The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
15 November, 2012
we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed
we danced on 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
It’s a sure sign that a book is working if it makes you want to read more about the subject. That’s exactly what Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles did. As soon as I started reading it, I googled greek myths to death, pondered watching Troy again (you’ll be glad to know I couldn’t force myself however manly Eric Bana is) and then hauled myself to the library to borrow Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad . I think I had borrowed it once before but returned it unread because of the lack of time, but this time, I read it in a day.
And I forgot how wonderful a writer Atwood is. She takes the very famous tale of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and his beloved and faithful wife Penelope and turns it into a vibrant, vital production. In The Penelopiad, she focuses on the terrible fate of Penelope’s twelve maids, strung up by the neck by Odysseus and his son Telemachus once they have butchered Penelope’s 120 suitors who endlessly harassed her in the 20 years of Odysseus’ absence.
I liked the subversive undertones of Atwood’s structure. The tale is told by Penelope interspersed with the maids’ chorus, each chorus taking a different literary form, all the more forceful in what they are trying to put across. They had been wronged. They had only done what was asked by Penelope: raped, loved, conspiring and finally put to death.
Atwood cleverly fuses Homer’s The Odyssey with other variants of the tale (and there are many) to put forward an explanation as to why these twelve maids were killed so cruelly. What had they done wrong?
Another thing I thought was cleverly done was to leave behind the trappings of antiquity. The tale is told in the vernacular, abundant with popular phrases.
Speaking of the underworld from whence Penelope tells her tale:
Then after hundreds, possibly thousands of years – it’s hard to keep track of time here, because we don’t have any of it as such – customs changed. No living people went to the underworld much any more, and our own abode was upstaged by a much more spectacular establishment down the road – fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks – a great many special effects.
It’s clever and very tongue-in-cheek. The irreverence to the classical sources is refreshing and makes you sympathetic towards Penelope. It is her story after all. And her cousin, Helen of Troy, takes a battering too. Speaking from the underworld where occasionally they’ll be called up by mediums, Penelope says:
Of course she was beautiful. It was claimed she’d come out of an egg, being the daughter of Zeus who’d raped her mother in the form of a swan. She was quite stuck-up about it, was Helen. I wonder how many of us really believed that swan-rape concoction…
It was like a return to the old days to have a lot of men gawping at her. She liked to appear in one of her Trojan outfits, over-decorated to my taste, but chacun à son goût…
Odysseus here is referred to many times as a friend of Hermes, just like his father: sly, a spinner of lies, an expert at coercian. And yet, Penelope loves him for he chose her as his bride and loved her back.
As much as I love the Greek myths, like Atwood, I’m more drawn to the tales of the womenfolk. Their lives are harsher, even more prone to destinies beyond their control and most end up raped, killed, slaves and if they are supposedly lucky, concubines. In a man’s world, their worth is only through their lineage and beauty, as a vessel for their husband’s seed, a mother to his sons. Harsh, indeed.
After Atwood’s The Penelopiad, I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s Weight and Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, another title in the Canongate Myth series. I can’t wait to read more!
In the meantime, Danielle has been doing a series of interesting posts as she goes through Edith Hamilton’s Mythology so do go and have a look.