Some good news from the world of Our Mythical Childhood: the volume Chasing Mythical Beasts: The Reception of Ancient Monsters in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture, which was published last year by the University of Heidelberg, is now available online, and open-access.
It’s a lovely volume, stemming from a conference of the same name (funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation) held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales” at the University of Warsaw, and run by the remarkable Katarzyna Marciniak. At the conference, and in the volume, scholars from around the world discussed how children’s and young adults’ culture engages with the beasts, monsters, and magical beings of the ancient world. Medusa, Minotaur, Sirens, Cyclopes, Cerberus, Centaurs, Hydra, Pegasus and more: these beings feature in all kinds of texts—as heroes, as villains, and as figures that represent the complexities and mysteries of the worlds we live in.
Not do only figures from ancient Greece and Rome feature in this volume: there are chapters on other ancient traditions, such as the African Wobo, Cameroonian concepts of humanity, the Polish Wawel Dragon, the Leviathan across the world. And the texts of youth culture vary from the serious to the sublime and the silly—showing how mythical creatures shed their magic in all sorts of realms. (Katarzyna’s chapter on ‘Chasing Mythical Muppets,’ for instance, shows how mythical creatures have impact on young viewers in unexpected ways).
The volume is large—600+ pages, as befits such a capacious topic. And it could have been much larger still. And thanks to the principles of open access, it is available to all for reading. I recommend a look through the contents pages to see what treats are contained in this book.
This week, the Our Mythical Childhood project brings together participants from around the world, to talk about Nature. Nature and Myth, Nature in Children’s Books, Myth and Nature in Children’s Books. All these things.
Ordinarily, we would have gathered in Warsaw for this event. In fact, we would have met a year ago, but Nature intervened, in the form of the pandemic, and so instead of using technology to ‘conquer’ nature, and to travel around the world by plane, train, or automobile, to come together in person, we use technology to adapt to nature, and to come together virtually.
Our papers have been pre-recorded, as far as possible, and so I’m sharing a link for interested readers, to see the presentations. They cover the world–land, sea, stars, sky, sun, plants, trees, animals, food, gods. Nature’s power and terror, nature’s healing and kindness. The intersection of humanity and nature. Human thoughts about nature–challenging it, fitting in with it, understanding it.
Nature is at the heart of so many of the myths: creation stories, season stories, aetiological stories. Myths help explain and understand the world: they are a form of early science, as well as of early religion, literature, and more. Nature is also at the heart of much children’s literature, which helps young people think about the world they live in–why it is the way it is, how they can live in it, and how to take care of it. So it’s a topic that seems almost inevitable for those of us working in this area.
Harrison, aged 9, is the son of my colleague, Fincina, and is mad about LEGO. He’s been watching the Lego Masters reality competition, which has been screening in Australia, and I happen to know that a couple of years ago he and his family stayed at the Lego Hotel in Malaysia, which has all sorts of exciting activities for people who like building interesting things from small plastic bricks.
Harrison is also into mythology, and has been putting the two together. Here is his first creation, which he designed from pieces found in the family LEGO box. I think it’s marvellous: perfectly capturing the power and simplicity of a Greek god (in this case Zeus (or Jupiter, or Jove, depending on your preference)). I particularly like the double-lightning rod, which has a slight Star Wars quality to it, and the quirky raised eyebrow that indicates this all-powerful god has a bit of a sense of humour.
Harrison is now working on his next mythical mini-fig: a figure of Pan. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.
Unpacking some boxes after moving offices, I found a copy of The 13th is Magic! (1950), written by Joan Howard (the pen-name of Rene and Patricia Prud’Hommeaux) and, illustrated by Adrienne Adams. In it, a small black cat moves into the apartment building flat of two New York children, Ronald and Gillian. The children name it Merlin. Soon, magical things happen. The children discover a mysterious 13th floor, which they’ve never seen before. In its corridor, a tall thin numismatist counts fairy gold, while a round man wearing many layers of jumpers and jackets, lumbers past with a rolling gait.. A weatherman named Mr Weatherby, runs a Weather Bureau there, and gives the children an unusual box with a beautiful golden key.
I’ve had this book for years. I don’t remember when I picked it up, or where. Possibly it came from the Armidale Rotary Club Book Sale, held annually at our small town’s racetrack. I know it’s a local book, because it is stamped ‘withdrawn 1991’ from the Uralla School Library. Uralla is 20 km away from Armidale, a small, pretty town, with a vibrant creative community.
I have never opened this book until today. That happens when you like books: you gather them almost without thinking, inspired by titles, covers, shapes, sizes, topics, themes, authors, connections that are almost meaningless to anyone but you. I know that I gathered this book because of its cover, and I knew that one day I’d open it, and see what I found.
