Report from the Bushland: Research Findings from the University of Newcastle

Marguerite Johnson, who is collaborating with me on a Guide to Classical Antiquity in Children’s  Literature, has built a wonderful community of folklore scholars at the University of Newcastle.  It was my privilege to participate in a day of presentations and thought on the broad topics of fear and myth, to meet her terrific students, and to see their work.  I didn’t see any of the wildlife Marguerite identifies in her blog, but the human inhabitants of the university were very impressive! 

— Liz Hale


Springtime at The University of Newcastle is a magical season. It’s warm and the bushland campus is waking up from winter slumber. This includes all the reptiles as well as the buds on native trees and shrubs. Walking through parts of 140 hectares of natural bushland during spring, staff and students are often surprised by snakes making their way across paths; ducklings waddling across roads (often with a line of cars behind them); and, at twilight, baby possums and wallabies making their first outings. We are always advised not to approach the wildlife, but they are regularly photographed. Sunny the Snake can be seen each year basking in the sun on one of the bridges over a small creek, and even has his own Facebook page.

Amid a time of awakening and looking forward to the long summer break, my postgraduates, honours students and a few enthusiastic undergraduates known collectively as Folklore @ UoN welcomed Dr Elizabeth Hale to our bushland campus.

Liz, Marguerite, Excalibur, and the wonderful students of Folklore@UON
Marguerite, Liz, Excalibur, and the wonderful students of Folklore@UON

It was a rainy, slightly humid day that was one of presentations, sharing of ideas, feedback and food. Liz had made her odyssey to discuss Our Mythical Childhood with my students, many of whom are working on folklore, myth and reception projects. Liz began by inviting students to bring along a childhood memento to explain their early interest in the ancient Mediterranean. We were treated with childhood photographs of honours student, Gabrielle Brash dressed as Xena. We even had a modern-day Excalibur wielded by honours student, Matthew Howe. And PhD student, Natalia Polikarpova, shared a truly frightening image of Medusa from a Russian television cartoon.


Following this, Liz participated in discussions stemming from a series of student presentations, complete with lavishly illustrated PowerPoints and terrific ideas. The presentations began with our two Classical Studies honours students, Gabrielle and Matthew. Gabrielle presented on ‘Metamorphosis of the Russian Vampire: Folkloric and Ancient Origins’, which examined the comparisons between Greco-Roman folkloric beings and early examples of Russian vampires.

Matthew Howe, in ‘Transformations as a Game Mechanic’, considered the theme of shapeshifting and how it translates in games such as World of Warcraft.

Postgraduate students presented papers on their theses. Of the four presentations, three were based on aspects of myth, folk tale and fairy tale from Greco-Roman traditions and their reception in various post-antiquity environments – from the early modern European age, to the contemporary west.

Tanika Koosmen discussed ‘Why Werewolves Eat People: The Origins of Cannibalism in Werewolf Narratives’. Nicole Kimball talked about ‘What is a Witch? Images of Witchcraft in the Malleus Maleficarum’. Adam Turner asked: ‘Does She Scare You?’ (on female monsters in gaming culture).

Natalia Polikarpova, presented on ‘Gender and Death in Seneca’ as part of her PhD research in Classics. We are thrilled to have Natalia (Natasha) with us all the way from Rybinsk. Gabrielle is particularly pleased to have her in Newcastle to discuss Baba Yaga (the topic of Gabrielle’s honours thesis).

We were also joined by three of my most engaged and talented undergraduates. Erica Wright, studying Ancient History and English, chaired one of our sessions, and is already known to Our Mythical Childhood and Antipodean Odyssey through her blog-essay on the character, Mercy in Overwatch. Natasha Schroder and Jennifer Murray have been key members of Folklore @ UoN, participating in the honours / postgraduate research days, which we have held each Friday during the second semester of our 2017 academic year.

A Day of Fear and Mystery . . .

Folklore @ UoN is the result of a teaching experiment I began a few years ago. Owing to  the small number of honours students enrolling in the non-compulsory fourth year program following the awarding of their Bachelor of Arts, I began to invite postgraduate students as well as interested undergraduates to the honours classes. This proved to be a worthwhile and thoroughly enjoyable teaching experience. What has gradually resulted is a collective of students from three levels of study, with different research experience, and shared scholarly interests. The students support and mentor each other. Now we have enough momentum to begin inviting visiting academics to share their research with us.


Liz is the first of many wonderful colleagues to visit a Folklore @ UoN event, and we thoroughly enjoyed her time with us and for sharing the joy that is Our Mythical Childhood.


— Marguerite Johnson



Death by Horace . . . the tear-stained school stories of Frederic W. Farrar

In which we take a short turn through the school stories of Frederic W. Farrar (1831-1903), clergyman, botanist, educator, to see how a little Latin can be a very dangerous thing . . .

Portrait of Frederic William Farrar (

In my other life as a Victorianist, I became fascinated by the work of Frederic W. Farrar (1931-1903) . Farrar was an educator, a scholar, a writer, and a clergyman, who taught for some years, and along the way became a Chaplain to Queen Victoria.

