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Monday 5 December 2005

Myths and Misses — and One Hit

by Claude Lalumière

The Myths is a new international publishing program presenting new novellas by some of today's most celebrated mainstream writers, who are invited to write personal takes on the world's "most enduring stories." There are 32 participating publishers; in English the participants are Knopf Canada (who supplied the copies here reviewed), Canongate (US and UK, whose covers are shown below), Penguin India, and Text (Australia).

Fantasy writers have been doing this sort of thing for decades, so this won't seem as fresh and new to a genre readership as it might to an audience reared on the realism so beloved by the literary establishment. It's no surprise, therefore, that the first two novellas, books 2 and 3 in the series, are by writers whose works, despite their mainstream literary standing, have on occasion strayed into speculative fiction: Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson.

The series kicks off with a new essay by author Karen Armstrong, bestselling author of numerous books on religion.

A Short History of Myth, by Karen Armstrong (159 pages)

Karen Armstrong's essay A Short History of Myth is the series' de facto mission statement, contextualizing these new literary retellings within millennia of human history. Armstrong's book is ambitious in scope, encompassing more than twenty thousand years, from late prehistory to today.

Armstrong's essay is a fun, easy read, but it's too light. Turning the final pages, I was left feeling that I'd read nothing more than an outline for a potentially great book. There are things to admire here, but before discussing those I should point out the book's lacunae, because they undermine what Armstrong is trying to accomplish, i.e, a historical overview of myth and ritual in human societies.

Perhaps in the interest of brevity and economy (this is a series of short books), Armstrong peppers her book with what comes off as sounding like half-baked ideas and pronouncements on subjects such as animal cognition, ancient religious life, and contemporary culture. On animal cognition, for example, she bases her assertions on a book from 1949, dismissing by omission decades of research and thought. Most of her sources, in fact, date back to an earlier — mid-twentieth-century — canon, leaving readers with the impression that perhaps her research and authority are not what they could be.

Another lacuna that struck me was Armstrong's class blinders. Both when discussing antiquity and the last century, Armstrong's unstated focus seems to be the upper classes, and her bias is never acknowledged. Her own perspective is clearly elitist, as exemplified especially in the last chapter, "The Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000)". It's quite telling, for example, when listing activities other than religion that humans engage in to achieve transcendence Armstrong enumerates "music" (with no mention of genre) and "rock" as two separate things. In the context of the chapter and of Armstrong's other examples from contemporary (or near-contemporary) art culture it's clear that "music" means "classical music." Her discussion of the role of myth in contemporary art is laughably slanted towards "high art," totally missing the mythic role and ritual templates of much "low art" (superhero comics, rock music, television, etc.). In fact, surprisingly, instead of looking at what functions as myth in people's psyches now (and thus effectively continuing the narrative she had established in previous chapters), she satisfies herself with discussing examples of high art dealing with classical myth.

This is quite a jarring departure from the central chapters, where, despite some problems, she nevertheless paints a vivid picture of myth as a living, evolving presence in human consciousness. But she utterly fails to recognize, or perhaps acknowledge, myth and ritual when they manifest themselves outside of traditional religious contexts.

Armstrong's text is particularly engaging when she speculates on prehistoric religious experience (although perhaps her speculations are a bit too one-sided, given how little we actually know for certain).

Her descriptions of myth in pre-industrial cultures as existing outside of contemporary notions of time (think, for example, of Aboriginal Dreamtime) are particularly apt and clearly outlined. Another important point to which Armstrong returns again and again is that myths are essentially meaningless when divorced from their ritual contexts. She argues this with authority and conviction, and I think it's an important notion. What comes to mind for me is the common fallacy in genre circles of equating classical myth and fantasy fiction. While myth can inform fantasy, classical myth was not experienced as fantasy, nor was it necessarily taken literally as historical, the way Christian fundamentalists tend to interpret ancient Hebrew myths. Armstrong's discussion of myth and how it was perceived, experienced, believed, and felt throughout pre-modern history is the most fascinating aspect of A Short History of Myth. Yet, even that aspect, as good as it is, is explored too superficially to be fully satisfying — a judgement that can be applied to the book as a whole.

