May 8 2009
Dear Ms. Whitman,
I love a good retelling. It doesn’t matter if it’s a popular fairy tale, common folk tale, or classic myth. If it sounds interesting or puts a new spin on the story, I’m always willing to give it a try. This goes double if the retelling brings volition and agency to the women portrayed in these tales because let’s face it: they often get the short end of the stick.
Most people know the story of Persephone. She was the daughter of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest. One day the earth split open and Hades, ruler of the Underworld, ventured forth and kidnapped Persephone, taking her to his domain to be his queen. Demeter grieved over her daughter’s abduction and the world suffered for it — crops died and the land grew barren.
Finally, Zeus intervened and forced Hades to return Persephone to her mother. But before she returned, she was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds and as a rule, anyone who’d consumed food in the underworld would have remain there for eternity. So for a compromise, Persephone spends half the year with her mother, resulting in the flourishing of crops, and the other half she spends in the Underworld with Hades, resulting in a barren wasteland above ground. And so we have an origin myth for the existence of the seasons.
Because Radiant Darkness is a retelling, most people will know how the story goes. There are no surprises or deviations from the myth we know in terms of the major events. Where the book does diverge is the fact that it tells the story through Persephone’s eyes, taking her away from the familiar “Rape of Persephone” version we all know and recasting her as a daughter who’s facing an eternity of suffocation by her well-meaning but very dominant mother.
Your Persephone is very appealing. Despite being a goddess who’s lived for who knows how long, her conflict is one many teens will readily identify with. She wants to grow up, gain more responsibility, and stop being treated like a child, but her mother doesn’t want to let her. Not only does Demeter prefer to keep Persephone sequestered in an isolated vale away from the rest of civilization, the gifts she brings her daughter are toys which you’d give a small child. Obviously, there’s a disconnect between the daughter Demeter perceives and Persephone the reality.
Another reason Demeter keeps Persephone hidden away is to keep her free from the “taint” of men. I was never quite clear on why Demeter held this point of view because I was never sure which tradition the book follows with regards to the identity of Persephone’s father (or lack thereof): parthenogenesis or Zeus. An argument could be made for either case, based on the details included in the book. But either way Demeter maintains an almost obsessive need to keep Persephone virginal, innocent, and naÃ¯ve. All of Persephone’s friends in the vale are chosen and approved of by her mother. When one strays from what Demeter considers appropriate behavior, that friend is immediately sent away.
So when Persephone meets Hades one day and realizes she finally has the chance to escape a veritable paradise that’s become a prison, she seizes it. And while it is a decision that is both rash and selfish — running away without leaving a word to her mother — it is also very understandable considering how trapped Persephone felt.
The disadvantage of seeing the story entirely through Persephone’s eyes, however, is that we don’t get as clear a sense of Hades and his motivations. Or rather, we’re left to make our own conclusions and I must say that my conclusions are very unflattering towards him. In many instances, I truly doubted Hades’s affection for Persephone and instead believed he merely viewed her as a tool to further his own ambitions and bid for power. I’m sure it was meant to be a combination of both, or rather that he fell in love for her because of the potential she promised, but many times throughout the book it tipped in one direction and not the one I favor.
As a story about a young woman learning that she can control her own destiny and not have to follow the lines put down by others — her mother, her husband — Radiant Darkness works well. And while I do sometimes wish there’d been more subversion in Persephone’s character and story overall, I thought her youthful narrative was very charming. B-