This fall, Canongate Books launched The Myths, a series of nicely produced little hardcover books by accomplished authors reworking familiar myths. They launched the series with three books, beginning with Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth and following with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Jeannette Winterson’s The Weight.
Karen Armstrong’s book is as advertised, as she manages in 150 pages to explore the evolving role of myth in (mostly Western) culture since the early days of man. She’s not breaking any new ground, but she tells the story well, and her ability to succinctly summarize is satisfying:
“Logos is the mental activity we use when we want to make things happen in the world. . . . Myth is the discourse we need in extremity.”
Of the first two works of retelling in the series, Margaret Atwood’s version of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view on Ithaca is the weakest. Atwood’s Penelope is steadfast and smart—and one nice touch is that her brains are, as one might expect, a reason that Odysseus chose her—but her long wait and her machinations in holding off a houseful of suitors and her ungrateful son never come to life. Even the specific question Atwood poses at the outset (Why does Odysseus hang Penelope’s twelve maids upon his return?), while the subject of the most interesting speculation in the book (One possibility is that they are a remnant of earlier tales of ritual sacrifice of virgins.), feels like a starting point that, though intended to provide a way to turn the tale inside out, instead simply leads it into dead ends.
I prefer to leave the question of Penelope’s fidelity unanswered. Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, knows how easily a person can be convinced of an untruth he desires to believe, and Odysseus himself wants to believe Penelope has been faithful. So he kills the suitors and the maids rather than take a chance of hearing otherwise, and he tests Penelope only by the most transparent of ruses. He wants to believe her—but maybe it's not only that. Maybe he even wants her to be lying, because successful deception, far more than fidelity, would make her a fit wife for him.
Jeannette Winterson’s retelling of the story of Atlas and Heracles, on the other hand, combines the mythological and the personal, the ancient and the modern, to great effect. Some of her brief sentences and repetitions border on preciousness, but the thought animating the story makes up for it. She turns it into a meditation on burdens, and the difference between those we take up by choice and those that are forced on us by history, tradition, or expectations. Atlas, who has the boundless horizon on his back dreams of escape to his walled garden; Heracles dreams of escape from his labors and freedom from his destructive self. What burdens will we bear for others? What is the mix of utility and compassion in that act?
More important, though, is that Winterson gets her characters:
When Heracles wanted something, he usually started by shouting for it. . . . Heracles was getting angry. If shouting didn’t get him what he wanted, he used his club.
And of Atlas, taking up again the burden of the cosmos:
Slowly, so as not to spill one drop of milk, Atlas lowered the Kosmos back onto his shoulder, and bent himself under the burden. He did it with such grace and ease, with such gentleness, love almost, that Heracles was ashamed for a moment. He would gladly have dashed the world to pieces if that would have freed him. He saw now that Atlas could do just that, but did not, and he respected him but would not help him.
Ultimately, that’s why The Weight works, and why myths are still interesting now, after the belief has gone: Winterson has thought about her Atlas and Heracles and the ways they would interact. It’s not about explaining things, or showing us how ideas work by using symbols. Rather, it’s about showing us the choices these recognizable characters have—and how and why they make them—and about what that tells us about who and what we are—or might be.