When it comes to Greek mythology, Roger Lancelyn Green’s retellings are where it all began for me. It was the late 1990s, we were studying the Greeks at school and I wanted to find out more. It was a family friend who pointed me towards The Luck of Troy, the first time I had ever heard anything about that kerfuffle around Helen and the big wooden horse. I was only nine and it was instant Book-Love. I loved the exotic character names and recycled them repeatedly in my own stories for years afterwards. The high stakes, the action, the drama … I just thought it was brilliant. Returning to the book two decades on, I was … puzzled. It was not the way I remembered it. It was far more … strange.
Roger Lancelyn Green is best known for being one of the ‘Inklings’ and for his mythic retellings such as Tales of Greek Heroes. He wrote comparatively few pieces of original fiction and even when he did, as with this novel, he tended to root them heavily in classical literature. The Luck of Troy is based on the source which claims that when Helen of Sparta was taken to Troy by Prince Paris, she took her infant son Nicostratus along with her. While it is generally agreed that Helen bore her husband Menelaus a daughter, the existence of the son is only mentioned by a few writers and some even suggest that the boy’s mother was not Helen but rather a slave woman. Intriguingly, Nicostratus is referred to as growing up as a brave warrior but precisely nothing else is known about his later life, leaving Lancelyn Green a lot of room for manoeuvre for his own narrative.
The Luck of Troy shows us the conflict from Nicostratus’ eye view. Aged twelve, he has almost no memory of Sparta. He has grown up as an outsider among the Trojans, unable to leave the city but hated by most of its inhabitants. As the war draws towards its inexorable conclusion, the risk to Nicostratus grows ever closer. In this telling of the story, Paris is a cruel bully and Helen has never loved him. Nicostratus’s only friend and playmate is the Trojan princess Polyxena and he sees her fall in love with Achilles and then have her heart broken by his death. He is heartened by the visits of the disguised Odysseus and tries to help him steal the statue of Athena known as ‘The Luck of Troy’ which the Greeks believe they need in order to finally bring the city to its knees.
The idea of Helen in Troy with a child is incredibly thought-provoking. In most tellings of the tale, she is the ultimate Bad Mother. She has a young daughter and she abandons her to run after her lover and does not see her again for ten years. Here though, the dynamic is flipped. She is more akin to Ma in Room, desperately trying to keep her child safe in a city full of people who would do him harm. Yet somehow that maternal protectiveness never really comes across, perhaps because although the reader has only Nico’s perspective, she is still always referred to as ‘Helen’ and there is a certain distance between the two characters.
I think this is something about Helen of Troy though. I have read around five different novels which feature her as a character and … I’ve never really felt like what motivated her ever really came through. She doesn’t ‘make sense’ to me. She is the most beautiful woman who has ever existed and we are supposed to believe that she once truly walked the earth. Women did not like her as they were consumed with jealousy. And fear too that Helen would steal away their husbands. Men loathed her too either from frustrated lust or just plain frustration at the chaos she left in her wake. She even gets short shrift in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.
The Luck of Troy was the first time I ever encountered Helen’s character. I accepted the explanation given in the book that she was ‘enchanted’ by Paris and bitterly regretted ever having laid eyes on him. It was only later when a succession of other stories contradicted this version of events that I began to question matters. If Helen never loved Paris, why on earth is he still calling her his wife a whole decade later? What has he been keeping her around for? She wears white and sits in her citadel, apparently unmolested. Why have the Trojan people been fighting for ten whole years to keep hold of a woman who calls them all barbarians and treats them with nothing but disdain?
The simple explanation – she must have loved Paris. It’s the only theory that explains such an epic level of rashness and stupidity. They have a doomed romance akin to that of Romeo and Juliet. Except … no. That still does not work. Paris was happy with Oenone the nymph until he was asked to judge the goddesses’ contest and he was awarded Helen as his ‘prize’. It’s hardly a ‘meet-cute’. Paris was generally agreed to be a coward. When he is struck by a poisoned arrow, it is Oenone he seeks out and when he dies, Helen seems to move on very quickly. It’s not exactly the kind of love story that should have burned down a city.
When you look over the course of Helen’s life, you really wonder. She was first abducted as a ten year-old by Theseus. Then she was stolen back. Then not long afterwards, there was a mini-conflict over who would get to marry her during which she had no say at all. From there, she was Queen of Sparta until Paris arrived. She was stolen, she was stolen back. When Paris died, she was even ‘inherited’ by his brothers. Her beauty made her a commodity, not a person. We accept that just about every other female figure within the Trojan war had absolutely no say on where she went or who she had to marry or have sex with. Why do we still cock an eyebrow at Helen and insist she must have been no better than she should be? As a child reading The Luck of Troy, I never questioned Helen’s silent acceptance of what was happening to her. As an adult, I really questioned whether it made sense. But on reflection, what choice did she have? She is trapped in the city and they have her son.
