Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (2000) is a classic of Australian picture book art. It’s the story of a boy who is out and about looking for additions to his bottle-top collection, who sees a ‘thing’ on the beach–a great big, red sore-thumb of a creature, half coffee-pot, half-lobster, totally different from everyone and everything around it. The boy, being a boy, and thus perhaps open to moments of spontaneous creatiity, plays with the Lost Thing until dusk, then takes it home with him. His indifferent parents barely notice, but the boy realises the Thing needs to find a home of its own, and the pair set out on a quest that takes them through the city. It’s A dystopia: an anonymous industrialised city, where no one looks at each other, and communication takes place in formulae and rubber stamps.
It looks like the city of The Lost Thing is a very dull place indeed, and dullness is all-pervading and inescapable. The boy, for instance, is involved in collecting bottle-tops when he sees the Thing, and immediately returns to his collection once he has solved its problem: the tragedy of the story is that the Thing is never accepted, integrated, or even recognised by the society it stumbles into–its happy ending is to be sent back to where it comes from, taken care of by The Department of Odds and Ends, which the boy consults to find out where the Thing belongs.
The Federal Department of Odds and Ends helps the boy sweep the Thing under the carpet (or into the closet), in accordance with its motto, ‘sweepus underum carpetae.’) The boy narrates how he and the Thing make their way through the city until they find a mysterious doorway to a magical world, full of bright, colourful, curvy beings–the antithesis to the dull, angular city.
That’s it. That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is. I mean, I can’t say that the thing actually belonged in the place where it ended up. In fact, none of the the things there really belonged. They all seemed happy enough though, so maybe that didn’t matter. I don’t know. . .
Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing
It’s a slippery little story–the boy sliding out from any sense of knowledge or understanding of his actions, or of the Thing. Is he helping it? Is he shoving it out of the way? Is he solving a problem, or complicit in a continued set of injustices? Don’t ask the narrator. The subtitle of The Lost Thing is ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to,’ ironically suggesting that those who don’t read it, or notice the story, are those who are in most need of a dose of creative thinking.
A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to…
But for those of use who ignore more important things, there is a great deal in The Lost Thing to enjoy observing. And for me, on my quest to chase up the Classical elements in Australian literature, there are the mottoes: each one from a different ‘government’ department. There’s The Federal Department of Information (ignorare regulatum); the Federal Department of Tubes and Pipes (plumbiferus ductus). The Federal Department of Economics (consumere ergo sum), The Federal Department of Censorship (illuminare prohibitus), and of course, The Federal Department of Odds and Ends (sweepus underum carpetae).
Tan’s sly sense of humour is in full view in details like these. These little dog-Latin tags are the only Classical elements that I’ve found in The Lost Thing. And they’re beautifully appropriate for the society of Tan’s novel–a long way from the vivid extravagance of Classical myth–the Classicism of branding and advertising, of signs and labels, of bureaucracy and pencil-pushers–Latin, the language of Virgil and Ovid, put into the service of administrative meaninglessness, perfect for a society of grey men, women, and boys, who look up only briefly from their bottle-top collections to notice the glorious Lost Things of the world, too busy to realise that they themselves are lost…
Scouring the UNE library shelves for inspiration last week, I came upon a copy of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, the Latin translation of . . . you know what. It belonged to an old friend, and so I checked it out, along with several other translations of children’s books, to think about what inspires us to translate our favourite books into our favourite languages.
As the great Wilfried Stroh explains (in Latin) there’s a long tradition of children’s books in Latin from Winnie ille Pu to Fabula de Jemima Anate-Aquatica. . . It’s no easy task to achieve, either. Anyway, here’s Peter Needham’s opening lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin,
Puer Qui Vixit
Dominus et Domina Dursley, qui vivebant in aedibus Gestationius Ligustrorum numero quattuor signatis, no sine superbia dicebant se ratione ordinaria vivendi uti neque se paenitere illius rationis. in toto orbe terrarum vix credas quemquam esse minus deditum rebus novis et arcanis, quod ineptias tales omnino spernebant.
Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, trans. Peter Needham (1)
Magic, eh! You can look up the English for yourselves.
In the meantime, some thoughts about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I am teaching this summer as part of a unit introducing techniques of literary study through children’s books. The idea is that in seemingly simple texts such as Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and other well-known kids’ books, we can explore different elements of literary technique and thought. Some of these books (such as Matilda and Once There Was a Boy) are highly intertextual and draw on myths, legends, and fairy tales, and so I’m exploring that aspect as well.
