From Malory to Moorcock, writers of all stripes have long returned to every kind of myth, revisiting and rewriting time-honoured tales in an attempt to extract new truths. The Scottish publishers Canongate have recently moved to get in on this tried and tested literary act, inaugurating a series of slim volumes by prominent mainstream authors which seek to retell some of our most timeless myths in "a contemporary and memorable way." The end of 2005 saw the publication of the first of these (following Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth)—Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad and Jeanette Winterson's Weight.
The Penelopiad, effectively The Odyssey retold from the perspective of Odysseus's abandoned wife, Penelope, is an explicitly feminist and emphatically empathetic attempt to retake myth from the petrifying hands of tradition. Weight, retelling the story of Atlas and Hercules, is similarly interested in personalising a distantly familiar story often stripped of its human element, but does so in a decidedly more experimental, and yet simultaneously less thoughtful, fashion. Both books, of course, are fundamentally concerned with the speculative proposition 'what if?' In reinventing, or perhaps rediscovering, the elements of these archetypal stories, both works seek in their own ways to further our understanding of the actual by positing the improbable, or at least the imagined. They provide in this manner a kind of alternative history—if you like, an alternative gloss on a much-thumbed text.
Winterson's Weight is easily the less successful of the two, though the language itself is never less than wonderful—Winterson has always had a way with a cadence and a phrase. It begins, as Atwood's Penelope notes all stories do, with the creation of the world. The signs are already here that Winterson isn't quite sure of her ground: her metaphors are stretched, her initially neat analogies are asked to endure too much. The author spends pages writing about a mildly amusing conceit that sees the Sea and the Earth as lovers, each caressing the other and each attracted to that which the other possesses—stubborn immutability on the part of the Earth, sensuous depth on the part of the Sea. We are then introduced to the newborn Atlas, and one of the book's two key motifs: the idea of weight, of what it means and how we carry it. This is essentially a book about responsibility and dreams, or "boundaries and desire" as Winterson continually puts it: Atlas carries the world, cares for it, makes his peace with it, is ultimately rewarded; the vividly unlikeable Hercules, on the other hand, "killed everything, shagged what was left, and ate the rest" (pp.31-32)—he ultimately dies, more or less as a result of his own failings.
Atlas's reward, however, is not a part of the original myth. Winterson creates her ending because she has a desire to "tell the story again" (the book's second key motif). Early on, she introduces us to the Garden of the Hesperides, that paradise on earth which contained a forbidden tree with golden apples, protected by a coiled serpent. In Weight, Atlas's daughters eat from the tree, and the family are expelled from the garden. In so framing the Biblical tale of Eden in a Classical context, she directs our attention to the endless recyclability of stories and in particular of myths, the ways in which they are taken and reinvented for every generation and every purpose. Winterson's own purpose, however, seems to be to extract some form of personal catharsis from Atlas's tale: twice she inserts herself into the narrative, explicitly and somewhat tenuously identifying the author with the protagonist, explaining her need to retell the myth. Telling us about her difficult childhood, she writes, "Having no one to carry me, I carried myself. My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex." (p.97) Her desire to create a happy ending to this dual narrative is thus impossible to ignore, and she leads us to an ending glued messily, perhaps deliberately so, onto the end of the story.
This emphasis on the personal goals of the author gives us an insight into the ways in which myth has always been used to console and explain, but it is unfortunately of a type which undermines the story itself. The book cannot decide who it is about (other than Winterson herself): the stories of Hercules and Atlas rarely interweave, and have little sense of momentum, even of an episodic importance. It's difficult to discern what Winterson is trying to tell us by using the stories she uses, other than what she tells us about herself. Perhaps fittingly, but certainly disappointingly, the myths exist largely as tools of self-analysis. This may tell us something about the nature of myth, but it tells us little about Atlas, Hercules, or the wider issues at work in their respective stories. The imposition of such a strong and active narrative voice is no bad thing, indeed in an examination of myth it's a profoundly intriguing move, but when that voice undermines and overwhelms the tale being told, an unhelpful conflict develops between author and subject that weakens the whole work.
