Big Questions in YA Fiction: Genesis, Plato and more . . .

I do enjoy a smart, creepy work of science fiction, and Genesis, by NZ author Bernard Beckett, is one such novel. Set in a futuristic Aotearoa New Zealand that has cut itself off from a (possibly) plague-ridden world and made some dramatic changes to its society, it’s an examination of what it means to be human–told from a (possibly) post-human perspective, but drawing on all sorts of human philosophy to do so.

The heroine, Anaximander, is a student eager to pass examination for entrance into an elite Academy. To do so, she has to take a test on her special subject–the life of Adam Forde, a rebel from the era of rebuilding. Adam is the ultimate exemplar of humanity writ large, and in her presentation of his life, Anaximander finds herself debating his actions, his words, and her own interpretation of them.

The whole of Genesis is presented through Anaximander’s examination, and as a series of dialogues. Those of us interested in classical reception note that Anax is named for the philosopher Anaximander of Miletus, the writer of an exploration into the origins of life. (As Babette Pütz notes, Anax’s examination of Adam forms her own exploration into her own, and her society’s origins.)* Other figures in the book have names such as Plato, Socrates, Pericles, and Aristotle . . . and of course its title makes one think of an entirely different tradition of thought and belief . . . (Click on the links here to read Our Mythical Survey entries on Genesis and its companion books August and Lullaby)

If you want to find out what happens, and what conclusions Anax reaches, read the book. Its emphasis on dialogue and debate make it an unusually direct exploration philosophy, framed in a compelling science fiction format.

Much of the appeal of works like Genesis comes from the question–what does it mean to be human? It’s a question that comes up often in young adult fiction, as part of the coming-of-age plot. Figuring out who one is, where one comes from, finding out how to fit in, and what to fit in to–all of these are important issues for characters (and readers) growing up and working out their place in the world.

Beckett’s novels and plays confront this head on: he’s a scientist interested in philosophy, and many of his books plunge readers into an intellectual work-out that they may not expect. But that’s its appeal for me–I liked the almost clinical format of the novel, which seldom leaves the examination room (though Anax’s presentation tells us much about the world she inhabits).

I was curious about what drew Beckett to writing this novel, and so I asked him a few questions. Here are his answers.

–Elizabeth Hale

Interview with Bernard Beckett

What drew you to using classical material in your works for young readers?

There are a couple of things that drew me to classical references in Genesis in particular and, to a lesser extent, August. The first is simply the school teacher’s instinct to share with others the knowledge that most delights us, and when I was writing Genesis a lot of these things were fresh in my mind. While writing the novel I was on a fellowship at a research centre, finding out a lot of new things for me, both about molecular evolution, and also philosophy, and you can’t really have any sort of sensible interest in philosophy without going back to classical references. I forget who it was who described all Western philosophy as ‘footnotes to Plato’ and there’s  some significant truth in that.
The second reason relates to the themematic structure of Genesis, where it is an examination of the stories of the past which make sense of the story in the present, and so there is a particularly appealling symmetry in referencing my own cultural foundations (to have Western heritage is, I think, to owe an awful lot to the thinkers of classical Greece in particular. There are very few ideas that fascinate me now that I can’t find serious consideration of in those times.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?

The resonance is I think essentially the wave of the Renaissance, slow breaking over centuries. As was the case then, so now it is tremendously exciting somehow, and humbling too, to discover that sophistication didn’t begin in 1984, that we have at our disposal this vast treasure trove of wisdom and experience. there is something tremendously comforting in that thought too, a sort of camaraderie that stretches over millenia, to know that our troubles have been met before, and battled with too, vanquished too in some cases. There is also the appeal of somehow joining a secret society, bound by knowledge, its password a set of magical names from the past.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?, or did you come to classical myth/history through some other means?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect? 

