Home Time

During the COVID-19 crisis, we’re all at home rather more than usual. Miriam Riverlea writes about how myths and literature are helping her young family think about time at home…

While we’re self-isolating, I’ve been helping Milo, my seven year old son, learn how to tell the time.  He’s got a handle of the basics, but is still struggling with the concept that the numbers on the clock face mean different things whether it is the long or short hand that is pointing to them.  And the arcane term ‘o’clock’ remains a mystery to him. 

Perhaps part of his struggle is that time itself seems to be moving at a different rate as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.  With nowhere to be but at home, the minutes and hours move quite slowly, but the days are passing by at breakneck speed.  What day is it again? we ask each other, and, did that happen yesterday, or was it the day before? 

A treehouse fit for an odyssey!

This is family time, in a way we’ve never really experienced before, freed of the usual routines of work and school and other social outlets.  Amid the anxiety and the uncertainty, I’m trying to keep positive and count our blessings.  There’s much to be thankful for – glorious autumn weather, a big backyard (with a brilliant treehouse), siblings to play with, and unlike so many across the world, job security and good health, at least for the moment. 

Family Time

Books are offering a welcome escape from the grim reality of the daily news.  We’ve been working our way through CS Lewis’ Narnia books in nightly instalments.  We’ve had lots of conversations about the logistics of time travel, the possibility of multiple universes, and the relationship between primary and secondary time.  And I’ve been reflecting on a different kind of time travel as I read aloud from a battered copy of the first three books in the series, which I’ve had since I was eight.  It’s a real treat to share the stories that I loved as a child with my own children.  

And while we are all appreciating its fantasy elements, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe also seems relevant at the moment for its representation of sibling dynamics.  Having adjusted to life at home, my three children are (mostly!) enjoying each other’s company.  But a story that foregrounds the lessons of loyalty, forgiveness, and courage is a valuable reminder of the importance of taking care of each other at this challenging time. 

Leo’s Labyrinth

Alongside books, jigsaw puzzles and board games, we’ve had fun making mazes for each other.  Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (2019) is providing plenty of inspiration. 

Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes

I’ve got an idea for getting the kids to make comic strips featuring mythical characters in unlikely modern settings (the Minotaur goes to the supermarket?), and as the weather gets colder, we might attempt some simple weaving on cardboard looms.  And with no clear sense of when normal life will return, maybe we’ll finally get around to making this model of the Parthenon out of marshmallows and gingerbread.  If so, I promise to share our creation in another post for this blog!

–Miriam Riverlea

Rainbow Connections….

Rainbows and their association with hope are part of the culture at the moment, as locked-in children waiting out the coronavirus pandemic are drawing rainbows and putting them on their windows.

Window-rainbow, Reading, UK

It’s a lovely idea, and it got me thinking–about all sorts of things, but especially rainbows.

There are quite a few theories about rainbows–the pots of gold at the end of them, their symbolism of healing and recovery in the flood myths of the ancient world. They are used in the modern world to symbolise diversity, peace, cooperation. They are bright, they are gaudy, they are multicoloured, and they are rather gorgeous.

Iris the Colourful

In Ancient Greek mythology, there is Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, a messenger of the gods. A colourful figure! She appears in Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s Goddess Girls, shooting around on a rainbow.

In her own adventure, Iris the Colourful, Zeus asks her to go to the underworld to collect magic water from the river Styx. On her journey, Iris works out how to use her rainbows to get around, and becomes a popular messenger for the other goddessgirls and godboys…

the idea of Iris

riding a rainbow

passing notes from Zeus or Hera

makes a giggle rise up/ inside me

(Shari Green, Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, p. 44)

Riding a rainbow–Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess

It’s good to have an Iris around, as Canadian author Shari Green’s Macy Macmillan and the Rainbow Goddess proves. I loved this book–it’s a verse novel about Macy, a sixth-grader who finds out from her elderly neighbour, Iris, how to deal with all sorts of stuff. Macy has a lot on her mind: her divorced mother is remarrying, they will have to move into a new house with her new family, she’s one of only two deaf girls at her school and the other one is not speaking to her. She’s lonely, confused, and acting out.

