Greek tragedy, Jean-Pierre Vernant wrote, presents its protagonists as objects of debate, not examples of good conduct or even heroes deserving of sympathy; the same can be said of characters in epic, like Helen. Laurie Maguire’s literary biography of Helen of Troy makes us face up to moral ambiguities as it tracks the most beautiful woman in the world across time and across media, from Homer to Hollywood, as her subtitle has it. Since historians can find no trace of the real Helen on a coin, a stone or in a factual document, the search for her leads only to dreams and fantasies. Bettany Hughes attempted an archaeological quest in her Helen of Troy (2005), but was left wistfully hoping that Helen’s tomb might be discovered one day. Maguire finds traces of Helen of Troy everywhere, far beyond the poems and plays in which she is a character, but an individual Helen disappears, to emerge as the embodiment of a fundamental principle: absolute beauty.
more from Marina Warner at the LRB here.