What it is to be human

28th October 2005 at 01:00
Great Myths of the World series. A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH. By Karen Armstrong

THE PENELOPIAD. By Margaret Atwood

WEIGHT. By Jeanette Winterson. Canongate pound;12 each hardback

Canongate is the British branch of an ambitious publishing project. In 33 countries, books by well-known writers are appearing simultaneously, retelling one of the great myths of the world. Chinua Achebe, AS Byatt, David Grossman, Donna Tartt, Su Tong and others are lined up for the future, but the series begins with Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, and Karen Armstrong's lucid and extremely helpful guide to myths throughout history. The introduction to her volume puts it well: "Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives - they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it is to be human."

These books are beautiful. It's a pleasure, in these days of cheap and cheerful paperbacks, to hold something on which care and thought has been lavished. The size is just right. The length of each story is perfect, allowing a reader to absorb the book in a very short time. The texture of the paper, thefont, the way the numbers of the pages are placed: everything has been considered. The overall design is uniform, but each volume has a different artist for the cover: Nina Chakrabati for the Atwood, Marion Deuchars for the Winterson and Roderick Mills for the Armstrong. I hope their outstanding contribution is widely appreciated.

Armstrong explores the origins of myth and guides us with clarity and erudition through its history. Her book gives a context to the others.

I read Atwood's book in one sitting. She imagines Odysseus's wife Penelope speaking after her death, putting us straight about what really happened.

She tells us about the Trojan War and her cousin Helen, an arch-manipulator. There's a terrific moment when Helen is described as looking up at men from under her eyelashes in the Princess Diana manner. As Penelope unfolds her tale, her maids tell theirs in a series of parallel poems and choruses. There's a court scene, a sea-shanty, and a bravura display of Atwood's gifts: her intelligence, economy, shrewdness, humour, and ideas. Penelope says she watches the modern world through an empty TV screen: a haunting thought.

Our narrator is good, too, at deflating male egos. The stories told about Odysseus, she reckons, could be quite different from the ones we know. The Sirens might have been denizens of a "high-class Sicilian knocking-shop known for their musical talents and their fancy feathered outfits". This is storytelling at its most dazzling: subversive, surprising and seductive.

Homer's shade should be saying: "Respect, Margaret!"

Atlas, like Penelope, speaks in the first person. Winterson is good at myths. She frequently addresses the reader directly and she can cover in her narrative all the extremes of language. She's not scared of using words in a variety of ways to achieve her effects. So we go from the poetic to the funny to the crude, often all in one page.

Winterson grabs you by the lapels and says: "Listen." And you do because you can't walk away from such a good tale. Atlas, doomed to carry the world on his back, gives it to Heracles, while he goes and steals the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, which Heracles needs and can't steal himself.

We get the background story too: the birth of the gods, and the ensuing complications, told in a modern, colloquial style that never loses resonance and substance.

Winterson's description of Heracles is terrific. "Argue with Heracles and he'd crush you. So he was always right. If he took his chariot in to be fixed, it was 'Right away, Mr Heracles, we weren't busy, we'll do it now,'

and the long line of chariots waiting to have their axles repaired could moulder to dust, while Heracles's special racing model was brought to the front of the line."

Winterson's moving autobiographical afterword is a fascinating insight into why she writes: "Looking at the glowing globe, I thought that if I could only keep on telling the story, if the story would not end, I could invent my way out of the world. As a character in my own fiction, I had a chance to escape the facts." Luckily for us, she's still telling the stories, still holding up her own universe and letting us share it.

These three books are a wonderful start to the series. I can't wait for the others.

Adele Geras's novel, Ithaka, inspired by Homer's The Odyssey, is published by David Fickling Books pound;12.99

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