. Down through the branches of the swaying poplars swooped a swan so massive that his wingspan obliterated most of the light from the burning torches. The women ducked to avoid being knocked to the ground, but my mother bravely accepted her fate and mated with the great bird.

It was said that Zeus had looked down from Mount Olympus on the rites below and was so enamored of Leda’s incomparable loveliness that he could not bear for her to yield her body to a mere facsimile of divinity. She must be his, and so she became. Spent and exhausted from their passionate coupling, Leda collapsed on the altar, awakening from a trancelike slumber to discover the great swan flown, the only evidence of his presence a long white feather—the same feather, Hermione, with which I now write this memoir on Egyptian papyrus. My mother kept the sacred talisman hidden in her jewel chest. I found it after her death and have treasured it ever since. I even took it with me to Troy, carefully stored among my jewels.

In time, my mother told me, she knew she was with child, and when I was born she considered attempting to convince Tyndareus that I was his daughter. But it was clear to both of them that even in my infancy, there was no resemblance. “You have your father’s neck,” she would say wistfully when I carried myself like a proper Spartan princess, spine as straight as a birch and as supple as a willow, head held high atop a long and graceful throat.

Forgive me, my daughter, for my temporary digressions. My memories intrude on me as I write, sometimes tumbling upon one another like water over the rocks in a stream, sometimes weaving together like the warp and weft of a tapestry.

We regarded the ruined temple, my mother and I, our right hands still resting on the cool plinth of the altar. “The day you were born and Tyndareus first looked at your perfect face and tiny form, he knew you were none of his blood. He is not a clever man, Helen, but he is not a stupid one either. Immediately, he ordered that the temple in the sacred grove be razed and no symbols of the Goddess permitted to remain. Not only that, but those who insisted on continuing to worship her would be punished. ‘I humored you, Leda,’ he told me, ‘but you have taken advantage of my tolerant nature.’ He told me that the only reason he would not order that you be taken to Mount Taygetos and left there to die, was that he feared the people’s wrath when they learned that their beloved queen’s tiny daughter had been abandoned on a mountaintop. I believe Tyndareus feared the wrath of your true father, but as a king he dared not confess it, for such an admission might connote weakness.”

I shivered to think of what might have been my fate. No wonder Tyndareus had never smiled kindly upon me. I always thought I had been guilty of some transgression that had made him cross. His withholding of affection punished both wife and child. I remember now how often I heard my mother weep in the silence of her rooms when she believed there was no one to witness her tears. One day, long before she brought me to the sacred grove, when I must have been no older than three summers, I broke away from my nurse to visit my mother at her loom. I supposed I missed her. Her bare foot was propped up on a special foot support, and her chiton was pulled up above her knees so that she could twist the loose wool around her leg before spinning it. A basket holding the finished yarn rested beside her chair. A thick strand of red wool dangled loosely from her fingers while Leda sat trancelike, her gazed fixed on her spindle as though she would impale her heart upon its point. A single tear ran down her cheek, and I followed its course until it dropped onto her lap and made a tiny stain.

As “Mitera!” escaped my lips, my nurse caught up to me, grabbing me by the hand at the exact moment my mother turned to look at me. Her exquisite face wore a mask of ceaseless sorrow, or so it seemed, with her downcast eyes and her generous mouth turned down as if to stifle a sob. And as I tried to break free of my nurse’s grasp and run to comfort her—oh, how I wanted to lay my head in her soft warm lap—I was tugged back, taken from her sight, and trotted down the corridor to the room we called the nursery.

I now remember many other times, when perhaps I was even younger, that I would hear Tyndareus’s voice raised in anger against my mother, calling her to account for her suspected infidelity in the sacred grove. Her own voice would answer in a soft, placating tone that would, as their quarrel escalated, be replaced with one of enmity, and finally by one of supplication. Each time she would ask Tyndareus to be pleased that Zeus saw fit to favor their household with his progeny and that the kingdom of Sparta would indeed be blessed by my presence.

His reply would invariably be the same, and it was not until that day when my mother brought me to the sacred grove and revealed the truth of my paternity that I understood what he meant when he would tell Leda, “The child’s beauty may be a blessing to her future husband, but every day I am reminded by it that she is no daughter of mine, and such a blessing becomes a curse on the House of Tyndareus.” The words faithless whore, which of course I didn’t understand the meaning of at the time, struck my mother across the face like a slap, and that much even a child of three can comprehend. Stung by her husband’s insults, she would retreat to the comfort and solace of her loom, no longer permitted to be a priestess, no longer wanted as a wife.

