- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

WEIGHT

By Jeanette Winterson

Canongate, $18, 151 pages

THE PENELOPIAD

By Margaret Atwood

Canongate, $18, 199 pages

A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH

By Karen Armstrong

Canongate, $18, 159 pages

REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN

By the mid-20th century, when science, technology and even pseudo-scientific ideologies like communism and psychoanalysis seemed to be becoming the dominant, indeed, only acceptable, way of understanding the world and our place in it, a number of thinkers, theorists and scholars in fields ranging from cultural anthropology (Mircea Eliade) to literary criticism (Northrop Frye) began championing the importance of another way of seeing things, an ancient way which, at that moment in time, seemed on the verge of extinction.

Thus, we learned, a myth is not an unreliable, probably false version of history, but a timeless story about the human condition. It matters not whether Prometheus’ theft of fire or Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden are actually true. What matters is that both stories put us in touch with a deeper — or, at any rate, different — kind of truth. If science reveals truths about the world we live in, myth provides insights about how to live our lives.

The perpetual relevance of myth is the premise behind Canongate’s new series “The Myths,” which will feature well-known contemporary writers such as Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, David Grossman and Chinua Achebe offering their versions of these ancient stories. By way of introduction, Karen Armstrong’s “A Short History of Myth,” one of the three books inaugurating the series, offers a brief nonfiction account taking us from Paleolithic times to our own.

“There is never a single, orthodox version of a myth,” Ms. Armstrong writes. “As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth. In this short history of mythology, we shall see that every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions. But we shall also see that many of these myths, devised in societies that could not be more different from our own, still address our most essential fears and desires.”

Leading off the series are “Weight,” Jeanette Winterson’s fresh take on the myth of Atlas and Heracles, and “The Penelopiad,” Margaret Atwood’s revisionary version of “The Odyssey.” Nor is Greek mythology the only sort to be explored: Future volumes include a retelling of the biblical story of Samson by David Grossman.

Having always pictured Atlas as a giant bearing the enormous globe of the Earth on his shoulders, I was surprised to read in a reference guide to classical literature that it was the heavens, rather than earth, that the hapless Titan was charged with keeping aloft. Actually, when you stop to think about it, that does make more sense: Why, after all, would the earth (generally considered flat back then) need to be held up? Whereas the heavens … well, if one didn’t know better, it would seem as if someone or something must be holding them up or they’d crash down on our heads.

Ms. Winterson envisions an Atlas holding up the entire Kosmos — the known universe, earth and heavens alike. Her retelling of the myth genuinely expands our imagination as she imagines how the weight-bearing Titan might have felt: “I could hardly breathe. I could not raise my head. I tried to shift slightly or to speak. I was dumb and still as a mountain … . There was a terrible pain in the seventh vertebra of my neck. The soft tissue of my body was already hardening … . Time was turning me to stone … . At last I began to hear something … . I can hear the world beginning … . I can hear the ferns uncurling from their tight rest. I can hear pools bubbling with life. I realise I am carrying not only this world, but all possible worlds.”

Heracles, the swashbuckling hero who briefly relieves Atlas of his burden (he needs the Titan’s help in accomplishing one of his famous labors), is presented by Ms. Winterson as a boastful, thuggish fellow, the sort of macho-man who gives masculinity a tarnished, if not downright bad, name. Yet he’s also portrayed with a touch of humor and some sympathy for the plight he’s in, having the implacable goddess Hera for his lifelong foe.

Ms. Armstrong’s book suggests figures like Heracles and the huntress Artemis, who are part of a later civilization’s mythology, are carryovers from earlier hunter-gatherer societies. Ms. Winterson’s Heracles is certainly a more primitive fellow than her Atlas: “His strength lay in action not in endurance. He liked a short sharp fight, a good dinner and sleep. His body was as strong as Atlas’s, but his nature was not.”

Tough though he is, Heracles is not overly bright: To him, thinking is an alien activity, as Ms. Winterson vividly renders it: “He didn’t want to think. Thinking was like a hornet. It was outside his head buzzing at him.” Atlas, however, thinks a great deal — about fate, choice, boundaries, limits and the desire for freedom: unending conundrums that continue to perplex us all.

Readers familiar with Ms. Winterson’s work will not be surprised to discover, not just that she declares her feelings of identification with Atlas, but that she also relates parts of her own personal history in telling his story: “When I was born, my mother gave me away to a stranger … . Later, my adopted mother rejected me too … . Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself.” While casting her imagination back to ancient times, Ms. Winterson writes from the perspective of our times, so that her revisionary vision of Atlas, the earth and the cosmos incorporates what we now know about our planet, our solar system and the infinitely complex universe that has given birth to us.

If Ms. Winterson focuses on the psychological, ecological and philosophical elements of her chosen myth, Margaret Atwood’s focus is on the social and ethical. As one would guess from her decision to give us Penelope’s, rather than Odysseus’, side of the story, gender is clearly an issue. Interestingly, however, what concerns her even more profoundly is the old-fashioned problem Marx memorably dubbed the class system.

While Odysseus was away for 20 years, first fighting Trojans, then tricking monsters and cohabiting with enchantresses, Penelope earned her reputation as the very model of the faithful wife, managing the estate, raising their son and cleverly fending off hordes of suitors. But was her husband worth all this devotion? Speaking from beyond the grave, Ms. Atwood’s Penelope expresses not only her doubts, but her regrets at having acquiesced in a deeply unfair social order.

Ms. Atwood paints a shrewdly insightful picture of what life in those days might actually have been like. Cousin of the famous beauty Helen and herself the daughter of a king, the teenage Penelope is married off without having any say in the matter. She is relieved that Odysseus, though hardly handsome, is highly intelligent, and wise enough to appreciate her brains and good character. Only during his long absence, when stories of his shenanigans get back to her, does she begin to wonder about his loyalty, and even then, she’s prepared to give him the benefit of doubt — or toleration. His homecoming, however, is another matter.

Many readers of Homer’s “Odyssey” (including me) have been shocked by the bloodbath in which the returning hero and his son not only butcher the suitors, but hang 12 of Penelope’s maidservants, stringing them up in a row from a ship’s hawser. Atwood’s “Penelopiad” delves into this mystery — thoughtfully, ingeniously and, most of all, compassionately. Born to poor and powerless parents, sold or taken as slaves in their childhood, these girls were victims, not just because they were women, but because their social status accorded them no rights. Duly considering various explanations for their murder, Ms. Atwood dismisses anthropological and historical moral relativism to give voice to the justice of their cause. By turns slyly funny and fiercely indignant, Ms. Atwood’s imaginative, ingeniously-constructed “deconstruction” of the old tale reveals it in a new — and refreshingly different — light.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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