I have no background in this stuff, formally speaking, but I have read as widely as I can on the philosophers of ancient times and continue to do so. So whether it’s Bertrand Russell’s partisan History of Western Philosophy, Karl Popper’s dismissive rendering of Plato, or Massimo Piggliuici’s affectionate take on the stoics, I’ve entered the world mostly via the more populist works of professional philosophers, and then made use of things like Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia or my own copy of the Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. But any source will do, so long as one is prepared to read critically, and test what is written against the utterances of others.

Did you think about how aspects of Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?  

In my books I was more referencing obliquely and hoping for some eager minds that would be enough to send them searching for more. Mostly the ideas themselves have already translated into the fictional expression, as these are novels. The thing I am confident of is that the same ideas, the same obsessions, will continue to entice and fascinate. When that is no longer true, we have surely lost our humanity.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?  

I think the more an idea settles in you, the more it becomes native to your every expression. So in one form or another that fascination will always resurface, f not explicitly (although as soon as you ask that question, an idea forms…)

Anything else you think we should know?

The last thing I would like to say is that the biggest mistake to avoid in the modern world is to think nobody has ever grappled with our ideas before. the number of ideas I hear an idea presented in education as if it has only just been discovered, and all of humanity will now change on the back of this insight (pedagogy for the 21st century anyone – how these phrases make me ill) and every time I hear it I ask myself, is there anything in this that Socrates would have been surprised by? Recently I was giving a presentation on wellbeing in an educational setting, and so, of course, my first point of call in doing my preparation was Aristotle. Where else would a discussion of wellbeing begin? And by the time I got my head about even the most cursory consideration of his work, I was ready. Great thought lasts for a reason. It’s exactly why Shakespeare is still performed, and Mozart too. Not that we can never do better, but rather that beauty accretes and it is every generations good fortune to be able to look backward as well as forward.

Thank you!

*Babette Pütz, ‘Classical Influences in Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, August and Lullaby’ in Antipodean Antiquities: Classical Reception Down Under, ed. Johnson. Bloomsbury: 2019

Advertisements

‘Imagine, a talking yam!’ The Penguin Book of World Folk Tales

I’ve been thinking about the books I read as a child, in particular the collections of myths, folklore and fairytales. One of them stands out for me: The Penguin Book of World Folk Tales, edited by Milton Rugoff, and illustrated by Joseph Low.  My father gave it to me, and I have it still.  I found it recently in a dark corner of my office bookshelves.  

It’s a fat book with small print and interesting wood-cut illustrations, with a bright pink cover, and a picture of a man using a sword to cut off the seven heads off a rampant dragon.  Nice.  To this day, the combination of hot pink and bright orange is one of my favourite colour combinations. 

I remember being slightly daunted by a book that had so many words in it, and only black and white pictures.   But I figured I could choose the stories that I liked the look of, that were short, and simple, and funny.  

My favourite stories in there were the African folk tales.  Anansi, the trickster spider featured, and the world depicted was one of wit and whimsy, and a great sense of humour.

Talk

My absolute favourite story was ‘Talk,’ an Ashanti tale about a man who is digging in his garden one day to take some yams to market. As he digs, the yam chastises him: “You never weeded me, but now you come around with your digging stick. Go away and leave me alone!”

Astonished, the man asks his cow if she had said something. She says nothing, but the dog speaks up: “It wasn’t the cow, it was the yam. The yam says leave him alone.”

Upset, the man starts to cut a switch from a nearby palm tree, to beat the dog. The tree protests. “put that branch down!” The branch then says “put me down softly.” He puts it on a stone, which says “hey, take that thing off me!”

In terror, the man runs to the village. He meets a fisherman with a fish in a trap, and tells him what has happened. As the fisherman is dismissing the story as not very frightening, the fish in the trap speaks up: ‘Well, did he take it off the stone?” Now both men are running for their lives. They encounter a weaver and tell him their story. When he dismisses it as “nothing to get excited about,” his bundle of cloth reprimands him: “oh yes it is. If it happened to you you’d run too!”

All three terrified men reach the village and find the chief. The chief’s servant brings out his ceremonial stool, and the chief sits on it and listens to their stories.

