Rating: 4 out of 5
It seems that I just can’t get enough of ancient Greek mythology, but it’s difficult to pick a good adaptation in the Aegean-sized sea of mediocrity. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry when Margaret Atwood is the one penning the words.
Atwood is, of course, the author of the renowned The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s no surprise that she reimagines Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective. Since the original poem concerns itself with warrior Odysseus and his arduous journey to return home to Ithaca, Atwood depicts what his wife was doing for those twenty years while he was gone.
True to her feminist form, Atwood gives Penelope more depth and dimension. The princess proves resourceful and cunning, evolving from a naive young girl into a strong leader of a kingdom. And as for those pesky suitors, she simply plays coy as to what really happened and whether she was really as faithful as history has made her out to be.
And given that Penelope is narrating her tale from the underworld, the reader also hears her insights on how religion and spirituality has changed from ancient Greece to the present day. For a woman who experienced the meddling of gods, it’s disconcerting to watch immortal power mocked by foolish fortune tellers and magicians.
What haunts Penelope the most, however, was her husband and son’s massacre of her 12 maids while she was asleep. I mean “haunt” literally, since the maids torment Penelope and Odysseus in the underworld for their unjust deaths.
This is one of the reasons many people, even Atwood herself, are hesitant to call The Penelopiad a feminist retelling. Penelope is naturally a biased narrator. Typical of ancient Greek drama, every now and then the maids appear as a chorus to reveal their point-of-view.
This proves most insightful, because while Penelope complains how her sister Helen’s vanity ruined her life by inciting the Trojan War, the maids point out that they were born poor, enslaved into an existence where they were raped by men and treated like cattle. The princess’ woes seem minor in comparison, as if the chorus serves as a reminder of real suffering unlike her #FirstWorldProblems.
The maids are probably the only reason why I would recommend this novella in audio. It was nice to hear them sing both as individuals and as a group, especially since their voices were enhanced with echoing to give off an even creepier vibe.
The Penelopiad (2005) would be a great addition to courses in classical literature, since its parallels to the Odyssey are so nuanced that they deserve closer academic research. I also learned that as a novella in the great Canongate Myth Series, The Penelopiad shares literary acclaim alongside other modern adaptations, including The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) — a story by my favorite author Philip Pullman which I haven’t had the chance to read yet.
So if you also enjoy ancient Greek mythology, pick up The Penelopiad for an interesting take on one of the world’s most popular tales.