Thursday, March 15, 2007

Grecian Formula:

Ancient Tales Built to Last Because They Were Built to Change

In the South, there's a popular bumper sticker that reads IN CASE OF RAPTURE, THIS CAR WILL BE DRIVERLESS. At a time when literalists are loud and creationists expend so much energy twisting the beautiful stories of the Bible into pseudoscience, this is an excellent occasion to raise three cheers for myth—to praise it, revive it, show off its protean splendor. In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong's brief work introducing Canongate's new Myth series, she makes a case for this sacred form's contemporary relevance. "Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?'" A myth is powerful for precisely the same qualities that a literal reader might deride—there are knots and holes in the story, and the meanings are unfixed. In other words, it predicates its own retelling.

This is the premise of the series; a lofty project, to be sure. The publisher has commissioned writers to recast a myth—any myth, from any culture—within the format of a novella. Each volume, then, will be issued simultaneously in several countries. The authors chosen to launch this project are already known for using midrashic elements in their work. Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid's Tale, transformed elements from stories in the Bible, and Jeanette Winterson, in many of her novels, but especially in The Passion, has cast fairy tales into new forms. Sometimes books in a series feel too similar, almost as if they were written by the same person, but fortunately The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus and Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles each bears the distinct imprints of its new author.

In The Penelopiad, Atwood analyzes the social forces at work in the tale of Penelope, who waits years for her husband Odysseus's return from the Trojan War...

...Jeanette Winterson, in her examination of what it might actually be like to be heroic, takes a much different tack. Starting with its poetic and evocative title, Weight plunders images from the myth of Atlas, whose punishment from the gods is to bear the cosmos on his shoulders. Made up of several short chapters, the book begins with the narrator contemplating the beginning of the world as a narrative in itself...


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