The Penelopiad and Circe: Two Retellings of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’

‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood and ‘Circe’ by Madeline Miller changed the narrative set by Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’

‘Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.’ – The Odyssey by Homer

‘The Odyssey’ by Homer is an epic narrating the heroic feat of Odysseus, King of Ithaca returning home after the Trojan War. In the twenty years that Odysseus was away from Ithaca, he was at the Trojan War for the first ten years and then spend the next ten years fighting perils at sea, encountering monsters and demons. Homer’s narrative of Odysseus’ great journey and his valour has remained popular since the 8th century BC.

Margaret Atwood in ‘The Penelopiad’ published in 2000 gave an alternate perspective. She retold the story through Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and with a focus on the 12 maids who were hanged to death in ‘The Odyssey’. In ‘The Odyssey’, Penelope epitomizes loyalty, devotedly waiting for her husband’s return while raising her son and evading the swarm of suitors gathered at Ithaca.

Penelope retells her version of the story from the world of the dead in Hades. In the afterlife, Penelope is honest and indiscreet in telling her side of the story. Penelope’s existence in ‘The Odyssey’ is mostly as Helen’s cousin and Odysseus’ wife. So, it is interesting to read her origin story, childhood anecdote of being drowned by her father, marriage to Odysseus, and her time in Ithaca as the daughter-in-law.

“Hadn’t I been faithful? Hadn’t I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation – almost the compulsion – to do otherwise? And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick to beat other women with.” – The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Circe’ by Madeline Miller was published in 2018 retelling the evil enchantress’ story. In ‘The Odyssey’, Odysseus lands at Circe’s Aeaea island with a pre-warning from Hermes about her devilry turning men into pigs. Odysseus is given moly by the Gods that save him from Circe’s evil trick and later spends a year with her. Circe is besotted by Odysseus and helps him in his plan to return home. Madeline Miller turns around the table for Circe, from a vile enchantress to an independent woman who acquires magical powers after being banished by Zeus.    

“I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” – Circe by Madeline Miller

A retelling has a powerful impact. It captures the minds of the present generation as the story is assessed within a changed social and cultural structure. A male dominant literary narrative required a male protagonist to display his physical strength and victories at war. Never a question raised on the means to the end. ‘The Penelopiad’ questions the lies and deceit of Odysseus. An act perceived as Odysseus’ clever ploy should also be weighed against the treachery and brutality involved in it.

Women in ‘The Odyssey’ are loyal and helpful – Calypso, Circe, Eurycleia, and Penelope. If not, then they are either monsters like Scylla or disloyal maids at Ithaca who are to be punished.

You wonder why Penelope is only remembered for the devotion to her husband. Why isn’t she valued for standing her ground, protecting a kingdom, and raising a son independently? Similarly, Circe is the vilified enchantress. Rather, the reader should have remembered a banished demi-Goddess who helped Odysseus return home, bore him a son, and raised him independently.

The most famous depiction of Penelope is of her weaving the death shroud for her father-in-law. She held out the suitors for three years saying she would choose a suitor as her husband (in the absence of her husband’s return) on completion of weaving the death shroud. Every night, Penelope would undo the weaving that she did during the day so that the shroud remained incomplete. A symbol of her intelligence to keep the vile suitors away but was overshadowed by the portrayal of a wife waiting, weeping, and weaving.

Questioning Odysseus’ delay in returning home. For ten years, Odysseus was in the Trojan War. The next ten years after the war, he was trying to return home. Penelope hears stories of her husband’s tales of lovemaking with Goddesses and other seductresses. Well, Odysseus lived with Calypso and Circe; Homer may call it enchantment but Penelope should have questioned it. If Odysseus felt the twelve maids who were sleeping with the suitors worthy of being hanged then why wasn’t a similar bar of fidelity fixed on him too.

Atwood’s use of the chorus consisting of the 12 maids contributes towards a heightened sense of drama and even a satirical take on Penelope’s narration. The twelve maids let out their plight as being the daughters stolen or given away by their parents and of their snatched childhoods. They describe their agonizing ordeal of drudgery and exploitation as playthings and slaves in the hands of their owners. Can toxic nurturing bring goodness in return?

As a female reader, I was ashamed that I overlooked the hanging of the 12 maids by Telemachus at Odysseus’ behest. They were accused of scheming with the suitors against Odysseus but what power did they wield in a place where even the queen was unprotected. Penelope had a close kinship with these 12 twelve maids, whom she raised since young. But, she is powerless to protect them!

In ‘The Penelopiad’, the writing style would remind you of ‘The Handmaids Tale’, the social commentary bit enters here too. What if you could bring Odysseus to the court of law and question him about the murder of the twelve maids? Yes, the story shifts its base from ancient Greece to the contemporary world.

I would say these two books – ‘The Penelopiad’ and ‘Circe’ bring to the fore the feminism narrative, that lay brushed under the carpet as one is busy painting a picture of the male protagonist’s heroic triumphs.

I am taking my blog to the next level with Blogchatter’s #MyFriendAlexa.

10 thoughts on “The Penelopiad and Circe: Two Retellings of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’

  1. I just bought a copy of the Circe. I wasn’t aware of Atwood’s Penelopiad. Let me see if I can get that too. And you are right, it is so sad that male authors choose to humble women, isn’t it? These two retellings seem even better than the original to me and I am going to find out for myself too. I am going to read these two books very soon indeed. Thanks a lot for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Circe is an amazing take and so engaging. The Penelopiad is more of a novella, it is short and terse but then it’s Atwood’s writing. Happy reading! Thank you so much for stopping by!


  2. I had no idea that these two books are retellings of The Odyssey!
    I’ve recently read Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (retelling of The Tempest by Shakespeare) and I liked a lot the idea of discovering a classic book by reading an “alternative” version.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, and both tell the story from such a different perspective.
      Didn’t know of Hag-Seed…I had read The Tempest back in school and really loved it, probably because it is one of the shortest plays by Shakespeare! I am sure Atwood’s version will be amazing…so adding it to my TBR.
      Thank you so much for visiting my blog.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, yes it is so good to read a retelling with a modern feminist voice…so do pick it up. And, I think Atwood did ‘The Penelopiad’ as part of a series where authors rewrite ancient myths.
      Though I wish it had been longer than a novella!
      Thank you so much for visiting!

      Liked by 1 person

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