Monday, January 23, 2006

Greek Myth and Modern Re-telling

Finished reading The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Odysseus (Ulysses) has always interested me. Kirk Douglas' Ulysses in the 1950 movie version remains a visual in my mind, especially the part with the cyclops. Tennyson's poem Ulysses, which I really like - lovely, quotable lines such as "always roaming with a hungry heart," "to rust unburnished, not to shine in use," "as though to breathe were life," "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," too many to mention. And Dante's assigning Ulysses (Odysseus) to the 8th level of hell in The Inferno - even though Dante obviously admired him. Ulysses, The Trickster. The Trickster character is always a favorite with me; not in real life, mind you, but in literature I love Tricksters.

Atwood takes another view of Ulysses' return home and subsequent slaughter of Suitors and Maids. Or two views. Atwood examines the slaughter of the Suitors from Penelope's view and from the view of the hanged maids. Hmmmm. Penelope tells her tale in Hades -from childhood on, including parental failings. "Since being dead...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." She goes on to give her version of events in an explanation, an excuse, a deciphering of events that still may elude her.

But the maids, in the form of a Greek chorus, also make their comments, reminding the audience of the difference between royalty and slaves. These sections are my favorite. The use of the chorus, which interrupts Penelope's narrative at key points, keeps you questioning both Homer and Atwood.

It isn't that Greek literary events are beyond my understanding: murder, mayhem, incest, regicide, patricide, infanticide are still a part of life in every culture. It is the mythological/psychological (Greek/Modern) status of these events that differs.

Anyway, in this very short little book, Atwood examines events with a different agenda and uses two different points of view that make you think - not so much about the question of truth in the tellings (which version is accurate and how accurate?) - but about the human need to justify and to seek justice. The brief suggestion of a female-goddess cult was also intriquing and as was the use of number theory (importance of twelve and thirteen). I love The Mystery of Numbers by AnneMarie Schimmel.


  1. Sounds interesting, Jen.

    How about matricide? It's a shame what people do to their mattresses these days ;D

  2. I always am challenged, by Atwood, to think and see things in a different way. I haved read this book (either one) but I will make a point of finding them....your journal quilt in the post below is so good it defies my ability to say anything more than all those who have already commented...I add my admiration of the finished object and the documented process....and I was pleased to be introduced to some new bloggers who also left are extending my world in all sorts of ways!!! thanks .....Ginger

  3. Thanks for whetting my appetite even more. Now that I've decided to pursue the idea of making a piece on the Furies, I shall enjoy anticipating the Atwood even more.

  4. This review has definitely caught my eye...will have to place it on my list of reads. Thanks

  5. Jen, I so love your thoughts..not just on the Atwood book..but the way you approach everything. Thanks for always giving me something to ponder.

  6. What a wonderful, insightful book review - I haven't read anything by Atwood in a long time, but I will look for this one! Thanks!


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