“Now this is a really wild story,” he comments. “You’d better all go back to your work before I punish you for disturbing the peace.”

As the men go away, and the chief shakes his head over their ‘nonsense,’ one final player speaks.

“Fantastic, isn’t it?” says his stool. “Imagine, a talking yam!”

Nonsense like this upsets the community

This is a classic shaggy dog story, beautifully laid out, humour by increment of repetition (the different talking animals and objects, the three men and their different encounters), and it appealed to my young self not just because of its simplicity, but because it is funny. At seven, I wasn’t sure what a yam was, but I knew enough to guess, and I knew enough about the world to imagine the farmer, the fisherman, the weaver, the chief, and I loved the way the different objects turn the tables on the humans.

Looking at ‘Talk’ now, I think there’s a subtle commentary about human assumptions of dominance over the natural world, and I like the way the objects and animals reprove and contradict the men. The chief comments ‘nonsense like this upsets the community,’ but perhaps the human community needs to be upset from time to time, to look around it, to think a bit about what we are doing in the world, why we’re doing it, and what its effects might be.

The Penguin Book of World Folk Tales was one of the first collections of such stories I read–and when I say read, I don’t mean that I read the whole of it. Indeed, I still haven’t read them all. Who knows what other talking vegetables await within, and what useful lessons they could impart . . .

–Elizabeth Hale

Charting Mythical Creatures with Jez Kemp and Tobias Druitt

Ever wondered where a centaur overlaps with a mermaid? Why on earth not? British designer Jez Kemp has developed the ultimate diagram to help you do so. Miriam Riverlea explains… and finds connections with the novels of Tobias Druitt into the bargain…

The internet is a trove of the weird and the wonderful, and it is exciting to see web-based material being recorded within the Mythical Childhood survey within the ‘Ephemeral’ category.  I recently came across this Mythical Creatures Chart (via the Partial Historians blog).  Created by British designer Jez Kemp in 2012, the chart applies the design principles of a Venn diagram to highlight the hybrid elements of mythological creatures, both from the classical and other traditions.  The colourful globular shapes represent different species (including human, horse, lion, bird…), which overlap each other, so that the Minotaur is the fusion between human and bull, and the Chimaera is positioned in the space where the lion, goat, snake, and lizard intersect. 

Like some sort of psychedelic rainbow coloured lava lamp, Kemp’s chart is a clever, visually striking way to organise the information (t-shirts and posters are available for purchase).  As he explains in a blog post, it features 17 real world animals to include 57 mythical creatures.  It also includes an area demarcating ‘More body parts’, to include humanoid figures like three-headed Geryon and the Hecatoncheires (the hundred-handed giants enlisted by the Titans in the war against the Olympians), and ‘Fewer body parts’ for the Cyclops and Monopod.  As is often the case in cross-cultural story collections in which the classical tradition dominates tales from other cultures, the number of creatures from the Greek and Roman mythology outnumbers those from other traditions.  Nevertheless, it is very interesting to see the more familiar creatures from the Greek myths in conjunction with those from other traditions (some of whom I have never heard of). 

There are other charts featuring mythical creatures on the web (Kemp refers to this one created by Unwin and Carline in 2009, which in turn prompted this more complex one), and Kemp has also plotted his data on to a Metro Map, with different coloured branch lines representing each species and their intersections.  This way of approaching mythology could be criticised for being somewhat reductive, in that it is concerned solely with these creatures’ physical bodies, and not any other aspects of their mythology.  It’s also clear from Kemp’s blog that it is easy to get caught up in pedantic issues of categorisation (He asks whether the Hydra is part lizard or snake? And the Chimaera has wings, but does it fly?)  The stories in which these creatures feature are not uniform or consistent, so it’s difficult, and unrealistic, to expect that they can be neatly mapped into a tidy diagram.   Kemp admits that he used his own discretion in selecting the creatures, particularly in the hazy area between mythology and religion (‘One person’s religion is another’s mythology’ he writes). If nothing else, the Chart is a reminder of the way that the human imagination employs ordinary elements in the creation of the fabulous and fantastical. 

