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Aet. II.—1. Helen of Troy. By Andrew Lang. London: Bell & Son. 1882.
2. Vblsunga Saga. Translated by Magn^ssok and Morris: The Story of Sigurd the Volsung. By William Morrib.
3. Epics of Ancient India. The Ramdyana. Translated and abbreviated by Romish Chandra Dutt. 1901.
f~pHE jeer of Mephistopbeles, when Faust drinks the witch -*- potion of the renewal of youth,
'Du siehst mit diesem Trank im Leibe
illustrates the degree to which the name of Greek Helen became the traditional symbol of a type. The sentence is but one of many kindred references. Helen was and remains the pre-eminent example of those women fair above others, untrammelled by spirituality within, and unshackled by the higher instincts of purity and uprightness, whose beauty sets in flames not Troy Town alone, but that far less impregnable fortress, the City of Mansoul. Fate decreed that, justly or unjustly, her character should be thus interpreted. And thus interpreted she stands as a prototype, evolved by later ages from a remote original; and doubtless here, as elsewhere, the source has been tainted by the streams which flow backward to the fountain head.
The Homeric story, told and retold, of the daughter of Zeus, the wife of Menelaus, the willing, or it may be unwilling, love-mate of Paris, has, from the days of Homer to those of Walter Savage Landor, been retinted and redyed, with colours as many as the fabulous woof of Joseph's raiment, in the legends and traditions which in successive generations clustered around her. From the very first indeed ill words were spoken concerning her, and good also. Mr. Lang, in the note appended to his 'Helen of Troy,' sums up the conflicting testimony rendered by classical authors as they bear witness to her guilt or exonerate her from all blame. The harsh sentences of Euripides, the implied condemnation of Virgil, stand side by side with the plea of Isocrates on behalf of her all-excusing beauty, and the praises of Quintus Smyrnaneus. Every reader may compare for himself the various Homeric phrases which left her fame a riddle hard for alien nations to read aright. Priam's verdict of full acquittal, Helen's own sorrowful confession may be balanced one against the other; or we may take from the Odyssey Eumaeus's angered invocation of destruction on Helen and all her kind, and Penelope's measured dispraise, when, hesitating to recognise in the age-worn stranger the lord of her house, she excuses her wariness with the reflexion that had Argive Helen shown a like caution it would have been well for Paris, for Menelaus, for Sparta and for Troy. Yet even in the Odyssey dispraise is qualified, for in another passage we find, 'Even Argive Helen, daughter of Zeus, 'would not have lain with a stranger, and taken him for her 'lover, had she known that the warlike sons of the Acheeans •would bring her home again to her own dear country.'
But, however doubtful the evidence, her story was against her. And, granted the story, it is the very human custom of literary tradition at large, if the story does not fit the character, to fit the character to the story. The Theban poet, Coluthus Lycopolites, who has found more than one English translator, drew in later days the picture of a compliant Helen following her one-day lover with the dawn of the next morning, and excusing the flight ordained by Cytherea. But whatever such overshadowing of the commands of Venus lingered in Greek poetry, with Ovid, if gods there were in the matter, they had slipped out of the reckoning. And as the story passed into the hands of the great Latin poet of love, the wooing of Paris, shorn of all glamour, becomes the courtship on which a Renascence gallant might model his love-making, and the parleying of Helen, equally bereft of illusion, only a pattern of the denial which surrenders. And it is his Helen of easy conquest who survived in medieval tradition.
Such adaptations of character to fact abound undoubtedly both in actual life and in the re-told tales of former ages. They are the natural refuge of onlookers removed by time or distance, who, ignoring or forgetting that a fact or a deed is as often as not an accident foreign to the true personality of the individual, argue the nature of the tree not from the root but from the graft.
Helen's latest apologist, in the poem where he has popularised the Helen legend for English readers after the fashion of Mr. William Morris in his versified re-telling of the Volsung Saga, has found and followed an alternative course. He has not in truth solved the question of Helen's guilt or innocence—her honour or her shame—but he has evaded the problem. Where Homer himself found, maybe, a riddle, and left, as none can deny, a mystery, Mr. Lang has claimed the aid of enchantment, and sought in a spell the key to Helen's well kept secret. As Iseult of Ireland is constrained by the partaking of the magic potion to the love of Tristram, so, in the story as here told, Helen by reason of the Venus-spell, and by reason of it alone, loves Paris. A forgetfulness, the fatal enchantment of the goddess, holds her heart from all memory of Menelaus, of her marriage bond, of the child of her wedded years. The past is for her as if it had not been; a mist of oblivion makes of her familiar home a strange land, and the Paris she follows is at least her memory's first and only love. Helen's will is no factor in her doom; she is nothing but the victim—the unconscious victim—of the gods.
