Reading the Canongate Myths – Vol 2

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Penelope was the wife of Odysseus and cousin of Helen – both were to affect her life profoundly. Although Penelope’s was a happy marriage, when Helen was engaged in all those shenanigans that precipitated the Trojan War, Odysseus abandoned Penelope and rushed to Helen’s aid, and then took twenty years to come home. Penelope knew in her heart that he was alive, but everyone else tried to convince her he was dead. Many suitors were after her wealth. She used her maids to spy and keep the suitors happy, but when Odysseus eventually rolled up, he killed the suitors and the maids were hanged before Penelope could tell him of her strategy to remain ever faithful to him.

Atwood takes Homer’s Odyssey and turns it around, telling the story from Penelope’s side, and indeed telling it from the underworld after her death. She also explores the story of the twelve hanged maids; they form the role of the (Greek) chorus, singing bawdy songs between chapters – a sort of feminist version of the Satyr plays.

Penelope is always portrayed as the archetypal long-suffering and faithful wife. She waits, and keeps the kingdom of Ithaca going. All sorts of rumours, heroic and scandalous reach her about her husband, but she carries on, managing to hold all her suitors at bay with her schemes. Her shade telling the story wishes she could have had some fun too I think.

Suffused with Atwood’s usual wit and candour, this short novel sped by so quickly; I would have happily read lots more. The next volume in the series is also based on a Greek myth Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeanette Winterson. Before I read that, I may dig out my childhood copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes which was the book that got me interested in the whole world of mythology in the first place. (8/10)

P.S. Accompanying the story is an introduction by Atwood which summarises the story of Penelope and Odysseus, so you don’t need to read the whole Odyssey to get some background.

This post was republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Source: Own copy

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad (Canongate, 2005), paperback, 224 pages

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