I like stories that reverse our perception of a well-known story. Wicked was more enjoyable to me than the Wizard of Oz. I did wonder how Margaret Atwood could match Odysseus’ ten years of war and ten years of wandering in telling Penelope’s story in The Penelopiad, but the book was fascinating. Penelope hears rumours of her husband’s adventures- but “demythologises” them: the Sirens’ call is a harbour whorehouse, the crew are pretty much pigs without needing Circe to cast spells and so on.
And the woman’s story, and the women’s story comes through really powerfully, as you would expect from this author. The maids who are hanged by Odysseus act as a kind of Greek Tragic Chorus commenting on the actions, and are convincing young girls of no value or importance to their owner but of unique intrinsic value, and confident moral condemnation of the men’s world.
As a woman educated in the Classics, I wonder these days how I could have accepted so comfortably the male-dominated ancient world and the traditional interpretations of that world. Realising how little I questioned the roles of men and women and the view that all the important stuff happened to men, makes me more tolerant of people who just don’t get it, whatever “it” currently is. We swim in our culture like fish in water, unaware of the medium surrounding us. Only in hindsight do we see at least some of our prejudices and assumptions. Only looking back do we re-evaluate and approach wisdom. I remember for example with embarrassment and shame the first gay friend I had: I was a friend, I was sympathetic, I kept his secret- but never questioned at the time why it had to be a secret and why we felt that being gay was somehow wrong or lesser. I hope he has lived long enough to enjoy the modern changes and to feel free to be truly himself.
Euripides’ Trojan Women is one of the best of the Greek tragedies to me for just this reason. He portrays the aftermath of the Trojan War from the point of view of the women who are shared out as spoil, raped, used as slaves, torn away from their children who are murdered. He was a man in a man’s world and he understood the women’s reality, as Margaret Atwood does in this novel.
Using a story, a legend, to tell truth, is one of the marks of Myth. I loved this reversal of the wandering hero myth. I loved making the women’s experience the centre of the mythic truth of the story.
I then discovered that this book is, in fact, part of a series on myth and the retelling and refashioning of myth in the modern world! There’s a reading list for me! The introductory book in the series is by Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth, which I have of course already got from the library. My most recent post on The Fifth Elephant, also fits this theme, for, although Pratchett’s Discworld novels are classed as fantasy, there is an enormous overlap between fantasy and myth.
Fun and thought provoking reading ahead.