Sunday, 17 May 2009

Killing two birds with one stone...

That seems an apposite description for this post, a contribution to my reading for two challenges, Once Upon a Time III and the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Entitled Once Upon a Time: Myth, Fairy Tales and Legends in Margaret Atwood’s Writings and edited by Sarah A. Appleton, this book rather fell into my lap; a collection of articles by notable Atwood scholars, all except one of whom work outside Canada, it considers a range of her work, with the first four chapters of the nine focusing on Oryx and Crake and The Penelopiad.

In the first chapter I immediately found myself remembering why I gave up the pursuit of literary criticism. The collection’s editor, Sarah Appleton, takes a psychoanalytic position and suggests that the characters of Oryx and Crake are aspects of the protagonist himself, id and superego; furthermore, the events of the novel take place not in the real (future) world but in a dreamworld in which Jimmy seeks to reintegrate these aspects of his psyche in order to be able to face reality. Since Jungian psychology was the first to really inform the interpretation of myth and fairytale, I can hardly be completely hostile to this view of the novel, but I think it is only one level on which it can be read, albeit one which might throw light on some of its complexity. Happily, the next chapter, by Carol Osborne, does indeed deal with Oryx and Crake as a straightforwardly dystopian novel, and examines the ways in which Jimmy calls upon the remnants of his own culture to create a mythology for the Crakers (although one based, a later chapter points out, on lies and half-truths).

Turning to The Penelopiad, Shannon Hengen considers how the staging of Atwood’s work creates an experience for the audience appropriate to the story’s origins in pre-literary cultures yet, in so doing, still comments upon our contemporary world:

Paradoxically, in fashioning anew tales from ancient Greece, Atwood’s imagination captures contemporary Canada…in a most visceral and immediate way.
This is followed, in similar vein, by a chapter by Coral Ann Howells (editor of the Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood), on the same work. She quotes Atwood on myth:
Strong myths never die. Sometimes they die down, but they don’t die out. They double back in the dark, they re-embody themselves, they change costumes, they change key. They speak in new languages, they take on other meanings.
(That quotation seems to sum up what I’ve seen over and over again in reviews in the Once Upon a Time Challenges – the readiness with which myths take on these new forms. It’s interesting that Atwood personifies them, accepts that they have a life of their own.) Howells goes on to point out how frequently the same voices are heard in Atwood’s writing, with characters and aspects of characters re-appearing in different guises.

I found Chapter Five a little confusing, but that may be because I haven’t read The Blind Assassin. The multi-layered nature of that work apparently creates paradoxes and ambiguities which may leave the reader baffled. I’ll read the chapter again once I’ve read the book.

The next two chapters deal more explicitly with non-classical myth, and were of particular interest to me. The first, by Karen Stein, deals with time in Life Before Man, and consider the way in which the action takes place through two annual cycles, harvest-time to harvest-time, through real and what Mircea Eliade calls sacred time. These cycles are paralleled by the preoccupation of the main characters with a specific time cycle – Lesje, working in the fossil department of the ROM is concerned with paleo-historic time; Elizabeth, visits the planetarium and hence is connected with astronomical time; while Nate, with his interest in politics, is the only one intensely concerned with the present (but he dreams of timeless tropical islands). Stein finds in the cyclical nature of the narrative an indicator of hope and change, in a novel that other critics have characterised as “boring” (I liked it).

The only male contributor to the collection deals, appropriately, with princes, or the lack of them. If Atwood’s female characters are fairytale heroines (and villains) – and Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White, amongst others, put in appearances – then the men must surely contribute the odd princely quality? Of course, Atwood doesn’t obviously write that sort of men – how many times have you seen one of her men come up in a “Who is your favourite literary hero” answer? Theodore F. Sheckels categorises her men into five appropriately Jungian types: dark princes, shadowy princes, comic princes, sad princes and unfinished princes, giving examples of each type, all pretty unsatisfactory as princes go. I realised, reading this chapter that I don’t like any of Atwood’s male characters that I can think of, and then I realised that I don’t much like any of the women, either, but they are interesting.

In Chapter Nine Kathryn VanSpanckeren looks at the way in which Atwood recreates and mythologises the story of her ancestor Mary Webster in the poem “Half-Hanged Mary”. She describes Atwood’s method as being similar to Jung’s dream-work, building and expanding her subject through a process of accretion of images and suggestions. She examines successive drafts of the poem, comparing them to the final published version and considering how omissions and additions contribute to the work. This was interesting both for its insights into the construction of a poem (something I have always found intriguing) and the myth-making process, which we see not only in the hands of writers like Atwood, but at work - sometimes with alarming success - in the everyday press, in its creation of celebrity but also in its instigation of witch-hunts.

At the beginning of this book I was concerned that it might be too concerned with classical mythology, and might not greatly illuminate the role of fairytale in Atwood’s work. Instead, it has left me with an eagerness to return to her writing to see how much I have missed – not so much in her poetry, but in her novels, because I have sometimes failed to see how much one informs the other. I realise that finding themes in her poetry that I might have previously overlooked will offer answers to some of the ambiguities in her other work. And while I don’t necessarily agree with all that is contained in this small collection, it has provided much ground for thought and offers, I think, a useful tool for the future, encouraging me to search for the archetypal in more of my reading. It has reminded me that I can be a lazy reader, assuming that, because a text seems to deal with the modern world, it can be taken at face value. Of course, with Atwood the mythic practically jumps out and hits you on the head, but I begin to better appreciate the way in which she manipulates it, which will, I think, help with some of the novels I have struggled with in the past. I am interested to see, for example, exactly how Grimm’s story "The Girl Without Hands" will play out in The Blind Assassin.

By the way, the acute reader might have spotted that I missed a chapter. This is because I want to come back to it, and the short piece which it considers, "Thylacine Ragout", in a post of its own.


  1. The title of the book got me really excited, and then your first paragraph made me sigh. That too is why I've been seriously considering leaving the academic world behind and just going librarian or something. Me and psychoanalysis will never be good friends. But all in all, this actually sounds like a very interesting book. I want to run and get it just to read the bit about "The Girl Without Hands" and The Blind Assassin. I read the novel last year and missed the connection. Though now that I think about Anyway, excellent post!

  2. What an interesting and thought provoking post! I'm a bit of a lazy reader myself and completely missed all the psychological stuff in Oryx and Crake! So I was glad to see the next chapter dealt with that one as I read it.

    I read The Blind Assassin several years ago and yes, I missed the connection to "The Girl Without Hands" too. I remember being confused reading that book, although I thought it was brilliant. I'd like to have another look at it sometime, if only I was a super-speed reader!

  3. Oh and I'd like to read One Upon a Time too!

  4. Fascinating. Thank you for a great post/article. Definitely makes me want to go revisit a lot of Atwood.

  5. Wonderful post, about a book I will never read because I left the world of litcrit far behind me! However, for a moment there I contemplated it again! I do like the reference to Atwood's men as types of princes, not kings, because you're right, her work is female centered, and none of her male protagonists ever gets on anyone's hero list. I did like you admitting you didn't like her female characters much either! Which is why I rarely read anything by her. I like to like at least one of the main characters.