Classical Mythology and Children’s Literature . . . an Alphabetical Odyssey

This is the book I’ve been working on for the past few years, in the excellent company of Miriam Riverlea.

It’s published! Available online and in hard copy through the University of Warsaw Press’s Our Mythical Childhood series.

It’s an Alphabetical Odyssey… 26 short chapters discussing key themes in children’s literature with classical elements. We’ve done our best to think the issues through–from Adaptation, to Beasts, to Childhood, and so on. Dealing with Difficult Subjects. Girls and Boys. How to be Heroic. Mythical and Magical Beings. Olympians. Underworld Adventures.

Each chapter has our thoughts about the key issues, discussions about how texts deal with them, illustrations from said texts, reading lists, and more.

And throughout, the book is illustrated by Steve K. Simons’s wonderful images.

More information is available here:

I’ll be sharing chapters over the next few months, and posting about the themes as they come up…

In the meantime, in, read it from cover to cover, plunder the index and bibliography …. it’s all there waiting for readers, and we hope you will enjoy…

Elizabeth Hale

The Goblin Mugs (and Market) of Locke Jean-Luc Unhold

Locke Jean-Luc Unhold is a potter working in Dunedin. I came across his work when I visited the local pottery collective, and was immediately captivated by his goblin mugs with their bright, strange faces. I bought one: a one-eyed creature that reminded me of a cyclops, and I wrote to Locke to ask if he had been inspired at all by classical mythology in his work.

In fact, he replied, not at all: it’s goblins that grab him, with their mysterious ways, and the goblin mugs have a range of scrunchy expressions that connect with the ways we might feel on different occasions. You can see the goblins on Locke’s website here, and here is a picture of my cyclops goblin, wearing a crown of sweet basil.

Locke may not have deliberately designed this like a cyclops, but it reminds me of Polyphemus, who feel victim to Odysseus’s trickery in the Odyssey. I sometimes feel sorry for Polyphemus: in human terms he is a bloodthirsty creature, but I find him pitiable too: in terms of the damage wrought on innocent bystanders as heroes go adventuring by.

Locke’s goblin mugs have a bit of recuperative zeal to them, too: the sympathy for the ‘monster’–who decides what a monster is, after all? Why are goblins so often viewed as monstrous, and what happens if we think of them as friendly creatures, who express the variety of human feeling?

Something to think about while having a friendly cup of tea. And so I interviewed Locke to find out more.

— Elizabeth Hale

Interview with Locke Jean-Luc Unhold

How did you come to working in ceramics? 

I first experienced clay when I was little living in Georgia in the US. Georgia is renowned for its red clay deposits and I have fond memories of the childrens pottery classes I took at the local clay center there. Later as an adult, when I was attending the University of Minnesota studying English literature and anthropology, I lived around the corner from the Northern Clay Center and would walk by it nearly every day. I only ever actually went in once to get some Christmas presents but I was always fascinated by the place. Finally, years later when I had moved to Dunedin, NZ I saw that there were pottery nightclasses being taught at the Dunedin School of Art. I signed up for one and instantly fell in love. I joined the local potters club, Otago Potters Group, and in 2018 I started my NZ Diploma of Art and Design in ceramics part time. I finished level 5 in 2019 and level 6 in 2021. I absorbed as much knowledge about ceramics as I could and in 2020 took on the technician role at the Dunedin School of Art. I’m now the technical teacher for the ceramics department and still learning as much as I can!

I really like how you work across functional and decorative, and incorporate aspects of play into your creations.  

Thank you so much! 🙂 

I was wondering about what it is about ‘goblins’ that inspired you?  Were there any particular artists whose goblin work you feel influenced by?  

