Her Story: Atwood gives The Odyssey a twist by letting Penelope tell the tale
Author and poet Margaret Atwood seems both more and less a presence than one might expect—an intense, small-boned bird perched on a chair in the green room of Glenn Memorial Church on this autumnal evening.
Despite the fact that in a few minutes she will be speaking to a crowd of more than a thousand about her recently published book, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus, Atwood is gracious and thoughtful, willing to engage in conversation about everything from the book’s title (“It can be pronounced any way you’d like, since I made the word up”) to pitfalls to avoid when writing utopian or dystopian novels.
“There is always what I call ‘the tour of the sewage plant,’ ” she says, “in which the people of the future show you the bad, horrible way something used to be done and the new, shiny, improved way things are done now.”
Although many of Atwood’s books, such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, are futuristic—“speculative fiction,” she calls them—The Penelopiad is a recrafting of the myth of Homer’s Odyssey as told from the viewpoint of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and a Greek chorus of her twelve hanged maids.
Since being dead—since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness—I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.
Penelope, the daughter of a king and a water Naiad, decides it is her turn to be a storyteller, which, although a low art, is still the best way for her to set the record straight. “She kept her mouth shut for a long time, but why bother now?” Atwood says. “Payback time has come.”
Atwood was invited by the Michael C. Carlos Museum to give this year’s Nix Mann Endowed Lecture after museum staff and classics department faculty gained inspiration from a siren depicted on a Grecian drinking cup in its collection. One of Atwood’s famous poems, “Siren Song,” is centered on the seductive creatures that drew sailors to certain death with their enchanted singing.
“It was a wonderful intersection of classics, creative writing, and the collections of the museum,” says Elizabeth Hornor, the museum’s director of education. “Only a writer as complex as Margaret Atwood could speak to so many different audiences. Her readers expect her to lead them to futuristic places, but what we wanted her to explore was her lifelong relationship to ancient literature.”
Fans were overjoyed to get a chance to meet the Canadian author—Latin teacher Jim Westcot 72G (below left, with Atwood on right) drove six hours with ten of his students from Savannah’s Beach High School to see Atwood speak.
Atwood’s novels appeal to a broad range of readers, despite having dark edges. “I’m dealing with profound topics: birth, death, fate, love, betrayal,” she explains.
Happy endings, as Penelope says in the opening narrative, are best achieved by “keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages”—not rules that Atwood, personally, has ever been willing to follow.
The inquisitive daughter of two scientists, she was raised in the northern woods of Canada, where her father ran a forest-insect research station. Atwood was homeschooled for several years, and credits her parents with teaching their three children to be independent.
In fact, rewriting a classic from the historically overlooked wife’s point of view appealed to Atwood’s sense of justice, and not just because Penelope was long-suffering. When Atwood first read The Odyssey at fifteen, the line about the hanged maids with feet twitching—“but not for very long”—haunted her. “It made me curious about what Penelope was really up to,” she says.
And with that, Atwood takes to the stage with a wry smile, to tell her side of the story.—M.J.L.