Finding Icarus … Our Mythical Childhood Turns Two

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (1991). Used under Creative Commons License (accessed: May 24, 2018).

A very Mythical anniversary

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.

'The_Fall_of_Icarus',_17th_century,_Musée_Antoine_Vivenel

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:

Melting Point

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.’

Icarus Swinebuckle

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

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 Alivefrom 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.

Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mermaids, mythical moments, and the power of acceptance: Julián is a Mermaid

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.

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

 

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.

 

–Elizabeth Hale

 

Our Mythical Week in Wellington

In mid-July, Liz Hale and I travelled to New Zealand, to attend and present at the biannual ACLAR (Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research) conference at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW).  With Babette Puetz (Classics, VUW), we talked about classical reception in children’s literature. I spoke about Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s American Goddess Girl series; Babette spoke about Zeustian Logic, by New Zealand author Sabrina Malcolm; and Liz gave the ACLAR delegates a tour of the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  The theme of the conference was ‘Houses of Learning,’ a topic that brought to light many rich texts and approaches.

We also had the opportunity to spend a couple of days researching in the Dorothy Neal White Collection of Children’s Literature at Te Puna, the National Library, of New Zealand, where we examined an array of children’s texts that engage with the classical world.

It was especially exciting to view texts by local New Zealand writers, including Ken Catran, author of the historical novels The Golden Prince (1999), Voyage with Jason (2000), and Odysseus (2005).  It was also fascinating to see how some of the Greek myths had been rendered as readers for New Zealand school children, another area of reception that is often under-represented.  Downstairs from the reading room, we joined a group making Maori masks, based on Cliff Whiting’s creation myth mural, ‘Te wehenga o Rangi rāua ko Papa.’

Classics and Kiwi Culture–Intersections and Invasions

My involvement in the Our Mythical Childhood project has heightened my awareness of the ways in which ancient myth invades our contemporary world, and on this trip I was particularly curious to see ways that classical and Kiwi culture intersect. One of the most explicit examples of their convergence is in the work of the lithographer Marian Maguire, who juxtaposes the iconography of Ancient Greek vase paintings with New Zealand’s colonial past, and with indigenous mythology. In one piece, Ajax and Achilles play dice at Milford Sound; in another, Captain Cook arrives on his boat bearing an ancient Greek vase. And in another still, Odysseus clings to the remnants of his raft, about to be blasted by the Maori god of the sea, Tangaroa.

I was fortunate to have the chance to see the collection of Maguire’s works displayed at the Classics Department at VUW and was struck by their clarity and precision. I was also struck by the remarkable way her work explores the resonance of the stories and artistic traditions of ancient Greece within another culture on the opposite side of the world. Although her work isn’t intended for children, it has important implications for the research questions at the heart of the OMC project, and I’m eager to read Maguire’s chapter in the recently published collection Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society (2017), edited by Diana Burton, Jeff Tatum and Simon Perris of VUW’s Classics Department.

One lunchtime I visited Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, where I encountered Age of Fishes (1980), by Auckland artist Richard Killeen. It’s an arrangement of large silhouetted shapes hung on a white wall, in shades of blue, yellow, brown and black. While some of the cut-outs are recognisable as marine creatures, others are more abstract, and to my mind, some of them resemble the silhouettes of archaic pottery vessels.

Another of Killeen’s works, Welcome to the South Pacific (1979) happened to be on display in the VUW Council Chamber, where the ACLAR conference was held, and I enjoyed the interplay of the different elements, while also reflecting on the notion that I was beginning to recognise classical motifs even in the most abstract of shapes.

Frequency Illusion, Classics Style

Perhaps it was a simply a case of frequency illusion, a form of cognitive bias in which we register a concept and immediately begin to observe it everywhere. (Colloquially, the phenomenon is known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, after the West German militant group). On one city street, Pandora’s jewellery shop was located next to an interior design firm called Attica. And I noticed winged figures everywhere, not only at the library in Gerald McDermott’s retelling of the Icarus myth, Sun Flight (1980), but also on Te Papa’s colourful windows, and even on the hoodie of the man who made our morning coffee.