Enter Iris, who lives in a bright orange house full of books. Macy’s mother sends her over to help the old lady, who is tidying her house prior to moving into an aged-care facility. Iris explains to Macy that she was not named after the flower, but after the goddess:  “a rainbow goddess/ a messenger for the gods/ traveling/ by rainbow” (43). Macy asks Iris what sort of messages from the gods she sends: “I keep a straight face/ waiting for her answer/ even though the idea of Iris/ riding a rainbow/ passing notes from Zeus or Hera/ makes a giggle rise up/ inside me” (44). Iris responds that she used to send messages: ‘Important ones./I sent them through cookies.” (45)  

Cookies, and books, in fact, and gardening. Macy’s a talented gardener, loving flowers and herbs; Iris loves to bake and to read, and to share the messages from her favourite books–such as Canada’s best-known novel for tween-age girls, Anne of Green Gables (a rainbow of a book if ever there was one!). Like her namesake, Iris has a gift for communication, writing notes to Macy, and learning to finger-spell. As their friendship deepens, both come to terms with Iris’s increasing frailty and memory-loss, and Macy starts to understand more about who she herself is, and what she has to offer the world. As Iris says:

you know, dear one

the gods’ messages can be sent even without cookies

–messages of courage, hope, laughter, support . . .

Hearts are waiting worrying, hurting

–in need of a message

you can send.

(Shari Green, Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, p. 44)

So many songs about rainbows . . .

Another cultural sage is one of my favourite frogs, the wonderful Kermit of Muppets fame. When I was a kid, we had a black and white television, and I remember the shock of revelation I had when we stayed in a motel with a colour television, and saw Kermit for the first time in full colour. I said ‘he’s green!’ What did I expect? I didn’t know, but it stays in the memory. I also remember seeing The Muppet Movie in a large theatre in Wellington in 1980, in which Kermit sang the ‘Rainbow Connection.’

Why are there so many

Songs about rainbows

And what’s on the other side.

Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,

And rainbows have nothing to hide.

So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.

I know they’re wrong, wait and see.

Some day we’ll find it,

The rainbow connection,

The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, The Rainbow Connection, 1979.

And so it goes–a song about having dreams and following them, about the power of belief to see us through. One of those songs from one’s childhood you forget about for ages, but comes back just at the right moment.

It’s thoroughly sentimental, but that’s the point. It may not be sensible, or rational, or logical, but even when times are tough, hope springs eternal in the dreaming frog, or child, or (even, hopefully) adult. With that in mind, I’m off to draw my own rainbow …

–Elizabeth Hale

Narnia Business–Mr Tumnus and the allure of intertextuality

I’ve been rereading the Narnia novels, in order to write them up for the Our Mythical Childhood survey. A labour of love, a katabasis (or anabasis) into old memories–of first and later readings and selves–in childhood, young adulthood, and later adulthood, with changing situations, opinions, and perspectives. In Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics, Alison Waller has written about the ways that we change and remain the same, about how our identities are shaped by our childhood readings, and about what’s at stake when we go back to our favourite books–and I’m bearing her work in mind as I read.

I’m reading with a professional purpose, of course, to look for the Classical elements of Lewis’s work, and I’m enjoying rediscovering and finding anew these moments–the faun, Mr Tumnus, trotting through the snow clutching his umbrella; the sudden appearance of Bacchus and Silenus at a party; other mythical beasts such as centaurs, dryads, and naiads. Lewis’s Classicism seems to me to be celebratory in nature–the gorgeous bits, the bits that look good in paintings, a birthday-cake Classicism if you will. It mingles with his medievalism and Christianity–pagan motifs offsetting his Christian belief. I’m no expert on Lewis, or medievalism, or theology, or any of these things, but there’s something about the way it’s intermingled with talking animals and figures out of fairy stories that is alluring, especially to children who enjoy reading. (As a child, I was fascinated by the overlap between the White Witch’s castle, and the castle of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen.)

Indeed, the idea of allure has been striking me. I’m thinking quite a bit at the moment about speculation and fantasy–about the elements that take us into fantasy worlds–part of the escapist joy of reading can be going entirely into a place of make-believe and what-if-ness, of playing around with ideas, and living inside a world of stories. Maria Tatar’s Enchanted Hunters: the Power of Stories in Childhood is another scholarly work that’s resonating with me as I reread the Narnia book–in it, she talks about what it is about the idea of literary enchantment, of getting lost-in-a-book that turns people into lifelong readers.

Is there a danger to getting lost-in-a-book? Of course, and I think Lewis is well aware of that in his presentation of Mr Tumnus–that alluring but slightly creepy faun, whose cosy house is of course a gateway to entrap Lucy Pevensie and her siblings, so that they don’t help return Aslan to Narnia, and stop it being ‘always winter and never Christmas.’ But that hint of danger is also what draws us in to reading–after all, the great journeys of the heroes are not without trials and challenges, and it raises the stakes for our reading if we recognise the perils facing our characters.

Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie face danger and overcome it. Edmund is nearly swallowed up by it, when he succumbs to the wishes of another alluring stranger, the White Witch, who drugs him with magical Turkish delight, and causes him to turn traitor to his family and his own morality. I’m sure there are many parallels between her behaviour and other witches and enchantresses of past literature–what I like so much about Lewis’s use of intertextuality here is that it shimmers in and out of recognition.

How much a child reader recognises of these moments is unclear. Children, by virtue of their very newness to the world, to stories, and to reading, may not pick up on every reference or allusion, which is probably a good thing, as the allure of intertextual rabbit holes can distract one thoroughly from a good story. But they may be struck by these references, be intrigued by the sense of a world of knowledge they don’t yet have access to, and may also find them forming part of a tool kit for later reading and imagination. Which is what, I think, makes Lewis’s approach so delightful and memorable–he presents the allure of intertextual frameworks to come.

–Elizabeth Hale

Reading for life–Ursula Dubosarsky, classical leanings and the children’s laureateship

The Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation promotes literacy for the young. As part of that program, it appoints a writer or illustrator as a Laureate, to lead the way in encouraging reading and writing. Last year, the novelist Morris Gleitzman was the laureate (2018-19). Before that, it was Leigh Hobbs (2016-17), before that it was Jackie French (2014-15), Boori Monty Pryor(2012-13), and Alison Lester (2012-13). This year, it’s Ursula Dubosarsky, who will hold the role in 2020-21.

Ursula Dubosarsky is of particular interest to us at Antipodean Odyssey, because she was a student and teacher of classical languages, and incorporates classical elements in many of her works. I’ve enjoyed teaching her novel The Golden Day to my students, and writing about it for the Our Mythical Hope conference. We’ve written it up, along with entries on Black Sails White Sails, The Blue Cat, and The Boy Who Could Fly, in the Our Mythical Childhood survey, as well.

The Golden Day, Black Sails White Sails, The Blue Cat

The Golden Day is a deeply intertextual work, intertwining Joan Lindsay’s seminal novel Picnic at Hanging Rock with classical myths of loss and death, all in a Sydney setting, and inspired by the art of Charles Blackman. In this story about the disappearance of a school teacher from a cave on the Sydney Harbour foreshore, images of schoolgirls, Leda and the Swan, the fall of Icarus and more, float through the story, which is profoundly reflective–about love, and loss, and inspirational teachers who may let you down, but who also teach you about life.

It’s possibly my favourite of Dubosarsky’s novels, but there are plenty other terrific reading experiences to be had. Black Sails White Sails is a story about the consequences of deception and misunderstanding. It draws on the myth of Theseus, who forgot to let his father, Aegeus, know he had returned alive from fighting the Minotaur. Instead of raising the white sail as an agreed upon signal, he carelessly left up the black sail. His father, grief-stricken, hurled himself into the sea that now bears his name (the Aegean). Memory, forgetfulness, carelessness, but also reflection, loyalty, friendships and family, are part of this curious book which takes an allusive and slanting approach to the myth that gives the book its title.

This slanting approach is a key aspect of Dubosarsky’s novels, many of which are serious and reflective. The Blue Cat has this quality as well–it’s a kind of psychological journey into the underworld, set in Sydney during World War II, and invoking the seriousness of Virgil’s Aeneid to reflect on ideas about exile and immigration. Aeneas, after all, was an immigrant himself, forced to flee Troy as it burned, carrying his elderly father on his back, and images of this epic are important in the novel’s reflections on transition and migration.

They’re lovely books–thoughtful and reflective, and I think for readers who are interested in a rich intertextual experience, they are very rewarding. Some of them have spent time in the school curriculum, as a result, and I’ve enjoyed teaching The Golden Day in my children’s literature classes. As a non-Australian, I enjoy reading Australian writers’ reflections on their own culture, and I find Dubosarsky’s layering of literary and historical elements into her depictions of Sydney illuminating.

Guineapigs … and other classical moments…

There’s a mischievous side to Dubosarsky’s work as well, though. She has a fondness for guinea pigs (and perhaps I am drawn to her work because as a child myself I had guinea pigs (Peter, Paul, Poppy, Orinoco and Wellington), and loved them very much. So when Cubby, the protagonist of The Golden Day has a guineapig called Agamemnon, I get the point. And just as Dubosarsky sneaks classical elements into her works, she also makes sure to include guinea pigs as well.

