Review: Medea—A Modern Retelling by Christa Wolf

This title was translated from the original German by John Cullen.

My Review:
medeaI have to admit that as a classicist I try to avoid retellings of ancients myths and texts because they never live up to the brilliance of the original authors.  I had passed over Wolf’s Medea and Cassandra for this very reason, but a fellow bibliophile with similar reading tastes to my own convinced me to give Wolf’s books a try and I am so glad that I did.

Jason is portrayed as the archetypal Greek hero in the ancient myths; he has unusual circumstances surrounding his birth, he is not raised by his parents but instead by a Centaur, he goes on a quest during which his strength and intelligence are greatly tested, and he has a complicated relationship with women.  Although, in Jason’s case it is actually one very powerful woman named Medea.  While on his quest with his fellow Argonauts, to get the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes  in the dark, unknown city of Colchis, he encounters Medea.  Euripides and Seneca both portray Medea as a sinister and violent woman who uses her magic arts to get what she wants and to exact revenge on her enemies.  As she is leaving Colchis with Jason on the Argo, she chops up the body parts of her young brother so that their father, the King, has to stop his ship and collect the pieces of his son.  And when Jason breaks off his marriage with Medea to marry the young princess in Corinth, Medea makes him pay the price by murdering their children.

Wolf’s Medea is an intense, passionate,  assertive woman who questions and even challenges the power of two kings.  At home in Colchis, there is a movement among the lower classes, which is supported by Medea, to invoke an old law that will force King Aeëtes to step down in deference to his son, the next in line for the throne.  It is Medea’s father who is responsible for her brother’s murder because in eliminating his heir to the throne he rejects the will of the people and retains his crown.  Medea is so sickened by her father’s choice to murder his own child that when the Argonauts arrive in Colchis she views her chance to help Jason as a means of escape from the King’s absolute rule.  Medea betrays her father, helps Jason capture the Golden Fleece, and on the way back to Iolcus on the Argo she scatters the bones of her murdered brother as a type of funeral service and tribute to him.

Wolf’s begins each chapter in her Medea with a quotation fitting for the character that is speaking;  many of the quotes that Wolf chooses are from the ancient plays of Seneca and Euripides.  But the quotations that are especially striking are those that Wolf borrows from René  Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred.  Leukon, an astronomer for King Creon who sympathizes with Medea and tries to warn her about the treachery of her enemies, has a speech during which he recounts seeing an angry mob of citizens who chase Medea through the streets of Corinth.  A rumor that has been started about Medea that she is the cause of Corinth’s misfortunes and that she was the one who murdered her brother.  Wolf quotes this fitting passage from Girard:

People want to convince
themselves that their misfortunes
come from one single responsible person
who can easily be got rid of.

The people of Corinth insist that, despite a lack of evidence, Medea is the cause of all their evils and she will be their scapegoat.  They distrust foreigners, especially the darker skin people from Colchis whose traditions and culture they do not understand.  The Colchians who came to Corinth with Medea are referred to as refugees, are marginalized and forced to live in poor conditions in a seedy side of town.  Medea is viewed as the leader of these unwanted refugees and so all of the Corinthians’ frustration is misdirected at her and they believe that by eliminating her that their city will once again be prosperous.

In addition, Wolf’s portrayal of Jason shows a man who is much more conflicted than the archetypal hero of Greek myth.  When Jason and Medea find themselves guests of King Creon there is a deep level of mistrust for Colchians, and Medea in particular with her gifts of healing and astrology.  King Creon ejects Medea and her two children from the palace and she is forced to live in a hut adjacent to the royal dwelling.  But Jason still loves her deeply and craves the physical and sexual attentions that he gets from Medea.  As Corinth begins to suffer a series of catastrophes such as drought, earthquake and plague, Medea’s enemies conspire against her to help make her the scapegoat for all of the evils that Corinth is suffering.  King Creon, who had secretly sacrificed his youngest daughter to keep his throne, is on the verge of being exposed by Medea’s questions and investigations.  In the end, Jason chooses to side with the King in order to save himself.  But Wolf shows us a Jason who is truly conflicted, weeps openly, and whose decisions do not come lightly.

