Sunday, November 13, 2011

Quickie Book Review: Weight by Jeanette Winterson

A few years ago, Canongate Books conceived of a project asking some of the best authors in the world to re-tell classic myths in their own style. The series, known collectively as the Canongate Myth Series first appeared in 2005, and since then, 14 novels have appeared from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Alexander McCall Smith, and Philip Pullman.

As an avid reader, one thing I seem to gravitate to are re-tellings of well-known stories by authors. Something about a different take on the story, possibly challenging my own likes or dislikes about the original tale, has always appealed to me, and is probably why I'm such a fan of the Wicked series from Gregory Maguire. So a few weeks ago while I browsed the shelves at the local branch of the library, I stumbled across one of The Myths series written by author Jeanette Winterson that piqued my interest.

Weight presents her take on the classic Atlas and Heracles myth.

Atlas did the unthinkable -- siding with the Titans in their war against the Olympian Gods. As punishment, Zeus ordered him to support the weight of the entire cosmos on his shoulders for all eternity. While he knelt, listening to the world and not realizing how much time was passing, who should happen to appear but Heracles, laboring through the twelve tasks set to him by King Eurystheus.

One of Heracles' tasks is to secure three golden apples from a tree in the Garden of the Hesperides, but he himself is not allowed to pick them. So he devises the brilliant idea of having Atlas retrieve the apples for him. Atlas finds this brief respite from holding the world a chance to taste freedom, even if only for a little while, and agrees. The night before they are to temporarily trade places, they talked over a meal, Heracles ranting about having to obey Eurystheus, why did he need to do that? Atlas replied that there is no such thing as free will, only the will of the Gods.

The next day, after switching places, a question starts buzzing about Heracles' brain: What if Atlas doesn't return, leaving him to hold up the weight of the world?

Winterson takes her re-telling one step farther by having Atlas, holding the world, the sky and space on his shoulders, ask the question: What if he put it down? It's an interesting take on the myth, focusing more on the nature of boundaries, who sets them, and why we follow them. For Heracles, it challenges his concept of destiny, forced to endure inhuman tasks with the hope of pleasing the Gods; for Atlas, it forces him to re-examine the way he blindly believes everything. What if: two little words with so much power behind them.

As she re-writes the myth, Winterson also interjects her own journey as a writer and why she decided to use the myth of Atlas and Heracles to work through her own inner struggles. After all, much of writing is fantasizing on the what ifs and seeing how they play out.

by Jeanette Winterson
ISBN: 1-84195-799-2
trade paperback, 151 pgs.

borrowed book from the Long Beach Public Library

Image from bibliographing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It can be really interesting to tell a known legend from a different point of view. As in the Aurthurian story from Guenevieve's point of view in The Mysts of Avalon. Clark