I first met Medusa in a museum, probably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where I grew up. My parents, avid culture fiends, would take us to museums and some of my earliest memories are of the Greek and Roman statues at the Met.
There, Perseus stood, naked, holding onto Medusa’s newly chopped off head. She looks sad and kind of mannish. I imagined that all the statues that crowded the hall were her final victims, and I worried that perhaps we were next.
I met her again, all over Italy when we went there for a visit at age seven. She was riveting. I could not look away from her. She captured my imagination.
Why was she so terrible to look upon?
I found that I could look upon her safely. To me, she always seemed beautiful, even with the snakes. She also looked as though she was steeped in a profound sadness. That she had been driven to fury by the very fact that no one could look upon her.
|Medusa from the Vatican.|
It was clear that something must have driven her to be so horrible. I imagined that perhaps her monstrous-ness sprang from something already crouched inside of her only to be brought out when she was cursed with snakes for hair.
My parents only told me the part of her story where if you looked on her you would turn to stone and how Perseus beheaded her. They didn’t tell me the whole myth. Not because they didn’t know her story, or maybe they didn’t, but most likely because they didn’t think that was the part that I wanted to know. But I longed to know the before, about who she was before the snakes tormented her.
I still didn’t know her whole story when I saw “The Clash of the Titans” (1981), but there she was again. Something terrible, something to be killed, something filled with fury.
I only know that I loved her in some way, and that I was the only girl in sixth grade with a spiral notebook that had an image of Perseus holding Medusa’s head. It was about then that my Father lent me his copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and I got the whole story.
Oh, those ancient Greeks and the way they wove a tale. Dramatic. Exciting. Perilous. Tragic. Enlightening. Terrible. Wonderful.
But the one thing that was confirmed was that before Medusa was a monster, she was a girl. Perhaps a vain one. Perhaps a victim. Perhaps the focus of goddesses jealousy. There was a before and an after to Medusa, she was a complex character.
When I was writing the book, The Year of the Beasts, I was writing a story that sometimes couldn’t be explained in words. It is a hybrid book, alternating chapters of prose and comic book. It is two stories, the prose is of two sisters and the summer and the boys they like.
|Cecil has coffee with her new bobblehead.|
The comic book is of a Medusa, who just wants to be a girl again and her friends, a Centaur, Mermaid and Minotaur. I always knew that I wanted there to be a comic book element, and right from the moment that I started writing the book the image of Medusa kept coming up.
But at first, I wrote Medusa’s part of the story as prose and Tessa’s part as the comic book.
It wasn’t until a few stabs at the story that I realized that as a comic book writer it was much more interesting visually to see the snakes. I had already had them talking as characters, but to see them talking would pack more of an emotional punch.
The Year of the Beasts is not a retelling of Medusa. But the very root of the Medusa myth is there on all of the pages. And while she may be terrible to look upon, I think that I believe to this day, that deep down inside, even beasts have hearts.
Enter to win one of two author-signed copies of The Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castellucci (Roaring Brook, 2012). To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with “The Year of the Beasts” in the subject line. Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: midnight June 11.