Bath-time Down Under for Archimedes and Friends

One of these characters is the great Archimedes: mathematician, scientist, engineer, bath-taker . . . .  The others are a kangaroo and a wombat, icons of Australian nature.   What happens when they take a bath together?  This is the topic of New Zealand picture-book writer, Pamela Allen’s lovely book Mr Archimedes’ Bath (Harper Collins, 1980).  . . . .


As part of my research for the Our Mythical Survey project, I’ve been digging around to see how Australian children’s writers are making connections to classical antiquity.  I’ve made some discoveries. First, that Australian picture books cover an enormous range of territories and purposes, from didacticism to entertainment, from comedy to tragedy, from the national to the personal. Second, that many of them incorporate exquisite imagery with profound, witty, and thoughtful texts. And third, that in Australian children’s books, classical receptions adapt moments from antiquity and myth, recasting them in new and intriguing ways.

A case in point is Mr Archimedes’ Bath, by the great Pamela Allen. A New Zealand artist, she moved to Australia in the late 1970s, where she began an illustrious career with a children’s book writer and illustrator with this lovely book.

Mr Archimedes’ Bath is a book about bath-time (that perennial of life with young children), with a classical twist. Its premise is simple: at bath-time, Mr Archimedes and his companion animals, a goat, a kangaroo, and a wombat, notice that the water keeps spilling out. Whose fault is it? They take it in turns to jump in and out of the bath, measuring the water each time. Finally . . .

Mr Archimedes got so excited that he jumped in and out, in and out, to make the water go up and down.  ‘EUREKA! I’ve found it, I’ve found it’ he shouted.  ‘Jump in everyone.’  And the bath overflowed.  ‘See,’ said Mr Archimedes. ‘We make the water go up.’
Mr Archimedes’ Bath, by Pamela Allen. Published by Harper Collins Australia 


Mr Archimedes discovers, as we might expect, that it’s everyone’s (and no-one’s) ‘fault.’   Problem solved, they carry on, jumping in and out, making ‘more mess than ever before.’

Without going into a super-forceful reception studies analysis of this book, it’s safe to say this book has it all: a book about bath-time starring Archimedes makes perfect sense; Allen brings him to Australia by including a kangaroo and wombat (and, really, who wouldn’t want to share one’s bath with a wombat?)

Allen returns to the topic of water and weight, with the equally delightful Who Sank the Boat (in which a number of animals debate who sank their boat), and Alexander’s Adventure (in which a duckling from Sydney’s Botanical Gardens falls in a hole, and is rescued by passers by pouring in water from the Archibald Fountain).  But it is Mr Archimedes’ Bath that tickles this reader’s fancy.

Mr Archimedes’ Bath is light and funny. It shows that classical reception doesn’t have to be about myth, or literature, or art, or even particularly deliberate, and that even the greatest scientist may have a slightly crinkly bottom. The principles of displacement are seldom so entertainingly depicted.

–Elizabeth Hale



First Contact (Ancient Myths and Modern Children . . .)

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.

RLG inside cover
Where it all began for Miriam: Roger Lancelyn Green, Andrew Lang, Ian Seraillier . . .

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.

The next generation–Miriam’s children enjoying their classics!

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.

Sticker book
Classical stickers, from Usborne publications…

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.

Miriam Riverlea


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