Publication: October 11th 2005
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pages: 216 pages
Source: Niagara on the Lake Book Shop
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Feminism, Mythology (Greek), Historical Fiction
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤
I’m a Greek Mythology junkie; give me a book on it or a book focusing on one myth or character and it’s mine to read. With all the talk of Circe by Madeline Miller, I’ve been itching to read it or something similar to tide over my mythology craving.
I’ve had The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood since last fall so it was the obvious choice, plus I’m also an Atwood junkie so it was like giving myself an extra treat to read.
The Penelopiad isn’t my usual read for mythological books, I usually stick to something with gods, goddesses, or something divine in some way or magical so reading a book focusing on two mortals (alright, Penelope is technically the daughter of a mortal and naiad so semi-divine maybe?) was very different for me. I read The Odyssey in university, and already had a background knowledge on the Trojan War and all that takes place in The Odyssey because of my love for mythology, but if anyone picks up this book out of the blue without the right context than they may have a hard time understanding the importance of this book.
Penelope is the central character of Atwood’s adaption of The Odyssey, following the original story but from the great hero Odysseus’ wife. I knew about Penelope before reading this book and only knew what Penelope is generally known for: she’s clever, modest, and a good wife. She’s a weaver and tricked the suitors in her castle by weaving and destroying a funeral sheet to avoid marrying one of the suitors.
The Penelopiad is an incredibly short read considering it takes twenty years for Odysseus to return home to Penelope. Where The Odyssey has Odysseus running away from and tricking gods, sleeping with goddesses and witches, and struggling to return to Ithaca The Penelopiad has Penelope waiting, weaving, planning, and for the most part crying (but what’s a half-naiad to do about that?). This isn’t a criticism to any means, if anything it makes sense. Odysseus was the adventurer and Penelope the wife, expected to wait for her husband, and in many ways Atwood is telling the story we expect to hear of Penelope as the loyal wife to Odysseus and the frustrations that come with that.
Though underneath it all is the question if Penelope’s story of her loyalty is true at all.
But while Atwood’s main focus is on Penelope, she also focuses on the twelve maids on Penelope who were in on her secret with tricking the suitors and who were all killed despite their help. The maids are shown as a collective, a select few given names but as a whole they are known simply as the maids. Through Penelope’s perspective we see her love for them but from the maids we see the exploitation, the hardships of servitude, the betrayal and unfairness of their deaths. The maids only speak as a chorus throughout the book as they challenge the story Penelope tells us, making Atwood’s novel a perfect Greek tragedy.
The Penelopiad is a wonderful and thought-provoking book that any lover of mythology. It has all the elements any classicist would recognize and expect in a Greek tragedy and is a wonderful examination on a well-known though often forgotten character. If anything has made me hungry for even more mythological adaptions. Circe, here I come!