Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’—retelling Penelope’s story

Officially obsessed with Margaret Atwood, though that should come as a surprise to no one. But prior to reading The Penelopiad, the only Atwood book I’d read was The Handmaid’s Tale, and her poem Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing. Similar to the poem, in this book, Atwood takes the part of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and Penelope tells her own version of the events surrounding the Trojan War.

17645Penelope is always seen as the antithesis to Helen, who was painted as the ultimate “bad woman.” On the other hand, Penelope is always depicted as the perfect, loyal wife, who waits for 20 years for Odysseus to come home, successfully keeping her hundred suitors at bay out of loyalty for a husband she doesn’t know will ever return. However, this story gets plenty updated in The Penelopiad, and Penelope becomes a woman with sass, agency, impatience, and a penchant for plotting.

Penelope begins her tale in the vast, shadowy underworld of Hades. This is a Greek underworld, complete with the fields of asphodel. It’s present-day, and Penelope has seen much in the thousands of years since she died. Finally, she says, it’s time to tell her story.

“Now that I am dead, I know everything,” she declares. And she does. She begins her story by describing her mother the naiad, and how her cousin Helen loved admiration so much she chased it down, and caused the deaths of thousands of Greeks. But more than anything else, Penelope tells the story of her 20 years without Odysseus—weaving the shroud, fending off her suitors, and taking Telemachus down a couple notches.

But Atwood also makes some important changes to the story we know. Most notably, Penelope states that she totally recognized Odysseus through his mask, but that pretending not to was all part of the plan. And most important: the twelve maidens who were hanged for betrayal were, in fact, spying on the suitors on Penelope’s request, thus making Odysseus’ act one of murder. The hanging of the maidens weighs heavy on Penelope’s long-dead shoulders.

The flashbacks are interspersed with Penelope’s musings in the underworld. Down there in Hades, she sees Helen still fending off flocks of admirers, and she sees Odysseus too ashamed to come near her, instead opting to become reincarnated so that he can avoid her. It’s often silly and irreverent:

“I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands. ‘Which prayer shall we answer today?’ they ask one another. ‘Let’s cast the dice! Hope for this one, despair for that one, and while we’re at it, let’s destroy the life of that woman over there by having sex with her in the form of a crayfish!’ I think they pull a lot of their pranks because they’re bored.”

But it is also, at its heart, cultural commentary about the agency of women and how they’re portrayed. Atwood has done her best to challenge stereotypes and still bring to life these allegorical, classical figures, giving them voices beyond their epic songs. And even though the tone of the book is whimsical at times, there are still moments of chilling truth, and disturbing beauty, such as the chapters where the 12 hanged maidens sing their songs:

“Then sail, my fine lady, on the billowing wave —
The water below is as dark as the grave,
And maybe you’ll sink in your little blue boat —
It’s hope, and hope only, that keeps us afloat” 

At its heart, this amazing, slim little book gave me the same eerie feeling of truth that Atwood’s Helen of Troy poem gave me. She obviously has a deft hand with satire and cultural commentary, but to weave those together with classic Greek mythology and make it all accessible and funny? Truly magical. I just adored this book, and it quickly became one of my favorites!

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Helen of Troy, as told by Margaret Atwood: a poem

Today I wanted to share one of my favorite poems ever. This is “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” by Margaret Atwood. I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem recently, because I’m reading this book about Helen of Troy through the ages, Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell.

I first read this poem in college and since Helen of Troy is a source of constant fascination to me, I wanted to share this fantastic, amazing poem and my thoughts. My last essay I ever wrote as an undergrad dealt with Helen and this poem, and it’s been dear to me ever since.

Here it is:

Helen_of_TroyThe world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look—my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

I love this poem because it’s somewhat an updated interpretation of Helen of Troy’s persona for the 20th century, and also because it makes clear that Helen is still relevant today. We still struggle with gender inequality, and as a society, women are still objectified and reduced to something less than human for expressing sexuality, and are demonized for practicing agency.