Tyndareus refused to forgive my mother for her infidelity. And the sky goddess, Hera—my true father’s wife—as jealous as any mortal woman, never pardoned Zeus for the indiscretion of becoming my father. But in this I was not unique. Zeus was notoriously profligate with his seed, for which Hera appeared to spend mortal lifetimes punishing him. Invariably, if one of Zeus’s demimortal offspring was faced with calamity, Hera employed all her wiles in order to prevent her husband’s intervention. So Zeus made but one appearance in my life and that was to create it. Trumpeting his animal lust for my mother, he descended to earth, soaring heavenward after he had slaked his passions.

Although Zeus never revisited me, other immortals of Mount Olympus saw fit to call at various times throughout my life. When I felt the shadow of their protection or the sting of their spite, I knew they were beside me. And as my body began to show the first signs of womanhood, I came to realize that my passions have been inherited honestly. My unabashed cravings for the blazing consummation that only two bodies can know—yes, Hermione, that was passed to me by immortal Zeus.

On the afternoon following my visit to the sacred grove, while my nurse was napping, I went looking for my mother to ask her a question. I think I must have wanted to know something more about the Goddess, what she looked like, I suppose. I remembered that Leda had mentioned the mask that the women used to hang from the tree by the temple. Was she beautiful, I wanted to know. Fearful to behold? My mother was not at her loom. The spindle had been thrust like a dagger into a hank of bloodred wool that rested in an osier basket beside her stool.

I don’t know why, but I remember feeling that something was wrong. And I knew, deep inside, that I had to return to the sacred grove. There was no guard at the palace gate then. Tyndareus never feared intruders. The plain was broader than I remembered it. Crossing it alone seemed to take so much longer. I had to shield my eyes from the sun to keep from squinting, and I tripped and stumbled on a rock, tumbling facedown into the dry grass. It scratched my cheeks, as though I were giving a dutiful kiss to Tyndareus through the prickles of his beard. When I reached the poplars, I tried to remember which path we had taken the day before to get to the little temple, then chose the one that looked most worn. The wind sang a sad song through the trees, which sighed their response and inclined their bodies in acknowledgment of the music. I came upon the ruins, but saw no sign of my mother. “Mitera!” I called, and when I received a reply, I looked up to seek its source. In the same instant that I realized that what I had heard was my own echoing voice, I glimpsed my mother’s sandal floating above my head.

A gasp broke unbidden from my lips as my eyes trailed the slender length of her body, past her long slim legs, her narrow waist, the breasts that gave me suck when the wet nurse refused to give her nipples to Leda’s bastard child, to the soft gray veil that formed a silken noose around her swanlike neck.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Reading Group Guide

Helen of Troy is one of history's most fascinating and notorious women. A figure both desired and despised, hers was the face that launched a thousand ships--and in The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, author Amanda Elyot allows Helen to tell her own story: the truth about her life, her lovers, and the Trojan War.

In The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, Helen's enthralling story comes alive on every page. This guide is designed to help direct your reading group's discussion of Amanda Elyot's evocative and gripping novel.

1. Helen is one of the most enduring figures of mythology and literature. Did reading the story of her life in the first person enhance Helen's legend for you? Why or why not?

2. The author fills The Memoirs of Helen of Troy with rich imagery--sights, foods, clothing, landscapes, passion, violence. What are some of the images that stand out the most?

3. Helen's great beauty is described throughout the book, but Helen has long considered it a burden. Do you agree that an envy-inducing quality such as beauty can be more of a curse than a blessing? If so, how? If not, why?

4. Interestingly, the etymology of the word misogyny is Greek, from misein, "to hate," and gyne, "woman." Helen refers to many instances of misogyny and rails against women's oppression by men, at one point confronting her stepfather Tyndareus with, "The Goddess was here before you were!" and at another hotly observing, "It galled me that marital infidelities were winked at or shrugged off when instigated or committed by a husband, but a wife was branded a harlot for her indiscretions." Does her feistiness and willingness to stand up to intimidating men make Helen afeminist in today's terms? What are the things Helen does that might detract from today's definition of feminist?

5. In chapter seven, Helen observes: "[Aethra] had been prescient in acknowledging that through my sexual awakening I would discover the vastness of my own power. Already, only a few hours a woman, I began to feel its strength and to wield it like a flaming sword." Discuss what Helen means by her "power." How did she ultimately exercise it?

