Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

A Literary Three-Way: About the Girls (II)

I was inspired to re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad after I read The Odyssey (with and without pictures).

“The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many inconsistencies.”

Atwood describes the impetus for retelling this classic tale as follows:

“I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.”

Well, how can you resist?

Hauntings and hangings? This is the stuff of HBO series, without the monthly subscription fee.

But so what if that explains Atwood’s interest. How does she explain Penelope’s interest in telling her side of the story after all these years.

Well, she certainly has a motive:

“But after the main events were over and things had become less legendary, I realized how many people were laughing at me behind my back – how they were jeering, making jokes about me, jokes both clean and dirty; how they were turning me into a story, or into several stories, though not the kind of stories I’d prefer to hear about myself.”

She is tired of being a joke, tired of being at the heart of stories that others are telling about her. Penelope wants to tell her own story.

Which isn’t to say that she believes she is qualified to tell it. She is the first to admit (or perhaps she wasn’t the first, but wouldn’t it have been better if she had been the first?) that much time has passed. Her memory might not be trustworthy.

“But perhaps this shroud-weaving oracle idea of mine is baseless. Perhaps I have only invented it in order to make myself feel better.”

In fact, Penelope might have spent entirely too much time in her own head. The following passage illustrates that possibility, and it also gives a glimpse of the tale spinner’s voice. (It’s not a giggle, but a hanh, at the end of that bit, but it’s humour, either way.)

“So much whispering goes on, in the dark caverns, in the meadows, that sometimes it’s hard to know whether the whispering is coming from others or from the inside of your own head. I use head figuratively. We have dispensed with heads as such, down here.”

The great joy of revisiting this classic tale in Margaret Atwood’s story-weaving hands, is the sardonic tone. Take the brief recounting of Penelope’s younger years, her mother all chilly and elusive, which is appropriate for a Naiad, and her father having tossed her in the sea. Then, take the commentary.

“You can see by what I’ve told you that I was a child who learned early the virtues – if such they are – of self-sufficiency. I could see that I would have to look out for myself in the world. I could hardly count on family support.”

If you don’t find yourself snarkily chuckling over that, chances are that the book will not appeal, for Penelope’s voice is sharp and her observations acute.

“And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of gilded blood pudding.”

Even if you don’t know the story of Penelope’s twelve maids, you know that, if she and Margaret Atwood were haunted by them, it’s not a story with a happy ending.

But the maids themselves have a voice in The Penelopiad, speaking as a chorus. Here’s an excerpt of one of their ballads:

“Sleep is the only rest we get;
It’s then we are at peace:
We do not have to mop the floor
And wipe away the grease.

We are not chased around the hall
And tumbled in the dirt
By every dimwit nobleman
Who wants a slice of skirt….”

But of course it’s not all domestic life in this story, even though Penelope was left behind for the events chronicled in The Odyssey.

But as you’ve already gathered, The Penelopiad is all about filling the gaps. So what you don’t know from Homer’s version is what Penelope was thinking when Odysseus announced that he has to sail to Troy:

“I repressed a desire to say that Helen should have been kept in a locked trunk in a dark cellar because she was poison on legs. Instead I said, ‘Will you have to go?’”

What is told, what is not: such is the stuff of The Penelopiad.

How does one find the truth?

“Odysseus had been to the Land of the Dead to consult the spirits, said some. No, he’d merely spent the night in a gloomy old cave full of bats, said others.”

Penelope doesn’t know what to believe either.

“He’d made his men put wax in their ears, said one, while sailing past the alluring Sirens – half-bird, half-woman – who enticed men to their island and then ate them, though he’d tied himself to the mast so he could listen to their irresistible singing without jumping overboard.”

Readers of The Odyssey know that version.

“No, said another, it was a high-class Sicilian knocking shop – the courtesans there were known for their musical talents and their fancy feathered outfits.”

Readers of The Penelopiad hear that version (and now a giggle is appropriate, is it not?).

But readers do need to attend to the details, to suss out the truth that nestles amongst the statements. For, as Penelope states:

“The two of us were – by our own admission – proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said.
But we did. {Odysseus and Penelope}
Or so we told each other.”

Liars of long standing. Put that with the hangings and the hauntings, and you know you have a good read ahead of you.

But one which, admittedly, I enjoyed a great deal more with the original text behind me (I’d read this in 2005 without that context and hadn’t enjoyed it so thoroughly), knowing that The Penelopiad was ahead of me. Though I remain curious as to what Penelope’s version would have been had she had a voice in the matter to begin with.

Have you read this one? Do you plan to?

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10 comments to A Literary Three-Way: About the Girls (II)

  • I admit I never really knew what this Atwood book was all about, and now I am most intrigued. I love re-tellings from a woman’s perspective (my first experience with that being Mists of Avalon), nearly 20 years ago). And I’m in the middle of Song of Achilles now — another re-telling. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for The Penelopiad, thanks!

    • The Bradley novel was probably my first retelling as well, Laura, and I loved it too. I’ve never re-read it, but I wish that I could fall into it again the way that I once did. Doesn’t The Penelopiad seem like such a strange title when you don’t know what the story’s about!

  • I read this a couple years ago when it first came out and liked it quite a lot. I enjoyed Atwood giving voice to Penelope and the maids, they after all endured just as much as Odysseus during those ten years and in the original it pretty much counts for nothing. I like how Penelope is shown to not be a patient and long-suffering wife. Atwood did good with this one.

  • I really want to read this at some point, and think that based on what you’ve quoted and shared that it seems like a very clever and thought provoking read. One that I would love to become invested in. Thanks for sharing this excellent review. It was much appreciated!

  • Ah! Your review makes me want to read The Odyssey just so I can re-read The Penelopiad and The Odyssey (gn) again. Now I really think you should read Alcestis. I wonder what you would think of that one.

  • Wow, this review makes me want to read The Odyssey again! Actually, I’ve been wanting to read The Iliad for quite a while, but haven’t figured out which version to try. Or if I should do it in audiobook… Decisions, decisions.

  • Stefanie – I flagged the lines in the original when I came upon them, but, yeah, it’s a flash in the proverbial pan; they’re not even secondary characters in the narrative.

    Zibilee – Clever and thought-provoking? Yup, fits that bill. And it’s a tidy little volume. You could easily read it in an afternoon.

    Vasilly – It’s on my list, and I’m definitely curious, but I don’t have a copy yet. I’m not sure where to head next with my fairy tales and mythology, because I feel like my lists have gotten so long that they’re overwhelming.

    Aarti – I tiptoe around that decision too; I read parts of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s illustrated version, but it was too close to my reading of The Song of Achilles, so I shelved the decision temporarily. I’ll be interested to see which version you opt for.

  • I haven’t read The Odyssey yet, but I have read this book and like Stefanie, I also enjoyed the voice given to Penelope and the Maids. Apparently this book is part of a mythological series by various authors, but this is the only one I’ve read. Reading your review has me eyeing my copy of the Odyssey now.

    • I’ve only read two of the other books in this series (Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, the first, and the third), but I’m hoping to re-read Jeanette Winterson’s Weight and then continue on with the series, because they all seem so intriguing. But some days I think just sticking with one myth and reading all the retellings would be a better plan.

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