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Saturday, 21 January 2006

Myths



Publishing events of this scale, scope and magnitude is seldom attempted and even less often achieved. ‘The Myths’ series, currently underway, is one of those grand projects and will be providing gems for years to come. This endeavor is the brainchild of Jamie Byng, a publisher at Cognate books. The goal is to publish the same books simultaneously around the world; currently the first three books have been published in 32 countries and thirty languages worldwide. The goal of the series is to assemble some of the best authors from around the world and have them re-tell a myth or legend in their own style, using their words, thus hopefully shedding some light on our stories, our lives and our world. After seven years of effort, the series has finally launched on October 22nd this year. If the first few are any example of things to come, this will truly be an amazing series of books worth the time and effort to read, and more than likely be read and reread many times.

The three thus far released are: The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood; Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeanette Winterson, and an introduction to the series by Karen Armstrong called A Short History of Myth. What makes these books and this series so great is that they are not approaching Myths as fairy tales, or children’s stories, but as truth, as the stories that tell us who we are and why we are here and how we are to live.

The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood
Knopf Canada
October 2005

Many readers find that Atwood’s writings have too much edge or are just too dark and raw. The same cannot be said about this new feature. Yes, Atwood is the Queen in the Canadian Publishing Industry, and yes she is a good writer, but her stories for many are just not entertaining. I myself am not normally a fan of Margaret Atwood’s writings. Yet this book will rock your socks. It is funny, satirical, and a laugh-out-loud tale.

This is a story that most of us know, the story of Odysseus and Penelope. Yet unlike most tellings of this tale, it is told from Penelope’s perspective and she has a great vantage point on the whole ‘Helen’ affair. However our story is told from outside of time. There is an old saying that “dead men don’t tell tales” and that may be true, but in this inventive retelling, a dead woman and her chorus of dead girls do just that.

Turning this myth on its head by telling it through women’s eyes, Atwood has given us a unique view. Maybe she will challenge us to look at our world and our situations through different lenses from time to time.

How do a dead woman and her twelve maids tell a story with a great deal of jest and a smattering of dark humor? How else could a tale be told by 13 dead women from across the river Styx? Penelope gives us some biographical information about herself seldom included in this tale, and it helps us to understand some of her decisions, and her mistakes. Yet the main focus remains Odysseus’ long absence during the war against Troy, and his brutal behavior upon his return.

The story is written as a morality play, or in the format of a Greek Tragedy, however it is done with the humor and temperament of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Our twelve dead maids are our chorus and whenever they appear, laughter will follow; but our laughter is at twelve young women who were hung-tied together, and died, and now in death, still tied together, seek justice upon Odysseus for what he did to them. They appear from time to time, in song, dance, or mock plays and trials, to re-enact events from their lives to punctuate Penelope’s story, and thus their own plight in it.

The farce and fun in the way this story is told will make you laugh out loud. Much fun will be had with the ghosts of our 13 dead ladies, if you give this book a try.


Weight
Jeanette Winterson
Knopf Canada
October 2005

Now a look at much heavier matters. Unlike Atwood who used humor to tell her tale and challenge the way we look at the world, Winterson uses a process of telling and retelling so that our author has a clearer vision of her tale and through that we understand Heracles and Atlas both much better.

Weight is very dark and brooding and leaves one with a feeling of unease, as if we missed something, or even that in reading this book, like Pandora, we have opened a box and cannot now close it and will be forever different, though we are not sure how. We know we will return to the story again later to reread it to put together the pieces.

By reading this book, we find there is something basically raw touched inside us. We will be left brooding over our own story, like Heracles, as we finish this book. Also like Heracles, wakened and bothered by the question “Why? Why? Why?” which would not let him go, we will be asking the same thing.

Also, this book gives birth to questions in our minds and our spirits, and maybe, just maybe, if luck be with us, we will find in this book, some questions to lift our weight. Then, as we learn from it to tell our own stories, we can be freed! We, as Atlas so desperately desired, can step out from under the burden on us!

There are further offerings forthcoming by David Grossman: Lion’s Honey: The Myth f Samson, and Victor Pelvin’s The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, as well as future offerings by Chinua Achebe, Milton Hatoum, Donna Tartt, A.S. Byatt, Su Tong and Natsuo Kirino and possibly more to come after that.

In Canada these books are being released by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random house of Canada. As stated earlier this series is a unique event. It is stories from old being told by authors anew. As such they are books we could all enjoy and from which we can learn.


(First Published in The Record 2006-01-21 as ‘Top authors retell ago-old myths’)

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