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.
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.
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.
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.
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