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Paperback The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus Book

ISBN: 1841957984

ISBN13: 9781841957982

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

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Format: Paperback

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Book Overview

Margaret Atwood returns with a shrewd, funny, and insightful retelling of the myth of Odysseus from the point of view of Penelope. Describing her own remarkable vision, the author writes in the foreword, "I've chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus, which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of the Odyssey: What led...

Customer Reviews

7 ratings

One of my favorite authors

Atwood is one of my favorite authors, so I'm always excited to find something by her that I haven't read yet. This was a great concept, and I enjoyed how she gave such life to a usually under-represented historic character. It doesn't reach as far or high as some of Atwood's other works, but a very good read.

Can't read it

My copy is full of notes in pen and dark colors, making it extremely difficult to read.

A book to savor

If you enjoyed Helen of Troy by Margaret George, you'll love The Penelopiad. Atwood's work is a choice follow-up, giving Penelope, a not-so-enchanted judge of Helen's beauty, a chance to share her viewpoint. Penelope's necessary self-reliance and wry wit make this a book to enjoy. Don't hurry to the end of this book! I'm sorry it's only 200 pages in length.

Delightfully inventive

The retelling of myths being all the rage in fiction, producing more often than not stilted works that neither compare with nor add to the works from which they derive, how refreshing to see the genre approached by a master like the ever versatile Margaret Atwood, here offering a whole new take on the Homeric cannon from the perspective of Odysseus's wife, Penelope. Nor does Atwood fall into the trap of taking the original work too seriously, but instead follows much of the pattern of rich humor found in the original. Those familiar with Homer can guess much of the tale; how Odysseus uses cleverness to catch his bride. Indeed, Atwood reconstructs Odysseus with a deft pen, never simplifying this most complex of characters. Moreover, just as Homer portrays Penelope as a subtle and strategist, so to does Atwood, expanding on her dealing with her suitors and spouse alike. Any effort to explain this short work might well damage the experience of the reader, which would be a tragedy. However, I must say a word about Atwood's brilliant use of the maids as a chorus for the story, offered complete with musical numbers and costume description, as though the author imagines a Broadway musical. In the wake of adaptations like "Legally Blond," Broadway could no doubt do worse than to take up her challenge.

A wise, witty, sharply pointed retelling of mythology.

In Homer's "Odyssey," why were twelve of Queen Penelope's handmaidens hanged along with Penelope's unsuccessful suitors? In "The Penelopiad," Margaret Atwood endeavors to answer this unsettling question by allowing Penelope herself to relate the tale from beyond the River Styx, with the twelve hanged maidens acting as chorus in alternating chapters. In Atwood's retelling, the answer has a great deal to do with the violent, patriarchal structure of Greek society, along with the character of Penelope's husband Odysseus, the ultimate con man disguised as hero. "I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn't think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me," Penelope says of him. As for Penelope herself, she struggles to keep herself, her son Telemachus and her kingdom of Ithaca intact during her husband's twenty-year absence. This effort includes making covert allies where and when she can, and blinding herself to a great deal. "I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages," she says. The maidens, meanwhile, relate through poetry, sea chantey, courtroom sketch and anthropological lecture their side of the tale, and their undying outrage at having been scapegoated and judicially murdered. Throughout this short book, Atwood demonstrates her renowned mastery of both prose and poetic style, her tart and sometimes biting wit, and--above all--her zealous sympathy for the victims of history, who are just as tragic today as they were in Homer's time.

A fascinating and sensitive retelling of Homer's epic from Penelope's perspective

This year Canongate Books, along with two-dozen other international publishing houses, is launching an ambitious, multi-year myths project. Featuring renowned authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Chinua Achebe, A. S. Byatt, Donna Tartt, and many more, the series aims to retell classic myths in inventive, sometimes startling, new ways, to reawaken these great stories for a modern audience. One of the first entries in this impressive undertaking is THE PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood. And what a splendid introduction to the project it is. Almost everyone knows the story of Odysseus, the warrior and king of Ithaca who fought in the Trojan War and then took a really, really, really long time to get back home. It's easy to forget about his wife Penelope, who (if you'll recall) was always best known for her modesty, her patience, and her virtue. She was also known for being clever, for (according to Homer's ODYSSEY) she spent her days weaving and her nights unraveling, in order that she might never have to finish her project and marry one of the numerous suitors who surrounded her in Odysseus's absence. But Atwood, well known not only as a novelist and poet but also as a feminist writer, was not satisfied with this portrayal of Penelope. Nor could she stop thinking about the disturbing scene in THE ODYSSEY in which Penelope's son Telemachus hangs Penelope's twelve handmaidens for sleeping with the suitors. Atwood's retelling, then, shows us a very different side of the story. The narrative is presented by Penelope herself, from the fields of Hades. Penelope has been dead for eons, and she tells her story for a modern audience. Through her retelling, we discover much more about Penelope's childhood (much of which Atwood reconstructed from other mythic accounts), her jealousy of her cousin Helen's beauty, her loathing of life in Ithaca, and her combined love and resentment of her husband. We also learn that Penelope herself is haunted by the gruesome murder of her twelve youngest, most beautiful handmaidens --- most of whom had been raped by Penelope's greedy suitors --- at the hands of Odysseus and Telemachus. Penelope is accompanied by a chorus of the dead maids themselves, inspired by the choruses of Greek drama. Although their satirical commentaries sometimes rely on groan-inducing puns ("kiddie mourn"), their voices also have a poignancy that will speak to modern readers, particularly as their story unfolds in Penelope's narrative. Although Atwood's brief novel can appeal to readers regardless of their familiarity with Homer's more familiar tale, the two versions do enrich each other in any number of ways. Atwood's sensitive and humane portrayal of Penelope will inspire many readers to return to Homer's ODYSSEY with a more appreciative, but also more critical, eye. --- Reviewed by Norah Piehl


I enjoyed this "back story" of Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus. As does the author, Atwood, I too have often wondered what the "real" story was. This was a complicated woman, and her day-to-day life of keeping everything together for 20 years cannot have been any easier than that of the men fighting the war. I thought the book clever and touching. The other reviewer's use of the two sides of a coin is exactly correct, also, and very well described. The hanging of the maids was horrific, but accounted for in an interesting manner in the book. Finally, Atwood's writing style is just lovely. All in all, I enjoyed this small book (readable in an hour). I highly recommend it.

The Penelopiad Mentions in Our Blog

The Penelopiad in Happy Birthday to the Marvelous Margaret Atwood
Happy Birthday to the Marvelous Margaret Atwood
Published by Ashly Moore Sheldon • November 18, 2020

Margaret Atwood is 81 years old today! The renowned Canadian author has been publishing poetry, novels, nonfiction, children’s books, and more since 1961, but her star just keeps on rising. Known largely for books like The Handmaid’s Tale, you may be surprised to learn that speculative fiction actually represents a small fraction of the versatile author’s work.

The Penelopiad in Timeless Classics with Timely Updates
Timeless Classics with Timely Updates
Published by Ashly Moore Sheldon • April 03, 2020

Getting young people to read old books can be challenging. One successful approach we’ve come across is to pair the original with a modern take on the story. Here we feature ten classic books matched with fun, updated retellings.

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