Five Ways of Looking at 'The Penelopiad'

Coral Ann Howells


As the lights go down in the great church of St James, Piccadilly, a voice speaks eerily out of the darkness somewhere off to the side: ‘Now that I’m dead I know everything.’ And then a single spotlight reveals centre stage a small grey-haired female figure robed in black sitting on a throne; she begins to speak. This is Margaret Atwood, doubly imaged here in performance as Penelope, for I am describing a staged reading of part of The Penelopiad by the writer herself.

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus is one of the first three books in a new series, The Myths, published by Canongate Press in the United Kingdom and simultaneously in 32 other countries. The other two books are Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth and Jeanette Winterston’s Weight, a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles. It is Canongate’s intention to publish one hundred of these myth revisions by 2038. Atwood has been rewriting classical myths ever since her first privately published volume of poems Double Persephone back in 1961, and in this context her recent comments on myth are significant:

Strong myths never die. Sometimes they die down, but they don’t die out. They double back in the dark, they re-embody themselves, they change costumes, they change key.

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