It‘s not Fess Up Friday, but I hereby confess to have been unfair to a book. Gee, I didn’t even know this could be, but here I am, feeling all guilty about it and searching how I could possibly repair my fault.

Nearly two years ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, her own reinterpretation of Homer’s Odysseus seen through his wife’s eyes. This novel is part of a fascinating collection by Canongate Publishing, where contemporary authors are asked to re-write about mythology figures. At the time I read it, I found it cold, whining and bitter. I couldn’t empathize with Penelope’s voice.

But maybe it wasn’t faulty after all, because it never left me. Not truly Penelope herself, but the horrible murder of her twelve maids by Odysseus as he returns from his journey. It was so tragic in my memory that I went back to the “original” text (3 translations are available in Gutenberg.net, I chose Samuel Butler’s, just because it was more accessible than Pope’s or Butcher’s), and I wasn’t disappointed.

The story, a mere incident at the end of a long journey, is really heart-wrenching and I can understand how a passionate feminist like Margaret Atwood, must have jumped from her seat and imagined that these poor women’s fate was well worth a new telling.

Odysseus returns to his palace to find it filled with suitors who all want to seduce the lonely queen and get to the throne. Right after killing them all, he fetches his old nurse Euryclea and asks her which servants have been disloyal to him, and she readily names 12 maids who have slept with the suitors (I’m suspicious of this old bat who gloats so much over the massacre his master made that Odysseus himself reproaches her). The way he emerges after slaying all the suitors is barbaric enough –

[Euryclea] found Ulysses among the corpses bespattered with blood and filth like a lion that has just been devouring an ox, and his breast and both his cheeks are all bloody, so that he is a fearful sight; even so was Ulysses besmirched from head to foot with gore.)

But the execution of the twelve maids is even more cruel. I know how important the sense of honor and loyalty was in Greek culture, so the crime they committed by having sex with virtual enemies make them unworthy of a respectable death: they are hanged together like mere birds:

On this the women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly. First they carried the dead bodies out, and propped them up against one another in the gatehouse.  Ulysses ordered them about and made them do their work quickly, so they had to carry the bodies out. When they had done this, they cleaned all the tables and seats with sponges and water, while Telemachus and the two others shovelled up the blood and dirt from the ground, and the women carried it all away and put it out of doors. Then when they had made the whole place quite clean and orderly, they took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, “I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors.”

So saying he made a ship’s cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women’s feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long.

The way he makes them clean the mess and blood he made first before putting them to death is really wicked and vicious, and it reflects badly on our cunning hero Odysseus, don’t you think? So I understand better Atwood’s take on this mythological figure.

This episode is quite gloomy but it makes me want to explore the Odyssey more in depth, all the more as the abridged version I heard about in school made it all sound like all fun and adventures, but I discover it’s darker and more complex. I’m also very tempted by this transposition of myth into contemporary fiction. Did anyone read another novel of this series?


4 thoughts on “Fairness

  1. I wasn’t much taken with Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” either. I think the idea behind the Canongate series is a promising one and I wanted to love them all, but I’ve read six of them now and, despite the fact that each is written by a writer that I otherwise admire greatly, in my opinion only one of them moved beyond an interesting exercise to be a book that succeeds outside the context of the series. The winner in my sample is Ali Smith’s “Girl Meets Boy” and I recommend it.

    But I agree that “The Penelopiad” was well worth the read if it sent you back to rethink the source material.

  2. Interesting to read Kate’s comment as the Ali Smith novel is the only other one I possess and I’ve yet to read it. The Odyssey is something I’ve listened to a lot on audio tape (my son had it) but oddly enough, the one I prefer is The Iliad. I would have thought it the other way round, but there you go.

  3. Oh my. I don’t remember this from the Odyssey at all, and I’m surprised that I don’t. Reading it now, it’s chilling and upsetting. The world of the Odyssey is a brutal one, and I think I forget that because I find so much of it beautiful and interesting. But this — well, it’s something else altogether.

    (I haven’t heard about the Canongate series before — thanks for mentioning it and also to Kate for her preview.)

  4. Pingback: Scary Realization « Smithereens

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