Friday 4 November 2005

Myths, Madness and Mayhem

There is an amazing new series of books being published. The first three have just been released in 32 countries and 30 languages. The project is the brainchild of Jamie Byng, a publisher at Cognate books. The series was launched October 22nd, 2005 after nearly seven years of work. Their goal was to assemble some of the top authors in the world and have them re-tell a myth or legend in their words - how they would tell the story. 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.

The three released in this event 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.

There are forthcoming books 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. Armstrong needs no introduction and her book serves as a reminder of mythology and story and the reason we as humans tell stories. So let us now begin with Atwood’s book.

The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood
Knopf Canada
October 2005

I am not normally a fan of Margaret Atwood’s writings. I often find that she is too dark or has too much edge. Not that it is not good writing, and she is probably currently the most famous of the living Canadian authors, she just isn’t usually my thing. I cannot say that for this book.

The Penelopiad is a hilarious romp through a story that most of us know, but told 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.

Atwood has turned this myth on its head and told it from the female perspective. Unfortunately, our heroine is dead and in Hades, retelling her story from across the river Styx. She is telling her whole story but especially the events around Odysseus’ long absence during the war against Troy and that unfortunate event with her cousin Helen.

The story is written in the format of a Greek Tragedy but with the humor and temperament of a comedy. Our chorus is the twelve dead maids, hung strung together on a ship’s rope by Odysseus. 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.

The twists and turns in this story will make you laugh out loud. A friend of mine who read it stated, ‘It begs to be read aloud.’ And I could not agree more. Pick up the book, get some friends together and read it aloud, over an evening or two together. Much fun will be had with the ghosts of our 13 dead ladies.

Jeanette Winterson
Knopf Canada
October 2005

Now on to much weightier matters. Winterson takes a much different approach than Atwood. She tells this tale as herself telling her tale retelling a tale. Confusing? No not really. She begins with herself, tells the story of Heracles ad Atlas and then returns to her own life and lessons learnt.

Unlike the Penelopiad, this book 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.

How does Winterson accomplish this? In this deep brooding book she touches something primal inside. Much as Heracles is awoken and bothered by the question “Why? Why? Why?” this question arises and will not let him go.

So too, this book will awaken questions in your mind and your spirit, and maybe, just maybe, if we are lucky, in this book we will find the questions to lift our weight. If we can learn from it to tell our story we can be freed, and step out from under the burden on our shoulders, as Atlas so desperately desired.

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 learn from.

(First published in Imprint 2005-11-05 as ‘Myth Novels’)

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