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Showing posts with label Perseus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Perseus. Show all posts

12.01.2010

Medusa (2000)

Retold and illustrated by Deborah Nourse Lattimore

Typography by Alicia Milkes

Joanna Cotler Books

One thing I appreciate about stories based on Greek Mythology is how contrary they run to what one would narratively expect. In doing so, they make me realize just how conditioned I've become.

Take Medusa. I knew the end of the story, wherein the hideous gorgon is slain by the young hero, Perseus - very classic monster-movie stuff - but I was unfamiliar with the beginnings of the tale, which Lattimore goes into in lush, grotesque detail.

...there lived in the muddy depths of the ocean a sea witch. She was one part poisonous eel, one part giant water snake, and a third part woman - in such a hideous combination that all creatures who looked at her froze in terror and could barely swim away. The only thing more frightening than this sea witch were her many children. They clung to her with their long, scaly bodies, bent fins, and gaping teeth.

I love the way Lattimore writes, and I love her illustrations. She loves using bright, bold colors which instantly fool my eyes into thinking they're gazing at something beautiful, when in reality, a second glance reveals its grotesqueness. The mother of Medusa is a terrible sight: a witchy, evil creature with long teeth and a black tongue, a body that trails off into long, bloody tentacles. And around her, squirm her children who resemble dragons from some alien ocean.

Yet strangely, from the loins of this creature comes a woman more beautiful than beautiful, the lovely Medusa, who resembles a starry-eyes Barbie. As her brothers and sisters squirm and writhe, Medusa spends her days sitting upon the craggy rocks, watching the waves crash, her long, blond hair billowing in the breeze. All who see her fall in love with her, including the King of the Ocean, Poseidon.

"I am just like a goddess!" muses Medusa to herself. "I am even more beautiful than Athena herself. And when I marry Poseidon, I will be Queen of all the Oceans!"

Aha. Not smart, Medusa. No sooner do those words come from her beautiful, lush lips, than Athena herself rises from the foam of the ocean and casts her curse:

"You are no goddess, but the bragging daughter of a mud toad! You came from the sea and to the sea you will return. But only after you live out your days in such ugliness that anyone who looks at you will turn to stone. One day a boy from the sea will come to kill you. This is my curse!"

Suddenly, Medusa doubles over in agony, her hair turning into twisting, terrible serpents. She has been turned ugly! And anyone who looks at her will turn to stone! Egads!

Medusa

Meanwhile...

A fisherman rescues a beautiful woman and her young son from a wooden chest which has just washed ashore. The grateful woman tells a fantastic tale of how Zeus magically impregnated her with golden dust, and her father cast her and her son out to perish. The woman is Danae and her son is Perseus.

It is Perseus who is fated to fulfill Athena's prophecy. For when his mother is held captive by the evil Polydectes, Athena whispers her plan to him.

"Danae!" he announces, "I have decided to make you my queen. And your son, Perseus, will bring us a wedding gift - the head of Medusa! If you defy me, and if Perseus fails, then it will be death for you both!"

And so everything is going according to plan, so far as Athena is concerned. She successfully turned the beautiful Medusa into a hideous monster, and she has now secured a young man who will kill her. Athena - with the help of Hermes - helps Perseus on his quest, leading him to the gray sisters - whom Lattimore illustrates as mangled, dirty angels with bloody, empty eye sockets and whithered mouths. They lead him to the sea nymphs, who in turn lead him to the Isle of Hyperboreans, where Medusa lives, but not before outfitting him with golden sandals, a leather pouch and the Cap of Darkness. All the meanwhile, it is Athena who is pulling the strings.

It should be clear to anyone reading this story that it is Athena who is the true villain here. After all, Medusa is not truly a monster, but only a beautiful young woman horribly and unjustly disfigured. Does it not seem that the narrative should logically take a twist here, and somehow the good, brave Perseus realizes he's been tricked, finds a way to reverse Athena's curse, and the story should end with he and the now-returned-to-her-former-beauty Medusa marrying and living happily ever after?

Well, that doesn't happen.

Part of the Greek Mythology series.

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