Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis . . .

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.

Names

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.

Mythological Creatures

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.

‘Who’s there?’ Hagrid called. ‘Show yerself–I’m armed!’

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. . .

Spells and Magical Latin

I’ve written before about how nineteenth-century school stories pit students against teachers in the Latin classroom. In Harry Potter, the children don’t have to learn Latin for its own sake, but in order to do their spells properly. Accio means ‘I summon,’ and is useful for calling one’s wand to one; Petrificus Totalus freezes a victim so they are unable to move until released. And so on. The appeal is obvious. Latin in these books becomes cool, a gateway to a magical world, a clue to a secret power, but also part of the wizard’s everyday toolkit. In previous generations Latin was a password to the ruling classes, and also a lingua franca that enabled communications among all sorts of different communities. Here, it’s just as magical, and teachers report that students cite the Harry Potter novels as inspiration to study Latin.

Classical Parallels and Storytelling

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 .

–Elizabeth Hale

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Sort of meeting Lewis and Tolkien . . . an Oxford reverie

In my family, my father and I are the ones who read and enjoy fantasy literature, and we share and discuss our favourites, when the others are not around.  Here he reminisces about his time as a student at Oxford University, the home of three of Britain’s best-known and loved fantasy writers (C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and J. R. R. Tolkien).

John Hale is an authority on the Latin works of John Milton. Since his ‘retirement’ in 2007, he has produced many volumes, including De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. 8), and most recently, Milton’s Scriptural Theology: Confronting De Doctrina.

Lewis, fiction and scholarship

I read bucket-loads of Lewis at school and university. At school it was his books on religious belief. They were approved of there. I was impressed by the Screwtape Letters; their indirect technique, evil mentoring from a senior to a junior devil, was new to me and to apologetics. At university, however, other forms of belief and unbelief or doubt made more noise.

Lewis remained a presence at Oxford even after he had shifted (unfortunately for me) to Cambridge. He had founded the Socratic Club, where belief and unbelief were interrogated by a formally-appointed Socratic gadfly. (Like a medieval disputation, as I later learnt.) I found that I couldn’t breathe its combative atmosphere, and that Lewis’s pugnacity was uncongenial to serious thought about faith. I had a friend, Martin, who enjoyed the religious works more than I did, without being at all persuaded or moved by them.

Martin preferred Till We Have Faces, where Lewis retold the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis set it in some far country, beyond the edge of Greek or Roman territory, and told it from a strange viewpoint, that of Psyche’s sister. I mention it because I liked it too, for its deliberate strangeness. Well written, too, almost too well. Did writing come too easily to Lewis?

       He says not, in his self-life, Surprised by Joy. He says that when he began writing fiction, he was astonished by how much harder it was. To write about literature you just “switched on the motor at the place where you had left off,” and carried on, whereas to write a story needed a different power, the power which might or might not return— would just as likely “leave a man as dry as a stone.” He liked to talk of “a man,” generalizing in a bluff or hearty tone from his own experience.

        Hard or easy, I found him wonderful at almost everything he touched; but which of his books did I read when? That did change. Nowadays I admire his works of scholarship the most. Not the apologetics, nor the children’s tales, but works on the scale of his Oxford (OHEL) volume English Literature in the Sixteenth Century  (but “excluding the drama,” saddled for ever with its stuffy sub-title) which manages to be both objective and personal, funny and austere. Or works where he expounded and expatiated, to continual delight and enlightenment, like the Discarded Image and Studies in Words.

         Back then, aged about 21, I was in some awe of his fiction, because he himself was in awe of that kind of writing. It did come harder to him. He himself was in awe of Tolkien, and the more difficult Charles Williams, and other Inklings.