Harry Potter and the many allusions to Latin
Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is full of allusions and intertexts. It’s a pastiche of styles and influences, and much of its success must surely come from the way in which Rowling tells a story that is familiar in concept and structure, but also original, imaginative, and new. Roald Dahl’s influence is clear in the horrible Dursleys–grotesque in shape and behaviour–contrasted with Harry’s innocence but also his ability to take vengeance when necessary. The battles of Star Wars, between Luke, a novice good-guy and Darth Vader, an overwhelmingly powerful bad-guy, complete with colour-coded technological swords, are another clear influence–if we swap Harry for Luke, and wands for light-sabres, the parallels are clearer still. The influence of the British school story, with competitions between student Houses, good, bad, and unfair teachers, is also clear: the Quidditch matches of Harry Potter are not unlike the obsession with rugby in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (and a host of imitators). And so on. There are books, articles, talks galore that dig out and enjoy the parallels.
You don’t have to recognise the allusions to enjoy Harry Potter, of course, but it makes for a rich reading experience if you do. And for the classically-inclined (Rowling herself was a classics student), the novels are peppered with references to the ancient world, through names, mythical creatures, snatches of Latin, and classical precedents and parallels.
There are the names of important witches and wizards, for instance: Minerva McGonagall, the wise and wily deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, named after the Roman version of the goddess Athena (and, incidentally, Scotland’s weirdest poet, William McGonagall). Albus Dumbledore, headmaster and personification of goodness: where Albus means ‘white,’ or ‘shining’, and Dumbledore is a dialectal word for bumblebee. Rubeus Hagrid, his loyal sidekick, takes his first name from the Latin for red, a popular name in mediaeval times. Dedalus Diggle is one of the first wizards to celebrate the initial defeat of Voldemort: his name recalls the great inventor, father of Icarus, designer of the labyrinth. Severus Snape recalls the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), but more than that, his name means ‘severe, or serious’; Draco Malfoy is named after the Latin for dragon (as befits a proud member of Slytherin), and also the first lawmaker of the city-state of Athens, known for his harshness (such as giving the death penalty for minor crimes, like stealing a cabbage). Hermione Granger is named after the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, a spirited woman who fights to marry the man she wants, Orestes. Argus Filch, the grouchy janitor/groundskeeper, seems to be everywhere at once, like his namesake, the hundred-eyed guardian, Argus Panoptes, whose eyes ended up decorating the tail of Hera’s bird, the peacock.
These are only the names from the first book in the series. Throughout, Rowling is very clever with her use of names, balancing Latin and English, Old French, and dialects, and applying them meaningfully to major and minor characters alike. (I was delighted to see that Professor Sprout, the herbology teacher, rejoices in the first name, Pomona–the Roman goddess of apples and ‘fruitful abundance’) These names create a tapestry of additional meaning, supporting the sense that the Harry Potter books are set in a world like, but not quite like, our own, full of echoes and allusions.
Magical names are part of a magical world, and much of the appeal of the novels comes from the interweaving of magical creatures with everyday life. Rowling draws again on mythology: Harry Potter’s wand has the feather of a phoenix in it; so too, Dumbledore has a companion phoenix (Fawkes, named after Guido Fawkes, one of the gunpowder plot conspirators). Dragons feature, in names, in passwords (caput Draconis), and in an egg that Hagrid won off a guy down the pub. ‘Galloping Gorgons’ cries Hagrid when he remembers something he ought to have done, perhaps feed ‘Fluffy,’ the three-headed dog who guards a trapdoor to a secret underworld, much like his mythological counterpart Cerberus. And of course there are the centaurs, learned stargazers who live in the forest near the school and worry about the messages in the planets.
And into the clearing came–was it a man, or a horse? to the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse’s gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tale. Harry and Hermione’s jaws dropped.
‘Oh it’s you, Ronan,’ said Hagrid in relief. ‘How are yeh?’
He walked forward and shook the centaur’s hand.
‘Good evening to you, Hagrid,’ said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. ‘Were you going to shoot me?’
‘Can’t be too careful, Ronan,’ said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. ‘There’s summat bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter, an’ Hermione Granger, by the way. Students up at the school. An’ this is Ronan, you two. He’s a centaur.’
‘We’d noticed,’ said Hermione faintly.
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 184)
The mythological creatures add depth and mystery to the novels–suggesting a pagan otherworldliness, or old magic, that is qualitatively different from the witches and wizards of modern faerie. They don’t participate much in the action, but come by occasionally, giving a sense that they’ve seen many a battle between good and evil. . .