A number of the hybrid creatures featured on the Chart also appear in Tobias Druitt’s Corydon and the Sea of Monsters (2005).  Medusa, the Sphinx, the Harpy, the Hydra, and the Minotaur are included within a large cast of mythological characters, alongside Pan, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, Perseus, Jason, Zeus, Hades and Kronos.  The text is a treatise on monstrosity, challenging preconceived definitions of heroism and other celebrated traits.  The god Pan tells his son Corydon that the Olympian gods:

‘made men think that there was only one way to be beautiful, only one way to be clever, only one way to be a real person – their way.  Everything else they called monstrous.’ (87)

Born with one leg of a goat, Corydon is cast out by his village and labelled pharmakos, the scapegoat who is sacrificed to ensure the wellbeing of the community.  He is captured by pirates, who have amassed a collection of monsters to display in a freak show.  Corydon and Medusa engineer an escape, and come to live with two other immortal Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale.  Medusa gives birth to baby boy, and the group becomes a kind of family.   They join forces with the other monsters to defend themselves against Perseus, who has raised an army with the support of his father Zeus.  Perseus looks like a hero, but he is an unappealing character, motivated by greed and crippled with insecurities.  It is Corydon who displays true heroism, in his encounters with the gods, his descent to the underworld, and in his support of his friends. 

While Perseus’ killing of Medusa remains one of the inviolable events of classical mythology, in other ways Druitt’s work is a radical reworking of the ancient tradition.  In bringing together the monsters from many different myths, and investing them with subjectivity and humanity, this text explores mythical creatures in a more dynamic way than Kemp’s chart, which focuses solely on their physical features.  Both texts, though, invite us to consider mythical monsters from a different perspective, and I am looking forward to seeing them both added to the Mythical Childhood survey. 

Miriam Riverlea

Mythical Jigsaws and Alphabetical Odysseys: An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland and More

An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was created by British illustrator Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954). Sleigh was a printer and mural painter who was drawn, like many a creator before him, to the wonderful world of fairies, fairy tales, and mythology. His Ancient Mappe is vast, nearly six feet in length, and containing figures and realms from fairytales, myths, and children’s fantasy.

Peter Pan, Oberon, the Kingdom of Carbonel (which later featured in Sleigh’s daughter Barbara’s series about a kingdom of cats), nymphs, dryads, centaurs, psammeads, sea monsters, ice kings and queens and more feature in this marvellous image, showing just how populated fairyland is.

It’s drawn in an arts-and-crafts style, and suggests a yearning for another world (entirely possible to feel this way at the end of a shattering world war), and what I like about it is both its delicacy of colour, and its sense of the grown-upness of fairyland. It is not necessarily aimed at children.

When I stumbled across it, while doing some research for another project on nineteenth-century children’s literature that I’m planning for 2021, I was so taken I immediately thought I should get a copy.

And then, I discovered that there is a jigsaw version of it, which I promptly bought.

Alas, it only covers about 3 feet of Fairyland, probably a good thing, as my desk and dining table are covered with mythical manuscripts. But in the odd moment, I’ve been enjoying piecing it together, and identifying the classical elements that pop up in it.

Jigsaws are in at the moment, as part of a non-digital mindful return to old pursuits. It turns out that the gentle act of sorting through pieces, and working out where to put them is restful and absorbing, and good for the brain.

Combing through the puzzle pieces for the back end of a centaur, or figuring out where Cerberus has his lair (up in the mountains!), somehow frees up the mind to think and reflect more naturally. When I started tutoring at Brandeis University, I learned from working with an inspirational artist and teacher, Karen Klein, that giving students something to do with their hands (drawing a picture, playing with plasticine or pipecleaners), freed up their conversation, made them less self-conscious, perhaps less anxious, able to talk, almost idly, about whatever the subject of the day was.

