[ Book Review ] Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad

Melissa’s Review: The Penelopiad, a novella by Margaret Atwood

 
Atwood’s response to Homer’s Odyssey was first on my list of fun reading while on break from graduate studies. Having been on a steady diet of classics, I’m getting a little sick of the male protagonist and his heroic adventures.

Please, somebody pass the microphone to a woman on the scene. (Oops, not her. That guy just turned her into a tree.)

Here is Penelope’s epic–her own story, not simply her take on her husband’s renowned exploits. (Cyclops, or one-eyed tavern keeper?)  Penelope speaks to us from the underworld, having seen the intervening centuries come and go, changing the world as she knew it.  History has made of Penelope a figure of obedient loyalty; of Odysseus, a god-like hero. Behind the scenes, we find, things are not as glorious as they seem.

Far from a book-by-book translation of Homer, Atwood’s version focuses on a startling little detail from Book 22: the tale of the twelve murdered maids.

Homer tells us the maids were disloyal sluts, sleeping with the disrespectful suitors vying for Penelope’s hand in Odysseus’s absence. In the gruesome scenes of revenge that follow his return, Odysseus orders his son Telemachus to murder the maids for their disobedience, after forcing them to clean the bloody mess of the hall. Telemachus hangs the maids in a single row.

Atwood tells us the maids were essentially innocent, their flirtations with the suitors a kind of strategic reconnaissance mission ordered by Penelope in her attempt to preserve her family’s wealth from greedy hands.  The maids are “like sisters” to Penelope, bringing youthful energy, songs, and sweets to her room at night, where they help her unravel Laertes’ burial shroud. Their assistance in this dangerous deception is actually a gesture of loyalty.

And it’s also kind of fun. “There is indeed something delightful about being able to combine obedience and disobedience in the same act,” Penelope says of the maids’ mirth in their complicity.

In the voice of the maids, Atwood is often direct about this witty balancing of accounts:Atwood’s own delight is evident in this reworking of myth. Though obedient to the task at hand, her work is skillfully defiant of accepted academic perspectives– on Penelope and the maids specifically, and on the validity of feminist critique of myth. In the dark tenor of the maids’ songs and sea shanties (they act as a tragicomic Greek chorus, turning the story wheel between chapters), we can hear both the maid’s disobedience and Atwood’s.

“You don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.”

The comparison is an apt one for a novella exploring the ways in which one human life assigns value to another. Money is the paper symbol of a currency’s value; a story is the fictional symbol of real human dramas. How we see the maids, and how we see Penelope– hell, how we see women in myth– says as much about the story as it does about us.

Which is the whole point of mythology.

The Penelopiad is the second volume (2005) in Canongate’s Myth Series, “a long-term global publishing project where some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing.” (The latest edition is Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010). A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, a retelling of the Norse myth of end times, will be out in January.)

There will be critics of this kind of modernization of classic stories. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s reworking of The Iliad, underwent considerable critical fire for its efforts to bring the tale to a modern audience.

And there are some pitfalls of the process of modernizing an ancient story. For me, the weakness (here) lies primarily on the level of language. Though Atwood’s response to Homer is written in the same forthright, gripping language that makes her novels so compelling and masterful, it admittedly pales in comparison to the metered poetry of The Odyssey.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This is, after all, not a translation but a kind of poetic riffing: a story in its own right, and an important antidote to the hard-to-stomach female-bashing of so much of classic literature. A traditionalist might DQ me for reading Homer and Ovid through my 21st century glasses, but I argue there’s a great deal to be gained from Atwood’s refreshing revisioning, and from this kind of intelligent engagement with myth.

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What say you, Canaries? What is your favorite myth/fairytale retelling?

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