Monday, January 09, 2006

Myth series contd: The Penelopiad, Weight

“The Hydra, now she was a worm. Chop off one head and straight away there’d be another glaring at you. Like marriage really. And after this I’ve got to go down into Hell and drag out that stupid dog, what’s his name, Cerberus. Three heads, loads of teeth – that one. No wonder the dead don’t get any letters – who’s going to deliver them with a dog like that at the gate?”

-- Hercules to Atlas, in Jeanette Winterson’s Weight

And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I wanted to scream in your ear – yes, yours. But when I try to scream I sound like an owl.

-- Penelope, in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad

What’s a retelling without a few funny anachronisms, right? Atwood and Winterson have had a lot of fun with their contributions to Canongate’s myth series, and both books are over-clever in parts. But revisionism done well can be entertaining too. In The Penelopiad, Penelope hears conflicting reports about her husband Odysseus – one says he had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, another says no, it was only a one-eyed tavern-keeper and they were squabbling over the bill. The Atlas-Hercules banter in Weight throws up some inventive slang for phallic activity (Hercules’s “prick goes kangaroo” when he sees the Goddess Hera, whom he simultaneously lusts for and fears). And Penelope's 12 maids, destined to be hanged (and crucial to Atwood’s version of the story), pop up with little ditties in between her narrative; this is The Handmaids’ Tale as performed by Gilbert & Sullivan:

We are the maids
The ones you killed
The ones you failed
We danced in air
Our bare feet twitched
It was not fair
Despite a tendency to be show-offish, both authors acquit themselves well enough. Winterson does use the Atlas myth to make some humdrum observations about walking away from the world’s burdens, and “carrying only what you want to keep”. I’d much rather have listened to U2’s “All That You Can Leave Behind”. But her Atlas is a moving creation and there is unexpected poignancy in his encounter with Laika, the Russian dog sent into space in 1957 (no, this isn’t as bizarre as it sounds!).

Similarly, Atwood’s take on Penelope as a female-goddess cult leader gets a bit distracting towards the end, but the little asides work quite well – for instance, the way she presents Penelope’s envy of Helen in terms of the college Ugly Duckling’s resentment of the most popular girl in class. Or Penelope’s account of life in Hades (which is where she narrates her story from). High comedy is mixed with high drama in a way that does justice to the tone of the original myths.

Coming up in the Myth series: a retelling of the Daedalus and Icarus story by Donna Tartt, as well as works by A S Byatt, David Grossman and Alexander McCall Smith.


  1. I've been wondering, since your previous post on myth, what would qualify as myth-in-the-making; or, what in contemporary story-telling would be the stuff of mythology.

    i'm reading ursula k. le guin's Always Coming Home, and it's an amazing mix of sociology, story-telling, and myth-making. Amazing, complex stuff. If it's happenign in fiction, it's happening with her.

  2. Check out Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light and Creatures of Light & Darkness if you can find them.
    Both classic reorganisations of Hindu and Egyptian myths in some future universe. Also Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon as well as Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave trilogy. For that matter, check out Steinbeck's version of the Arthurian legends.

  3. I love Margaret Atwood, but am not enthused by the Penelopiad at all. I know a few people who've read and disliked it, and your review sort of confirms the feeling that she's a bit out of her depth here. It feels like blasphemy to say that. Myth-wise she is vivid and snappy and good with poems (you've probably read Siren Song and Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing) and short stories, but none of them make me feel that I'd read a novel by her along the same lines. Still, I suppose it's a difficult subject to talk about sustainedly.

  4. Not fiction, but some of the most interesting use of Greek mythology in political philosophy and social theory is by Jon Elster. His Ulysses Unbound is remarkable, do look it up if you can.

    I remember that I had once been taken to Eatopia in IHC by a friend only for us to stumble on some Asian film festival. Pretty nifty.

    And I'm all for multilingualism at an early age. Heck I've been trilingual all my life (although I'm trying to add more to my kitty now).