This will be a short one, written just before I’m going on vacation. But this 200 page novella was such a delight to read, I decided to write a quick post and schedule it for publication during my escapade. I’m actually somewhere in Apulia right now, don’t expect many comments from me until July 16 😉 (well, maybe some, I’m not going totally off the grid…).
Ok, time for formalities…
Author: Margaret Atwood
Title: The Penelopiad
From the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, I give you a short, very special re-telling of the Odyssey. Serious, but light, funny, but making a few pointed accusations and changing the moral of one of the best known stories mankind ever produced. A treat indeed!
I’ve learned about it first reading Calmgrove’s comment under the Witch Week 2018 review of Circe (by Lori from The Emerald City Book Review) another – and reportedly very successful – attempt at giving Greek myth a modern spin. Circe is on my list, but Penelopiad proved to be easier to obtain, and I’m very glad I did.
It was published in 2005 as a part of a very interesting project, Canongate Myth Series. Multiple novellas were published in many languages, and a shared topic was re-interpretation of ancient myths from various cultures. Among the authors, next to Atwood, we have such interesting writers as Phillip Pullman (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ), Dubravka Ugrešić and Olga Tokarczuk.
Now, back to The Penelopiad. Is this a feminist’s Odyssey? Yes, it definitely is, and also a social critique that goes beyond gender relations in the ancient world. We get Penelope’s story, not only her version of the events described by Homer, but the story of her life from childhood in Sparta to the long afterlife in Hades, where she reminisces, adding some comments on the modern world. And many vicious remarks aimed at Helen of Troy, Penelope’s relation that, lets face it, is depicted as much more exciting. Reader might get an impression being the symbol of marital fidelity and proper feminine virtues is less fun that being the first universally recognized sex bomb 😉
I’m going to assume you remember the basic story of Odyssey, although I have to admit I needed a quick reminder, details Atwood brought to the front skipped my memory – I read Homer ca. twenty years ago, at school.
Penelope is the narrator, we mostly hear her voice, but her twelve maids Odysseus sentenced to death as traitors after he returned and found them fraternizing with the infamous suitors that wanted to take his place on the throne of Ithaca, are as important to the novella and their fate is the strongest voice. Their mistress is a female aristocrat in a strongly patriarchal society, a wife left behind when men do manly deeds. She’s tough, resourceful, perhaps not as virtuous as the songs claim – the narrative is subjective, we’re not given the simple truth, just different point of view. Penelope was in many ways a very modern woman, but still, I felt this is one of the better attempts of describing what might have really happened. If not historically accurate, than at least making me think about the less heroic background of the ancient myths. As such, it’s a great book for our times, when social history offers a much more complete picture of the past than the old tales about heroic individuals.
It reminded me about The Tale of the Wife of St. Alexius by Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna, a poem Polish students read at school. St. Alexius of Rome was a very pious monastic known for his dedication to Christ. His wife was left behind without a word of explanation, unable to lead a normal life under such circumstances. You might guess who the modern poet sympathises with…
Returning once more to Atwood’s book, where we sympathise with Penelope, at least I did, and not without reason. But she’s not the one worst off. Young maids, deprived of even the frail defences aristocratic women had, property of their master, playthings of whoever wanted to use them, ultimately betrayed by their mistress – who didn’t want to risk her position defending them, even while she knew of their innocence. As their ghosts claim in the final chapter:
we had no voice
we had no name
we had no choice (…)
we took the blame
So they did. Whenever I read about the glories of the past, I try to also remember how hard, short and full of terror were lives of quite a big percentage of people historians don’t mention by names.
The novella is not a grim diatribe, though. It’s brilliant, ironic, includes multiple short, poetic forms, like this:
If I was a princess, with silver and gold,
And loved by a hero, I’d never grow old;
Oh, if a young hero came a-marrying me,
I’d always be beautiful, happy, and free!
It’s smart, it moves you, and it’s even fun. Highly recommended!
It’s literature though, not anthropology, so keep that in mind. Atwood used very interesting inspirations to make a valid point, discussion of the male/female deities’ rivalries in the ancient Mediterranean should be left for another day and supported by a few more – heavier – volumes.
This is also not the first appearance of Atwood on Re-E, although a much higher scored one than this 😉