Post #7: Xena Does Troy

Post #7: Xena Does Troy

By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday August 31 2014

For me, a Classicist by training, the ultimate rebooting of the past is in modern media about ancient Greece and Rome. I have written and continue to write about this subject, but lots of ideas kick around in my head without a good article to attach them to and either end up as creativity demons in my head or as lecture topics. And so, without further ado, I present my thoughts on the Xena: Warrior Princess episode "Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts." This episode reboots the ancient Greek myths about Helen of Troy in order to represent her as a real woman, not simply by making her a sympathetic character but also by de-romanticizing the entire Trojan War.

“Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts” aired on January 15th 1996 as the twelfth episode of the first season and re-tells the story of the Trojan War. In fact, it is the only episode of Xena: Warrior Princess and its parent series Hercules: the Legendary Journeys to deal with the Trojan War in a direct way, which in one way is surprising considering that the Greek assault on Troy is one of, if not THE, ultimate Greek myth. But perhaps precisely because the message of the series is a rejection of the male-centric perspective of classical myths it makes sense that Xena goes to Troy.

Figure 1: Xena’s takeover of the Trojan War story is complete when she catapults herself out of the wooden horse to attack the Greeks.

Figure 1: Xena’s takeover of the Trojan War story is complete when she catapults herself out of the wooden horse to attack the Greeks.

“Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts” is a pretty good translation of something that the doomed Trojan priest Laocoön says in Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid (Book 2, line 49). The Trojans, believing that they are victorious and that Greeks have abandoned their ten-year siege, are standing in slack-jawed amazement around an enormous statue of a horse made of wood that stands on the plains of Ilium just outside the city where the Greek soldiers formerly made their camp. A fierce debate rages among them about what they should do with the statue: should they push it into the sea, burn it where it stands, hack it apart, or take it into the city and offer it to the gods?

Figure 2: Laocoön and his sons are strangled by a gods-sentserpent. When Renaissance Italians discovered this statue, they reportedly summoned Michelangelo to restore it. The master replied that he couldn’t possibly improve on such perfection--and then shouted, “Pizza time!”

Figure 2: Laocoön and his sons are strangled by a gods-sentserpent. When Renaissance Italians discovered this statue, they reportedly summoned Michelangelo to restore it. The master replied that he couldn’t possibly improve on such perfection--and then shouted, “Pizza time!”

Laocoön forebodes that something terrible will happen if the horse is brought into Troy (he is, of course, right--a select band of the Greeks’ finest are hidden inside) and urges his fellow townspeople to destroy it. He warns his fellow townspeople with the line, “whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they bear gifts” (quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis in Latin), and this line forms the basis of this episode’s title as well as Xena’s warning when the Trojans joyously report the departure of the Greeks and the appearance of the wooden horse: “Beware Greeks bearing gifts, Paris.” The gods send serpents to kill Laocoön and his young sons (figure 2), but Xena is merely imprisoned by Paris, a situation from which she quickly escapes to help Helen.

Xena’s quip puts her into an interesting space in classical myth. On the one hand she’s Greek as this episode reminds us on several occasions, but she temporarily inhabits the role of a member of the opposing side, a Trojan priest. But Xena’s ethnicity has no bearing on her loyalties in the episode (or, arguably, in the series as a whole--a vision promoting a post-political fantasy of the ‘90s Balkans?); she wants to help Helen, and “Beware” represents both Greeks and Trojans as war-mongering, treacherous louts. It’s not surprise, and another point of Xena’s strategy of representing the past, that the traditionally sympathetic Trojan characters are MIA: King Priam, Troy’s premier warrior Hector, and his suffering wife Andromache. By substituting Xena for Laocoön, the show situates Xena as a singular voice, apart from any particular political sympathies. This outsiderness is also reflected in Xena’s Greekness: she is, after all, Greek as several Trojans grumble in the episode, but she is from Amphipolis, a city on the northern edge of the civilized Greek world and the barbaric Thrace in ancient times (figure 3). This geographical marginality is reflected in Xena’s marginality in this episode, a marginality that empowers her to speak outside of the tradition the ancient world has bequeathed to us.