It is the 'spell-of-forgetfulness' episode with which fairy tale and romance has familiarised us from childhood onwards. The charmed food, the charmed cup, the performance or non-performance of some trivial action, or whatever the medium may be whereby the charm acts which obliterates faith, and by which true love is blotted out, is the common property of the storyteller of all lands and times. It recurs again and again in all the True and False Bride contea; it is hardly possible to open a collection of tales— be they from Grimm or from the sources of the 'Cabinet des 'Fees' series—without finding some man or woman, prince or princess, knight or maiden, separated one from the other in some such manner, bewitched into inconstancy, charmed into infidelity. So frequently has the incident been used that, even allowing for the widespread superstitions of magic potions and talismans, it would almost seem to read as a running excuse for the mutability of human affections, or, looked at from another point of view, it might represent in unconscious allegory the actual potency of an overmastering but transient passion to efface, while it endures, the whole moral nature of its prey—to erase all records, save its own, from the page of life. 'No, he remembered nothing,' says the rajah who has fallen amongst gipsies in one of the best known Indian folk-tales, 'nothing but how to beat the 'drum—he thought he must have beaten it all his life—rub'a-dub, tat-tat.' And he had married another wife, and forgotten the little bride who was so delicate that her weight was no more than the weight of five white lotus flowers.
And even so after a like fashion Helen forgets her past, and instead of the shadow of a traitor's shame only a great compassion is the award of her unfaith. Helen, true wife and faithful—doomed by the gods to follow Paris open-eyed, helpless, but irreconcileable—abhorring her destiny, as Brynhild her fated marriage tie to Gunnar, as Sita, in the great Indian epic, her captivity to King Ravan, does not here exist. So far as the first part of the story is concerned she loves Paris in joy and gladness of soul. But with the spell the chiselled sword of the tragedy is blunted. Under the very knife of the gods the victim sleeps. The anodyne of perfect oblivion shields Helen from shame and sorrow, and even in the very hour of reawakening consciousness her shame and sorrow is but the shame and sorrow of one fallen blind into a net. And thus with the spell the whole conception of the supreme power of a tragic doom is emasculated. The gods must chloroform their victim before they can drive her as the wind of destiny blows.
If fate lies on poets, as it has lain on them hitherto, to re-tell the tale, will a third interpreter arise with a third mode of expressing the paradox the Homeric Helen presents? Mr. Lang's moral machinery is distinctly that of the unmodernised conscience. Will the day come when some disciple of M. Maeterlinck will suspend all necessity of judgement with the serene assertion that the soul of Helen walked the streets of Troy unacquainted with the kiss of Paris? Howsoever this may be, so far as regards Helen— the lost Helen of a lost city—
'Petitz et grans, et beaulx et laidz,
Et mourut Paris et Helene '—
and it matters little enough, except as a curiosity of literature, how the scriptures of her life are revised by their ever renewed commentators. With the other Helen, the Helen whose name has become, since the days when Benoit de Sainte-More 'romanced' her history, a proverb in all lands, there is neither doubt nor discrepancy of interpretation possible. She stands by common acclaim as the symbol of those women whose loveliness of form and feature is framed for the undoing of men, whose beauty is a magnet to the more material impulses of men's passions. She destroys, wittingly or unwittingly, the lives she holds in fief. The field of men's hearts is hers to win, but her fairness is like some leopard beast of prey who devastates the pastures where it feeds. Her name is linked with the royal sisterhood of faithless women—with that of Egypt's great queen, with the queen of King Mark. In Dante's vision of wailing spirits, swept onwards by the storm blasts of hell, after Semiramis and Cleopatra, comes the bane of Troy. 'Elena vidi per cui tanto reo tempo si volse,' and Paris and Tristram—the disloyal guest of Sparta's king betraying the hospitality of Menelaus, the disloyal messenger of Mark stealing the honour of the bride he is sent to guard— are mentioned significantly in one breath. And the same current of association stirs Chaucer, as in his Legend of Good Women he, with a corresponding touch, sets the queen of Cornwall beside the queen of Sparta—'Hide ye your 'beauties, Isoud and Heleine.'
But neither Iseult nor yet Cleopatra has ever quite attained to Helen's pre-eminence of fame, or passed in the same degree into the popular literary tongue. Iseult, with all her sins, the greatest her murderous attempt on faithful Bragwain's life, was yet, in her single devotion to Tristram, in her reckless passion, her fearless gaiety, her surpassing loveliness, an ideal in strict accordance with the medieval conception of a true lover, while the tragic ending of the romance, as, Tristram dead, she dies upon his body, was far more calculated to retain men's sympathies on her behalf than the domestic sequel supplied in the Odyssey to Helen's stormy life, when Menelaus has taken back his queen and she lives an honoured wife in her own land. No less Cleopatra, although she had perhaps forfeited her claim as the ideal lover, in her death might have been accounted worthy to take an exalted place in the saints' calendar of passion. But neither the one nor yet the other, and far less the Cressid of the successive Tales of Troy, beloved of the Middle Ages, can even be quoted as a rival in popularity. It is true that in those tales Cressid occupies a prominent part, and in the earlier version indeed Helen's is a subordinate figure,' She 'was too puzzling as well as too Greek,' Mr. Saintsbury suggests.* But Cressid, even as Chaucer revivified and Shakespeare remodelled her, is of infinitely slighter and baser, if of more human, clay. Helen may be the victim of one god, but she is the daughter of another; she rules men's passions, and where love has no part in their admiration she still dominates and sways the destinies of her beholders. The worship they paid was an abstract worship rather than
* Flourishing of Romance, &c. Saintsbury. 1897. VOL. GZCVI. NO. CCCCII. Z