The whole ‘goblin’ thing I kind of fell into, actually. I was doing a clay play day for a rainbow community group I was part of and happened to make a little clay goblin as part of showing how to handbuild with clay. I really loved my weird little dude and made some more. I’ve always been a huge fantasy nerd (Tolkien, in particular) and video games, and I loved how making them was like a truly open-ended character creator in a video game. I’ve also always been fascinated with cryptozoology and had a book of cryptids that I read all the time when growing up. Also during my time here at art school, I came into my transgender identity and really truly began to embrace my queerness. The queer community (particularly the online queer community, I’ve found) has a deep love for cryptids and monsters. Queer people in media are often ‘othered’ and monsters are sometimes queer-coded, so the community has embraced monsters as our own. So that’s where the goblins come back into things! I realized that the goblins – in all their quirky, weird, imperfection – represented me and all my fellow queer community. I also drew on the poem “The Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti – incorporating various animal-like qualities to them. The goblins in Rossetti’s poem are often read as queer, calling to the two women protagonists to join their hedonistic lifestyle. The goblins have evolved quite a bit over time, losing their animal-qualities and going in a more cartoonish, Muppet-like direction. For my final project of my diploma, I utilized them in conjunction with some functional pieces for a work called Transcending Bodies. I encouraged viewers to rearrange the goblin heads as they pleased on the various vase ‘bodies’, making them contemplate why one personality might ‘fit’ with a particular body or not. This work contrasted the bright, personality-rich, matte textured, sculptural goblin heads (or, at this point I started calling them ‘friends’) with wheel-thrown, traditionally glazed functional vases. It contrasted the personality and the body, something that as a trans person I experience every single day. 

Besides Rossetti’s poem, there were a few other ceramic artists’ whose work inspired me (and still does!). Molly Melican makes some fantastically whimsical goblins (or, ginklets, as she calls them). Natalia Arbelaez‘s work I also love, though it’s not really ‘goblins’, but hers is a great, cartoonish take on ceramics.

Because I work on a project that looks into how classical (greek/roman) mythology appears in contemporary culture, I was drawn to purchase a ‘cyclops’ mug.  Wondering if you had any opinions about cyclopes that you might want to share?  (no wories if not, of course).  

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say about cyclopes, sorry! Other than that I generally empathize with them – there were a number of times growing up where I had to wear an eyepatch and had to rely on a singular eye, so I get it, haha.

Have you noticed any themes in people’s responses to the goblins? 

Yes! I’m happy to say that people are generally delighted with them and react how I was hoping – seeing themselves and others in them. I sell some of my commercial work at a local potters co-op, and love hearing people react to them when they see the goblins. If they’re in a group of people, they’ll take turns saying who they know matches up to each goblin. When they buy one for themselves, they tell me how the face reminds me of a loved one, or that the face is the same face they make when –whatever– happens. People really connect to their personalities.

What else do you work on, and where do you think your work might take you next?

Some work I’ve played with off-and-on for the past few years are some semi-anatomical heart sculpture pieces, that also deal with queer identity and experience. They usually feature experimental glaze and materials in wild combinations. I’ve started playing with merging this glaze-play with the goblins, but it’s still something I’m evolving. This concept was greatly inspired by artist Akiko Hirai’s work. She uses extreme amounts of glaze and added materials in her work that is about how, mental health wise, we all have layers and traumas that may or may not show at first glance. 

I’m also in the very early stages of planning my (first!!!) solo exhibition version of Transcending Bodies that will expand on the version I used as my final diploma project. 

Thank you!

You can read more about Locke’s work on his website

Aquicorn Cove

In which winged hippocamps are indicators of a healthy nature.

Aquicorn Cove, a sweet graphic novel by New Zealander Kay O’Neill, uses the mythological figures of the winged hippocamp and the unicorn to show how to care for nature.

Aquicorn Cove, by K. O’Neill

The protagonist, Lana, returns with her father to her family home in the small fishing village of Abalone to help her aunt Mae clean up after a storm. They are grieving the loss of her mother, a fisherwoman who died in a storm off the coast of Aquicorn Cove. While picking up litter on the beach, she finds an injured creature: a small seahorse with wings and a horn (an Aquicorn). She takes it home and cares for it.

Meanwhile, Mae is suffering from the loss both of her sister, and of her former true-love, a being named Aure, who lives in an underwater coral city and who had saved her from drowning in a storm.

Mae and Aure had fallen out over fishing practices: Mae was using plastic nets that were trapping the aquicorns that protected Aure’s reef.

What follows is a story about sustainability and balance. Mae comes to the realisation that she must return to former sustainable fishing practices, using nets of natural fibres that allow the aquicorns to slip through. Lana learns to accept her mother’s loss and to channel her emotions into caring for nature.

It’s a lovely book, gently told. The aquicorns are enormously appealing, in the way of unicorns and the flying horse Pegasus: offering the sense of a mythical creature that can become a friend, and that can symbolise the beauty and fragility of nature. Aure’s coral kingdom, while reminiscent of myths about the lost city of Atlantis, also offers an image of the effects of human predation of the ocean. Her love story with Mae shows a reconciliation between land and sea, and makes the point, so common in ecocritical works, that nature is a better guardian of humanity than the other way around.

