Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Underworld in Recent Fiction

You may recall the basics of The Underworld from Classics classes in High school. You know that souls will cross the river Styx on the ferry run by Charon. The Titans were banished to Tartarus after the war against the Olympians. You may also be familiar with several of it’s most famous residents – Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the rock up the hill only to have it tumble down again, and Tantalus who is always wish for the food and drink just out of his reach. Recently, two very different authors have included amazing descriptions of the Underworld in all of its splendor, or lack there of.

To give you a little refresher, feel free to check out one of my favorite sites on the subject is Myth Man’s Homework Help Center page on The Underworld.

I particular love the map of the underworld there:

In the popular young adult series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, author Rick Riordan provides a very colorful description of The Underworld, and of Persephone herself, in the final book of the series, The Last Olympian.

“We emerged at the base of a cliff, on a plain of black volcanic sand. To our right, the river Styx gushed from the rocks and roared off in a cascade of rapids. To our left, away in the gloom, fires burned on the ramparts of Erebos, the great black walls of Hades’s kingdom.” (pages 116, 117)

About the palace gardens, Riordan writes:

“It was beautiful in a creepy way. Skeletal white trees grew from marble basins. Flower beds overflowed with golden plants and gemstones. A pair of thrones, one bone and one silver, sat on the balcony with a view of the Fields of Asphodel. It would have been a nice place to spend a Saturday morning except for the sulfurous smell and the cries of tortured souls in the distance.” (page 120)
And, I do so love his description of Persephone herself.

“Queen Persephone studied me curiously. I’d seen her once before in the winter, but now in the summer she looked like a totally different goddess. She had lustrous black hair and warm brown eyes. Her dress shimmered with colors. Flower patterns in the fabric changed and blossomed – roses, tulips, honeysuckle.” (page 121)

The Percy Jackson books are a fantastic Young Adult introduction to Greek Mythology. Riordan really does his mythological homework and has woven a delightful tale. I hope that perhaps you might be interested in checking them out for yourself if you haven’t already.

That brings me, however, to my favorite underworld description. This comes from Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad. Written for the Canongate Myth series, it is a tale of the Iliad and Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s faithful wife, Penelope. In order to share this description, I have to give a little of the story away: it is told by Penelope after her own death when she is living in the underworld herself.

“It is dark here, as many have remarked: ‘Dark Death’, they used to say. ‘The gloomy halls of Hades’, and so forth. Well, yes, it is dark, but there are advantages – for instance, if you see someone you’d rather not speak to you can always pretend you haven’t recognized them.
"There are of course the fields of asphodel. You can walk around in them if you want. It’s brighter there, and a certain amount of vapid dancing goes on, though the region sounds better than it is – the fields of asphodel has a poetic lilt to it. But just consider. Asphodel, asphodel, asphodel – pretty enough white flowers, but a person gets tired of them after a while. It would have been better to supply some variety – an assortment of colours, a few winding paths and vistas and stone benches and fountains. I would have preferred a few hyacinths, at least and would a sprinkling of crocuses have been too much to expect? Though we never get spring here, or any other season. You do have to wonder who designed the place.” (Pages 15, 16)
If you have not read this story yet, please take the time to do so. And while you’re at it, read everything else Margaret Atwood has ever written – you won’t be disappointed.

A little bit of Persephone can be found in some of the most random places. 

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