6. In chapter sixteen, Helen describes how she realized that Paris returned her ardor: "Exquisite and charming Paris Alexandros, with his honeyed speech and overt attentions, swooped down and took hold of my heart before I had time to stop for breath. So long unaccustomed to affection from my husband, and never anticipating the possibility of onslaught from another quarter, it was an undefended citadel, vulnerable to attack from an outsider." Helen's use of military metaphor here--while she recounts a moment of significant emotional importance--is striking. Why do you think she uses such imagery?

7. Helen and Paris Alexandros act upon their feelings for one another during the Spartan festival of Kronia, where nine days of religiously sanctioned hedonism is followed by nine days of atonement and subsequent amnesty. What are the benefits and detriments of such a tradition, where wanton and irresponsible behavior is encouraged and the consequences of such behavior nullified?

8. Helen helps King Priam retrieve the defiled corpse of Hector from the Achaeans, offering Achilles her body as payment of the ransom (chapter twenty-five). Then, in chapter twenty-eight, Helen assists the Achaeans in tricking the Troyans into accepting the wooden horse. Were you surprised at Helen's complicity, or her duplicity? In each case, Helen took tremendous risks. Do you think her actions and behavior were justified?

9. Initially described as a hero, Achilles is depicted in the book as an extremely violent warrior. As discussed in the previous question, he mutilates the dead body of Hector, dragging it from a chariot around the citadel walls, and refuses to relinquish the remains to Paris's grieving family. Earlier, in chapter twenty-one, after mortally wounding the Amazon queen Penthesilea in battle, he savagely rapes her in full view of the troops. Achilles is killed by Paris Alexandros after Helen reveals the only way Achilles can be felled. Helen observes in chapter twenty-six, "Despite their collective hatred for Achilles, the Troyans had a certain reverence for him as a warrior and let the Achaeans bear him from the field undefiled." What defines a warrior in this book? How does this definition contrast with a modern view of a warrior?

10. As the daughter of Zeus, Helen was born demimortal, meaning she cannot die until Zeus chooses to end her life. But several times in the book Helen wishes that she could die. Is this understandable, given the hardships she suffers, or not, considering the expectations placed on her as a half-goddess and as a member of royalty?

11. Romantic passion guides Helen's decision-making at crucial points in the novel. Her deep infatuation for her captor Theseus fuels her unwillingness to leave his custody when she has the chance. Her intense love for Paris Alexandros leads her to abandon her children to return with him to Troy, thereby humiliating her husband. Should Helen have given her emotions such power over her actions?

12. Having read this novel, what do you feel actually sparked the Trojan War?

13. When Helen and Menelaus return to Sparta following the Trojan War and their subsequent sojourn in Egypt, Helen is jeered by antagonistic crowds. In facing their hostility, Helen observes ruefully, "Murder is easier to forgive than beauty" (chapter thirty-one). In modern society, are physically attractive people held to a tougher standard than everyone else? Why or why not?

14. In chapter thirty, Helen says of Menelaus, "In many ways, I believe that the intervening years between our leaving Ilios and returning home to Sparta were beneficial to our marriage, for Egypt was a neutral territory on which Menelaus and I could construct a new foundation of love and understanding." Was it surprising that Helen returned with Menelaus after the Trojan War, acquiesced to being his wife once more, and grew to love him so deeply?

15. Sensual pleasure is actively sought and sensuality highly prized in the Greek culture that the author describes in The Memoirs of Helen of Troy. But violence also has an accepted place. How is one reconciled with the other, if at all?

16. At the end of the novel, Helen asks her daughter Hermione: "Are we fated to behave as we do, or is it the exercise of free will that compels us to follow our destinies?" How would you answer this same question?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2008

    Typical Happy Ending

    I thought this book was ok. It wasn't the best Helen of Troy adaptation that I'd ever read and it wasn't all that outstanding. I also found it humorous as I read the physical description of Helen, 'the face that launched a thousand ships' and thee most beautiful woman, as having the same physical qualities as the author herself. Look at her picture in the back of the book. Other than that hilarious tidbit, the book was ok. I'd recommend it to beginning scholars on Helen.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2010

    Enjoyable Read!

    Besides learning about Helen of Troy years ago in school, this was the first book I've ever read about her. The way that it was written made you relate to Helen and made her seem reachable. You will understand more of the woman behind the name than just see her as the cause of the famous Trojan War.