Fortunately, then, Atwood's always mischievous and often rich The Penelopiad is first and foremost an explicit attempt to add something new to the story it chooses to examine. When the wily Ithacan Odysseus sailed for the Trojan war, he left behind his wife and young son. According to The Odyssey, when he returned after two decades away, he immediately killed the suitors vying for his faithful wife's affections and lands … but also hung her twelve maids. Atwood insists in her introduction that these latter executions have never been satisfactorily explained, and admits that the image of the twelve lynched girls has always haunted her. Her book thus dwells upon the apparently simple question, "what was Penelope really up to?"
As in the Winterson, The Penelopiad displays a certain equivocation when answering the questions posed by its chosen myths. Unlike Weight, Atwood's novella achieves a far greater synthesis of its myth, its theme, and its purpose: the lack of any hard and fast answer to its question of why the maids were killed is a result of the book's studied lack of an omnipotent narrator. We have, of course, Homer's version—that endlessly repeated story that Penelope has come to view with a resigned disdain. In addition, The Penelopiad gives us Penelope's point of view, and, in a series of burlesques which see the maids themselves act as a kind of bawdy chorus to the main action, the perspective of the twelve murdered women. These segments are variously successful—the book's few examples of clumsy writing can be found in the maids' sections—but they do emphasise that the two points of view in The Penelopiad are far from compatible. Penelope herself allows for this difference in interpretation when she questions her own story: perhaps, she muses, the old nurse, Eurycleia, possessed motives and agendas that were invisible to all, and thus fatally affected the outcome of events in untold ways. She thus defends herself against the accusations of the maids, and the dismissive male-oriented spin of the Homeric narrative, but we are not left entirely certain that her version is any closer to the truth.
Unlike Winterson's slightly shambolic tapestry, however, Atwood's threads come together. The conclusion of an 'anthropology lecture' is given by the chorus:
Point being that you don't have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don't have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us as pure symbol.
Here's what The Penelopiad is up to: like Weight's infusion of both Atlas and Hercules with real, human personalities, Atwood's novella reclaims the myth from the dry, dusty, reverently academic theorising that is seen to shackle the mythic tradition. Audaciously, it also seeks to reclaim mythic characters from the myths themselves: thus Penelope pretends not to recognise Odysseus upon his return, rather than genuinely being the stock, passive female figure from Homer (the texts attributed to the poet being, after all, merely one transliteration of an oral tradition). The competing perspectives in The Penelopiad, whilst perhaps frustratingly never resolved, exist, then, for a purpose—to underline the necessary vitality of storytelling, its importance and essentially unique nature. Atwood is rescuing myth from science, the actual from the metaphorical, granting the old stories an immediacy denied them by symbolism.
Of course, these are both short works, and as a result of this enforced brevity Atwood's ideas seem at times a little thin—wonderfully treated, but far from trail-blazing. (As deliciously nasty as she is, the feud enjoyed by Atwood's Helen and her dowdier cousin Penelope sets up a starkly false opposition between a beautiful, spiteful, and vain woman and an ignored, plain, but intelligent one.) If Weight fails to capitalise on its ideas, The Penelopiad sometimes feels as if it is barely scratching the surface of its own, simultaneously dense and inconclusive. Perhaps The Penelopiad would have simply grown tedious had it been longer, but as beautifully written as it is, as well as it hangs together, it's hard to shake the suspicion that it could have made more of its central arguments. Fortunately, there are more volumes yet to come in this intriguing little series. With luck, they will take up Atwood's playfully thoughtful flame.
Dan Hartland is a freelance creative thinker figuring out what to think. A writer and musician of the inverted commas variety, he splits his time equally between these two things and procrastination. He comes to science fiction from outside the genre, and is a little too happy to remain a gadfly.