Publishing a review that has been lounging in my drafts unnoticed:
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
Had you met me three years ago, you would have found me at the height of my Trojan War obsession. That was the time I devoured The Iliad and many retellings and novelettes based on the myths. The Odyssey did not capture my attention quite as much as the other Homeric epic, but I did read it, for the great beauty of verse that only the Robert Fitzgerald translation can offer.
I lost much of that rapture for these stories sometime in the last three years, and it was invigorating to revisit them with The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Ever since I finished reading it last night, I have been thinking about it – enough to burst into pressing soliloquies (speaking to myself, much like writing, helps me think) in the confines of my four walls. It’s a cleverly written book, quite a Odysseus-like trickster in plot and wordsmithery.
The Penelopiad is the story of Odysseus and his wife Penelope through her eyes, instead of his. But get this – the story is set in present-day, when the Penelope has been dead for thousands of years and speaks to us from beyond the River Styx, from the netherworld of Hades. She has spent her time reassessing the events that took place before and following the now mythical Trojan War and she wants to get word out of what really happened: her defense. You see, Homer’s Odyssey ends with great bloodshed, and among the dead are twelve of Penelope’s maids, whose death Atwood feels was most unfair and offensive, and the one tragedy in the Odyssey that has gone ignored for too long.
The Odyssey begins after the Fall of Troy, when the Greeks have set sail for home. In the Odyssey, while Odysseus is on his way back to his land, Ithaca, his wife Penelope is coaxed by many suitors, young princes who wish to take advantage of the lonely woman and the treasures of the empire. Upon Odysseus’s return, the suitors have gone too far, and raided the palace for food and spoils and have raped the maids and even tried to force themselves upon Penelope. He enters the palace disguised as a beggar, unbeknownst to even Penelope, outwits the suitors and wins her hand in marriage. He then orders them all to be killed. And, Penelope’s maids, whom he believes to have been traitors in cahoots with the suitors, are hanged by Odysseus’s son Telemachus, a meer teen at the time of these events.
These maids of Penelope sing of their plight and fling accusations at the heroes of the book, the author and history for forgetting about them. It is a tricky book, and the running chorus of the maids, which forms a large part of the book, is only one of its tricks. The maids sing their chorus in myriad forms – a folk song, ballad, iambic verse and so on. They say:
we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair
with every goddess, queen, and bitch
from there to here you scratched your itch
we did much less
than what you did
you judged us bad
With the Penelopiad, Atwood tries to add to the Homeric epics what time and the bard failed: women characters with some semblance of agency. In the original Iliad, Penelope waits and even her smallest attempts at cleverness fail – she does not recognize Odysseus, her own husband whom she’s been awaiting, when he enters their palace. In this book, she does, but for reasons critical to Atwood’s twist ending, chooses not to reveal this information. In Atwood’s story, Penelope is not simply waiting, you see, but plotting her own way out of her dilemma. She’s sent out search parties for Odysseus and has instructed her maids to work for her. It is unbeknownst to her that the maids are brutally murdered by Odysseus – and even now, centuries later, Penelope sits in the netherworld and repents for his actions. The maids still haunt her.
This is one of the many misconceptions explained by Penelope of history as we know it. The other major discrepancy in historical writing is the innocence of Helen. In an at once dry, bitter and biting tone, Atwood’s Penelope characterises Helen of Troy as a woman who uses her beauty to get away with anything. Helen is Penelope’s cousin and in appearance, her complete opposite, strikingly attractive. Penelope also considers her vain and seeking the attention that men give her, basking in the wars she causes. Her unfairly strong condemnation of Helen is possibly her way of acquiring narrative justice, but also seems to show this spirit of feminine rivalry that Helen may have caused in the wake of her decisions. The epics only talk of the effect on men of Helen’s beauty, we can only yet imagine the female perspective. Atwood has strong opinions on female relations. Even so, the flow of double-standards from Penelope’s tongue is unpalatable. It surprises me that a book that heavily addresses the vulnerability of women in the time of men and gods has no sympathy for Helen.
Another problem with the book is that I somehow don’t buy it – while the epics do lack with women with any kind of active power, Penelope is one of the stronger prominent characters of Homer. I do not believe she needed an update. That said, The Penelopiad is somehow brilliantly written. The wry sarcastic sort of voice that I have somehow begun to associate with Atwood (though I’ve barely read two or three of her books) is interesting. It frequently elicited chuckles from me. And it definitely made me marvel at Atwood’s clever use of narrative techniques. Would like to see the play some day!
All in all, an interesting book, but not nearly my favourite in the Canongate Myths series. I somewhere that Atwood was originally working on a retelling of the Norse myths for the same series. Glad she did not take it up. This is provided in the series by A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Norse apocalypse in the most brilliant and underrated book titled Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. A real treasure, that book is! My favourite myth retold though is not a Canongate book, but is Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, a retelling of Psyche and Cupid, from the point of view of Psyche’s sister – a haunting tale. What about you? Any retellings of myths or fairy tales that you would recommend?
One thought on “The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood”
I will never really forgive Atwood for her “talking squids in outer space” crack, but this book sounds interesting. Seeing how authors reframe those old stories makes for fascinating reading. I enjoyed the Byatt and Lewis books.