Independent Scottish publisher Canongate Books brings together some of the world’s finest writers, in the Myth series, each of whom has retold a myth from various cultures in a contemporary and memorable way. The project was conceived in 1999 by Jamie Byng, owner of Canongate, who hopes that 100 titles will eventually be published in the series.
Authors in the series include Karen Armstrong (A Short History of Myth), A.S. Byatt (Ragnarok), David Grossman (Lion’s Honey), Natsuo Kirino (The Goddess Chronicle), Alexander McCall Smith (Dream Angus), Philip Pullman (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ), Ali Smith (Girl Meets Boy), Michel Faber (The Fire Gospel), Victor Pelevin (The Helmet of Horror), Jeanette Winterson (The Weight), Su Tong (Binu and the Great Wall), Milton Hatoum (Orphans of Eldorado), Klas Östergren (The Hurricane Party), Dubravka Ugrešić (Baba Laid an Egg), Salley Vickers (Where Three Roads Meet), and of course, Margaret Atwood with The Penelopiad.
The Penelopiad was one of the first books published in this series, in 2005. Simply put, it’s the story of Penelope as she waits for the return of Odysseus. But this is Margaret Atwood at her best, so much, much more is going on once you enter this world.
Penelope is dead and ‘living’ out her time in the underworld. From this place of eternal wandering, she decides to do some story-telling of her own, to set the story straight. Her story is interwoven with the voices of her very own Greek chorus – the twelve maids hanged by Odysseus on his return.
Our various mothers | Spawned merely, lambed, farrowed, littered, | Foaled, whelped and kittened, brooded, | hatched out their clutch. | We were animal young, to be disposed of at | will, | Sold, drowned in the well, traded, used, | discarded when bloomless. | He was fathered; we simply appeared
Why were they hanged? What crime did they commit? What was Penelope’s role in their downfall?
Atwood teases out these questions as she explores the roles of women in Ancient Greek life (and the many similarities to modern life) in verse and in prose.
I was a kind girl…I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so…but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness and day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.
The role of patience, waiting and the appearance of submission hide the reality of women’s lives lived away from the male gaze. The friendship and jealousy, the camaraderie and gossip that makes up one’s daily life, when one has nothing else to do.
There are many misunderstandings and many conversations misconstrued. Stories and myths are created to cover up deceit and misadventures. Where the truth lies, nobody really knows. Not even Penelope, in the end. Or the maids. All they know is that they were murdered and that their ‘most pitiable end‘ has gone down in history unremarked and uncontested.
It pays to be conversant with The Iliad and The Odyssey, to appreciate where Atwood has used original narrative or woven in her own interpretation. Every word is wrought with an older meaning which leads back to the original stories. However the snarky, sardonic voice is pure Atwood!
I loved every minute with this novella and I plan to reread it at some point (maybe when I finally get around to reading Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey).
- ‘Now that I am dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true.’
We had no voice,
We had no name,
We had no choice,
We had one face,
One face the same
Have you read any of the other Myth series books?
Can you recommend which one I should try next?
I’m leaning towards Jeanette Winterson and A. S. Byatt at this point.