First Contact (Ancient Myths and Modern Children . . .)

First Contact (Ancient Myths and Modern Children . . .)

 

Miriam Riverlea recently completed her PhD at Monash University: My First Book of Greek Myths: Retelling Ancient Myths to Modern Children. In it, she argues that the retellings of classical myth in children’s literature deserves more attention.  We’re delighted that she has joined the Our Mythical Childhood team.

— Liz Hale

When I was about eight years old, my father read me Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes and The Tale of Troy. First published in the late 1950s, these books retell some of the most famous stories from Greek myth for young readers, from Jason and the Argonauts to Odysseus and Achilles at Troy. I was enthralled. I can remember feeling quite devastated when we finished reading the final chapters, and have since reread these books many times over.

RLG inside cover
Where it all began for Miriam: Roger Lancelyn Green, Andrew Lang, Ian Seraillier . . .

The stories that we read as children can have a profound and lasting influence upon us. My childhood fascination with classical mythology led me to study Classics at high school and university. When I was introduced to the ancient, ‘original’ sources for the myths, Green’s stories still loomed large in my mind. The Tale of Troy, for instance, developed an overarching narrative connecting the events of Zeus’ early reign on Olympus with the Trojan War. At times, reading Homer or Euripides, it was a real challenge to overcome the notion that the versions of the myths that I knew so well were somehow more legitimate than the disparate, often contradictory references in the ancient tradition. As my first point of contact with the world of Greek myth, Green’s tales have retained their hold on me.

As I moved into postgraduate study, I began to focus my research on the appearances of classical myth in the modern age. I studied the 1980s adventure computer game King’s Quest and the myriad ways that the myth of the Trojan Horse has infiltrated our consciousness. And when I wrote my PhD, my choice of topic brought me full circle. My thesis, entitled ‘My First Book of Greek Myths: Retelling Ancient Myths to Modern Children’, examined more than seventy contemporary retellings of Greek myth written for children and young adults. While most of the texts were published in the last four decades, I also considered the works of Roger Lancelyn Green and other earlier storytellers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Kingsley and Andrew Lang. I discovered that many of the texts are intensely self-conscious about their own position within the storytelling tradition. Metafictional and intertextual elements feature prominently, and the motifs of weaving and storage are regularly employed as symbols of the complex shape and the enduring survival of the mythic tradition.

Reading
The next generation–Miriam’s children enjoying their classics!

During the course of my PhD, I had three children. The eldest two, now aged six and four, are beginning to discover Greek myth for themselves. As well as the many books that are gradually winging their way from my bookshelves to theirs, they have worldly friends with older siblings who have read the Percy Jackson books and have told them all about Hades and Medusa. I’m happier starting them on Rosemary Wells’ Max and Ruby’s First Greek Myth: Pandora’s Box, in which all the characters are rabbits. We’ve also got a sticker book in which all the characters (even the gods!) appear in their underwear, and you get to stick on their clothes, armour and accoutrements.

Sticker book
Classical stickers, from Usborne publications…

I have always promised myself that I wouldn’t force Greek mythology on my kids, but I am secretly delighted that they seem to like it. And I am looking forward, both as a parent and a researcher, to seeing how the texts they encounter at this formative time come to influence their lives in the future.

Miriam Riverlea

References:

Gillespie, Lisa Jane, and Emi Ordas. Sticker Greek Myths. London: Usborne, 2016.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. The Tale of Troy. London: Penguin, 1958; 1994.

———. Tales of the Greek Heroes. London: Penguin, 1958; 2009.

Riordan, Rick. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. London: Puffin, 2006.

Wells, Rosemary. Max and Ruby’s First Greek Myth: Pandora’s Box. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1993.

Miriam Riverlea’s PhD is available online here

Afterlife fiction for young people

Sophie Masson has published widely in children’s and young adult literature.  She’s now working on her creative practice thesis, in the fascinating field of Afterlife Fiction.  Of course, classical antiquity offers many ways to think about the subject of the Afterlife, as Sophie writes below …

– Liz Hale

Afterlife fiction for young people

A short introduction

In the last fifteen years, fiction set in or about the afterlife has become a popular and critically acclaimed sub-genre within contemporary speculative fiction for young adults. These intriguing narratives, where the main characters die at the beginning of the story and find themselves in an alien world, the world beyond death, have developed into a fertile ground for imaginative and intellectual challenge and discovery.

Lytovchenko_Olexandr_Kharon
A nineteenth-century interpretation of Charon’s crossing, by Alexander Litovchenko – Location: Russian Museum, St. PetersburgTechnique: oil on canvas, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4094737

Currently engaged in a PHD in Creative Practice at the University of New England, I’m writing a novel, The Ghost Squad, set in a world like ours but where there is (secret) proof of afterlife, and an accompanying exegesis about contemporary afterlife fiction for young people: that is, fiction which is specifically set in or about the afterlife. In the exegesis, I’m looking at recent young adult novels from around the world, published between 2003 and 2016, which is the period in which afterlife fiction for young adults has mainly appeared, but I also briefly look at a precursor: Astrid Lindgren’s 1975 afterlife novel, The Brothers Lionheart, a useful contrast to the contemporary texts.

All of the novels depict an afterworld which is neither Heaven nor Hell but something in between; a transitional, liminal world, not a final end-point. They are territories very often blending elements from Purgatory, Limbo and Hades, or similar places found in traditional beliefs around the world.  One of the exciting things about the novels is how well and intriguingly they blend many different cultural influences, across both space and time: cultural diversity is an important factor here. Amongst those elements are those from Classical mythology and history: it’s more than bleak Hades-like landscapes which are found in several texts; the notion of the guide or ferryman is central to more than just Claire McFall’s novel, Ferryman, and in Jane Abbott’s Elegy, set in a country town in Victoria, the main characters are reincarnated Greek gods and heroes.

CharonPsycheStanhope2
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Charon and Psyche; http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/CharonAndPsycheJohnRoddamSpencerStanhope.html, Public Domain,

In Lynnette Lounsbury’s Afterworld, the Necropolis, which is one of the principal settings of the book, evokes aspects of Ancient Roman cityscapes, such as gladiatorial arenas, while in Kinga Wyrzykowska’s Memor: le monde d’après, there are echoes of Greek philosophy and taxonomy. Very often, these elements occur in unexpected and imaginative ways; surprise is one of the great pleasures of afterlife fiction for young people.

 

There has been some interesting work done on the theme of the afterlife in fiction, such as Alice Bennett’s Afterlife and Narrative in Contemporary Fiction (2012),her book-length study of adult afterlife fiction. However, aside from a short discussion on aspects of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials–which is not an afterlife fiction, but contains some episodes set in an afterlife–Bennett does not look at afterlife fiction for young adults. A chapter on the theme of afterlife in young adult fiction is also included in literary commentator Patty Campbell’s 2016 book, Spirituality in Young Adult Literature: The Last Taboo, and touched on in Postsecular spirituality in Australian young adult fiction, a 2016 thesis by Australian PHD student Dale Kathryn Lowe, though neither of them looks at the specific genre of afterlife fiction itself. Indeed, it appears that no substantial analytical survey of afterlife fiction young people has been published to date—which is where my research comes in!

 


Sophie Masson is an award-winning author for young people, and a PHD student in Creative Practice at the University of New England. Her website is www.sophiemasson.org, and she blogs at www.firebirdfeathers.com