Two Books about the Matter of Troy

Since I’ve been busy writing my own novel about the Matter of Troy, I thought I’d catch up on some books relating to it.

The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

There’s been far too many books published about Troy recently for my liking – particularly feminist reinterpretations of events. All very disappointing. – The Penelopiad is very much of this sort, and is certainly one of the laziest novels I’ve ever read. My impression is that Atwood and her publisher came up with the idea over lunch one day (it seems to be part of a series of reinterpretations of classic texts); and probably it seemed good at the time, but when she actually sat down to write it, she found she couldn’t be bothered.

So it’s a version of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. – Of course, it turns out that staying at home and weaving a tapestry isn’t much of a plot, and unfortunately Atwood doesn’t seem inclined to think of much else that might have happened. Her real interest seems to be in a single line (seemingly) from The Odyssey, which relates that Odysseus, when he arrived home, killed all Penelope’s maids for sleeping with the suitors, when apparently they didn’t have much choice. (No, I guess it doesn’t sound reasonable). At some point during her writing, as well as apparently reading The Odyssey, Atwood has also come across Robert Graves’ weird White Goddess theories about Greek myth, and so she devotes a chapter to them in the middle apropos of nothing. Towards the end she doesn’t seem bothered to decide whether Penelope stayed faithful or not. Seriously I’ve never read a book before where the author really couldn’t care less. – And naturally Helen comes out of the book badly.

The Fall of Troy, by Quintus Smyrnaeus

People read Homer, but they never read Quintus Smyrnaeus. In fact, his work is kind of hard to find.

I’ve long been comtemplating a project of reading the less well-known ancient epics, but up to now had only got as far as reading Musaeus’ Hero and Leander. (This is a kind of epical joke – even if true). – I’d read Musaeus before anyway.

QS’ epic takes us from the end of The Iliad to the beginning of the Odyssey, and this I suppose is largely its merit. I read it lazily in English (a thankfully unrhyming metre), so have nothing to say about its language (though I suppose it’s uninteresting enough). Naturally it’s episodic, having to fit in all the requisite tales (the death of Penthesileia, of Memnon, of Achilles, Achilles’ funeral, the death of Aias, the appearance at Troy of Neoptolemos and Philoctetes, the death of Paris, the horse business, the death of most of the other Trojan characters, and the enslavement of their women, and the Achaeans happily setting sail for home believing it’s all over). A lot of this has an intrinsic interest if you have a passing interest in the Matter of Troy, since it covers episodes which are otherwise lost, whilst linking up a bit of Virgil and Greek tragedy. There’s far too much fighting though.

Part of my novel covers business which is largely only really covered in QS, though I’d already mostly written it before reading it. I stole from QS a few names (always useful) and a simple rhetorical device – perhaps too clever by half, I can’t decide. The only discrepancy between my plot and QS’ is that QS has the Palladion stolen after Paris’ death; but then consistent chronology is not a general feature of Greek myth. I have much wider variations elsewhere; and to be honest, I think QS varies more himself from other versions. – And naturally Helen comes out of the book badly.

(Oh yes, I forgot to say. QS gives Briseis a whole speech of her own. So you know, deeply feminist).