Going deeper into storytelling and interextuality: as a hero story, the Harry Potter novels participate in all sorts of classical traditions. One can view them as a quest, in which Harry finds the resources (external and internal) to battle ultimate evil in the form of Voldemort. One can view them, as Vassiliki Panoussi does, as a foundation epic, in which Harry and his friends build an army to establish a brave new world. There are echoes of Greek tragedy, as Brett Rogers notes, in Rowling’s world view, especially where the tyranny of educators over students is concerned. Harry Potter, like much great fantasy literature, has richness, depth, and a profound morality, which drawing on classical parallels helps point to.
Harrius Potter and Our Mythical Childhood
The Our Mythical Childhood survey, of course, has entries on the world of Harry Potter. There’s entry 641 on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and entry 65 on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while I didn’t grow up reading these books, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army, I am entranced by the mixture of Latin and magic, imagination and power that make the Harry Potter novels a mythical experience–in English, in Latin, or even in Ancient Greek .
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…
On 1 October, 2 years ago, we began work on the Our Mythical Childhood project, and so, we are now two! It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve found out. Look here, at the Our Mythical Childhood website, and here, at the Our Mythical Childhood facebook, twitter, and blog pages, for summaries and updates. There’s always something happening.
In honour of our second birthday, I thought it would be a nice idea to share some of the findings from the Our Mythical Childhood Survey. Because Miriam Riverlea and I are writing a guide to the field, we scour the site often, looking for inspiration, ideas, and illuminations among the entries that we, and our colleagues, have written.
If our project has turned two, that means we are two years into the five years of the project. Which means we’ve come through our adolescence, and are into our adult years. It means we’re striving, we’re growing wings, we’re hoping to fly. I therefore looked up the term ‘Icarus.’
Who among us doesn’t wish to fly?
The myth of Icarus is often used to think about the adolescent years, years that are often depicted as times of striving, questing, struggling, failing, and falling to earth with a bump. How many adolescents, and children for that matter, don’t listen to their parents? How many children, it might be noted, find themselves in difficult situations because of their parents’ actions? (Icarus isn’t necessarily flying by his own choice.) The complex of emotions and interactions in the Icarus myth map well onto children’s and young adult literature –adolescent enjoyment of risk-taking; the power, and peril, of invention and creativity, child-parent conflict and love.
Looking for Icarus
Searching Icarus in the Our Mythical Childhood Survey brought up 34 entries, from the literary, oral, electronic, and audiovisual categories. I’ve selected a few, ones in which the Icarus myth features.
Icarus and the Sages
This 1976 Russian animation directed and written by Fyodor Khitruk shows Icarus living in the clouds with the philosophers, who have all found their places in history. Determined to be known for something, he makes a machine and attempts to fly. Hanna Paulouskaya points out in entry 43 on Icarus and the Sages, that although he falls, the moral of the story (which conflates Icarus’s famous fall, with his father Daedalus’s invention),is to take a leap, to explore the freedom of ideas and inventions. You can watch the film here on the Soyuz Multifilm youtube site:
Australian writer, Nadia Wheatley, is best-known for her book My Place which chronicles the history of one part of Sydney from 1788 to 1988. Her sensitivity to history and cultural changes appears again in ‘Melting Point,’ a 1994 short story about a Greek-Australian teenager, Xenia, who meditates on her heritage while translating Ovid’s version of the fall of Icarus, in class. In entry 132 on ‘Melting Point’, Miriam Riverlea notes ‘Melting Point is a unique and complex retelling of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and an important text for the study of reception of myth itself.’
Be Careful, Icarus!
American writer Joan Holub is the co-author of the Goddess Girls series of popular tween fiction. In Be Careful, Icarus! (2015) she teams up with illustrator Leslie Patricelli, to take on the challenge of telling myths for babies. As Sonya Nevin notes in entry 229, Be Careful, Icarus!is ‘a beautifully-illustrated series that creatively transposes ancient myths into real-life scenarios faced by pre-school-aged children.’
Another American picture book is this lovely one, Icarus Swinebuckle (entry 300), written and illustrated by Michael Garland in the year 2000. Icarus Swinebuckle is a pig who wants to fly, and though his friends and neighbours think it’s impossible, he perserveres. Garland sets this version in the American age of invention–his Icarus dresses rather like Benjamin Franklin, to humorous and moving effect.
Harry and Hortense at Hormone High
In this intense young adult novel by a third American, Paul Zindel (1984), a boy who believes he is the reincarnation of Icarus, and has the power to change the world, falls to a tragic end, observed by his friends who are unable to help or save him. Here, the myth’s tragic qualities are highlighted, in a meditation on mental illness, coming of age, and adolescent agency. See entry 133 on Harry and Hortense at Hormone High, by Miriam Riverlea.