Our Mythical Alphabet

And I’ve been finding, as I sift through the puzzle pieces, that I’ve been thinking about the book I’m writing with Miriam Riverlea, in which we too sift through many pieces, to put together a puzzle. In our case, it’s a guide to the way that classical mythology works in children’s literature, and we’re looking at it from all sorts of angles. How do particular mythical figures feature in children’s books? What happens to them in the pages? Does a child’s version of a myth highlight specific features? Which myths work for children, and which do not? Why are some figures more popular than others? How do the aesthetics of children’s literature shape the reception of classical antiquity more generally?

We’ve pieced together an Alphabetical Odyssey of a book (and last week I presented its overall format to my colleagues in the Our Mythical Childhood project at the Our Mythical History workshop–report to come). We use the non-hierarchical structure of the alphabet, combined with the loose adventurousness of an Odyssey, a journey on which anything might happen, and frequently does. My colleagues, as they always do, asked intelligent questions–about how we devised our topics, how capacious they are, how do we handle overlap, how do we identify useful texts, how will we present images, classical motifs, children’s literature concepts, and more. How do we handle multicultural topics, how do we think about diversity and difference–all important issues, and a reminder, if any were needed, that the topic may seem highly specialised, but in fact contains multiple and important influences and impacts.

As the work on the book intensifies, I’ll keep using this blog as a place to think about some of the issues that come up.

Back to the Mappe

I’m writing this while waiting for the plane that will take me back to the Southern Hemisphere. The week in Warsaw was intense, thinking about Mythical History, and hearing about the wonderful work my colleagues are doing (such as setting up the Our Mythical Education database, and launching the Myth and Autism network). It’s a shame Bernard Sleigh’s not around to invite to one of our Mythical conferences–I feel sure that if he did come, he’d incorporate our project into a map even larger than his one of Fairyland. But I’m looking forward to getting back to my three-feet jigsaw extract. Hopefully when I get home, all this mythical thinking will have helped me work out just where to find the missing bits of centaur, where exactly to place Cerberus’s lair–and of course, pinning down the elements of our Alphabetical Odyssey…

–Elizabeth Hale

Funny Bones–Geoffrey McSkimming’s Archaeological Adventures

Geoffrey McSkimming’s the author of the dashing Cairo Jim series, which I’ll be talking about on Saturday at the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this week.  In fact, the conference has begun, but while my colleagues are considering how children’s literature engages with the history of classical antiquity, I’m stuck in my hotel room nursing a lovely cold, and hacking cough.  I sound a bit like Cairo Jim’s learned friend, Brenda the Wonder-Camel, who intones quaooo whenever she has a deep thought. 

Anyway, as part of my preparation for this conference, I was recently delighted to interview Geoffrey, whose books are really entertaining and funny, and show how fun and scholarship can coexist in interesting stories for children of all ages.  And I’m looking forward to sharing his work with the Warsaw audience.  Geoffrey’s work can be found at geoffreymcskimming.com, cairojim.com, and 9diamondspress.com.  And the good news is that a new Cairo Jim novel is due out soon…

Here’s what we talked about. 

What drew you to writing archaeological adventure stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity?

I’ve always loved history and story, especially the classic myths. I was bitten by the Egyptology bug when I was a child and years later I took my first overseas trip, venturing to Africa and finishing up in Egypt. Here I was overwhelmed by the history and the mystery of this country and, after getting sunstroke in the Valley of the Kings, I came up with the world of Cairo Jim and his friends and adventures.

The Cairo Jim chronicles proved to be an excellent avenue for me to explore many of the classical myths, and also those pockets of history where things have become forgotten. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to put my own interpretations on what might have happened in the past, when we are now unsure of the actual events.

When I wrote the Cairo Jim stories I visited many of the locations and ancient sites featured in the chronicles. I spent countless hours in archaeological museums and wandering around crumbling ruins; visiting remote jungle areas and isolated Greek islands; climbing pyramids in Mexico and scaling the insides of them in Egypt. I lived and breathed the air breathed by the characters in my stories and I immersed myself in the ancient tales and myths that took place at these places. In these ways I suppose my literary style and idiom developed, with a healthy dose of outrageous humour and relentless irreverence which have defined much of my life.

