Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

August 29, 2009


Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:38 pm

A children’s book by Adèle Geras, telling the story of those Odysseus left behind on Ithaka when he went to war – Penelope, his queen; Telemachus, their son; Klymene, her handmaiden, with whom the gods converse; and Ikarios, her twin brother.

I read this courtesy of Second Judith, or to be more accurate I was asked to carry it back to her and accidentally read it myself instead.

It’s a good book, with lots of warmth and vitality; the characters are fairly lightly sketched, but with a myth I (and most of us) know so well then it’s easy for us to flesh them out. On the other hand, this is the same familiar myth from a very different standpoint. The Greek myths are very much Hero Tales – stories of musclebound idiots throwing spears at each other and setting fire to things for the sake of a local beauty queen and the hope of undying fame. Of course, one of the reasons Odysseus is so popular is because he subverts this stereotype; he’s the classic trickster hero. I remember seeing a really interesting adaptation on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith a while back, with Odysseus as a scrawny guy with a dodgy beard and bags of charisma, trying to get his war-weary troops home and ending up stuck in a refugee detention camp with a bunch of Trojans.

The thing about having kings turn up and drag the menfolk off to war, however, is that that leaves the womenfolk at home to mind the house, bring in the harvests, milk the goats, and generally keep life going while the men muck around with their little toys. And since they’re culturally discouraged from violence or effective self-defense, Penelope’s in a sticky position when a whole bunch of suitors show up and start making comments like “Νιγε πλαγε ιου ηαυε ηερε”.

Of course, since this is like Ultimate Patriarchy, Telemachus is also in a sticky position. He wants to toss all the suitors out on their collective ears, and feels he won’t get any respect unless he does, but he’s just a teenager, not a hero, and since he’s a smart lad (he’s Odysseus’s own son, he’s got smart and plenty to spare) he knows he won’t manage it.

This tension is basically what the novel’s about – that space where the family left at home try and maintain their lives in the face of bullying on one hand and abandonment on the other. Of course, just because Odysseus has abandoned them doesn’t mean his actions don’t still affect them; Poseidon, in his grief for his child Polyphemus, goes to the sea strand and the taverns of Ithaka to mutter about his Plan and prepare his revenge.

Because we know that the myth is going to end well – for values of well that include a lot of blood and guts everywhere, and Penelope staying with the man who took ten years to get home from Troy to Ithaka, a distance of about 1,000 miles or three months’ leisurely hike – then we have the liberty, as readers, to focus on Klymene’s coming-of-age story, her relationships with the other Ithakans and the separate peace she forges with one of the suitors’ men, instead of the mythic backdrop. It’s a really good book, and definitely recommended.

1 Comment »

  1. [...] Ithaka, this is another retelling (or reclaiming) of Classical mythology. This time, it’s the [...]

    Pingback by Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood » Blog Archive » Ursula LeGuin – Lavinia — November 5, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

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