Back at home in Australia, I am still reflecting on how to make sense of these encounters, profound and frivolous.  The classical past is a rich depository of images, narratives, and motifs that the modern world continues to draw upon. My week in Wellington revealed that it is not merely within the pages of texts that ancient stories endure, but everywhere I look. I feel very fortunate to be taking part in the Our Mythical Childhood project, as it seeks to understand the myriad, diverse, and often surprising ways that the classical past infiltrates contemporary children’s culture.

–Miriam Riverlea, PhD Monash, is collaborating with Liz Hale on Classical Antiquity in Children’s Literature: An Alphabetical Odyssey.  It will be a guide to the field, taking into account issues of reception, children’s culture, and more.  Miriam’s PhD, My First Book of Greek Myths: Retelling Ancient Myths to Modern Children, can be read here.

 

Illustrating the monomyth–Jerome’s Gift

Trent Denham’s Jerome’s Gift is an award-winning picture book that shows a child overcoming challenges through ingenuity, recycling, and making do.  It takes elements of the hero’s journey as inspiration, and is part of a planned trilogy, incorporating novel, graphic novel, and picture book, that Trent is working on.

I met Trent when he visited Armidale in 2014 as part of the UNE Writers and Illustrators in Residence program I was running with the help of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.  While he was with us, Trent completed some illustrations for the book, and shared his expertise in art, design, and digital elements.   He’s the brains behind the digital reconstruction of the destruction of Pompeii, which I will interview him about on a separate occasion.

For now, though, we’re talking about Jerome’s Gift, the inspiration behind it, and what led a Melbourne illustrator to spend so much time in the Middle Ages.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

JG_Cover_sml_01
Jerome’s Gift, cover copyright Trent Denham

 

What drew you to writing/working with particular myths, and what challenges did you face?

History has always been my strongest interest, even beyond my writing and artistic practice, and though I sway a little more toward the middle ages for my inspiration, I think it is safe to say that the foundations of that period and its culture are most certainly classical. European culture continually looked back to Antiquity as a high point in society,  rather than forward into the future. Looking at medieval works was what drew me deeper into the classics. I would go so far as to say that my thirst for history is what drives me in my art making and storytelling. I remember the moment I picked my first illustrated history book off the shelf in kindergarten and I was immediately enthralled.

As I grew up, I began to study and attempt to reproduce in drawing some of the great artworks of history – all of which depicted ancient myths and legends (though most were made in the high middle ages, renaissance, or neo-classical periods!). My older brother also had a beautifully illustrated kids book of stories about Achilles and Medusa and Odysseus, Cyclops, the Golden Fleece, to Thor and Siegfried. It carried me away (forever I think), to places where those stories were real, and had meaning and purpose for me to decipher. I have never really come back from that place.

I’m not sure if I ever consciously chose to adapt a particular myth with my book. What I ended up with was a variation on the ‘mono-myth’; as Joseph Campbell would put it- the hero’s journey is a universal story or experience across many if not all cultures, and it was natural for my story to develop in that way. I only latterly came to  understand that about half way through the project, as part of my continued studies.

Many of the adaptations per se, or inspirations for my story have come through traditional folk tales, fables, which are a kind of myth themselves in a long tradition of oral storytelling, but also through an allegorical visual medium. Artists like Brueghel, and even more modern fantasy literature and art  (which again draws heavily from mythology) have been a big influence.

 

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

My understanding of myth is that it exists to help us through our own times and experience. It is for that reason that myth is so adaptable, and often at variance with other versions of itself. You can tell any myth from various perspectives in order to describe a particular situation. This is helpful in that it is relatable to the listener – how many ways can a Shakespeare be told and adapted for a contemporary audience for instance? It is endless!

What was truly revelatory for me was the discovery that the artists I always looked up to- the ones depicting scenes from Antiquity and mythology- have adapted those scenes for their own times! In doing this, they can make a deeper commentary on their own historical period! For example, Brueghel’s biblical “massacre of the innocents” is depicted in his own native Flanders. Why? To draw a parallel with the wartime atrocities committed by the Spanish in his own lifetime.  Or his “Fall of Icarus” that features a 16th century galleon and not a Greek ship. The contemporary context places the lesson of the myth for his own audience. In turn, others can then reference Brughel’s work to give it new meaning (but you will have to look close!).