Sort of meeting Lewis

        I met him once back then, sort of. I dreamt that I met him. Like this: As a student at Christ Church, we had a tatty old common room with high window seats, on which you could look out at one of those secretive Alice gardens with high stone walls. Lewis Carroll’s former rooms were on the next floor up from this common room, in the corner of Tom Quad. In my dream, I was sitting with Lewis at that window. He said, “Got something to show you.” He rummaged in the baggy side-pocket of his old check sports-jacket, and carefully brought out a fairy, about three inches tall, wearing a pale green hazel-nut cap. End of dream. Waking up I recognized Lewis from his photograph, and the fairy from one of the Rupert books. The first one I had ever read, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, and nothing to do with Lewis. Well, no, maybe somehow it was. And how strange that the dream-encounter was set in Dodgson-land; underneath it, in fact. Allegories welcomed.

          It was some time after that dream that I met Lewis’s children’s stories. The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, borrowed from the Oxford Public Library just up the road. (A distinctively Victorian library, that one. Loved it.) I was thrilled by the Dawn-Treader! I felt Lewis had embodied his own love of Die Ferne, which he vents a lot in Surprised by Joy. Like Odysseus, too. And Norse myths of sailing to the farthermost end of the sea. In Reepicheep, the mighty-mouse idea blended with that lovely poem by Christopher Smart, about the mouse which challenged the cat which has seized his mate. (Set to music by Benjamin Britten in Jubilate Agno.) These off-centre works radiate a different joy from the plodding ones of much fiction, including workaday fantasies which show their construction.

A brush with Tolkien

           I had more time for random reading that summer (1959). I was grappling with philosophy reading, logic, which took me one hour per page. I had to read something else. I tried Dawn-Treader. Also in May 1959 I heard of Tolkien. I had heard tell of how one day, marking examination papers, he had written onto one of the scripts, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” An act of release, frustration, rebellion, who knows? He had fame outside his own subject because of it. I liked the break-out. And he was a buddy of Lewis. Lewis was “Jack,” Tolkien was “Tollers.” To each other, I mean, when meeting at the pub on Tuesdays to drink deep and debate their fictions.

        So, when Tolkien gave his final lecture, I packed in with hundreds of other people to Merton Hall. That one time, I “sort of” met him too. It was filled full, gallery and all. I had got there late, so stood at the back of the gallery. I could hear every word, then! The lecture ran for well over an hour. It consisted, entirely, of a defence of the Oxford English syllabus. Which did and must for ever start with Old English (compulsory), stopping at Jane Austen!  This did need some defending. It disappointed me. Anyhow, I was present only to hear anecdotes or indiscretions about hobbit-making.

         How curious, in hindsight, to learn that some scholars (such as my Otago colleague Alan Horsman) judged that Tolkien should have spent his last 30 years at Oxford on his scholarship; following up his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Instead, Tolkien published little except fantasy once he started with the Hobbit. Hobbitry took up more and more of his energies. And his jingly verse and philological whimsying. I have some sympathy for Alan in this! I was bored by the valedictory, couldn’t see what the fuss was about this in-house stuff, since I was studying a different subject. And, holding those views about the syllabus, wouldn’t it have been more consistent to publish scholarship? Better still, like Lewis, to divide his writing time between his two very great gifts…

Hobbit or Homer?

          For the record, before going back to Lewis:: from reading the Hobbit, I remember only Gollum, and “My precious.” And from a year later, reading the Rings, how Gollum’s fixation and identity are finally disclosed. If I remember rightly, he is a former hobbit, who has lost his skin and eyesight, and his right wits, by hunting through too many caverns for long dark ages for the lost ring of power. A moral tale, ending in metamorphosis, somewhat resembling the evolutionary pattern of species like flightless birds, or bats. Call me Philistine, but the imagination at work here does not impress me all that much.

         Much greater power is to be found in Homer understated, back near the beginning of recoverable fiction. When the suitors are slain by the bow of Odysseus, their spirits flee away like bats in flight, squeaking, trizontes. They are flitting off in a colourless half-life to Hades, where even the greatest spirits —like Achilles, who has spoken with Odysseus during the Nekuia, the book where he travels to consult the dead—loathe to be, only partly alive after their vibrant lives of earth. The mythological imagination coheres, and convinces. Is it because we have gone back to its wellspring, the oral composition and bardic performance?

