“And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with.”
Penelope, the devoted wife of the glorious Odysseus, waited patiently for two decades on the island of Ithaca for her husband to return home from his part in the defeat of Troy following Paris’ seduction of the already married Helen. Alone on the rocky island Penelope is besieged by suitors, over a hundred of them, eager for her hand in marriage that they may relieve her of the great wealth she acquired as daughter of Icarius of Sparta. She must use all her wiles, and the help of her twelve young maids, to fend off these unwelcome advances.
Or so goes the legend, best known from Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope is portrayed as
“the quintessential faithful wife, a woman known for her intelligence and constancy.”
But The Odyssey is not the only source of this story. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood challenges the inconsistencies in the accepted tale. Here she tells it from Penelope’s point of view interspersed with choruses, which were used in Classical Greek drama, sung or told by the twelve maids who were hanged when Odysseus finally returned.
The story opens in Hades where Penelope wanders amongst the asphodel, and contemplates the legacy of her life on earth. Occasionally she catches glimpses of goings on across the River Styx, offering amusing reflections on modern habits, their shallowness and futility. Penelope has waited patiently as her legend has grown from her husband’s telling of events. Now she wishes to ‘spin a thread of her own’.
She begins with her childhood, the reasons for her antipathy towards her parents. When her marriage is arranged she is content to leave them, although finds Ithaca a lonely place. She feels despised by her mother-in-law, learning more about the customs of the place from her husband’s old nurse. When her child, Telemachus, is born, this nurse takes over his care.
Penelope is satisfied in her marriage to Odysseus until her cousin, the vainglorious Helen, ruins things for her. Odysseus is obliged to fight in the Trojan wars due to an oath made to secure peace amongst the many men who had competed for the hand of the famous beauty, including him. Left alone to wait, Penelope raises the twelve maids as her eyes and ears in an increasingly difficult situation. Their views on events are vividly portrayed in the choruses, with the lightest of touches.
When Odysseus eventually returns Penelope realises that she must tread carefully or will shoulder a portion of the blame, and therefore punishment, for all that has happened on Ithaca in his absence, particularly the dent made in Telemachus’s inheritance. She cannot be seen by her husband to be too aware.
“It’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness”
The writing is acerbic in places but satisfyingly witty. The characters are presented as humane despite their willingness to kill each other with impunity. Given their pedigrees they are suitably god like in their self-absorption and contempt.
Any Cop?: Clever and entertaining, this retelling bridges the gap neatly between ancient and modern, between gods and men. I learned little new of the legend but presenting Penelope as feisty made her more plausible considering the circumstances endured. The question marks left over the veracity of Odysseus’ exploits added to the story’s humour and depth. The maids’ tale is a reminder of behaviours powerful men are permitted to get away with.