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Can You Rewrite a Myth? A Closer Look at Rosie Hewlett's 'Medea'

LETHE DICKINSON looks at the strengths and weaknesses of 'Medea' by Rosie Hewlett

Greek myths are ever evolving; retelling is how they’ve been remembered for the last millenniums. I have a great love for Greek mythology that was passed down from my mother who bestowed the middle name Medea upon me as a child. I took up my first, Lethe, from the river in the Greek Underworld. Unfortunately, I find myself unable to love this literary trend of Greek Mythology retellings. The trend of one-character, first-person retellings, particularly those focused on women. Often, they feel repetitive.


Every one of them seems to want to be Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe,’ and they all seem to fall into the same traps. Mythological women are scraped apart and put back together with too much metaphor and a surface-level feminist message, and each one feels like it could be the same book. The only one I ever truly recommend is Pat Barker’s ‘The Silence of the Girls,’ which does not shy away from the atrocities of the Trojan War and the plight of salve girls and war brides. It is a darker book than its mirror, ‘The Song of Achilles.’ The former has not had the same sort of internet infamy perhaps due to its difficult subject matter.


Judging a Book By Its Cover (and Blurb)

 And so it is from this cynical standpoint that I took up Rosie Hewlett’s book ‘Medea’ on the same day it was released. I have spent the last six months or more knee-deep in Euripides’ ‘Medea’ for my dissertation and been gutted that the release date for Hewlett’s was a mere day later. From the blurb, I will admit I was not enthused. It paints of picture of an over-controlling father that Medea wishes to escape. Sure, Aeetes as an early antagonist is fine, everyone can respect some good old-fashioned daddy issues. The ‘ultimate betrayal’ referenced is promising for the myth goes that Jason breaks his oaths to Medea and she gets revenge. I have a fear that it will just be a reference to him finding another wife, but we hold out hope. I take issue with her ‘driven to an act of desperation’ because of this. 


If you are not familiar, Medea is infamous for her over-calculated and cutthroat decision to kill her own children. Euripides’ play deals in her twisting decisions as she balances pros and cons and decides on this as a favourable outcome for her own gain, one that stems from mythological, heroic traditions of victory and honour and glory. Before we even begin, I am worried that Hewlett will remove this integral part of Medea because these heroic traditions are alien to a modern audience. Hell, they were alien to Euripides’ audience in Classical Athens too! 


But I digress. You cannot judge a book by its admittedly pretty cover and mediocre blurb. You can however judge it after completely reading it in 5 hours. 


The Good Bits

 I’ll begin with the good and attempt to not be scathing (though it will be hard). 


I am sure that this will, like the trend of other modern retellings, be a hit on Tiktok. It is easy to read and the speech (of which is mostly) is modern. There are buzz phrases such as ‘I prefer the term sorceress’ and the ever so classic of ‘who did this to you?’ from the love interest. Medea’s early anger comes from her pain and hatred of her circumstance, which I’m sure will be found relatable by the masses (even if it has stripped her powerful priestess backstory from her). I’m sure poor abused Medea with a special gift and the budding beginnings of girl power as she takes her life in her hands and runs off with a man will be snapped right up. 


Hewlett attempts at a feminist message of girl power facilitated by the hero and huntress Atalanta who disdains men’s control over women and the misogyny of Greek heroes. Atalanta and Circe both offer Medea the image of a powerful woman to emulate herself after, thus offering the main character as a stand-in for the reader to empower themselves, facilitated by the first person.


The Not-So-Good Bits

 I will admit that I am more drawn to the negatives though. I did not enjoy this book – I thought it often fell flat.


I’ll try to steer away from the problems I have with the mythology. Myths evolve and all that, stories need antagonists, Greek mythology is often cyclical or nonsensical. It’s fine, I guess, that Medea’s brother and sister’s ages are swapped and that she kills her brother after being manipulated by Jason and doesn’t do the manipulating. It’s fine that she is disempowered in her home despite having a longstanding tradition of being a priestess. That can be fine for a story.


However, Hewlett falls into the trap of telling and not showing. It often seems as if she might be allergic to any description except for the scene where Medea turns a guard into a dragon. That had decent imagery at least. But a majority of the story is told to the reader. Jason’s manipulative nature is handfed both to the reader and to Medea by Atalanta and Circe both.


What I don’t like is that all the characters are one-dimensional. Even Medea herself, infamously a container of multitudes, is one-dimensional. She’s weak and taken over by Jason easily, falling in love at first sight - that’s fine, there’s precedent for her helper-maiden nature during the quest for the Golden Fleece. Her naïveté chafes, but it fits the narrative Hewlett has created and this leg of her mythology. Even Jason in his manipulations is one dimensional – he takes the role of manipulative toxic boyfriend and it is only Medea’s naivete that makes this a ‘twist’.


Medea doesn’t grow up through her trials. Her devious nature is facilitated by an accidental foray into ‘death spirits’ and ‘dark magic’ after killing her brother. The death spirits overpower her and are the ones that want her vengeance. Medea’s calculated revenge is taken away from her along with her agency. ‘They have reduced me to a simpering stereotype,’ (p.234) she says watching the Argonauts distasteful recollection of the quest, which is hilarious considering she was that simpering stereotype and still would be if this ‘darkness’ wasn’t influencing her. This lack of agency diminishes any character growth because it clearly isn’t her own. When she finally comes into a sense of her manipulative self it feels cheap. 


And then there’s a ten-year time skip. Just ‘ten years later’ to Euripides’ canon. Annoying, but not the end of the world. I would have liked to be shown Medea’s post-partum depression instead of just being told it. She complains about Corinth and the people, but Hewlett does not bother to give any character any time of day. 


But this is the most anticipated, for me, part of the book. I’m still holding out hope of Medea’s trickery against two kings of Greece, taking up the blade in the death of her children and escaping Scot free. And Hewlett disappoints. Medea’s manipulations are nowhere to be seen and neither is her internal war between motherhood and vengeance. The children are not even given their struggle to survive, and Medea is not given the implicit and shocking approval of the gods. There is no echo of the powerful ending of Euripides’ Medea within these pages. 


And the epilogue is from her sister’s point of view. Years later, Medea tells - again with the telling - and tries to link aspects of her mythology together. She is depicted as a powerful queen from this POV and yet it falls flat when remembering that all of her agency has been lost to ‘death spirits’ and the personified ‘darkness’. 


The Final Verdict

 I speculated in my dissertation conclusion whether this book would declaw Medea. Whether it would piece and package Medea to be consumable by an audience that balks at a ‘problematic’ character. I think that it has. I think if you changed the names, you would not be able to recognise the spirit of Medea here. And that of why I find these mythology retellings disingenuous because they are made to be consumable.


And that’s Medea’s biggest crime in this book, the fact that in declawing her to be consumable she’s just now boring. 

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6 days ago

As someone who also loves Euripides' Medea and read Hewlett's book, I think how it was told worked. I do agree she was declawed and perhaps made too sympathetic a character... But I think the narrative as it was set up worked, and it kept me hooked. The point made about the imagery was entirely valid though. There were definitely more parts that would have been better if things were shown instead of explicitly told. Great review!

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