Kindly but not cosy—Lewis

         A little later, 1962 I think, I tried Tolkien’s long tale. Thrilled at first, I read the Rings late into the night in order to finish, despite this being the week of final exams. An imprudence! Was I growing up or eegressing?  That was the high watermark of my liking and enjoyment. Lewis’s tales have lasted better. Or I haven’t binged on them. He undertakes secondary epic more lightly, at less portentous length, and with a different kind of density. He has the same philological density. Spirits that glint sidelong in the bright air are eldila, singular being eldil. And in other ways the secondary epic is thought through with less sweating over it than Tolkien. Lewis more lightly touches it in, to the depth required in each moment of his story— as it intensifies towards the end in Dawntreader It was always a sport. Tolkien turned professional after being enjoyed as an amateur.

           I don’t know whether I prefer Lewis because he enlivened tales which were his own with assorted myth, not only classical, or because Tolkien stood closer to a different body of myth which he knew better and then aped. But Lewis’s characterizations engage actual growing-up feelings better. Myths help: Argonautic voyaging rather than clunky sword-fighting (taken ad absurdum in those movies). Lewis is kindly but not cosy, unlike Tolkien.          

          What does let it down, for me, is the metaphysics, in a word, Aslan. Tolkien does the opposite, beneficially: no benign spirit presiding and intervenes, and instead a supernatural of evil, as if evil not good was the ruling norm. The metaphysic you get in Henry James. Rather than either of them, leave the tale-telling to Robert Louis Stevenson.

         All in all, nonetheless, Lewis is the great all-rounder of English letters in his century.

John Hale

“Dobby is Free!” The House Elf as the Spartacus of the Wizarding World

Anna Mik is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, completing her thesis on the representation of mythical creatures in literature for children and young adults–especially on the ethical conundrums they present for young minds to think about. Here, she talks about Dobby, the house-elf famously freed by Harry Potter (with advice and encouragement from his friend Hermione Granger). Could it be that Dobby is a Spartacus of the Wizarding World?

This paper is an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019.)

“Freedom or death” – those three words are famously inscribed in popular culture and associated with the historical figure of Spartacus. This seemingly simple and concise combination of words defining the basic privilege of every creature and the final moment of its existence, reflects the tragedy of struggle for eleutheria (liberty), a goal beyond which there is nothing but death.

1 “Spartacus” (1960), dir. Stanley Kubrick (source: cineserie.com)

Gaining freedom almost always comes with the ultimate price. In antiquity, with its own variations and differences, slaves were treated as objects and their masters’ property. Although the vision of ancient slavery seems distant, until recently this phenomenon was very close to our times, both in Europe and in the United States (of course, in different than ancient forms). People of African descent were treated as objects or animals as well, and had to fight for their rights which still are not respected in some parts of the world. The echoes of its presence can still be heard today, including, maybe surprisingly, the literature for our youngest readers.

Take the Harry Potter novels, for example. To some extent J. K. Rowling explores slavery through her presentation of creatures placed very low in the wizarding hierarchy. House-elves inhabiting the world of Harry Potter have one function assigned to them: to serve wizards without payment or any kind of appreciation. They wear the worst kind of rag they can find and do not own any property. The major schoolbook History of Hogwarts does not even mention the existence of the house-elves, even though: “Elf enslavement goes back in centuries”, Rowling, 2000: 198); They are evidently excluded from the main discourse, as their presence is not appropriately acknowledged, in wizarding education nor in their political affairs.

2 House-elves (source: Pottermore)

How to liberate an elf

Nevertheless, there is a way to liberate the house-elf: by giving them a piece of clothing. Usually they consider this act the worst tragedy—emphasizing the fear that can come with freedom. But in the second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) Harry develops a significant connection to one of the house-elves.  He is named Dobby, and is the only of his kind that dreams of eleutheria and despises his wizard master (the snobbish Lucius Malfoy). After defeating Lord Voldemort once more, Harry gives the elf a sock and finally Dobby is free!.  From now on the creature openly admires the boy, and even though he is now freed of any obligations towards wizards, he promises to stand by Potter’s side at all costs. 

