Review by Hayley Anderton
It seems as if there’s an almost bottomless appetite for retellings of Greek myths for every age group and across ever more genres; how far are we from Athene and her owl, solving crimes on Olympus I wonder? Happily for the fans the books keep on coming, and here it’s Medusa getting a feminist reimagining with Perseus very much the villain of the story – or at least chief amongst many villains here.
To fully contextualise Medusa’s story we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the Olympian gods to better understand the forces at play – helpfully there’s a fairly comprehensive list of characters at the beginning of the book, and for longer standing fans of Natalie Haynes, her earlier non fiction title, Pandora’s Jar, Women in the Greek Myths, is also useful. It was after writing that book that Haynes decided a single chapter wasn’t going to be enough to do Medusa justice.
Which is more than fair because Medusa is interesting. The mortal sister of two immortal Gorgons, raped by Poseidon in Athene’s temple, then punished by that Goddess because she cannot punish her uncle as she’d wish to. Killed by Perseus for what does not, on Haynes assessment, seem like a very good reason at all, and then stuck in a sort of after life as a disembodied head that still has the power to petrifying the unwary, and in this version at least retaining a consciousness as the Gorgoneion.
All of the Gods here are spiteful, grasping, selfish, deities interested mostly in staving off the boredom of eternity, maintaining prestige, and playing out their grudges against one another, and however powerful a divinity you might be nothing trumps gender. Hera’s failure to overthrow her husband means she can’t take any meaningful revenge against Zeus, only the women he assaults and their children. Gaia can’t punish the gods for killing her giant offspring, but she can embarrass Athene by giving this virgin goddess an unwanted child; Athene can’t directly challenge Poseidon for desecrating her temple, but she can place a terrible curse on Medusa.
I remember a version of Perseus’ story from primary school – how the Gods help him defeat a series of monsters in defence of his mother and Andromeda. It was thrilling, and I never thought to question his heroism. Haynes makes the point that Perseus regards anything unlike him to be monstrous, obviously including the Graiai – three sisters sharing a single eye and a single tooth, and the Gorgons with their claws and tusks and teeth. She also underlines how they remain in their own remote places, the Graiai in an inaccessible cave, the Gorgons on their beach far enough from humans to be no threat to them.
They raise their mortal sister and they love her, it gives them far more humanity than the Gods they share immortality with or many of the humans woven into this story – Haynes is adept at making her point on this without over-stressing it, as she will with Perseus’ many defects – for both comedic and dramatic value.
As I said at the beginning, there are a lot of retellings to choose from, and as a bookseller when I’m feeling particularly cynical it feels like writing to a trend. This isn’t altogether fair, ignoring the smuttier romantasy versions of the Hades and Persephone myth (which I try hard to do) these books all have considerable merit as well as widespread popularity, but I do find the sheer number of them overwhelming at times.
My preference is for the authors who will make me laugh as well as feel a deep seated rage against the patriarchy – which Natalie Haynes does. I will not, for contrast, knowingly choose the retelling that might make me cry. I like the way that Haynes gives me just enough information so that I don’t have to do any more research if I don’t want to, but only just; there are plenty of prompts to dig deeper as well. I also really appreciate the way she’s brought several stories together, broken them down into very short chapters, and spread them throughput the narrative to bring everything together again towards the end, (as she also does in The Children of Jocasta, her retelling of the Oedipus myth). It’s a device that nods both to the multiple sources for each myth and that the main difference between gods and men is the immortality of the former. I highly recommend this one.
Hayley Anderton has returned to bookselling after 20 years in the wine trade. Books and wine have much the same effect on her, but books don’t break when you drop them, or at least not as dramatically, and there’s much less heavy lifting involved.
Natalie Haynes, Stone Blind (Picador 2023). 978-1529061512, 368pp., paperback.
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