Thursday, August 20, 2009

Myths ~ a short history, plus one example

A Short History of Myth ~ by Karen Armstrong, 2005
"Mythology was ... designed to help us to cope with the problematic human predicament. It helped people to find their place in the world and their true orientation" (p. 6).

"A myth ... is an event that -- in some sense -- happened once, but which also happens all the time" (p. 106).
Armstrong shows how myths changed from the time of the hunters of the palaeolithic period, to the farmers of the neolithic period, to the stories being told in the earliest civilizations. Then came the Axial Age (around 800 to 200 BCE), when new religions and philosophies emerged: "Confucianism and Taoism in China; Buddhism and Hinduism in India; monotheism in the Middle East and Greek rationalism in Europe" (p. 79). The book finishes up with chapters on the post-axial period and what the author calls "The Great Western Transformation" (from around 1500 to 2000). Where are we today?
"We are myth-making creatures and, during the twentieth century, we saw some very destructive modern myths, which have ended in massacre and genocide. These myths have failed because they do not meet the criteria of the Axial Age. They have not been infused with the spirit of compassion, respect for the sacredness of all life, or with what Confucius called 'leaning.' These destructive mythologies have been narrowly racial, ethnic, denominational and egotistic, an attempt to exalt the self by demonising the other. ... We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe" (p. 136).
For all it covers so succinctly, I rate this book 9/10.

Because it was the first book in the Myth Series of novels, A Short History of Myth was published simultaneously in 33 countries and in 28 languages. The idea for the series was to ask writers from around the world to retell a myth, any myth, each in his or her own way. Since I've read one of the novels, I'll review it here, as well.

The Penelopiad ~ by Margaret Atwood, 2005

When Margaret Atwood was asked to rewrite a myth, she thought of her reaction to reading a story by Homer: "The hanging of the twelve 'maids' — slaves, really — at the end of The Odyssey seemed to me unfair at first reading, and seems so still." What she did in her novella was to look at the same story, but from the perspective of the women, specifically Penelope. Odysseus we know, but who was Penelope? As narrator of this novella, she begins with these words:
"Now that I'm dead I know everything" (p.1).
Penelope has waited a long time to give her version of events, telling this tale from a 21st century Hades, looking back on her life as the wife of Odysseus. She lets us know that her cousin Helen ruined her life. You remember Helen, don't you? Helen's was the face that launched a thousand ships. The men, including Penelope's husband, sailed off to bring Helen home from Troy. Before they could bring her home, they had to fight the battle of Troy. Meanwhile, Penelope is back home trying to hold everything all together over the years and years (ten of them). A major problem is the suitors who say she should marry one of them because her husband is obviously not coming back from the war -- he must surely be dead. The hanged maids form the Greek Chorus, or as Atwood calls them, the chorus line that accompanies Penelope's tale. They were there; they know the difficulties Penelope faced.

I've read other rewritings of famous novels. For example, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, from the viewpoint of the three daughters. Then there's Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, which is the wife's perspective of the Moby-Dick story by Herman Melville. I enjoyed these two novels more than The Penelopiad. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood for this one, even though I like the concept. (If you want to see other novels rewritten from the women's point of view, read my post on Book pairs ~ his 'n hers.)

Rated 7 of 10, a good book.


Marg said...

I've read a couple of teh books in this sereis now, some of which were better than others. I do really like the idea of the series very much!

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Which books have you read, Marg?

Marg said...

So far I have read Lion's Honey by David Grossman, Weight by Jeanette Winterson and Celtic Angus by Alexander McCall Smith.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

I'll come visit your blog soon, Marg, and look for reviews of these three books. Since you said "so far," I take it that you plan to read more of the series?

Marg said...

I've written reviews for two of them I think. Can't remember if I have for Weight.

I definitely plan to read more. I think they are mostly very interesting! Penelopiad is one that I am hoping to read.