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The New Muses
A highly anticipated series of classic myths reimagined by modern authors.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, December 25, 2005

A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH

By Karen Armstrong

Canongate. 159 pp. $18

WEIGHT: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles

By Jeanette Winterson

Canongate. 151 pp. $18

THE PENELOPIAD: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

By Margaret Atwood

Canongate. 199 pp. $18

The most ballyhooed event at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair was the launch of Canongate's "The Myths," retellings of classic myths by 100 internationally renowned writers, including Chinua Achebe, A.S. Byatt and Alexander McCall Smith, among many others. The first three books in the series -- fictions by Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson and an introductory volume by Karen Armstrong -- have recently appeared in 28 languages from 33 publishers (there are five English language editions) in the biggest simultaneous publication ever.

It's difficult not to recast this achievement in pop-culture terms -- Monster Mythology Smackdown! -- and just as difficult not to add one's own mythic subtext, that of David and Goliath. Canongate was established in 1973, a small Edinburgh publisher specializing in Scottish titles such as Escape From Loch Leven and Scottish Love Poems . Still, even in its early years, Canongate showed a taste for the offbeat, publishing the Glaswegian author Alasdair Gray and the first UK edition of Edward Abbey's seminal The Monkey Wrench Gang . But by the early 1990s, the foundering house was in receivership.

Enter Jamie Byng. The youngest son of the Earl of Stafford and the stepson of a former chairman of the BBC, Byng studied literature at Edinburgh University and worked as a publicist at Canongate when he was 24. In 1994, at the ripe old age of 26, he masterminded a buyout of the company. Byng has since transformed Canongate from the publisher of Traditional Scottish Dyes and How To Make Them into a powerhouse, 2003's British Book Awards Publisher of the Year. He's done this through a winning combination of prescience, irreverence and boldness. For instance, in 1998 he started releasing inexpensive paperbacks of the books of the Bible under the series title Pocket Canons, each introduced by a different author: Fay Weldon on Corinthians, Bono on the Psalms, Ruth Rendell on Romans and Will Self on Revelations.

In 2002, Canongate published Michel Faber's bestselling The Crimson Petal and the White ; the previous year, Byng bought the British rights to Yann Martel's Life Of Pi . Martel's novel subsequently won the Man Booker Prize, cementing Byng's reputation as a visionary maverick. It also, presumably, lined Canongate's coffers so that Byng could begin publishing "The Myths."

Which brings us to the books themselves. These are novellas rather than full-blown novels, but Jeanette Winterson's contribution in particular feels wispy, despite its title. Weight is a retelling of the myth of Atlas. As Winterson puts it in her introduction, "I have written this personal story in the First Person . . . and this leads to questions of autobiography. Autobiography is not important. Authenticity is important. The writer must fire herself through the text, be the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements. I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real."

Unfortunately, Weight doesn't make good on this promise (or threat) of authorial alchemy. Despite narrative shifts from first- and third-person, and among Atlas, Heracles and the author, Weight is a fairly straightforward account of one of the 12 labors of Heracles. Atlas was "born one of the Titans, half man, half god, a giant of a giant race." Punished by the Olympian gods for rebelling against them, he is sentenced to carry the Kosmos upon his back. Heracles has also fallen afoul of the gods, but through an accident of birth. He is Zeus's son by a mortal woman, and has long suffered the enmity of Zeus's wife, Hera. Hera first maddens Heracles so that he slays his own children, then helps engineer the Labors as atonement for his crime. His penultimate task is to obtain the Golden Apples from the Garden of the Hesperides (Atlas's daughters), guarded by the hundred-headed serpent Ladon. Heracles offers to hold up the Kosmos while Atlas obtains the fruit for him. Atlas very sensibly decides to leave Heracles with the weight, but Heracles tricks Atlas into taking the world back onto his shoulders.

It's a poignant story -- who doesn't sympathize with Atlas, especially when he's contrasted with the bullying, bragging Heracles? -- but despite occasional glints of humor, Weight is a leaden retelling of it. Only in its last pages does Winterson's book finally soar, when she introduces Atlas to Laika, the Russian dog sent into space in 1957. "Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog. Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything." In this brief, sweet sequence, we glimpse a new myth being born. "I want to tell the story again," Winterson repeats at the end of Weight . Her account of Atlas and Laika made me wish she would.

Margaret Atwood's distaff take on The Odyssey -- The Penelopiad -- is more successful, if not terribly surprising. A feminist perspective on Homer from Margaret Atwood? We're shocked. Penelope has for eons been the poster girl for feminine fidelity. Intelligent, yes, but also rather dull, and slightly maddening by 21st-century standards -- she waited how long? For him ? While he was sleeping with them ? Atwood doesn't exactly give her a makeover, but she gives her a voice, at once plaintive and wise, as well as a long view: Penelope narrates her tale from the "gloomy halls of Hades."

"Well, yes, it is dark, but there are advantages -- for instance, if you see someone you'd rather not speak to you can always pretend you haven't recognised them."

The events dovetail with those in The Odyssey ; the narrative shifts are in emphasis more than execution. So we get Penelope's curt commentary on her beautiful cousin Helen, as well as her clear-eyed assessment of marriage: "Marriages were for having children, and children were not toys and pets. Children were vehicles for passing things along. These things could be kingdoms, rich wedding gifts, stories, grudges, blood feuds. . . . To have a child was to set loose a force in the world."

We also see Penelope's grief, well-salted with guilt, for the 12 serving maidens who were slain upon her husband's return home. In The Odyssey , the maids are hanged by Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, for the crime of sleeping with the suitors who had taken up residence in Odysseus's halls. Atwood makes them a loopily postmodern Greek chorus, with mixed results. Penelope's story is strong stuff: Introducing chapters with titles such as "The Chorus Line: Kiddie Mourn, A Lament by the Maids" gives these sections the air of a failed Monty Python sketch.

Finally, Karen Armstrong provides A Short History of Myth , an introductory volume to Canongate's series. Armstrong is the bestselling author of A History of God , Islam: A Short History and Buddha , among other titles. Her essay here is serviceable. She relies heavily on the usual suspects -- Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Walter Burkert -- and has a lamentable tendency to make sweeping pronouncements that sound trite: "In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. . . . It was an early form of psychology." "People were becoming disillusioned with the old mythical vision that had nourished their ancestors." "The Neanderthal graves show that when these early people became conscious of their mortality, they created some sort of counter-narrative that enabled them to come to terms with it."

Perhaps in future volumes Canongate could give equal time to scholars such as Jack Zipes and Marina Warner, and historians like Italy's Carlo Ginzburg or South Africa's David Lewis-Williams, whose work has more provocatively explored the boundaries and evolution of myths and storytelling.

Still, these first three books are a tantalizing start to an ambitious project, with intriguing works to come: Israeli author David Grossman's version of Samson, the Russian Victor Pelevin's Theseus and the American Donna Tartt's take on Daedalus and Icarus. All mythology is a work-in-progress. New myths are being born right now, and old ones reinvented, in decaying buildings, on laptop computers, in hushed rooms around the globe. Canongate is to be applauded for serving as midwife to some of them.

Elizabeth Hand's "Saffron & Brimstone: Strange Stories" will be published in 2006.

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