Elves’ connection to enslavement and clothing brings us back to the fairy-tale tradition, where those creatures served humans, in exchange for clothing or food. Such depictions are common in many folk-tales (also in Poland) but probably the most popular one would be the version by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: The Elves and the Shoemaker (first trans. to English by Margaret Hunt in 1884 as: The Elves). In this tale the elves make shoes for a Shoemaker at night, to a point when (depending on the version) the man frees them by giving the creatures a piece of clothing. The Shoemaker does that to pay his debt, which might make us wonder–does Harry do the same thing?

Is it possible that Harry frees Dobby out of guilt for the pain that wizard society caused the house-elves? We do not read about such a motive in the book, nonetheless, it might have been one of the options. Or maybe – which is most likely –  he only did it out of pure sympathy towards Dobby, combinded with a need of revange on Malfoy house. Either way, one more question remains – why only Dobby was freed, why not other elves, who also suffer from slavery and wizards’ oppression?

3 Dobby with a sock, freed from the Malfoys (screenshot)

Hierarchy and relationships among magical species

Dobby’s humble attitude towards the wizard reflects the hierarchy and relationships between magical species – elf-servants and wizard-masters. Even though house-elves have a great magical power, they cannot use it without their owner’s permission (Rowling, 1998: 27). The system of supremacy is also supported by the notion that only wealthy families with long wizardry tradition have house-elves, as a form of luxury and legitimacy of authority (Rowling, 1998: 28). This fact also reflects the well-known historical concept of enslavement, a privilege of the rich and mighty.

The only advocate among wizards and witches that stands for the elves and wants to include them in the social discourse is Hermione Granger. Mocked by her friends, despised by elves for destroying the status quo, she is convinced that changing their work conditions will serve all members of the wizarding community. She is the first one who actually acknowledges their subservient position and openly defines their status as slavery (Rowling, 2000: 112). While others think that house elves like to be “bossed around” and are “not supposed to have fun”, Hermione believes in the potential of elfish revolution. 

At the end of the series Dobby dies while rescuing his hero, Harry Potter. On the stone of an improvised grave, the wizard carves the words: Here lies Dobby, a Free Elf. (Rowling, 2007: 389).  A consolation for this sad moment could have been the words of Spartacus from Stanley Kubrick’s production: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” Dobby might be the next embodiment of Spartacus’ spirit, eleutheria in pure form, a creature, who, in order to achieve such state, had to die.

The long way ahead …

There are some parts in Rowling’s Potter-writting where the allusions to the real-life slavery are very clear and obvious. However, what is a little bit worrying, is that Rowling does not push this issue further: we do not know if the revolution of house-elves ever takes place, whether there are any more creatures inspired by Dobby’s thought, or whether there are some other wizards or witches besides Hermione that actually recognise the problem of elf-slavery. It might be possible that Rowling believes in her readers more than in her characters, and that the house-elves will influence young minds – to be aware of social patterns threatening the freedom of less privileged creatures – not only humans.

Probably there is a long way ahead for the other house-elves to gain freedom and sustain democratic order in the wizarding world. Yet, it is not far from impossible. As Michel Foucault reminds us:

“Liberty is a practice… The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions of law that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because ‘liberty’ is what must be exercised… […] The guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (Rainbow 1984: 245)          

Anna Mik.

Funny Bones–Geoffrey McSkimming’s Archaeological Adventures

Geoffrey McSkimming’s the author of the dashing Cairo Jim series, which I’ll be talking about on Saturday at the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this week.  In fact, the conference has begun, but while my colleagues are considering how children’s literature engages with the history of classical antiquity, I’m stuck in my hotel room nursing a lovely cold, and hacking cough.  I sound a bit like Cairo Jim’s learned friend, Brenda the Wonder-Camel, who intones quaooo whenever she has a deep thought. 