Finally, something must be said about Wolf’s brilliant writing.  The book is a series of eleven monologues, each given my a different character who is involved in this series of circumstances in Corinth.  Wolf is a master at altering her writing to reflect the different characters which she is trying to portray.  Medea’s monologues, for instance,  are very eloquent and intelligent.  She understands the impossible circumstances that surround her and she is very reflective about what brought her to this place.  Jason, on the other hand, is brash and his dialogue has more short sentences and imperatives.  One of the other monologues that is masterfully written is that of Glauce, King Creon’s youngest daughter.  She is very naïve and immature and the run on sentences in her monologue reflect her confusion and misunderstanding about what is going on around her.

I can say that Wolf’s retelling of this ancient text has not only impressed me but has also given me a renewed interest in revisiting the original authors and viewing them from a new perspective.

About the Author:
c-wolfAs a citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Christa Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Uni A citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Mrs. Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Unity Party in 1949. She studied German literature in Jena and Leipzig and became a publisher and editor.

In 1951, she married Gerhard Wolf, an essayist. They had two children.

17 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation

17 responses to “Review: Medea—A Modern Retelling by Christa Wolf

  1. “they never live up to the brilliance of the original authors”

    So no Euripides or Ovid?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My book-of-the-year – as if I read so many contemporary books – this year is a classical retelling, Christopher Logue’s War Music, 100% worth your time. Wiiiiild stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard that Logue’s book is fantastic and I am very eager to read it! I’m so glad to hear that you liked it too. I am also going to read Wolf’s Cassandra since her Medea was so good.

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    • Logue’s War Music was published as a single edition in November 2015. As one of my favourite books of this year, this may be the most contemporary book to have ever made my shortlist for best of the year (ignoring the fact Logue has been publishing his Homer in parts since the 1950s!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • One of the many reasons I love Fagle’s translation of Homer is the way he handles the first word of the entire epic. In Ancient Greek it is μῆνιν (wrath, rage), a very powerful word that sets the theme and tone for the entire epic. I always thought it was a shame that readers don’t know this because most translations begin with the first person, singular verb. But Fagle’s translates μῆνιν first and does it without making the English awkward: “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles…” I am really looking forward to seeing how Logue interprets this word, this line, this first paragraph of the Iliad.

        As an aside, Bernard Knox’s intro. to Fagles translation of The Iliad is an excellent read if you haven’t looked at it.

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  3. I must admit to avoiding retellings of classical myths for similar reasons, but it sounds as though this one brings something fresh to the story. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I saw a production of Medea via an National Theatre Live screening last year, and it completely blew me away. Helen McCrory was incredible in the lead role.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This sounds like it is very well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve only read a little Wolf but found her excellent. As I’m someone with no real classical knowledge, how do you think this would work for me?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t know if you’re a fan of David Vann. His new book Bright Air Black, coming out in March, is a retelling of Medea. And then Colm Tóibín’s new novel, House of Names, is the story of Clytemnestra (coming in May). I thought it was very interesting that these two writers would both have classical retellings coming out soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed your account of Christa Wolf’s book Medea- I read ‘der geteilte Himmel’ this summer, the first book I’ve read by Christa Wolf ( reviewed in my blog peakreads ) and did enjoy her writing, though of course the theme is very different, as it’s a love story set in the former East Germany just before the building of the Berlin Wall.

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  8. I’m not familiar with the originals and so this one appeals to be as a kind of introduction, I guess I’m the right audience as it seems if you are familiar with the original classics there is a hesitancy to indulge, so it may be easier to enjoy with little foreknowledge.

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  9. Pingback: My Literary jouissance of 2016 |

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