THE PENELOPEIA: JANE RAWLINGS Wednesday 11 July, 2012

PENELOPEIA_WEB

Please welcome Melissa to the shores of Geek & Spell. She’s going to tell us about The Penelopeia and make us all feel bad for only reading trash. Take it away Melissa…

The Penelopeia is essentially “the next episode” of the Odyssey, picking up where Homer left off 3,000 years ago. For those of you who aren’t aware, Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, who waited for him at home during his trials and tribulations trying to journey back to her after the Trojan War. The Penelopeia is the story of Penelope, told in what the author imagines to be her voice, following the instructions of the goddess Athena to make her own journey with her twin daughters when they come of age. These daughters of Penelope and Odysseus (whom are non-existent in the Odyssey) are preternaturally gifted and must travel to see the Pythian Oracle in order to learn their fate. In the Odyssey, Penelope is a largely passive character, all we know of her is that she is wife and mother, fending off suitors until her husband returns. Traditionally, ancient Greek literature was very much told from a male perspective, with females being side-lined unless they were divine. It is therefore refreshing to read a story told from her point of view, which still kept the essence of what it was to be a woman in Ancient Greece. Rawlings has given Penelope a voice which is strong and independent, but doesn’t lose sight of Penelope’s reputation for being steadfastly loyal, strong and cunning. In the Odyssey we see but a glimpse of Penelope’s personality and femininity, whereas The Penelopeia allows us to see some depth to her character that isn’t entirely present in the Odyssey.

It’s written in un-rhymed free verse to remind the reader of its ancient origins (bear in mind that Homer’s epics were originally sang) but don’t let this put you off. It’s fast paced and extremely well written, following Penelope on her adventures across the seas to see the Pythian Oracle. Penelope’s desire to travel is intriguing (since women were expected to stay in the house in Ancient Greek times). You would imagine that a woman who had been separated from her beloved husband for nearly twenty years would want to stay at home to be with him. Rawlings ensures that Penelope’s adventurous nature doesn’t overshadow her role and duty as faithful wife and mother, staying true to the essence of her character in the Odyssey. The main thing that The Penelopeia has in common with the Odyssey is the journey aspect. As Odysseus encountered many obstacles on his journey home, Penelope also encounters obstacles on her journey away from home. The Peneleopeia also recalls characters from both the Iliad and the Odyssey, such as Helen, reminding the reader of the basis of the story.

Something I really liked about this book was that Penelope was able to express her feelings as a mother, a wife and also as a woman. In the Odyssey, Penelope was pursued by many suitors wishing to marry her when Odysseus was thought to be dead; here we are given a first-hand account on her thoughts and feelings when propositioned by yet another suitor (Captain of her ship).

Traditionally, epic tales begin with an invocation to the Muse/goddess (“Tell me, Muse, a tale of arms and man…”). Interestingly, The Penelopeia doesn’t invoke the muse; instead it instructs Penelope to speak, almost as if she is the goddess or muse who is being invoked in order to complete the story.

The book itself is beautiful from cover to cover. Beneath the gold dust jacket is a burgundy book with a cream spine. The golden lyre on the front once again reminds the reader of the oral tradition of the epic. Inside the front and back covers, there are maps of Greece with their ancient names to help the reader position themselves within the ancient world. At the start of every other chapter or ‘book’ there is a vase painting illustrating what happens in the chapter. The vase paintings are gorgeous, in black, white and terracotta colours. It was common in ancient times to have stories and myths painted onto vases, so it’s quite a neat little inclusion to have the illustrations depicted as if they were on vases. The pages are ivory coloured which gives the book a rustic charm.

I would recommend that anyone who has an interest in Classics read this book, particularly those with an interest in gender studies as it gives voice to a female character. This book can also be read without having read the Iliad or the Odyssey, but some awareness of what happens in the Odyssey is helpful.

The Penelopeia is an engrossing and captivating story, which is, surprisingly, easier to read than I had expected.

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