Medea: Rosie Hewlett's instant bestseller retells one of Greek myth's darkest moments

Rosie Hewlett’s retelling of the Greek myth of Medea is an instant bestseller. The author tells John Blow why stories from the ancient world are having a moment.

What are the rules around plot spoilers for stories that date back to the era before Christ?

It is fair to say that in Euripides’ Greek tragedy Medea, from 431 BC, the title character – wife of Jason (of the Argonauts fame) – “makes some very dark decisions”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Or that’s how author Rosie Hewlett, who has retold Medea’s story in her latest, second book puts it. The play, she says, is remembered for “that final moment of when she does the very bad thing”.

Rosie Hewlett. Picture: Katy Wilderspin.Rosie Hewlett. Picture: Katy Wilderspin.
Rosie Hewlett. Picture: Katy Wilderspin.

Very bad, indeed. Rosie, though, wanted to explore a backstory from a fresh perspective.

Rosie, 28, of Kent, says: “What I wanted to do is tell her whole story from the very beginning and explain how she gets to that point and how a woman could be pushed to that extreme, to make the decisions that she makes and raise the question of: ‘Is Medea really the villain, or is it the people around her that pushed her to those actions? Are they the villains of the story?’

"I didn't want to sanitize any of her myth or shy away from the things that she did. I just wanted to offer more of a context and more explanation, more depth to her character of why she might become that villain that we know and questioning if she really is the villain.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Retellings of ancient myth are having a moment. Almost 20 years on from Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad - positioning The Iliad from the perspective of Penelope, stuck faithfully at home while Odysseus adventures in the Trojan War - there have been numerous examples more recently, including Herc by Phoenicia Rogerson, who will be in conversation with Rosie at Waterstones in Leeds on Thursday evening.

Rosie says: “It's so nice to be in such a supportive community of writers who are all lifting each other up, and it's an interesting one as well because I suppose with Greek myth retellings, we're all pulling from the same material. So there could be an element of competitiveness within it, because we're all kind of wanting to tell the same stories, but there just isn't that at all.”

And actually, she adds, these stories are there to be retold. Euripides, for example, based his play on a pre-existing legend.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“When you read the ancient source materials, it's incredible how much of it still resonates today.

"I remember reading Euripides’ Medea and she has some fantastic speeches in that where she's talking about the injustice of women. Very feminist speeches, which considering it was written by a man in a very patriarchal society, and would have been performed by a fully male cast to a male audience, it's amazing that there's such a strong feminist message in there that resonated with me as a woman in modern society.

"But I remember when I was younger, studying it at school, I had the idea of ‘all these stories are in the past and that's kind of where they belong’. But then I first read Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles when I think I must have been 14 or 15, and that was the first time that I realised I'd never read a modern myth retelling before. And I realised, oh, we can still tell these stories now, and that's actually the whole tradition of myth, is these stories continue to be told and retold and that's what they're meant to be.

"They're meant to continue on in different eras of history and be retold each time. So then I fell in love with this idea of continuing that tradition from the ancients and I feel it’s passing that baton now, and we're continuing to tell these stories and keep them alive, which I really love.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Her enthusiasm goes back to her formative years at a secondary school which offered Latin in Year Seven and classics at GCSE, the latter being recommended by her older sister.

“I immediately fell in love with it,” says Rosie. “I think it's just such a fascinating world and the myths are just so incredible and emotional and ridiculous and just fantastical.

"I’d go from a maths or science class and into my classics classroom and we'd be talking about the gods turning people into animals and it was just the most fun escapism at school, I think”.

She continued at A-level and went on to achive a first class honours degree in Classical Literature and Civilisation at the University of Birmingham.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Careers in classics are hard to come by, so after university she took up a marketing job, but was placed on furlough during the Covid lockdown.

“I just suddenly had endless days stuck in my tiny flat with nothing to do so I thought, well, if I'm ever gooing write a story, it's going to be now,” she says.

“I'd always wanted to initially tell the Medusa’s story because I always think it's interesting how Medusa as a character is so well known but her voice is so silent, like there's really nothing of her speaking for herself throughout history.”

She wrote it quickly and this debut came out in April 2021, going on to win the Rubery Book of the Year Award, which recognises independent and self-published writers.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The new book – a Sunday Times bestseller after coming out in March – is published by the Transworld division of Penguin, “everyone's dream publisher,” says Rosie.

She’s thrilled to introduce a new generation of readers to the ancient world – and is already on with her third book.

"It’s really nice to think that I get to share something that I've been so passionate about for most of my life – to share that with people and see them enjoying it is so wonderful.”

Medea is out now. Rosie Hewlett will be in conversation with Phoenicia Rogerson at Waterstones in Leeds on Thursday from 6.30pm. Tickets:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.