GMSK Author pic Final © 9 diamonds press
Geoffrey McSkimming

 

The Cairo Jim books — 19 in all — were written and published over a period of nearly twenty years, and during that time I was able to explore many concepts to do with history and legend. Classical antiquity fuelled much of the world of Cairo Jim; it’s a world to which he’s passionately devoted. I think the series found its legs with the fourth story, Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods, which explores the concept of the disposability of big concepts, in this case being an entire belief system. What happened to cause the people of the time to abandon the Titan gods and take up the Olympians? It’s a mystery that Cairo Jim stumbles upon and one that he must solve before the world as we know it comes crashing down …

Where does the inspiration for Brenda the Wonder Camel come from?  (She is my favourite character—I aspire to be as good a scholar as she).

Brenda developed firstly as a plot device: she was an excellent way to inject information into the narrative (a Wonder Camel who, as a young calf, accidentally consumed all twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and then retained every bit of knowledge from those tomes is worth her weight in gold!). But it was when I visited a school, shortly after Cairo Jim in Search of Martenarten was published, that I realised how valuable a character – indeed, how valuable all characters in a story – could be. A girl at this school, a student in Year Five, said to me that she really enjoyed the story, but there was one bit she didn’t like. It was the bit when Jim and Doris the macaw went down underground to enter the tomb of the pharaoh Martenarten, leaving Brenda behind, up on the ground. This young girl said to me (and the words changed the course of the chronicles): ‘In my experience, it’s always the quiet ones who get left out.’ Her words struck at my very soul, and I realised for the first time how important characters are to readers. Because of that girl, Brenda the Wonder Camel developed through the years with a wisdom and a quiet, strong presence she may not otherwise have had.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?

Because, with classical / ancient myths, the stories are rich and powerful and they’re filled with great characters. And they’re not afraid to push boundaries and show scallywags behaving naughtily. I also love sharing other stories and other writers with younger readers; hence Doris the macaw is frequently quoting from Shakespeare (and Mr. Shakespeare even appears in Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror). And Phyllis Wong encounters Mary Shelley and the whole world of the creation of Frankenstein in Phyllis Wong and the Girl who Danced with Lightning. I love literary resonance, and sharing these things – I find that exciting. Stories can build on stories, and if that happens respectfully, the foundations of storytelling can only become stronger.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?

When I started writing the chronicles, the internet wasn’t around, so my research was undertaken in libraries and museums and through as much travel as I could afford. I read many old volumes of classical myth and legend, which I still have in my collection. Also on my reading lists were books by explorers like Richard Halleburton, F W Schnitger, Percy Fawcett and others. And Evelyn Waugh’s travel books were a source of inspiration, especially for the times during which he made his trips.

Did you think about how aspects Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?

Not greatly. I suppose the fact that so many of the stories from Classical Antiquity are such strong and entertaining stories, and that they still hold the attention after so many centuries, means that the stories continue to have real currency, and are ripe to be interpreted in stories such as mine.

One thing I try to share with young readers is my experiences of being in the places where the ancient stories played out: describing, for example, the smells of an ancient place and the appearance of the crumbling ruins as evocatively as I can, so that the readers can get a vivid sense of the setting and thus place themselves in the story, ancient or modern. In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus I recreated the House of the Perfumer at Pompeii after spending a lot of quiet time visitng the site, and I tried to evoke the ancient and the modern mystery of that place through the descriptions.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

The series I’m writing at present, the Phyllis Wong Mysteries, do use classical material in some of the stories. In Phyllis Wong and the Waking of the Wizard, the legends of Myrddin (Merlin) come to life when a sinister figure from the past tries to lure the great wizard into the present to bring down civilisation as we know it …

Anything else you think we should know?

Two things: 1. A brand new Cairo Jim story is coming soon, and 2. licorice and Gruyère cheese don’t go well together.

Noted!  Thanks very much, Geoffrey—we look forward to the new CJ novel.

–Elizabeth Hale