The action of Homer's epic The Iliad brings two huge armies together, one inside the walls of Troy and the other outside, as a massive act of revenge for the stealing of Helen. Helen is the figure who stands between the two opposing armies. She is Greek, but she has been taken by the Trojans, willingly or unwillingly, and is the immediate cause of the war. History shows that the war between Greece and Troy took place, probably several times over several centuries, but the story of Helen was likely created by tradition and taken over by the poet for this epic work. The nature of Helen is important in the way the epic develops, though, and she is also an important figure in the legend and in later depictions of the same story.
Rachel Bespaloff notes that Helen is the severest and most austere of the characters in The Iliad as she walks around the walls like a penitent, projecting an image of misfortune and beauty. She is a royal figure, but she is not free. Her lack of freedom does not derive from either the Greeks or the Trojans, however:
Nothing short of the death of the Immortals would restore her freedom, since it is the gods, not her fellow men, who have dared to put her in bondage. Her fate does not depend on the outcome of the war; Paris or Menelaus may get her, but for her nothing can really change. She is the prisoner of the passions her beauty excited, and her passivity is, so to speak, their underside.
M.I. Finley points out that Helen is the one of the characters in this epic who is not fully formed or resoled. Helen is a peculiar figure as presented by Homer. She is the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and Leda was Aphrodite's favorite, a feeling transferred to Helen. Because of this exalted position, Helen wa blessed by the goddess, who gave her the gifts of beauty and charm. because of these gifts, however, Helen embroiled the Greeks and the Trojans in a protracted war that cost both sides dearly. Howe...