I’m a literature academic, working in the School of Arts at the University of New England. In my research I combine interests in children’s literature and classical reception. Antipodean Odyssey, and the Our Mythical Childhood project, are the ideal venues to bring these two interests together.
I began learning Latin at high school in Dunedin, NZ, in the 1980s. While I loved learning the language, the act of translating, and the insights into the past cultures, I was equally interested in the idea of who had also studied this subject. Who had had my textbook before me? Who had written Latin graffiti on the classroom wall? Why was one of my textbooks quite conservative (The Approach to Latin)? Why was the other a bit wacky (The Cambridge Latin)? I wrote little plays in my spare time, about Roman characters. I imagined Scipio coming to New Zealand, Catullus wandering sulkily around the streets of Dunedin. I read Asterix, and had a Latin edition of one of my comics. I had a hard time believing that Caesar was a real person, even when I translated De Bello Gallico in class.
Little did I know I was becoming a ‘receptionist.’ I kept up with Latin throughout school, and on into further studies at the University of Otago. When I moved on to doing a PhD, in the United States at Brandeis University, I taught a little bit of Latin, and wrote my PhD on the figure of the classical scholar in nineteenth-century fiction.
I was fascinated by George Eliot’s Mr Casaubon, a dry-as-dust scholar in Middlemarch, who sucks the life out of his naïve and passionate young wife. I felt sorry for him. Not because he was a real person, but because Eliot wrote so well about his goals to find the ‘key to all mythologies’ and about his limitations in doing so. And I felt that she wrote him that way to make a point about classics as a ‘dead’ subject, in contrast with the ‘live’ subject of the novel. After I finished my thesis, I moved from nineteenth-century fiction to children’s literature, and to the children’s literature of my own childhood, the writings of two of New Zealand’s finest novelists: the live-wire Margaret Mahy, and the grimly humorous Maurice Gee.
But children’s literature and classical matters are not that far apart, as I increasingly discovered. Mahy, for instance, uses all sorts of classical myths in her fascinating novels for young readers. And so when I joined forces with Katarzyna Marciniak, I was able to explore these attributes further. It’s a great privilege to be involved in this project, uncovering the classical influences that pervade children’s literature and culture, and exploring how their different treatments reveal the culture that produces them.
In Middlemarch, George Eliot created an alternative classicist, Mrs Garth, an intelligent woman who teaches her children classics in the kitchen or the garden. In this, she brings to life a subject that might be thought of as long-gone, or dead and buried. That’s what I want to do here with this site. And to celebrate the many writers, thinkers, creators, and practitioners for whom classics is alive, and for whom children’s literature and culture are the ideal venues in which to explore them.
I do this from my base at the University of New England, in Armidale, in the high country of New South Wales, where I teach literature in the School of Arts. When I first moved to Armidale, I had little idea what a creative space I was moving to, but as I’ve got to know the region, I’ve found it is teeming with writers, artists, illustrators, practitioners in theatre and music, and people who are dedicated to the cultural life. This is a fascinating part of the world, and by ‘this,’ I mean the Antipodes: my native New Zealand, Australia, Pacific Culture, and further afield into South Asia, and South America. I look forward to showcasing one aspect of its fascinations, through this project.
– Dr Liz Hale, Senior Lecturer, School of Arts, UNE.