The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

TitleThe Penelopiad
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: fiction (mythology)
ISBN: 9781841957173
Length: Kindle
Published: 2005
Source: personal collection
Rating: 5/5
Resolutions/Challenges: an extra for my Personal Collection Resolution

Reason for Reading: I have loved every other Margaret Atwood I’ve read (Year of the Flood and The Handmaid’s Tale), so it just made sense to read another. I’ve been wanting to reread The Odyssey, which I did just a week ago, and this was a great follow-up to it 🙂

Summary (from Goodreads):

Margaret Atwood decided that it was time that Penelope spoke for herself. In The Odyssey, the daughter of King Icarus is, of course, the quintessential faithful wife. To Booker Prize winner Atwood, Homer’s version doesn’t hold water: “There are too many inconsistencies.” She was especially disturbed and haunted by the tale about Penelope’s 12 hanged maids. In Penelopiad, Atwood recovers the hidden history of literature’s most famous lady-in-waiting.

My Thoughts: I would highly recommend reading (or rereading) The Odyssey before reading this book. Reread it, only if you’ve forgotten some of the smaller details. But if you haven’t read The Odyssey, the book won’t seem as funny.

Penelope narrates this story from the Underworld, some 2,000-3,000 years after the story took place. There are also intermittent chapters narrated by the Twelve Maids–sometimes these are skits, sometimes songs or poetry. I just loved the voices Atwood gave to Penelope and the Maids. Penelope had a 20th century voice, not the voice of an ancient Greek. It’s odd to think of spirits of the long dead being “hip” or “with it” because they can look in on the world as it is today. And I really liked the way Penelope would say she wasn’t resentful of Helen (of Troy, her cousin) but she would then say stuff that made it seem otherwise. Penelope spends a lot of her time telling us about how it wasn’t fair that Helen caused so many men to die and wasn’t punished for it at all. It’s clear Penelope is resentful that because of Helen, Odysseus had to leave Ithaca and go defend Menelaus.

One of the best ways to see how Penelope speaks in a modern voice is this:

I then made the Is-this-all-the-thanks-I-get, you-have-no-idea-what-I’ve-been-through-for-your-sake, no-woman-should-have-to-put-up-with-this-sort-of-suffering, I-might-as-well-kill-myself speech. (Ch.18)

Sure, people might have been thinking this way for a long time, but I think it’s a pretty new thing to actually write/say this sort of sentence 🙂

Something else that Penelope said that I really liked was this:

Who is to say that prayers have any effect? On the other hand, who is to say they don’t? I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands. ‘Which prayer shall we answer today?’ they ask one another. ‘Let’s cast dice! Hope for this one, despair for that one, and while we’re at it, let’s destroy the life of that woman over there by having sex with her in the form of a crayfish!’ I think they pull a lot of their pranks because they’re bored. (Ch.19)

Favorite Passage:

Oh wily Odysseus he set out from Troy,
With his boat full of loot and his heart full of joy,
For he was Athene’s own shiny-eyed boy,
With his lies and his tricks and his thieving!

His first port of call was the sweet Lotus shore
Where we sailors did long to forget the foul war;
But we soon were hauled off on the black ships once more,
Although we were pining and grieving.

To the dread one-eyed Cyclops then next we did hie,
He wanted to eat us so we put out his eye;
Our lad said, “I’m No One,” but then bragged, ”Twas I,
Odysseus, the prince of deceiving!’

So there’s a curse on his head from Poseidon his foe,
That is dogging his heels as he sails to and fro,
And a big bag of wind that will boisterously blow
Odysseus, the saltiest seaman!

Here’s a health to our Captain, so gallant and free,
Whether stuck on a rock or asleep ‘neath a tree,
Or rolled in the arms of some nymph of the sea,
Which is where we could all like to be, man!

The vile Laestrygonians then we did meet,
Who dined on our men from their brains to their feet;
He was sorry he’d asked them for something to eat,
Odysseus, that epical he-man!

On the island of Circe we were turned into swine,
Till Odysseus bedded the goddess so fine,
Then he ate up her cakes and he drank up her wine,
For a year he became her blithe lodger!

So a health to our Captain where’er he may roam,
Tossed here and tossed there on the wide ocean’s foam,
And he’s in no hurry to ever get home–
Odysseus, that crafty old codger!

To the Isle of the Dead then he next took his way,
Filled a trench up with blood, held the spirits at bay,
Till he learned what Teiresias, the seer, had to say,
Odysseus, the artfullest dodger!

The Sirens’ sweet singing then next he did brave,
They attempted to lure him to a feathery grave,
While tied to the mast he did rant and did rave,
But Odysseus alone learned their riddle!

The whirpool Charybdis did not our lad catch,
Nor snake-headed Scylla, she could not him snatch,
Then he ran the fell rocks that would grind you to scratch,
For their clashing he gave not a piddle!

We men did a bad turn against his command,
When we ate the Sun’s cattle, they sure tasted grand,
In a storm we all perished, but our Captain reached land,
On the isle of the goddess Calypso.

After seven long years there of kissing and woo,
He escaped on a raft that was drove to and fro,
Till fair Nausicaa’s maids that the laundry did do,
Found him bare on the beach–he did drip so!

Then he told his adventures and laid to his store
A hundred disasters and sufferings galore,
For no one can tell what the Fates have in store,
Not Odysseus, that master disguiser!

So a health to our Captain, where’er he may be,
Whether walking the earth or adrift on the sea,
For he’s not down in Hades, unlike all of we–
And we leave you not any the wiser!
(Ch.14, The Chorus Line: The Wily Sea Captain, A Sea Shanty)

I was also a BIG fan of Chapter 24, The Chorus Line: The Trial of Odysseus, as Videotaped by the Maids. But it is even longer than the Sea Chanty above that I just copied from the book. But if you click here you should be able to read it via Google Reader if you so care to  (you’ll need to click on the page that says Page 175 at the top to read the whole page). It’s hilarious!

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2 thoughts on “The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

  1. bookworm says:

    I find this book very intriguing. I’m adding it to my tbr pile for sure. I thought I remembered the plot of The Odyssey well, but I have no memory of 12 maids being hanged, so maybe I will have to reread it first…

  2. lisa says:

    i loved the hip and with it voice that Atwood gave to Penelope, in particular. and i love the quotes you pulled… all excellent.

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