There are more classical moments–such as in The Boy Who Could Fly and other stories, a series of classroom plays about classical myths, originally published in the New South Wales School Journal. And her newest story for younger readers, is called Ask Hercules Quick, about a boy named Hercules who lives in an apartment building full of animals, and does odd jobs for them in order to raise money for a box of magic tricks. I have not yet read this, but the title is alluring, and I hope a guineapig appears in its pages.

At her commencement of her term, in a ceremony held in Canberra, Dubosarsky advocated for libraries and literacy, and for the joy of a life of reading.

“If children learn to love to read—not just to be able to read—then they will be readers their whole life long. A child becomes a lifelong reader not by chance, but by opportunity. That’s how you make a reader for life.” – @Ozlaureate Ursula Dubosarsky on #ReadForYourLife

As she spoke, she was wearing a lovely laurel wreath. I’m sure this felt particularly meaningful for a writer with a classical sensibility and knowledge: a symbol not only of victory and achievement, but a symbol of learning and literature and perhaps too of a life of reading.

Elizabeth Hale

Bluey’s Beach Epic

Bluey is a six year old Blue Heeler puppy. She lives in a house on a hill in Brisbane with her four year old sister, Bingo, their mum, Chilli, and dad, Bandit. Together, they play and sing, dance and do dishes, and work their way cheerfully and creatively through life.

Bluey, the show that bears her name, is a charming animated show, made by Ludo Studio. My four year old nephew, Harry, is one of the millions of children who love the show. He quotes it frequently. He can do the floss dance like Bluey and Bingo, and has tried to show me how to do it. Like their granny, I’ve had to have a few goes before getting it right.

It’s a terrific show. Each 7-minute episode takes a warm but realistic approach to the fun and challenges of being a kid, and also of being around kids. I’m glad that my nephew likes it. He pretends to give people injections, after watching Bluey and Bingo play ‘hospital’ with their dad, saying ‘Sting!! Brave boy.’ His siblings talk about ‘dollarbucks’ and ‘dollarydoos’ when pretending to play shop. And so on.

Nothing much Classical there, though the puppies have a singing teacher called Calypso, and Bandit does call himself ‘Telemachus’ when he plays a patient in the hospital episode. I wrote to the creator, Joe Brum, asking him where that reference came from–he replied it came from his own childhood, watching Ulysses 31. Cultural moments like that pop up from time to time, but the main emphasis is on the here and now. Rather than being mythical or fairytale figures, the children play at being spies, and cooks, nurses, doctors, fruitbats and naughty grannies. And the setting is firmly Australian–a great pleasure of the show is seeing a lush Queensland landscape and wildlife beautifully animated.

Every now and then, the show rises above the every day, reflecting on what it means to be alive. On the weekend, Harry and I watched Beach (episode 26) : in which the family goes to the beach, and Bluey learns the pleasure of going for a walk by herself. And I like to think that this is one of the episodes in which the Classical plays a small role.

While Chilli goes for a walk, Bandit watches Bluey and Bingo, playing in the sand, bury Bluey’s legs. They make a sandcastle in the shape of a mermaid’s tail. Bluey finds a shell in which she can hear the sound of the ocean and wants to show her mother. Bingo pretends to be King Neptune, allowing mermaid-Bluey to have the use of her legs ‘for a day,’ and to follow her mother down the beach.

Bluey follows her mother’s footprints down the beach, a long way for a little dog. She meets a surfer, who reminds her that mermaids only have legs for one day; a flock of seagulls she dispatches with a sharp little bark. She bravely edges around a pelican sitting in her way, and is chased by a group of soldier crabs, who take up residence in a tumbling sand-castle. Even a blue jellyfish is no obstacle for brave Bluey, who pokes it with a stick, then jumps over it to join her mum.

It’s an epic journey: a long way for a little dog with little legs. In that walk down the beach, Bluey faces obstacles and sticks it out. Much of epic involves overcoming challenges, but also having a vision and seeing it through. Like Odysseus finding his Penelope, Bluey chases after her mum and is rewarded by her admiration as they share their memories of the different things they’ve seen.

What is so lovely about Bluey is its understanding of the world’s bigness and smallness, especially in relation to children’s experiences. A walk along the beach could be a small thing, but for Bluey it’s a big adventure, in which she learns the joy of striking out alone, and also the pleasure of coming home in her mum’s company. And in this episode, as in so many of them, the creators play it just right, balancing myth, play, and real experiences in a way that does Bluey’s journey justice.

— Elizabeth Hale