Gender norms and sex politics are all there in the story of Helen of Troy, and Margaret Atwood’s take just makes that so much clearer in this poem, rich and striking and beautiful and uncomfortable.

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Fairy Tales Retold: "Sirena" and the Femme Fatale

I think YA literature can be a great thing. It’s gotten a bad rap in the past decade with the advent of Twilight and the phenomenon of the paranormal romance genre, but in general, YA introduces young readers to feminism, friendship, mythology, history, and most importantly, the power and beauty of the written word. All of the books I read when I was nine to sixteen years old informed my thinking and interests. From East I learned about Norse mythology. From A Great and Terrible Beauty came my passion for the Victorian era and my knowledge of the complicated nature of those sixty-odd years. Others taught me about pain and strength and courage, and all when I was quite young. My next subject for this spontaneous “Fairy Tales Retold” series follows the same lines of the others: I read this novel when I was about fifteen and it stirred in me an interest in Greek mythology and taught me about sacrifice, love, and the danger of the femme fatale trope.

Photo Nov 14, 10 23 38 PM (1)

Now, Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli is not strictly based on a fairy tale. Rather, it takes place within that giant event of Greek mythology: the Trojan War. However, the main character and narrator is a mermaid (mermaid-siren combo) and given the ubiquity of mermaids in our culture due to the popularity of The Little Mermaid, and knowing details about the plot, I think it fair to say the Hans Christian Andersen tale influenced this novel in no small way.

The novel begins on the island of Anthemoëssa in the Aegean Sea, an island populated by sirens. These sirens are all sisters, the daughters of Eros and “Little Iris,” a fish–thus making this incarnation of sirens mermaids rather than the classic mythological siren who takes the form of half-woman, half-bird (though interpretations differ). The mermaid form is another reason I think pop culture influenced Napoli: mermaids are familiar and relatable in our culture, much more familiar than women who are half-bird. In whatever form, the sirens are both unable to procreate and have the potential for immortality. All they must do to live forever is win the [physical] love of a man. So they sing. They sing to lure sailors to their island and seduce them. Sound familiar?

Among the many siren sisters is the young naïve Sirena. Like her sisters, she adorns herself in seaweed and shells to make herself beautiful for any passing sailors. Her sisters’ one goal is immortality: to lure men to the island even though the sirens know that the island is uninhabitable by humans, and that their arrival means their certain death. Sirena, young and impressionable, does not question the inevitable outcome that the man who falls in love with her will die because of it. But she also does not relish it as her sisters do.

When her sisters manage to shipwreck a crew of men, the men grow mad and violent at their imminent death and in their rage, brutally murder one of Sirena’s sisters. The young mermaid is traumatized after this event and her worldview changes completely. She no longer wishes to be a siren, no longer wishes to enjoy the company of her sisters. She withdraws within herself. The stakes are raised when their de facto mother, Dora, wife of Nereus, tells her sirens about a war: “So mermaids, my ready maidens, the seas are full of Greek ships heading for Troy,” she says, after explaining about the apple of discord and how Paris “stole Helen away to Troy.” (30) Dora warns the mermaids:

You must not be stupid…You are of age, my beauties. This war is your best opportunity. One thousand ships…You must do it perfectly…If you win lovers, my seas can be graced with mermaids forever…Forever and ever. Immortality. (31)

Tempted by immortal life, Sirena nevertheless finds her sisters’ reactions to the news revolting and frankly, terrifying. Sirena implores her sister:

‘The men will die, Alma. They will die for lack of fresh water.’

‘We will sing continually. They will love us.’

‘Even if they love us, they will die.’

