Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is a verse novel that reimagines the myth of Geryon and Herakles (whom you may know as Hercules). Her poems take place in a modern-ish world, filled with airplanes and volcanoes, bunk beds and cigarettes. In her retelling, we follow Geryon from childhood through young adulthood (by which, I mean maybe his 20s?). After my conversation with Kimberly last week about Inanna, I began digging into the story of Geryon and Herakles, trying to separate the myth from retelling in Autobiography of Red.
Myth: Geryon is the son of Callirrhoe and Chrysaor, son of Medusa and Poseidon.
Retelling: Geryon has an abusive older brother who shares bunk beds with him and ends up a sportscaster.
Myth: Herakles kills Geryon in order to steal his famous red cattle. This is the tenth labor of Herakles.
Retelling: Herakles doesn’t kill Geryon, but instead breaks his heart. He is his first love.
Unknown Potter, this is Hercules fighting a three-headed Geryon, with a dead Orthrus at Geryon’s feet.
Myth: Geryon had three heads and one body. Or Geryon had one body and three heads. Or Geryon had six hands, six legs, one body, and two wings. He has a beautiful two-headed dog, Orthrus, who is the brother of Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the underworld of Hades.
Retelling: Geryon is a red monster boy with wings he hides beneath a jacket. He doesn’t have a dog, but he takes a camera with him everywhere.
A brief summary of the myth: Hercules is driven mad by Hera, goes crazy, and kills his wife Megara and their six sons. Yes, this Meg:
As penance, an oracle tells Hercules to go on a journey and serve King Eurystheus for ten years. Each year, Hercules is given a seemingly impossible task to complete. After ten years, Eurystheus says Hercules cheated by getting help on two tasks, so Hercules has to work for two more years, thus the famous twelve labors of Hercules. Geryon falls victim to Eurystheus’ seemingly random whims. As such, for his tenth labor, Hercules travels all the way to the island of Erythia just to disturb a gentle Geryon who is minding his own business tending to his cattle. Hercules kills Geryon’s dog, Geryon’s helper, and then when Geryon comes to save his cattle, Hercules kills him too. Hercules then delivers the cattle to Eurystheus who promptly sacrifices at them as an offering to Hera, who drove Hercules mad in the first place. Kind of crazy, right?
Autobiography of Red is unique, compelling, and turns the myth of Geryon on its head. Here, Herakles is the bad guy, and you’re constantly rooting for Geryon. Anne Carson is absolutely brilliant, mixing science and mythology, metaphors with very real quiet moments. I love books and poems that incorporate scientific facts, and Anne Carson relies heavily on scientific imagery. She explores the idea of perception, how volcanoes are formed, the concept of time, and Quechuan mythology. This is a complex, layered, and very talented book. I’ve been wanting to dive into The Iliad for a very long time, but have been frightened of the form of the verse novel. Having made it through Autobiography of Red, I think I may be ready to tackle a bigger epic. Anne Carson has written a follow-up to this, called Red Doc>. She writes:
Some years ago I wrote a book about a boy named Geryon who was red and had wings and fell in love with Herakles. Recently I began to wonder what happened to them in later life. Red Doc> continues their adventures in a very different style and with changed names.
To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.
- Greek Legendary Monsters Family Tree
- Puritan Magazine’s Review of Red Doc> – I’m adding this because the first half is a great primer on Anne Carson’s style and habits. Stop reading before you get to the actual review, if you’d like.
- Apollodorus recounts the story of Hercules and Geryon