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus, by Margaret Atwood (199 pages)

The first novella in The Myths is Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad. Penelope is Odysseus's wife, and this is her untold story — untold inasmuch as the story is usually told from Odysseus's perspective.

What was Penelope really up to all those years Odysseus was away fighting the Trojan War and then lost at sea? In this first-person narrative, Penelope herself tells us. She's been dead for thousands of years, and she recounts her tales from the underworld of Greek myth, a land of shades where the dead roam eternally.

This revisionist take on the myth of The Odyssey is explicitly feminist — but never didactic. Atwood's tongue is pressed firmly in her cheek throughout this tale, and she never hesitates to poke fun at her characters, her chosen myth, and even her own decision to frame the tale within a feminist viewpoint.

Atwood is extremely at ease with the material, and that confidence imbues The Penelopiad with a bold authenticity. Penelope's voice is engaging, and her mischievous personality utterly charming.

Atwood incorporates and lampoons elements of Ancient Greek theatre within the structure of the novella, punctuating the action with metafictional choruses sung by the maids Odysseus executed when he finally returned home. It sounds gimmicky, but Atwood has so much fun with this, does such a great job of making those sequences enhance her already entertaining narrative, and makes it work so deftly at a thematic level that it all flows seamlessly.

At the heart of Atwood's cleverly constructed narrative is the question: can lies — or myth — be more true than facts? Did the story truly unfold as Penelope presents it? Did Odysseus really encounter all those fabulous beasts, gods, and demons on his journey back home? Was either of them faithful to the other, or did they even really try to be? Does it really matter? Perhaps, this novella invites us to ponder, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives are more resonant and more authentic than bland facts.

Weight, by Jeanette Winterson (151 pages)

Jeanette Winterson's Weight is the third book of The Myths. Its central event is the meeting between Atlas and Heracles, when Heracles takes the world from Atlas's shoulders so the Titan can help him fetch the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides.

Certainly Heracles and Atlas are two fascinating characters, and their mythic legacy is such that a novella about the two of them has much potential. Alas, that potential is squandered here.

Winterson can't seem to decide what, exactly, her story is, or even who it's about. The book includes solo sections featuring each character, but Winterson fails to make these disparate elements coalesce into a narrative. Given especially the wealth of myths and stories about Heracles to draw from, the choice of which scenes made it into this book seems arbitrary, and the author doesn't succeed in communicating how or why it's important to recount these particular events in Heracles's life in juxtaposition to stories of Atlas.

Perhaps all this is because, ultimately, Winterson herself is the subject of her story, and Heracles and Atlas, in this book, are nothing more than props in Winterson's navel-gazing experiment. The novella includes chapters in which the author directly involves herself in the telling of the story and explicitly makes her life the theme of the book. She tries to connect it all to the myth at hand, but it's a stretch, and a very long and thin one at that.

Atwood's The Penelopiad is great — easily one of the year's best books — while Winterson's Weight misses the mark completely, which is unfortunate, because Boating for Beginners, an early Winterson novel that tackles the Noah myth, was an inventive, entertaining, and moving reinterpretation. I expected her to reprise that level of performance with this new book.

Above, I mentioned that one of the problems with Armstrong's essay is its unexamined class bias — a kind of reflex snobbery. I'm also concerned that the series itself might suffer from a similar bias.

It's a shame that the world of literature is so genre-segregated. Why shouldn't celebrated fantasists such as Robert Silverberg, Tanith Lee, Gene Wolfe, Ashok Banker, James Morrow, Brian Stableford, Geoff Ryman, and Rachel Pollack — to name a few among many who would undoubtedly do a masterful job with this theme — stand alongside the likes of (to name some forthcoming writers in the series) Chinua Achebe, A.S. Byatt, and Donna Tartt? Why shouldn't readers interested in the interplay of fiction and myth explore and enjoy the works of all these writers, regardless of the genres in which their works are marketed?

So we'll read and, sometimes, enjoy The Myths, but also we'll wonder at what might have been if...

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