And that is how the tradition of art and storytelling continues- it changes and evolves to keep relevance in our own time. So the artists and authors I look to, in turn looked back on others yet more distant in history, and so on until the depths of time when our primitive ancestors first looked to the stars and told stories to make sense of their world.
These types of story will always be relevant to us because we have carried them with us forever, and we did so because they help us understand ourselves and the world we live in.

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?  

Yes I did study some classics, and a lot of other history both old and new, as part of my Creative Arts degree. But the truth is that I have always undertaken studies on my own, outside of educational institutions, and was always reading stuff at home that would never have been presented to me in schools. My library is full of strange and wonderful things.

Though most of my reading is in more academic texts these days, some of my favourite and most influential books were from when I was a kid.

 


Timeless Myths, by Brenda R Lewis and illustrated by Rob McCaig, Brimax Books, 1980. That was my older brother’s book mentioned earlier (I now have a copy of my own)
And of course…

The Adventures of Asterix and Obelix, by Goscinny and Uderzo, full of fascinating detail and glimpses into history, if a little tongue in cheek =)

Other great and influential artists are John Howe and Alan Lee,  both of whom have illustrated many myths and legends, but are probably better know for their work on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

When you were developing Jerome’s Gift, did you think about how myth and antiquity would translate for young readers, esp. in Australia? 

Yes and no. I understand that regional references and situations are easier for more people to connect with, but I don’t really make stories for ‘everyone’, I make stories for strange young kids like I was, who might pick up an old history book in kindergarten and think “yes, this is for me”

Are you planning any further forays?

Definitely! In fact the history of Jerome’s Gift goes back a few stories, and the further back it goes, the deeper into myth and its own antiquity it gets. For me though, I like to use History and Mythology as a theoretical framework and not the basis of the story itself. For example, for my next book I am using chapter titles that borrow names of the siblings of Titans (like Zelos, which means ‘rivalry’, or Nike which means ‘victory’). In this way I can both reference familiar mythology, and use it as a structure to build my own narrative that relates to an understood theme. It gives me direction and inspiration to create a new world.

–Trent Denham

Stay tuned for an interview with Trent about his work on A Day in Pompeii….

Myths on the Move–Our Mythical Animation . . .

 

Our Mythical Childhood went to Greenwich University in June, to the Children and Youth on the Move conference, hosted by the Children’s History Society.  The theme was movement, and so we talked about the ways that animators mobilise classical myth in their work for children.

Sonya Nevin showed how she and Steve Simons move myth in their Panoply animations of Greek vases.  We were privileged to see their animation of the Sappho Vase for the National Museum of Poland.

Anna Mik showed us how Walt Disney played with mermaid myths in the 1933 Silly Symphony cartoon, King Neptune.  You can read her Our Mythical Childhood survey entry on King Neptune here.

Hanna Paulouskaya showed us how Soviet animators such as Aleksandra Shezhko-Blotskaya used classical myth to move around the land as part of a national narrative.

And I talked about how the Australian animation, The Deepmoves myth underwater, using classical myths to appeal to an international audience.

Questions and discussion took us around the world, showing once again how myth functions both locally and universally, and to what ends  We talked about the rights of the mermaid, about what a siren really looks like, and what they really get up to.  We talked about how myth is put to use, encouraging Soviet schoolchildren to travel, for instance, or connecting Australian viewers to a wider world of mystery and story.  Sonya showed us how children move myth to their own ends, through the activities she and Steve give them–making their own shields and vases, for instance, and incorporating them in their own stories and mythology.  

The conference in general was emotionally moving, looking at how children move (or are forced to move) around the world, and also about how children’s culture moves through social changes, and how children move culture on, transforming and reshaping adult ideas for new generations.   Putting animation and mythology into these contexts, it is clear that mythology moves as culture moves, offering useful ways to frame children’s experiences and the way that reception is framed in its turn.

— Elizabeth Hale