My word, I have six different posts saved in draft and not a one of them finished or posted. Let’s rectify that, shall we? Books! Books are good and here are three…

THE GOOD MAN JESUS AND THE SCOUNDREL CHRISTby Philip PullmanWEIGHTby Jeanette WintersonTHE PENELOPIADby Margaret Atwood

The Mythology series is an interesting idea – have a well-known author take an old story and reinvent / repurpose / reimagine it for a modern audience.

My first exposure to the series is Philip Pullman’s effort, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Pullman is best known for his religious-castigating work, His Dark Materials, in which his pre-pubescent protagonists unknowingly wage a pan-dimensional war on God. As opposed to His Dark Materials, which had a rather obvious point about the soi-disant God figure not necessarily being the actual God but someone that assumed his position, in The Good Man… Pullman turns his eye quite plainly upon the character of Jesus. There is no proxy or get-out-of-jail card here.

The book considers Jesus Christ as two people – Jesus, the rabble rouser who preaches a new way of thinking and pushes for social upheaval, and his twin Brother Christ, who believes in the power of organisation and the potential for formal religion. The brothers go their separate ways – the latter steadfastedly remaining in the shadow of the former, recording his progress and mounting his concerns.

Stylistically, the prose takes a shape similar to that of the bible. While the point is clear, the effect of transforming the work into an artefact is not as successful as was presumably have been hoped for. While it is not detrimental to the story, it adds little, and due to the intentional gaps in the storytelling, wherein the text intercuts with the other biblical stories happening simultaneously, the story feels lessened. Although Pullman strives to provide all the necessary information, the stitching is obvious.

It’s not an entirely failed experiment – the alternate points-of-view provided are refreshing counterpoints to those typically shown. The church councils debating Jesus are not demonised, but instead shown as people with a reasonable understanding of the political landscape and recognise the danger Jesus is putting them in. The blurring of the lines between reality and the divine is interestingly played, and there is a subtlety to be found (most obviously with Mary and her ‘angel’). The plot device of the twins, while obvious, has it’s advantages in that it highlights the disparities of what Jesus Christ the original supposedly did and said – in the book, Jesus preaches for salvation, yet also acts the xenophobe; Christ strives to create something, yet is hampered by his recognition of reality and moral courage.

In some ways, I think I placed too many high hopes on it, having been a fan of His Dark Materials. The odd and seemingly shifting tone did not help – in places, it felt as though it were retelling the story for children… only for Christ to then have an encounter with a prostitute. It’s an odd work – interesting, certainly, but flawed. It did however draw my attention to other books in the series, and did not alienate them from my consideration, so no lasting damage at least!

Weight is, by comparison, a much stranger beast. Retelling the meeting of Atlas and Heracles while the former is working his way through his twelve trials, Weight is an attempt to see the world as Atlas does. It adheres closely to the commonly accepted version of the story – for his crimes against Zeus, Atlas bears the weight of the world. Meanwhile, Heracles needs to acquire fruit from Hera’s garden, but due to Hera’s machinations, Heracles himself cannot take the fruit. For this, Heracles requires Atlas – who once tended the garden – to do the deed, and must as a result hold the world while Atlas sets to his new task. Typically, the story is looked on with Heracles as the cunning hero who once more snatches victory at the last second – Heracles realises that Atlas is about to betray him and not resume his burden, and so Heracles quickly tricks Atlas into taking the weight back. Oh what a cheeky scamp!

Winterson takes a different approach with a dual narrative. In the first thread, rather than looking at Heracles the hero, we see the story from the viewpoint of Atlas the victim, who is played much closer to the human protagonists who tended to suffer the often unwarranted wrath of the gods. Winterson appropriates the events of Atlas’ life and points out something rather obvious in motivating him to initially take arms against the gods – they destroy his life by increments. When his side loses, they punish him to hold up the world so begins his interactions with Heracles. To deemphasise the heroic connotations that typically arise when we consider him, Winterson evokes the darker sides of his story – rapine, murder, violence, lechery, cheating and duplicity. Heracles retains his noble victories, but they are sullied by what Winterson reminds us of (or just shows us, if the reader lacks familiarity with the mythology).

The secondary thread concerns Winterson’s own life, to which she draws mythological parallels – the myths are, after all, meant to relate to our own lives in some way. Here, she builds the connective tissue of the book and considers the elements writ so very large in the main text, while also working to unify the two strands in the modern day.

Moreso than the others, Weight left me the most uncertain in my regard for it. I suspect this is due both to an unfamiliarity to Winterson’s previous work and that I did not expect the book to become quite so autobiographical. The shift of language between the periods is obvious, but I think it’s where the two threads meet (in what is really a third story, truth be told) doesn’t feel quite so nuanced due to its brevity. And yet expanding it would be difficult, so therein lies the rub. It’s certainly a more successful iteration of the conceit of the series than The Good Man… but I think the final tally will only really be taken after some time, some distance and a second reading.

So then to The Penelopiad. I do love Greek mythology, but as much as I love Heracles, the 12 tasks, Thesus, the Argonauts, the titans and so forth, my favourite was always Odysseus. Rather than a burly bruiser, he was a short but clever sod who typically outsmarted his opponents in some way. He also got to spend ten years having adventures named after him – what’s not to love? How then has the good Ms Atwood decided to look at the Oddessey? By seeing his life through the eyes of his wife, Penelope.

This is really Penelope’s story, looking at her life before marriage and then filling in the gaps left by her husband going off to war for ten years and then bumbling about the Mediterranean for a second decade. Narrated from Hades, Penelope looks back on her whole life and those that intertwined with it, trying to untangle the mess of narrative changes and explain matters to an audience who she feels don’t understand her because they’ve seen a biased account of her. Women in mythology often tend to get the short shrift in terms of derring-do, intrigue and political juggling, and fewer still are allowed to be seen as positive, strong and, critically, morally just. Atwood seeks to address this and reconcile the many varying iterations of the same story without necessarily setting them any more in stone than they already are so much as presupposing how they came to be.

It’s this examination of motivation that makes the book my favourite of the series so far – the Penelope of the myths is portrayed as being a chaste and loyal wife and or a blinking idiot who may or may not be taking it from every other fellow to swim up the Adriatic. In tandem with this is the consideration of personal responsibility and culpability – the mythology is rife with people locking swords and taking exceptionally bloody vengeance, but rarely is the justification for same ever given a deeper examination than “They did me wrong and thusly deserved it”. This is slowly examined through the lovely use of a Greek chorus of Penelope’s twelve handmaidens murdered as traitors on the return of Odysseus, which in form evolves as the centuries pass. This mechanic is fantastic, since it allows a flexibility to the narrative to align with modern morality and compare it with the mores of the age in which the action is set.

Moreso than either The Good Man... or Weight, The Penelopiad repurposes the material in a satisfactory fashion. While the former applies a contemporary understanding of political science in heavy handed fashion and the latter applies a modern morality (while ignoring the rather monstrous things Atlas himself did), The Penelopiad allows both viewpoints to be evident. Penelope, while far more intelligent and devious than is typically shown, is still fallible and capable of errors in judgement (even if she can’t quite realise or accept them). Her thought process is extrapolated from her actions, her origins and how the narrative generally unfolded. It aligns the conflicting reports of the material while creating an enjoyable read in its own right, as opposed to an experiment which varies in its success rate. Penelope tries to make the best of a bad situation; Margaret Atwood makes a wonderful read out of the very same.

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