Literary revamps of myths are nothing new. From C.S. Lewis' stellar Cupid/Psyche retelling Till We Have Faces to Michael Crichton's gimmicky Beowulf reworking Eaters Of The Dead, folklore-redux has practically earned its own genre. What's new is the individual twists authors place on those mythsthe perspectives they add and the meanings they explore. In the case of two brief new novels released to kick off Canongate's "Myth series," those added perspectives are highly idiosyncratic: One illuminates a saga's minor supporting cast, while the other addresses the author as much as her versions of legend.
In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood channels her usual sympathetic wronged-woman point of view through Penelope, Odysseus' dutiful stuck-at-home wife. While he's gallivanting around screwing goddesses and besting legends, she's dealing with his estates, his rebellious son, the periodic bitchiness of preening narcissist Helen Of Troy, and of course the flock of suitors trying to use her as a stepping-stone to power. Much in the tone of Till We Have Faces, The Penelopiad showcases a wry, practical, but self-serving narrator who makes the most of her limited resources and education, but sometimes lets her personal issues get in the way, as when Odysseus returns home and slaughters a dozen of her maids. Atwood gives the maids their own voice in inter-chapter interludes; their varying poetic styles are sometimes awkward and sometimes entertaining, but the conflicts in viewpoint cunningly provide a dramatic and tonal tension that neatly complements the story's accomplished but relatively uneventful flow. Appropriately enough for such a familiar tale, The Penelopiad is more about viewpoint than incident.
Jeanette Winterson's Weight finds more incident but a less focused perspective in the story of Atlas, the god-spawned Titan condemned to carry the cosmos, and Heracles, the hero who took up Atlas' burden briefly for selfish reasons. Winterson's version of the story jumps between their points of view and her own, building a frothy prose poem that ranges from earthy and sexually graphic to abstract, airy, and hard to grasp. Her themes are more ambitious than Atwood's, so she has further to fall when she wanders afield, but she compensates with her complicated insights on Atlas. In myth, he's mostly an antagonist, and an easily duped one at that. In Weight, he has philosophy, reasoning, and pride on his side. But that's the strength of books like these: They make old stories resonate in rich new ways.