Figure 3: Amphipolis is situated on the periphery of the civilized ancient Greek world. Gabrielle, by contrast, represents tradition, since she’s from the town of Potidea in the heart of mainland Greece, about 111 kilometers southwest of Amphipolis, as this discussion thread shows.

Figure 3: Amphipolis is situated on the periphery of the civilized ancient Greek world. Gabrielle, by contrast, represents tradition, since she’s from the town of Potidea in the heart of mainland Greece, about 111 kilometers southwest of Amphipolis, as this discussion thread shows.

Xena’s cynical view of the horse reflects a more general theme of “Beware”, the de-romanticization of HeIen and Troy in general. In the first scene of the episode, Xena and her companion Gabrielle discuss going to the city; Gabrielle wants to make a pit-stop so they can get supplies, while Xena is totally against it.

XENA: Half an apple--that’s it?
GABRIELLE: I should have picked up some more supplies when we came down Mount Poulis. But don’t worry. We’re not far from Troy. We can just stop there, and--
XENA: No, we’re not stopping in Troy, Gabrielle.  It’s too dangerous. And besides,    after fighting the Greeks for ten years, I doubt that the Trojans have any food to spare.
GABRIELLE: It was just a thought. The only chance I’d get to see Helen...the face that launched a thousand ships!
XENA: A thousand war ships. Forget it.

To convince her companion, Gabrielle “quotes” the 1604 play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (played admirably as a dying vampire by John Hurt in the recent Only Lovers Left Alive, but I digress). The central character, Faustus, says the following lines when Mephistopheles brings forth Helen’s ghost: “Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Similarly, Gabby tries to convince Xena that Troy is worth their time because they could see the legendary Helen, but Xena, who has known Helen since they were kids in Sparta (I’d love to know more about THAT backstory!), immediately deflates any delusions of grandeur: Troy is about war.

Figure 4: The grim battlefield of Troy in “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts.” I can’t help but see some influence from producer Sam Raimi, who also directed the Evil Dead series of films.

Figure 4: The grim battlefield of Troy in “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts.” I can’t help but see some influence from producer Sam Raimi, who also directed the Evil Dead series of films.

Any romance lingering around the idea of Helen and the Trojan War is debunked even further as Xena and Gabrielle approach the city walls of Troy. An eerie soundtrack overlays images of a battlefield littered with crucified corpses and skeletons on torture racks, their eye sockets crawling with spiders (figure 4). A typical Sam Raimi Evil Dead flourish, no doubt, but also a forceful reminder of the harsh realities of the Trojan War.

The two opposite reactions of Gabrielle and Xena to the idea of the Trojan War—one romantic and the other realistic—are resolved by the outcome of the episode itself. Helen eventually realizes that she doesn’t love either Menelaus or Paris and, with Xena’s help, leaves a sacked Troy to pursue a new life (figure 5). Gabrielle’s childhood friend Perdicus, who is fighting for Troy because he had heard stories of Paris and Helen and wanted to be in a place “where people were fighting for love”, realizes that he doesn’t love Gabrielle and abandons Troy to accompany an incognito Helen on her new adventures.

Figure 5: Xena and Gabrielle leave behind the smoking ruins of Troy, the famed wooden horse, and the myth of Helen. In one episode Helen has solved the problem of the Trojan War and the persistent misogynistic illusion of Helen in western culture.

Figure 5: Xena and Gabrielle leave behind the smoking ruins of Troy, the famed wooden horse, and the myth of Helen. In one episode Helen has solved the problem of the Trojan War and the persistent misogynistic illusion of Helen in western culture.

Homer’s story is thus stripped of the romanticism that its Western reception history has accumulated and still continues to accumulate--witness Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004). This action is a microcosm of ideology of the series itself, which seeks to place Xena, a female hero not present in ancient myths but created by modern artists, at the center of the male-dominated ancient world. The result of this is a consistent debunking of the often misogynistic attitudes and values of ancient Greece and Rome and a re-focusing of central male characters like Hercules, who align themselves with this modern view of the past as it could/should have been.

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