# Paperback: 162 pages
# Publisher: Penguin Books (India)
The fabulous MYTH series, which includes Margaret Atwood's "Penelopiad" , was launched last October intending to give fresh life to some of the most timeless tales ( myths and epic poems) ever told.
Twelve high profile authors were invited by Canon Gate to revisit and re-write these epics with a contemporary pen. Along with "Penelopiad" you can expect to find "Lion's Honey" (based on the myth of Samson) by David Grossman, "Weight" (The Myth of Atlas and Heracles) by Jeanette Winterson and "Dream Angus" (the Celtic God of Dreams) by Alexander McCall Smith. There are more, but these are the books I'm most interested in.
According to Homer's "The Odyssey" When the wily Greek hero Odysseus sailed for the Trojan war (after Paris of Troy stole Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta) he left behind his wife Penelope and young son. When when he returned after 20 odd years away, he immediately killed the suitors vying for his faithful wife's affections and fortunes and also hung her twelve maids.
In her introduction Atwood states that the maids' executions have never been satisfactorily explained in the Odyssey, and admits that the image of the twelve lynched girls has always haunted her, she therefore has chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged Maids. The Maids form a chanting and singing Chorus (like a Greek chorus) which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of the Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? To solve the mystery she (Atwood) has drawn on material other than the Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumours circulating about her.
When I think of Homer's Odyssey the three characters that first spring to mind are the lovely Helen of Troy, Paris her besotted suitor and Odysseus (ofcourse). Penelope hardly ever comes to mind, after all, who would remember a clever but rather dull person when one can have someone like Helen who is beautiful and dangerous. Also,being the paragon of virtue that Penelope was (she is supposed to have waited faithfully for Odysseus for nearly 20 years) she is a difficult role model for most women to aspire to. However, Margaret Atwood has taken her story, polished it up and guess what, I love the new Penelope!
She may be a strong woman, a clever woman and a faithful one, but through Atwood's pen you also see a vulnerable Penelope - one that couldn't trust her immediate family (her father, the King of Sparta, tried to drown her when she was a child) and one who was constantly overshadowed by her cousin Helen's beauty, but you also see a woman determined to be a faithful wife and a determined ruler and mother.
I found Atwood's retelling of the Odyssey to be highly imaginative, witty, clever, happily irreverant in parts and very colourful - she has given Penelope a voice that is both, sad and funny, but always engaging - I drank up the 160 pages in about as many minutes!
Reading this book, has made me crave for more of the books in the Myth Series, so if anyone wishes to trade some other book in the series for "The Penelopiad", please let me know! (I have Karen Armstrong's "A Short History of Myth", so I won't be needing that one)