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  • Posted January 18, 2009

    New found love for Helen of Troy

    This was actually the first novel I've read cover to cover of Helen of Troy. Throughout the stages of her life, this story brought so many details and the heart wrenching romance between Helen & Paris; I just could not put it down. The injustice, the war, the passion, the love! There were pages that I've read while in tears! I loved it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2007

    One of the Best Books of my Life

    When my friend first recommended this book I was a little skeptical. But I read it anyway and every night it just drew me in. When I finished reading this book, I just wanted to read it again...and again.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2006

    amazing, stunning

    i love this book so much. it is not only funny but it is sad and dramatic. a very good romance book for all you single people out there ( counting mwa). very good book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2006

    Helen's Story

    I've read a lot of different books about the Trojan War, and the characterisations of Helen have all been different. From a self-pitying woman regretting her actions ('Troy') to a vain, dangerous demigoddess ('Goddess of Yesterday'), she has always been intriguing. Yet this novel is the first one I've read where she actually justifies her actions rather than regretting them. Helen isn't quite a sympathetic character at times she comes off as selfish when she outright refuses to accept the blame for her actions. Still you can understand her motives. I was kind of grossed out by the whole thing with Theseus, but it leads to a intriging plot twist concerning her doomed 'niece' Iphigenia. The author has done her homework descriptions of ancient Greek customs and attire are very well-detailed. Overall, it's a good book for mythology lovers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2006

    From A NYC Historical Fiction Fan

    As Anita Diamant's Red Tent brought the world of Genesis to life and Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl taught us what 'really' happened in Henry VIII's court, The Memoirs of Helen of Troy by Amanda Elyot is at once a fascinating history lesson and compelling love story about its heroine's life in 'The Bronze Age.' As the title indicates, the book is written in memoir form, as Helen tells her story to her estranged daughter, Hermione. From the first page, the beautiful florid language lets you know you are in another era, evoking the crystal clear waters of the Agean Sea. Brought into the world by the union of her mother Leda and the immortal God Zeus, we quickly learn that Helen is not like other girls. From her difficult home life to her coming of age, the book brings you through Helen's trials and tribulations, the blessings and burdens of being semi-mortal, and ultimately, to the battle fields of the Trojan War. The Memoirs of Helen of Troy effortlessly brings ancient Sparta to contemporary readers while they enjoy a timeless, thoroughly compelling page-turner. I welcome Amanda Elyot to the world of accomplished historical fiction writers, and hope she is working on a new adventure for her readers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2005

    passionate and perceptive

    One reviewer referred to this book as 'luminously intelligent', and it's easy to see why. Amanda Elyot gives one of history's most celebrated women a voice that is not only aptly passionate but distinctively perceptive as well. Her Helen is keenly aware of both her mortality and the divinity she feels in her blood, and Elyot narrates her loves and adventures with a deft, entertaining writing style and a powerful sense of both irony and desire. The author's deep respect for the historical universe she evokes is palpable and impressive both the tone and the content of the research reflect a love of her subject and a desire to share it with vivacious pleasure. Those who are familiar with classic historical fiction (such as that of Mary Renault and others) about the heroes and heroines of Greek myth will welcome this witty, sexy entry into those Aegean literary waters. Those who may be slower to recognize how beautifully observed are the nuanced details of this mythic period are likely to enjoy this fascinating feminist account in any case, both because the story itself is as sensational as ever after all these centuries, and because this particular telling of it has such verve and style.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2005

    Memoirs of a Winner

    When I saw Amanda Elyot¿s The Memoirs of Helen of Troy I knew I had to buy it...first of all because the cover was so compelling. But also since my mother was an aficionado of Greek history, mythology and literature and I was named after Helen¿s mother, I just had to read this latest of novels about the fabulous heroine. Ms. Elyot captures not only her beauty and her passion (it¿s a very sexy book) she also puts the most eloquent and elegant words into Helen¿s mouth. The author pays meticulous attention to the history ¿not only in defining the period in years ¿but in capturing every detail of the lifestyles, food and drink, clothing and the total ambience of the timespan of Helen¿s life...in war and in peace. The fact that it is written as Helen¿s memoir to her own estranged daughter, Hermione, makes it very special. I highly recommend this book. It¿s a great holiday gift.

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    Posted October 6, 2009

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    Posted July 7, 2010

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    Posted February 24, 2009

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    Posted October 14, 2008

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    Posted April 23, 2009

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