Alma, the sweetest of my sisters, now looks at me with hard eyes. ‘They will love us first.’ (35)

The siren’s chilling response and the behavior of the entire population weighs heavily on Sirena and she leaves her colony. She settles on the island of Lemnos, and soon meets Philoctetes, who has been marooned on the island because of a snakebite from one of Hera’s serpents (lifted directly from a legend). Sirena, who has vowed never to sing again, finds herself as a woman in relation to a man, rather than what she believed she was doomed to become: a monster.

The trope of the femme fatale has been around since the Trojan War was first conceived and earlier. Rooted in misogyny, the femme fatale trope is a symptom of the belief that a man’s lust and sexual frustration are a woman’s fault. Men want to be chaste and faithful, but women are snakes and they’re succubi and they can kill you. It’s awful and the worst part about the femme fatale image of women is its pervasion in our society, and not just by (some) men. “Femme Fatale” adorns t-shirts in women’s clothing stores and it’s perceived (by some) as something to be proud of. Femme fatale does not mean female sexuality. It means domination and control over another person, and it means being exploited and objectified because of your sex.

Sadly, “femme fatale” has become synonymous with a strong, sexy woman even though it literally means “deadly woman.” It also perpetuates this fetish-like image of a stony woman with no emotions and no weaknesses as the only desirable female type. We have come from idealizing an emotional, soft-hearted, bird-like woman to idealizing her opposite. The problem with the femme fatale archetype, and all types, is that they enforce the belief that there is a perfect kind of woman. Women, like men, should be allowed to have faults and vulnerabilities and complexity, like every normal human.

That’s the lesson Sirena learns by rejecting her role as femme fatale. It was literally laid out for her, by her “mother” and by her peers, and every single one of her sisters, even the supposedly kind ones, obeyed without question. Sirena alone knew that there was a humanity within her and a complexity she did not wish to suppress. That’s the wonderful part of reading novels like this when you’re young. That’s the power inherent in YA literature, and that’s why I have faith in it. Even when things like this happen.

Why You Should Read It:

For all the reasons mentioned already, but also for the mix of mythology and love. Napoli takes the canon myths and weaves her own story within the walls of the originals, without compromising the integrity or spirit of the myths. The result is an immersion within Greek mythology without feeling like you’re reading an encyclopedia. Characters like Thetis appear, and Oenone, and no explanation follows. Readers come to know them as characters rather than as actors on this great stage known as Greek myths. It’s also quite sophisticated. The Hercules of pop (Disney) culture becomes the Heracles of the original myth, homosexuality, immorality, and questionable birth included. Philoctetes appears as a well-rounded character before he earns his place in posterity for killing Paris. In the very first scene of the novel, the sirens attempt to lure a ship to their island but “the song of a lyre played by a master” smothers their seductive music: (4)

We sang, desperation making our songs keen, but our voices were drowned by that magnificent and terrible lyre. At one point the music stopped and we heard a shout: “Play on, Orpheus!” The music played on. No matter how much we sang, the men could no longer hear us. They passed us by. (4)

Little flashes of mythology like that appear throughout the narrative, as if Napoli is winking at those in the know, and for those less versed, she’s urging you to learn. 

The Good and the Bad:

Sirena’s voice and narration is simple and sometimes descends into juvenility. While her character and personality are complex and become more so during the arc of the novel, her voice remains stagnant. It’s a shame, because this story has a lot of potential. Another weakness of the novel is the first-person, present-tense point of view, which may be responsible for the dullness of the prose. Many of the sentences follow an “I do this” or an “I feel this” structure, which can get boring. It isn’t dynamic and it isn’t very gripping. The novel is worth a read however, and since it’s YA (intelligent YA, though it’s a shame I feel the need to use that disclaimer), it should not take long.

Read it for the pleasure of watching the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of a young siren. Read it for the pleasure of sinking headfirst into a mythological world. Read it to shift the focus on a story we’ve all read many times before, to see new perspectives, and discover new truths.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done. This was long. Please post your thoughts below if you’ve read this far.

References

Napoli, D.J. (1998) Sirena. New York, NY: Scholastic.