Eric, or: Little by Littlea cautionary tale of school life

But he may have been best known to everyday Victorians as the author of Eric, or Little by Little (1858), a keenly-felt cautionary tale of injustice and miseducation at a private school on the Isle of Man.  Eric, became one of the best selling children’s books of the mid-nineteenth century, and whose reputation lingered long into the twentieth

The British education system was in flux at the time Farrar wrote Eric.  Public schools (where traditionally the upper-middle classes, gentry and aristocracy sent their suns) were joined by an outcropping of private schools, built to cater to the sons of the expanding middle class. The education in all of these schools could be patchy: cheating, bullying, corporal punishment, all were rife. From 1861 to 1864, the Clarendon Commission was established to look into the situation (the reports are a fascinating insight into nineteenth-century education).   Nineteenth-century school stories are full of tales of woe, often connected to the Latin classroom. Latin was the subject most people had to study, whether they liked it or not, whether they had aptitude for it or not, and many did not.

Cribbing and Cheating

If you wanted to cheat at your Latin, you could buy a ‘crib,’ which was a facing-page translation, from which you could crib, or steal the meaning of your text. School stories often make mention of boys caught cribbing. Some of them are bad boys, who are characterologically inclined to cheating. Some of them are good boys, constitutionally unable to deal with the approach to learning Latin, who resort to contraband to get by.
Farrar is both disapproving of and sympathetic to these boys. Obviously cheating is wrong. But he also believes that the system was creating the need to cheat.

A reformed cribber: Harry East in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857)
A reformed cribber: Harry East in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)

The eponymous Eric doesn’t need to cheat: he’s bright enough to manage his translations on his own. But a misunderstanding with a hot-tempered teacher means that he is suspected of cheating, and his own hot temper, pride, and misplaced (in Farrar’s view) loyalty to his fellow students, mean that he doesn’t point to the real culprit. Things go from bad to worse for Eric, who ends up running away, taking work on a boat, and dying from overwork and ill treatment. A cautionary tale indeed, and a fascinating book.



Peeking at exams in Julian Home: a Tale of College Life.

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Kennedy Reading the Examination Questions, illustrated by Stanley Berkley

Farrar followed Eric with Julian Home: a Tale of College Life (1860).  Here, an honourable boy, Julian, the type of scholarly student one dreams of teaching, or of being, copes with the snob factor in his life as a scholarship student at ‘Camford,’ a thinly described Oxbridge university. His friend Kennedy, brilliant but nervy, lacks Julian’s manly stamina, and gets caught up in cheating.  He reads the exam questions that his tutor has left lying on his desk, and is then blackmailed by another student who has witnessed him.  The anxiety and guilt lead him to the brink of suicide, before the ghost of his dead mother knocks the gun out of his hand.  Melodramatic, perhaps, but reflective of the real stresses of education, where there was often much at stake.


That heathenish language . . . the death of Dubbs in St Winifred’s or, The World of School

St Winifred, or the World of School (1861) is my favourite of the three. Here, we meet Walter Evson, an intelligent boy who has been home schooled, and has a wide range of knowledge of the natural world that his school life at St Winifred’s does not foster. He becomes resentful at the stringencies of rote-learning, and, clashing with his teacher, commits the unforgiveable sin of burning the manuscript of this teacher’s scholarly book.

St Winifred's, or: The World of School
St Winifred’s, or: The World of School (1902 edition: London: A&C Black).

Through Walter, Farrar shows the perils of a one-size fits all education: Walter, an intelligent student is cramped by the education on offer. His friend, Johnny Daubenay, aka ‘Dubbs,’ is not so lucky. Dubbs does not have the ability to memorize his Latin, and ends up hopelessly behind, with each day’s failed homework mounting up and causing disaster for the morrow.

Following a walk up a nearby mountain, during which the boys are caught in a sudden storm, Dubbs catches a fever. And as he lies on his sickbed, he deliriously tries to memorize his Horace.


the poor boy fancied himself sitting under the gas-lamp in the passage as he had so often done, and trying to master one of his repetition lessons, repeating the lines fast to himself as he used to do—

“Hac arte Pollux et vagus Hercules,

Enisus—enisus arces—enisus arces attigit igneas,

Quos inter Augustus—

“How does it go on?—[i]

Dubbs’s nurse tries in vain to make him stop ‘a-repeating that there heathenish Latin.’ But Dubbs lies there, ‘still humming fragments of Horace lines, sometimes with eager concentration, and then with pauses at parts where his memory failed, at which he would grow distressed and anxious’.   (250).  Eventually Dubbs dies, a tragic casualty of a flawed education system that has fatally weakened his constitution, and turned his mind.

Latin is a language, dead as dead can be . . .

Farrar’s works were known for their ‘lachrymose’ qualities. They are a sub-genre of Evangelical Victorian novels for young readers, part of a tradition in which writers preached the good word; they are also novels of ideas: in this case ideas about the education system: about how Latin should be taught, to whom it should be taught, and about what happens when it goes horribly wrong.

— Elizabeth Hale

[i] Frederic W. Farrar, St Winifred’s or the World of School. London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1920. 250.