The Trickster's Queen
By Cheryl Morgan
A while back I reviewed Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, a book that was intended to set the scene for Canongate’s The Myths series. The first few pieces of fiction in that series are now available, and one of the most interesting is The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.
I note from the back cover blurb that a reviewer in The Spectator described Penelope as "a perfect Atwood heroine." I’m not convinced about that. I think you could write a version of Penelope that Atwood would despise. But if you are looking for a character from Greek myth that would make a good feminist heroine, Penelope is a very good starting point. She is, after all, held up as a shining example of what feminism isn’t.
And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been? That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears — yes, yours! But when I try to scream I sound like an owl.
Atwood’s Penelope is a long-dead shade, a grumpy old matron who has spend thousands of years in Hades gloomy realm, brooding over the fact that she spent twenty years loyally managing the kingdom and defending her virtue from all-comers while Odysseus toured around Troy and the Mediterranean bedding every princess, nymph and Goddess that he came across. Naturally she blames everything on her cousin, Helen.
Helen the beautiful, Helen the devious, Helen the malicious, Helen the vain; Helen who cannot ever be satisfied with what she has got, because if ever something marginally better than what she already has should cross her path then surely she, of all people, deserves to have it.
Helen who ruined Penelope’s life by running off with Paris, precipitating the Trojan War, and causing Odysseus to leave home for twenty years.
Fortunately for Penelope, the dead are not entirely cut off from the living. In the good old days mortal heroes used to visit them. Now they have to seek out contact themselves.
More recently, some of us have been able to infiltrate the new ethereal-wave system that now encircles the globe, and to travel around that way, looking out at the world through the flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines.
My, do you think that Atwood has been reading Gene Wolfe? Probably not — the idea isn’t hard to come up with — but I would like to think she has.
Anyway, Penelope gets the opportunity to tell her story, and to demonstrate along the way her continuing loyalty to the devious old fox that she married. But she doesn’t get it all her own way. There are twelve other voices in the book. They belong to the maids that Odysseus executed on his return home for the crime of fraternizing with the Suitors. Penelope claims that it was all a mistake — that she was using the girls to spy on her enemies. The maids have an entirely different story. We, as readers, are asked to decide who we believe: a bunch of lowly serving girls, or a woman so skilled at dissembling that crafty Odysseus made her his life partner.
Along the way we discover that Atwood has been reading Robert Graves and thinking about the moon. Fortunately I don’t have to warn you that many readers will deem the results of this to be "unfounded feminist claptrap" because Atwood took the trouble to mention that for me.
That is one of the joys of the book. It is full of knowing asides: by Penelope, by the maids, by Atwood. I laughed a lot reading it. And it handles the whole mythic background well enough, although I think it would be a stretch to describe it as fantasy. One of Atwood’s versions of the Odyssey has it that Odysseus and his men spent ten years carousing and whoring their way around the Mediterranean because they didn’t want to have to go home to their wives. Cyclops? Lotus Eaters? Sirens? Just inventive excuses made up by men who could no longer claim to be having to work late at the war.
Of course, like all Greek myths, the story ends badly. It is almost as predictable as a Disney movie, if a mirror image thereof. Unlike Disney, Atwood does not bother to re-write the ending so cater for modern sensibilities. She, at least, doesn’t want to be safe, and neither should be. We can, however, have a darn good giggle along the way.
Here’s a recommendation, ladies. Buy this book. Read it once (it is less than 200 pages, with quite a bit of poetry, it won’t take long), and then put it somewhere safe. Then, the next time your man has been a complete pig about something, run yourself a hot bath, dig out a box of chocolates, and take The Penelopiad with you to read. You’ll be feeling better in no time. (And unlike reading Sheri Tepper or Suzy McKee Charnas it won’t inspire you to violence, just giggles.)