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. But perhaps that is too crude a similie for you. Let me add that meat was highly valued among us – the aristocracy at lots of it …
(The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. P39.) Synopsis:
Everyone knows the story of Odysseus the hero. Odysseus the bold adventurer who sailed the seas. His wife is remembered for her devotion. Although Odysseus disappeared for many years, Penelope refused to marry one of the suitors who begged for her hand. She wove a shroud, refusing to marry until it was done, and unpicked her work every night to keep the suitors at bay. This is her role in the Odyssey.
Now Penelope wanders the underworld she is free to tell her own story. Her version of events is quite different. It begins with the father who tried to drown her at birth, moves to the husband who disappeared for twenty years and then to the son who grew to assert his dominance over his mother.
Penelope. Immortalised as the devoted wife of Odysseus, Penelope is best remembered for weaving and unpicking and reweaving a shroud as she awaited her husband’s return. Margaret Atwood gives Penelope her own voice. As Penelope wanders the underworld she tells her own story, freed for the first time from the shadow of men.
Good retellings should bring something new to existing stories. Make us see something in a new light. The Penelopiad is fearless and feminist. It shows us what life was like for Penelope and how little value a woman’s life had in Ancient Greece.
Poetic and lyrical, Penelope’s story is woven around regular songs from the hanged maids. While Odysseus was away – looting and pillaging and having affairs – Penelope’s home was overrun by men seeking her hand in marriage. The twelve maids were hanged for their affairs with these suitors. The way in which the songs interrupt the narrative is haunting, precisely what Atwood seems to have been aiming for, as the voices are meant to haunt the men who think they can get away with rape and murder. Odysseus, who killed the girls for the shame of their crimes, was free enough in his affairs with other women.
Penelope recounts her life in relation to men – the father who tried to drown her before he realises the material worth of marrying a daughter, the husband who left her for years to conduct affairs with other women and the son who grew up to believe his voice was the most important in the household. The maids’ songs remind us that Penelope was lucky – a noblewoman was safer because her life had material worth.
These themes are not all retrospective. The trial at the end of the novel reminds us that the same issues are still present in the world today. This is an extraordinary work because it not only brings a female voice to the myth but a female agenda. Poetic and bold and one of my favourite retellings.
Thank you to Canongate Books for my copy of The Penelopiad. Opinions my own. The Canongate Myths – new takes on old myths by leading authors – are available now.