Aure and the Aquicorns rescue Mae from drowning.

Aquicorn Cove is explicitly educational, and concludes with an information section providing guidance on biodiversity in the oceans and ideas about sustainability. The associated board game allows players to work together to look after nature.

Caring for nature is hugely important to O’Neill’s work: see for instance the Tea Dragon Society series, about cute dragons whose horns and antlers produce tea leaves, and the art of caring for them (tea-dragon husbandry): sustainability, mythology, nurturing, and tea make for a delightful brew. (As a keen tea-drinker myself, I find this idea appealing!). Themes of friendship, empathy, diversity and environmental justice pervade this gently inclusive novel and its associated game which encourages readers and players to think about how to grow their dragon and harvest their tea.

Why are figures like aquicorns and tea dragons so often used in this way? Partly it is their hybridity (part seahorse, part unicorn, part hippocampus, part dragon, part deer), which allows readers from many backgrounds to identify with them. Perhaps too, because of their mythical qualities they mediate between human and animal worlds, offering a safe(-ish) way to think about human impact on the natural world. O’Neill’s new book, The Moth Keeper, about ‘a nocturnal girl who wants to help her community but can’t help dreaming about the sun’ looks likely to continue this trend, drawing together ideas about identity, the natural world, and doing so by creating a new mythology for young readers.

— Elizabeth Hale

Some of us are looking at the stars . . . Matariki

This Friday, 24 June, is the first time that Matariki will be a public holiday in Aotearoa New Zealand. It marks the rising of the star cluster Matariki above the horizon, and is an important time in Māori culture. Matariki symbolizes the beginning of the new year, with remembrance of the deceased, and with wishes for good health and good harvest going forward. 

Here is how to find Matariki in the night sky.

As a star cluster visible around the world, Matariki bobs around our shared horizon.   In Japan it is called Subaru (though the cluster is only considered to include 6 stars).

In Australia, the stars are known as the Seven Sisters, whose songline runs throughout Australia. In Greece, they are the Pleiades.

Both myths refer to a group of sisters, moving across the sky, chased by a hunter. In Aboriginal science, as in Maori science, the Seven Sisters are an important part of the calendar, and their rising marks the start of winter.

In 2018, the National Museum of Australia shared that Songline in a beautiful interactive exhibition tracking the Seven Sisters. (I was lucky enough to see it twice, and will never forget it).

The seven sisters move around the world–the cluster is always moving–dipping above and below the horizon, and their stories appear in cultures on all continents. They are among the oldest of the world’s myths. Perhaps their appearance, and disappearances, remind us of our shared horizons, and our shared cultures.

All the best for Matariki!

Elizabeth Hale

In praise of mer-cats

My niece Juliet (8) is great at designing mythical beasts. Here is her mer-cat.

Mercat, by Juliet Hale (2022)

It was inspired by something she saw on a friend’s bookmark. I liked how neatly she drew it (it’s a tiny image, about the size of a postage stamp), and the balance between the gold of the cat, the blue of the background (the sea!) and the red of some of the creature’s scales.

We had a conversation about the components of the mercat, and Juliet explained that it has the horn of a unicorn, the upper half of a cat, and the tail of a mermaid. The next time I visited, she had shown how this would work!

Unicorn + cat + mermaid = mercat! (by Juliet Hale, 2022)

Juliet draws a lot, and has turned her family’s dining table into a craft zone, where she comes up with creations like this while watching animations on her ipad. She picks up ideas from craft shows on youtube, from conversations with her friends, and school.

Unicorns and mermaids are very popular in stories for girls at the moment. Juliet has recently been reading Camping with Unicorns, from Dana Simpson’s popular Phoebe and her Unicorn series. She’s at the age to enjoy chapter books that mix text and cartoons, and is embarking on series fiction such as the Babysitters Club stories. She also enjoys toys, such as LEGO friends and the Sylvanian Families sets, and designs and decorates their living spaces. We have started a knitting project, too: a scarf for her toy bear. In her play choices, we can see a creative girl who is au fait with culture in mutiple formats–in word, image, on the page, on the screen, and in toy form.

Who knows what Juliet will do next: whatever it is, it will be carefully thought out and beautifully designed. I can’t wait to see it.

–Elizabeth Hale