Reading the Canongate Myths – Vol 2


The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Canongate Myths) by Margaret Atwood

Penelope was the wife of Odysseus and cousin of Helen – both were to affect her life profoundly. Although Penelope’s was a happy marriage, when Helen was engaged in all those shenanigans that precipitated the Trojan War, Odysseus rushed to her aid, and then took twenty years to come home. Penelope knew in her heart that he was alive, but everyone else tried to convince her he was dead, and many suitors were after her wealth. She used her maids to spy and keep the suitors happy, but when Odysseus eventually rolled up, he killed the suitors and the maids were hanged before Penelope could tell him of her strategy to remain ever faithful to him.

Atwood takes Homer’s Odyssey and turns it around, telling the story from Penelope’s side, and indeed telling it from the underworld after her death. She also explores the story of the twelve hanged maids; they form the role of the (Greek) chorus, singing bawdy songs between chapters – a sort of feminist version of the Satyr plays.

Penelope is always portrayed as the archetypal long-suffering and faithful wife. She waits, and keeps the kingdom of Ithaca going. All sorts of rumours, heroic and scandalous reach her about her husband, but she carries on, managing to hold all her suitors at bay with her schemes. Her shade telling the story wishes she could have had some fun too I think.

Suffused with Atwood’s usual wit and candour, this short novel sped by so quickly; I would have happily read lots more. The next volume in the series is also based on a Greek myth Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles (Canongate Myths) by Jeanette Winterson. Before I read that, I may dig out my childhood copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes which was the book that got me interested in the whole world of mythology in the first place. (8/10)

P.S. Accompanying the story is an introduction by Atwood which summarises the story of Penelope and Odysseus, so you don’t need to read the whole Odyssey to get some background.

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18 thoughts on “Reading the Canongate Myths – Vol 2

  1. I really liked this book! It’s the only Atwood I’ve ever read, but I really enjoyed it. I don’t know what the Canongate Myth series is, but if there are more books along this theme in the series, I will look further into it!

    • Aarti – you can see the whole series here. Canongate the publisher is getting authors to re-tell their favourite myths and bringing out 2 or 3 a year. There are now 12 books in the series – not all Greek or Roman myths either. I have the lot, and I have resolution to read them all this year.

  2. I loved this one too. And when I read it, it also reminded me that my boys didn’t know their Greek myths.

    So I got them a copy of Atticus the Storyteller – a wonderful retelling of the Greek myths for children. Though if truth be told, I like reading it to them as much as they enjoy listening!

  3. I’ve not read this one either. I was actually thinking if I need to go look for something to read to get a background for this myth before I start reading Atwood’s take on it, because, sad though it is, I really don’t know what the original myth is like.

    Great review.

    • Michelle, What I forgot to say in the post (silly me) is that Atwood has written a superb introduction which tells you a lot about the myth and this makes it unnecessary to read the Odyssey or other version before reading the novel. I might edit the post now to include a word about the intro!

  4. I really, really, really. really, really need to read this. Firstly because its Atwood (which really needs no further reasoning) secondly because my mum teaches classics and this would be a brilliant way for me to get back into the myths I avoided for years and years again.

    Oh I did also read Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith in this series and thought that was amazing!

    • Simon, I’m looking forward to Girl meets Boy. You’re going to have to buy them for your Mum and pre-read them to get around the BBB perhaps. There might be a copy on RISI … (does the BBB permit RISI?)

      • I am unsure on RISI as you have to pay for postage which is technically buying a book! I actually have this and a few others on the TBR so can give them a whirl!

  5. I hadn’t heard of the Canongate Series – it looks amazing though! I’ve been meaning to read more Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, so these books look like the perfect place to start.

    • It’s theoretically a long-term publishing project for Canongate. There’s a dozen now, more coming. The novels are short and sweet and totally individual. I’m looking forward to reading the rest. The Atwood was great – a good starting point. But the first book in the series which is a non-fiction exploration of Myth was a fantastic overview of the whole subject too.

  6. Ali Smith will definitely now have to be the one after next, (I’m reading an ARC of the latest Brazilian one vol XIII soon), then it’ll be Ali Smith. Watch this space as they say.

  7. I loved this book and have read most of the series now. I think Ali Smith’s was my favourite but this was defintiely up there. I hope you keep on reading them all 🙂

    • I shall speed my way through them over the next few months and I am really looking forward to Ali Smith now after all the +ve comments about it.

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