SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
We continue our ongoing new series of posts “SFF in Conversation” with a guest post from Sarah McCarry, author of the excellent YA SFF novel All Our Pretty Songs. Sara is here today with a thought-provoking, feminist look at Medea and different ways of thinking about this mythological woman.
Please give it up for Sarah McCarry, everyone!
Seven Ways of Thinking About Medea
Once there was this guy named Jason; nobody special, if you want to know the truth, but he knew how to pick his friends. (Orpheus, Herakles, Zeus’s wife). Pretty and charming with nothing underneath. You know the type. He went for a sail to go after some treasure, and with the treasure he found himself a girl (Sharp-eyed Medea, [who] burned with quickening heat). For Jason she leaves her father and her home, whips up her wicked magics to win him his glittering fleece and ruin his enemies, shucks straight out of all she’s known to step on his dirty boat full of dudes and sail for a country she’s never seen. And when they arrive, she’ll learn what he wanted was glory, not her; he’ll throw everything she’s given him back in her face (what you gained by saving me / was far more than you gave). Too bad, he’ll say, you crybaby, you whiner. I took you out of that backwoods barbarian dump you call a homeland and almost made you a queen. TL;DR, she’ll reply, and she’ll stab to death their sons, set afire the pretty new princess Jason has on the side, take out the princess’s father for good measure. And then she’ll hop on a chariot drawn by dragons and fly off into the horizon. Just like a real sorceress would.
Medea: foreigner (that means brown), witch, female, and, god help her, lovestruck teenager. Juliet with a grimoire, her knife wet with someone else’s blood instead of her own. A lot of someones: Jason’s cousin; her own brother; the sons she has with Jason; the princess to whom he is affianced in her stead; the father of the princess. Ovid thinks she tried to poison Theseus, but Ovid’s [1. Ovid, The Metamorphoses (tr. Horace Gregory)] the worst kind of gossip, so who knows. This is the thing we always forget about Medea: when Jason finds her, cooking up potions in her dad’s court, she’s just a kid with no view of the long-term, no real knowing of the wiles of the world. Falling hard and dumb for someone who doesn’t deserve her, cut adrift in the aftermath. A little different and a lot alone.
We are not meant to love Medea. But I do.
Unlike everybody else. Ovid can’t stand her (To keep her evil wits as sharp as ever…); cranky Edith Hamilton is not her biggest fan (Whatever else she lacked Medea had plenty of intelligence). Euripides[2. Euripides, Grief Lessons: Four Plays (tr. Anne Carson);Euripides, Ten Plays (tr. Paul Roche)] is on the fence, giving her one of the most epic monologues of outrage in the history of the written word and penning a Jason who’s ten parts sweet-talker and ninety parts douche, but wavering in his support as the curtain falls. Apollonius Rhodios knows what it’s like to crush out at your own expense (Thus was the girl’s heart riven by passionate anguish); his Medea is all nineties-Wiccan-goth, mooning over prancy, dopey Jason in her bedroom, undone—literally—by Eros’s spiteful, on-target arrow to her heart. Out of all of the long-dead ancients who have written Medea, Apollonius[3. Apollonios Rhodios The Argonautika (tr. Peter Green)] comes closest to championing her; Medea, lost in a sea of Jason’s bros, none of whom think women are worth much, none of whom want to be helped by a girl. Sad hopes we have indeed, eye-rolls Jason’s bestie Argos, if we’ve entrusted our homecoming to women. Even the moon thinks she needs scolding: go on then, learn endurance: for all your cleverness, it’s tears and pain you must bear.
Most of us who have been girls learn quick about loss, about yielding; but what if instead of going Juliet we turned our bloody-minded anger outward? Medea is a lesson in vengeance, not self-sacrifice: fuck with me, she says, and I’ll ruin your life. Keep your hackles unraised—I’m not counseling homicide. But there’re few among us inhabiting the margins who haven’t had to learn to carry our own rage, and I like best the lesson of living it large rather than swallowing it whole. Even in Ovid, Medea wins, ‘scaping her own death, vanished in a cloud, dark as the music chanted in her spells. Medea as muse, as mercenary. Your books are so dark, people say to me, and what I don’t say, in return: you want dark, try growing up girl. Don’t tell me your thoughts haven’t, too, turned to knives in the bleakest part of the night. What if it was other skins we aimed to cut, and not our own? Women learn to veil things, Anne Carson says (of Phaedra; another crazy bitch). Who likes to look straight at real passion? Looks can kill. Just ask Medea.
My third book is, like the first two, and like all the books I love best, about love and sex and death and growing up. It is also about Medea: Medea, as she might be now, kind of punk and wicked witchy, kissing girls, still slitting throats. Medea, a girl who doesn’t apologize, not even once she’s learned her lessons the hard way, not even once she’s had to learn them again. Looking death in the face, looking for vengeance, cutting her own bloody path. What girl’s gotten to do that since? We’ll cry for Hamlet (from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth), despite his swath of collateral damage, but Medea’s everybody’s worst nightmare: a girl without fear or remorse, a girl with power, a girl whose fury is big enough to swallow the world. Medea (sailing serpent wings) her own kind of warrior, her own kind of witch (she can quench the hot blast of unwearying fire / halt rivers dead when they’re roaring down in spate / control the stars and the Moon’s own sacred orbits). Medea, who knows exactly what she is: My very spells have torn the throats of serpents.
Medea, my favorite kind of warning: don’t mess with girls.
About the author: Sarah McCarry is the author of the novel All Our Pretty Songs, out now from St. Martin’s Press, and its sequels Dirty Wings (2014) and About a Girl (2015), a very loose retelling of the story of the Golden Fleece in which a girl goes looking for her mother and finds Medea instead. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com