The more I think about it, the more I can feel my hackles rise. So, so many female figures in history have had their reputations trampled through the mud. Look at the Wars of the Roses – Margaret of Anjou was called an adulteress, Elizabeth Woodville was accused of witchcraft, Elizabeth of York had rumours spread about her that she had an affair with her uncle. Even in the twentieth century, Christine Keeler was blamed for much of went on within the Profumo affair even though it was quite apparent that she had been manipulated by various powerful older men. Monica Lewinsky was blamed for Bill Clinton’s indiscretions even though she was a young intern. If Time is indeed ‘up’ for misogyny, women should also shed their suspicion and actually have some sympathy for Helen.
What is striking in The Luck of Troy is quite how much is not said. In the approximately two decades since I last read this book, I have picked up quite a lot about Greek mythology and I have also become an adult. When Polyxena mentions that her brother Polydorus had been sent away from the city to safety, I winced. The poor boy was sent to local king Polymestor, who murdered the child when he heard that Troy had fallen out of fear of retributions from the Greeks. When Cassandra remarks sadly that Hector’s son would never learn to speak his father’s name, I had no idea what this meant. Nine year-old me genuinely thought how strange that they would not mention the name just because Hector was now dead. I read Adele Geras’ Troy about five years later and in all honesty, what happened to Astyanax still makes me teary-eyed. Having had a son of my own has not helped this. That child’s death has left a mark on me in a way that few other ‘fictional’ deaths ever have. My point is that Roger Lancelyn Green is versed in classical literature in a manner that is rare among writers of children’s fiction. But when I think back on my early reading of this book, I picture a child walking down a path with pitch darkness on either side. I did not know what dangers lurked just beyond the reach of the story.
It is interesting too how Lancelyn Green chooses carefully what he shows the reader. He does not tell us what it is that Paris said to Helen that made her go back to the citadel and Nicostratus long for a sword. I can guess now but my childhood self was again entirely clueless. Yet what I remember most vividly is how terrifying I found the character of Deiphobus. He takes over ‘ownership’ of Helen and Nicostratus but has been instructed that he cannot touch either of them until they have observed sixty full days of mourning for Paris. Instead he threatens them in great detail, explaining exactly how he will murder Nico as soon as he is legally allowed. As the days tick by and the Greeks appear to have abandoned the field, Nico has to grapple with the idea that he faces the same fate as so many of Priam’s princely sons. Nico is only twelve, not so very much older than I was at the time. It was uncomfortable to realise that war could touch the lives of children too.
Of course, it’s possible that what I see as a gap in the story is something that Lancelyn Green was not comfortable discussing. Most of the retellings on my Greek Mythology Challenge list are recent publications written by women rather than Oxford dons. There is a certain sterile quality to The Luck of Troy which is probably more of a sign of its era. I was also a little disquieted by the general dismissal of all the Trojans as barbarians. It reminded me a bit of CS Lewis’ descriptions of Calormen. If I were ever to read this to my son, I think it would definitely prompt some extra discussion about racial stereotyping and changing times.
The true plot arc of The Luck of Troy comes around Nicostratus. We see him go from young boy who feels out of place in Troy to young man willing to give up his life to see his mother freed. His ultimate reward is that he finally gets that father figure that he has craved for so long. I found that I did not connect with Nico as much as I did during my childhood readings but I wonder if I also found it more difficult to believe in his happy ending. When I read more about Helen’s possible offspring, I discovered that the child more commonly believed to have gone with Helen to Troy was a boy named Pleisthenes but nothing further is known of his fate. It is also theorised that she bore children to Paris and that these too perished in the war. There are even some tellings of the story that would have it that Iphigenia was Helen’s daughter from her abduction by Theseus, given to Clytemnestra to bring up to protect Helen’s reputation. Was the daughter slaughtered in punishment of the mother? The truth is that whatever children Helen brought into the world – none of them had a contented life and nor did they seem to make old bones.
Sadly, I think that the reason that I couldn’t enjoy The Luck of Troy as much this time is that I no longer believed that a happy ending could be found anywhere in the slaughter and destruction that went on there and I certainly could not believe that there were any heroes.