The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths series)

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9780676974188: The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths series)

The internationally acclaimed Myths series brings together some of the finest writers of our time to provide a contemporary take on some of our most enduring stories. Here, the timeless and universal tales that reflect and shape our lives–mirroring our fears and desires, helping us make sense of the world–are revisited, updated, and made new.

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad is a sharp, brilliant and tender revision of a story at the heart of our culture: the myths about Penelope and Odysseus. In Homer’s familiar version, The Odyssey, Penelope is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes to fight in the Trojan Wars, she manages to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son and, in the face of scandalous rumours, keep over a hundred suitors at bay. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills Penelope’s suitors and–curiously–twelve of her maids.

In Homer the hanging of the maids merits only a fleeting though poignant mention, but Atwood comments in her introduction that she has always been haunted by those deaths. The Penelopiad, she adds, begins with two questions: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? In the book, these subjects are explored by Penelope herself–telling the story from Hades — the Greek afterworld - in wry, sometimes acid tones. But Penelope’s maids also figure as a singing and dancing chorus (and chorus line), commenting on the action in poems, songs, an anthropology lecture and even a videotaped trial.

The Penelopiad does several dazzling things at once. First, it delves into a moment of casual brutality and reveals all that the act contains: a practice of sexual violence and gender prejudice our society has not outgrown. But it is also a daring interrogation of Homer’s poem, and its counter-narratives — which draw on mythic material not used by Homer - cleverly unbalance the original. This is the case throughout, from the unsettling questions that drive Penelope’s tale forward, to more comic doubts about some of The Odyssey’s most famous episodes. (“Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill.”)

In fact, The Penelopiad weaves and unweaves the texture of The Odyssey in several searching ways. The Odyssey was originally a set of songs, for example; the new version’s ballads and idylls complement and clash with the original. Thinking more about theme, the maids’ voices add a new and unsettling complex of emotions that is missing from Homer. The Penelopiad takes what was marginal and brings it to the centre, where one can see its full complexity.

The same goes for its heroine. Penelope is an important figure in our literary culture, but we have seldom heard her speak for herself. Her sometimes scathing comments in The Penelopiad (about her cousin, Helen of Troy, for example) make us think of Penelope differently – and the way she talks about the twenty-first century, which she observes from Hades, makes us see ourselves anew too.

Margaret Atwood is an astonishing storyteller, and The Penelopiad is, most of all, a haunting and deeply entertaining story. This book plumbs murder and memory, guilt and deceit, in a wise and passionate manner. At time hilarious and at times deeply thought-provoking, it is very much a Myth for our times.

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About the Author:

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939, and grew up in northern Quebec and Ontario, and later in Toronto. She has lived in numerous cities in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

She is the author of more than forty books — novels, short stories, poetry, literary criticism, social history, and books for children. Atwood’s work is acclaimed internationally and has been published around the world. Her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye — both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; The Robber Bride, winner of the Trillium Book Award and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award; Alias Grace, winner of the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize and a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and Oryx and Crake, a finalist for The Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Orange Prize, and the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent books of fiction are The Penelopiad, The Tent, and Moral Disorder. She is the recipient of numerous honours, such as The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in the U.K., the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature in the U.S., Le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and she was the first winner of the London Literary Prize. She has received honorary degrees from universities across Canada, and one from Oxford University in England.

Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

A Low Art

Now that I’m dead I know everything. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. It’s much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.
Since being dead — since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness — I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.

Down here everyone arrives with a sack, like the sacks used to keep the winds in, but each of these sacks is full of words — words you’ve spoken, words you’ve heard, words that have been said about you. Some sacks are very small, others large; my own is of a reasonable size, though a lot of the words in it concern my eminent husband. What a fool he made of me, some say. It was a specialty of his: making fools. He got away with everything, which was another of his specialties: getting away.

He was always so plausible. Many people have believed that his version of events was the true one, give or take a few murders, a few beautiful seduct­resses, a few one-eyed monsters. Even I believed him, from time to time. I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me. Hadn’t I been faithful? Hadn’t I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation — almost the compulsion — to do otherwise? 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 want to scream in your ears — yes, yours! But when I try to scream, I sound like an owl.

Of course I had inklings, about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his — how can I put this? — his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions, I didn’t dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.

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. What can a woman do when scandalous gossip travels the world? If she defends herself she sounds guilty. So I waited some more.

Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself. I’ve had to work myself up to it: it’s a low art, tale-telling. Old women go in for it, strolling beggars, blind singers, maidservants, children — folks with time on their hands. Once, people would have laughed if I’d tried to play the minstrel — there’s nothing more preposterous than an aristocrat fumbling around with the arts — but who cares about public opinion now? The opinion of the people down here: the opinion of shadows, of echoes. So I’ll spin a thread of my own.

The difficulty is that I have no mouth through which I can speak. I can’t make myself understood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongues and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams.

But I’ve always been of a determined nature. Patient, they used to call me. I like to see a thing through to the end.

ii
The Chorus Line:
A Rope-Jumping Rhyme
we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed

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

you had the spear
you had the word
at your command

we scrubbed the blood
of our dead
paramours from floors, from chairs

from stairs, from doors,
we knelt in water
while you stared

at our bare feet
it was not fair
you licked our fear

it gave you pleasure
you raised your hand
you watched us fall

we danced on air
the ones you failed
the ones you killed

iii
My Childhood

Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning. The real beginning would be the beginning of the world, after which one thing has led to another; but since there are differences of opinion about that, I’ll begin with my own birth.

My father was King Icarius of Sparta. My mother was a Naiad. Daughters of Naiads were a dime a dozen in those days; the place was crawling with them. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately.

When I was quite young my father ordered me to be thrown into the sea. I never knew exactly why, during my lifetime, but now I suspect he’d been told by an oracle that I would weave his shroud. Possibly he thought that if he killed me first, his shroud would never be woven and he would live forever. I can see how the reasoning might have gone. In that case, his wish to drown me came from an understandable desire to protect himself. But he must have misheard, or else the oracle herself misheard — the gods often mumble — because it was not his shroud that was at issue, but my father-in-law’s shroud. If that was the prophecy it was a true one, and indeed the weaving of this particular shroud proved a great convenience to me later on in my life.

The teaching of crafts to girls has fallen out of fashion now, I understand, but luckily it had not in my day. It’s always an advantage to have something to do with your hands. That way, if someone makes an inappropriate remark, you can pretend you haven’t heard it. Then you don’t have to answer.

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

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