Thursday, August 10, 2023

Stone Blind - Natalie Haynes

It seems as if there’s an almost bottomless appetite for retellings of Greek myths at the moment. I interrupted reading Stone Blind for 'Girl, Goddess, Queen' and they sat well together although intended for broadly different audiences and probably because they're looking at entirely different themes. Here Medusa getting a feminist reimagining with Perseus very much the villain of the story - or at least chief amongst many villains here - anyone not a Gorgon comes out of this looking bad.

To fully appreciate Medusa’s story we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the Olympian gods to 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. I'm also reading a review copy of her new one 'Divine Might' which I'd strongly recommend looking out for in September. Other (many other) authors working in this area also exist as does the internet of course which makes further research and cross referencing not just easy, but almost addictive.

Medusa is a great choice as a central character. 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 retains a consciousness as the Gorgoneion. There's a lot to play with there and Haynes doesn't hold back.

All of the Gods as she shows them 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. The only real sisterly solidarity is that between the three Gorgon sisters and their genuine love for one another despite the unchanging immortality of the eldest two and Medusa's ever changing mortality.

The classics have been such a building block of the western canon that even though very few of us will have grown up learning them in Latin or Greek at school anymore they're still deeply embedded in our culture and imagination. I read versions of these stories almost as soon as I learnt to read at all, uncritically absorbing ideas about heroism and who the main character should be. Haynes turns all of that upside down, and not just in making 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. In her telling 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 are imagined monsters, no threat compared to a boy with an unthinkably powerful weapon.

And what of Medusa? Here she doesn't have much use for the power behind her curse. She's rightly afraid that she might hurt her sisters, and has no contact with anybody else before Perseus comes for her head at the behest of another man who wants a woman who has no interest in him.

Stone Blind is also a book by a writer at the top of her game. She Knows her subject, and keeps all the balls of a multi stranded narrative in the air until the moment she's ready to resolve each element into a conclusion. The chapters are short with each story fragmented throughout the book - it made it easy to pick up and put down whilst keeping everything straight. It was just as effective as keeping me reading in a race with myself to see how each plot would work out.

The thing that Haynes and Bea Fitzgerald have in common is that both make me laugh in-between feeling a deep anger for the endless unfairness and stacked odds their women face. Medusa's fate can't be spun into a happy ever after as Persephone's might be in any of the current romantasies that feature her, but Haynes has no trouble in turning her into a heroine and she does get the last word. 

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