Thursday, February 2, 2012

In Defense of Menelaus

As a rule of thumb, I cheer for the underdog. Watching someone beat the odds is a marvelous thing. It gives you hope for yourself, for the future, for the world in general. The big guys don't always win, and the little guy who cares can actually stand up and show them what's what.

And I have never seen a more under underdog than Menelaus.

Helen and Paris, Howard David Johnson
Everyone knows how this goes. We saw a preview for it in Aphrodite and Hephaestus' disastrous marriage, but even the gods couldn't outdo the mortals on this one. Anyone planning to hook up with The Most Beautiful [fill-in-the-blank] Ever should take note: there will always be an upgrade. Menelaus is the guy Helen had to marry; Paris is the guy she wanted to marry. Or at least the guy she shacked up with for a decade and (according to Homer) had pretty awesome hate sex with. Menelaus is the guy with metaphorical egg on his face who has to fight his wife's boy toy, who quite possibly has non-metaphorical afterglow in his hair. Someone is losing here, big time.

Rubbing salt in that ten-year wound, no one can say a nice word about Menelaus' appearance. Helen's beauty goes without saying; Paris is called "godlike" by Homer, who otherwise has no time for the whiny little brat. The best Menelaus gets in terms of physical description is that he
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (detail of Menelaus), Roman
copy of the painting by Timanthes
has red hair. Damned by faint praise if anyone ever was. If Paris is Helen's upgrade, it's hard not to imagine that Helen was Menelaus's. The younger brother of an ambitious king could expect very little in Bronze Age Greece, but marriage to Helen got Menelaus a kingdom, prestige, and an incredibly hot wife all in one stroke. All of a sudden it makes a bit more sense why he'd fight so devastating a war to get her back: she's the ticket to his future, and possibly his self-esteem too.

But that's not enough. This humiliation conga's just beginning. Menelaus is very clearly subordinate to his brother for the entirety of the war, despite having the most at stake. Hera and Athena are nominally on his side, but they have to remind themselves to help him out, while Aphrodite springs into action when Paris is in danger. And in every adaptation of the story since Homer, he's recharacterized as unsavory: neglectful, abusive, careless, vengeful, anything to make him seem unworthy of the prize that is Helen.

So why do I cheer for him? Because he's awesome, that's why.

Helen and Menelaus, 6th century Greek relief
Homer tells us right from the start that what Menelaus wants most of all is to defend Helen's honor. Don't forget, Homer's Helen isn't in love with Paris; the first time we see them together, she quite rightly bitches him out for his wimpiness, comparing him to Menelaus in devastating terms. No one listens, least of all Paris, but Helen is not happy in Troy. Who wants to protect her? Who wants to make her happy? Who wants to restore her good name? Menelaus. Her husband. After nine years of daily humiliation, his goal is still to please her. In a Big Manly Epic full of blood and death and talk of honor, that is just sweet.

But Menelaus isn't just all heart. He plans nighttime initiatives with Agamemnon. His most-used epithet is "master of the war-cry." Helen sings his praises as a fighter, and his battle with Paris more than proves her right. He never oversteps his boundaries as second-in-command, but when he needs to act, he brings it. He's a king you could be proud to follow, which in the Iliad is rare indeed.

Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus, Roman copy
of Greek statue
And lest we forget, he carries Patroclus's body back to the Greek lines, weaponless and endangered for the sake of his dead comrade's honor.

This. Guy. Rocks.

I dare you to find a more well-rounded man in all of Greek mythology. Menelaus has it all. Plus he wins. Plus Helen is happy to be reunited with him and their daughter. (Hey, they had a daughter? That means they must have slept together! Crazy times!)

And he never brags about how awesome he is. He just is. And it's a crying shame that he's constantly belittled in favor of a spoiled manwhore who hasn't a fraction of Menelaus's qualities, or the grace with which he carries them.


  1. lol you got me with "he carries Patroclus's body back to the Greek lines." Because, you know. The death of Patroclus is one of my favorite parts of the Illiad.

    But, if nothing else, you're probably right that Menelaus gets shortchanged in the adaptations. He didn't do anything to deserve having his wife stolen - that was all Paris and Aphrodite. And we already know they're both jerks. lol.

  2. Totally in agreement with Mizujada. Aphrodite and Paris are jerks.

    Although we all know the Helen's kidnapping was just a catalyst so Agamemnon could go to war. Only Menelaus really cared about Helen in any semblance. She's like an ancient Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Or Elian Gonzalez!

    1. They really are. Not once in the whole Iliad do either of them do anything to make me like them.

      And I could do a whole post on how Helen takes an impossibly bad rap for something that, indeed, had very little to do with her. It's a strange case, because in-story nothing gets said about the other reasons to go to war (trade monopoly, lots of cash, yadda yadda), and it's taken for granted by all the characters that it's Helen's fault, but in adaptations of the story the other reasons come roaring to the front. Probably to do with changing cultural attitudes both to war and to storytelling, but it would be fun to look into.