A child, named B. Spohr, covered this book, some time prior to 1991. Perhaps it was a class project, in which students were asked to design covers for their favourite books. Perhaps B. Spohr had borrowed the book and damaged it, and had been told to replace the cover. Perhaps B. Spohr had loved the book, and grown up and moved away, and his or her parents had donated it to the school. The clear plastic cover, and library markings, indicate that B. Spohr did this work before the book was withdrawn. And the borrowing slip in the back of the book has a list of names, but not B. Spohr. So B. Spohr would not have borrowed this book, at least not recently. But whoever B. Spohr was, they did a thorough job of this cover, front, back, and spine.
The charm of the book is in the mystery, not in the finding out, so I will refrain from digging any further. But I have glanced through its pages, before lending it to a colleague who has decided to read it over the weekend, and have found it to be charming, with dynamic black-and-white illustrations. Here, for instance, is Mrs Wallaby-Jones, an unusual lady who is able to leap great distances, whom the children meet in Central Park.
Gillian and Ronald, or Gill and Ronnie, they gradually become, take this magic in their stride, as children often do in such books, and they enjoy what the novelist calls their ‘unusually pleasant or pleasantly unusual life,’ wondering occasionally if other people have similar magical moments in their lives. They hope they do, and so do I.
The 13th is Magic has a follow-up novel, The Summer is Magic, which I’m now going to look for. Apparently both books are quite rare, not having been reprinted, and some of its outdated attitudes, such as a chapter in which Indian-head pennies are turned into inarticulate half-naked Indians who only say ‘Howgh’ is likely off-putting to publishers. Nevertheless, they are exempla of a kind of episodic fantasy novel that shows a gentle magic pervading the world, a genre that is less common these days, having been supplanted by epic adventure stories. They remind me of novels like Eric Linklater’s The Pirates of the Deep Green Sea, or The Wind on the Moon (a childhood favourite), or some of Joan Aiken’s collections of short stories, such as the Armitage stories, which show episodes of magic happening to a family, but only on Mondays, or Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price and Centerburg Tales, in which tall tales and bizzarre happenings take place in a small Midwestern town.
As I haven’t read the novel fully, only flipped through it in between moving boxes, I don’t know if it contains anything Classical. I suspect it doesn’t, but if it does, I’ll write it up for the Our Mythical Childhood survey: it’s a curiousity, and a lovely find. But it doesn’t matter if nothing of that kind occurred. There are many types of magic, many types of fantasy, many traditions, and many books, and they all find their own readers and moments. I do hope that I’ll find more of B. Spohr’s artwork, too: the Rotary Book Sale starts in Armidale next week, and I’ll be poring through the stacks in search of more such unusual treasures.
Dr Dr Lisa Dunbar Solas is an archaeologist and educator who runs the Ancient Explorer program in Adelaide, South Australia. She’s interested in the overlap between the ancient world and modern thought, for adults, and for children, and we’ve been lucky enough to have her writing entries for the Our Mythical Childhood survey. Here, she writes of her experiences surveying some of the Asterix books–the famous French comics by Goscinny and Uderzo, which have drawn so many young readers to think about the ancient world.
Over the past six months, I have been exploring the classical world with the help of Asterix and his side-kick, Obelix. In fact, I have been reading and analysing some of Asterix’ adventures as part of the Our Mythical Childhood Project. This international project is providing invaluable insights into how myth helps our youth.
What is the Mythical Childhood Project?
Our Mythical Childhood is an international project that is bringing together researchers from different disciplines, including English. Led by Professor Katarzyna Marciniak from the University of Warsaw, Poland, the project includes researchers from the United Kingdom, Israel, Cameroon and Australia.
The project explores classical myths and their influence in our tech-savvy, modern world. In particular, it explores their influence on our youth. While our world is vastly different from that of the ancient Gauls, Greeks and Romans, classical myths contain themes and topics we can all relate to. Myths can act as a moral guide, helping us to reflect on experiences and issues.
The Mythical Survey
In Australia, Dr Elizabeth Hale from the University of New England, Armidale, is leading the project in the Asia-Pacific region. Dr Hale is conducting a survey of literature and multi-media for children and adolescents. This survey will help us understand how classical literature is passed on to our younger generations and how it helps guide them into adulthood.
Exploring the Classical World with the Help of Asterix
Since mid 2020, I have been reading and analysing a range of texts, including several Asterix compilations. Recently, my first two entries have been added to the survey’s online database and these come from Asterix Omnibus 6. I invite you to read my entries for The Mansions of the Gods and The Asterix and the Laurel Wreath.
I thank Dr Hale for the wonderful opportunity to contribute to the survey. I am also grateful to Asterix and Obelix. By reading their adventure, I have learnt so much about the Ancient Rome and its relationships with the Gauls, especially during the Gallic Wars.
The next entries will come from the Spanish-speaking world and will include reimagining of famous Greek legends, such as the Odyssey by Homer. Stay tuned!
Check out Lisa’s work on the Ancient Explorer program, here.