Kid Icarus is a popular video game produced by Japanese games-maker, Nintendo. It appeared first in 1986, and was rebooted in 2012. Here, a boy called Pit, a boy angel, leader of the ‘Icarus’ army, breaks free from the underworld where Medusa has trapped his leader, Palutena. Using his special skills, he fights to overcome Medusa and restore light to the darkness. As Nanci Santos notes in entry 338,Kid Icarus works with a basic good vs evil format, and draws on a range of mythologies to create its worldview.
How Lunga Went to the Sky Alive
For entry 161, Divine Che Neba collected this myth, How Lunga Went to the Sky Alive, from a storyteller in Ndu, in the North West of Cameroon. It’s about Lunga, a man with mythical properties, who visits the heavens to consult the gods about a problem. But the gods are not there, and to return, the servants tie him to some ropes, for him to jump safely back to earth. On his journey downwards, the winds disconnect him, and he falls to earth. Because of his mythic properties, he does not die, but his footprints can still be seen in the rocks where he landed.
Icarus is everywhere
These are just a few examples, and I’ve only chosen items that feature Icarus or have parallels to his story. He appears as a supporting character in many other texts.
The appeal of the myth is clear: the gift, and the curse, of flight features throughout, and the story’s ready adaptation to cautionary tales, morality fables, emotional dilemmas, and more. And Icarus appears in many places, well beyond children’s literature. The Icarus Project, for instance, is a mental health organisation; Icarus is the title of a documentary about doping in competitive cycling; it’s also the title of a Journal of Solar System Studies, and the name given to drones, to devices to hack and hijack drones, and also to insure drones. The Icarus Deception is a how-to book to help you unleash your creativity. The Icarus Factor is a very strange episode of Star Trek: Next Generation; Codename Icarus is a creepy kid’s spy show from the 1970s. And so on…
Resonances of flight, of falling, of frailty, of creativity and invention, of hubris, of love and fear of the sun, and an ambiguous relation to authority and agency abound. . . It won’t be long before there are well more than 34 entries on Icarus in the Our Mythical Survey.
One of the nicest things about working in the Our Mythical Childhood project is looking in my office pigeonhole to see what interesting books have come in. This morning it was this lovely picture book: Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love.
In it, a little boy named Julián is obsessed with mermaids. He reads about them on the train, he imagines himself as one when he goes swimming, and he dresses up as one while his abuela (grandmother) is out of the room.
When his grandmother comes back to find Julián wearing a headdress from a potted plant and a flower arrangement and posing with her curtains as a fishtail, she frowns for a moment. She then disappears for a moment, comes back dressed up herself and gives Julián a special necklace to complete his outfit, then takes him for a walk through the city streets, where they join a parade . . . for mermaids.
It’s a moving moment, of acceptance and understanding, and of an adult making the effort to integrate a child into the community he wants to be part of. Being a mermaid is of course a metaphor for thinking about identity, about gender roles, about finding one’s place in the world, and about facilitating that for children. Jessica Love’s beautiful book encapsulates important ideas about difference and about love, acceptance, and integration. I won’t show any of the images: you can find the book yourself and enjoy the discoveries within the way I did.
The necklace of acceptance
Children’s literature these days is doing important work thinking about empowerment, identity and acceptance. It encourages empathy and understanding, and Julián is a Mermaid is an excellent example of a text that draws one in, to achieve the difficult feat of walking in someone else’s (mermaid) shoes. Looking at how Love captures the play of emotions across Julián’s face as his grandmother leaves the room to get the necklace for him, I found myself becoming this little boy for a moment. What would happen if she didn’t accept him? What would he do, what would he become? (Where would he go? How would he manage?) Thank goodness for grandmothers might be the subtext of this book, and the relief and joy I felt when she returns, bearing the necklace of acceptance, was palpable.
The parade Julián and his abuela join is the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, in Coney Island, New York. I looked it up. It celebrates the beginning of summer, has been held annually for 36 years, and looks like a lot of fun
CC BY 2.0 See-ming Lee
CC BY 2.0 Steven Pisano
Like so many parades, it’s an expression of the carnivalesque, of the acceptance and joy of difference, of creativity, of the mythical spirit within us all.
The power of momentary mythicalness
I’ve used the word moment a lot in this little piece, because I think Julián is a Mermaid is a book about the power of moments, about their power to give expression to the rest of our lives. Children’s literature, folktales, fairytales and myths are full of such moments, when the imaginary comes into contact with, and transforms, the real. At the moment of the story Julian is a Mermaid. Who knows if he will be one all his life, or if the desire is a momentary part of the fleeting fluid magic of childhood imagination? Like all good picture books, Julián is a Mermaid leaves the question open, to powerful and moving effect.