Anyway, as part of my preparation for this conference, I was recently delighted to interview Geoffrey, whose books are really entertaining and funny, and show how fun and scholarship can coexist in interesting stories for children of all ages.  And I’m looking forward to sharing his work with the Warsaw audience.  Geoffrey’s work can be found at geoffreymcskimming.com, cairojim.com, and 9diamondspress.com.  And the good news is that a new Cairo Jim novel is due out soon…

Here’s what we talked about. 

What drew you to writing archaeological adventure stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity?

I’ve always loved history and story, especially the classic myths. I was bitten by the Egyptology bug when I was a child and years later I took my first overseas trip, venturing to Africa and finishing up in Egypt. Here I was overwhelmed by the history and the mystery of this country and, after getting sunstroke in the Valley of the Kings, I came up with the world of Cairo Jim and his friends and adventures.

The Cairo Jim chronicles proved to be an excellent avenue for me to explore many of the classical myths, and also those pockets of history where things have become forgotten. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to put my own interpretations on what might have happened in the past, when we are now unsure of the actual events.

When I wrote the Cairo Jim stories I visited many of the locations and ancient sites featured in the chronicles. I spent countless hours in archaeological museums and wandering around crumbling ruins; visiting remote jungle areas and isolated Greek islands; climbing pyramids in Mexico and scaling the insides of them in Egypt. I lived and breathed the air breathed by the characters in my stories and I immersed myself in the ancient tales and myths that took place at these places. In these ways I suppose my literary style and idiom developed, with a healthy dose of outrageous humour and relentless irreverence which have defined much of my life.

GMSK Author pic Final © 9 diamonds press
Geoffrey McSkimming

 

The Cairo Jim books — 19 in all — were written and published over a period of nearly twenty years, and during that time I was able to explore many concepts to do with history and legend. Classical antiquity fuelled much of the world of Cairo Jim; it’s a world to which he’s passionately devoted. I think the series found its legs with the fourth story, Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods, which explores the concept of the disposability of big concepts, in this case being an entire belief system. What happened to cause the people of the time to abandon the Titan gods and take up the Olympians? It’s a mystery that Cairo Jim stumbles upon and one that he must solve before the world as we know it comes crashing down …

Where does the inspiration for Brenda the Wonder Camel come from?  (She is my favourite character—I aspire to be as good a scholar as she).

Brenda developed firstly as a plot device: she was an excellent way to inject information into the narrative (a Wonder Camel who, as a young calf, accidentally consumed all twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and then retained every bit of knowledge from those tomes is worth her weight in gold!). But it was when I visited a school, shortly after Cairo Jim in Search of Martenarten was published, that I realised how valuable a character – indeed, how valuable all characters in a story – could be. A girl at this school, a student in Year Five, said to me that she really enjoyed the story, but there was one bit she didn’t like. It was the bit when Jim and Doris the macaw went down underground to enter the tomb of the pharaoh Martenarten, leaving Brenda behind, up on the ground. This young girl said to me (and the words changed the course of the chronicles): ‘In my experience, it’s always the quiet ones who get left out.’ Her words struck at my very soul, and I realised for the first time how important characters are to readers. Because of that girl, Brenda the Wonder Camel developed through the years with a wisdom and a quiet, strong presence she may not otherwise have had.

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

Because, with classical / ancient myths, the stories are rich and powerful and they’re filled with great characters. And they’re not afraid to push boundaries and show scallywags behaving naughtily. I also love sharing other stories and other writers with younger readers; hence Doris the macaw is frequently quoting from Shakespeare (and Mr. Shakespeare even appears in Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror). And Phyllis Wong encounters Mary Shelley and the whole world of the creation of Frankenstein in Phyllis Wong and the Girl who Danced with Lightning. I love literary resonance, and sharing these things – I find that exciting. Stories can build on stories, and if that happens respectfully, the foundations of storytelling can only become stronger.

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 in this respect?

When I started writing the chronicles, the internet wasn’t around, so my research was undertaken in libraries and museums and through as much travel as I could afford. I read many old volumes of classical myth and legend, which I still have in my collection. Also on my reading lists were books by explorers like Richard Halleburton, F W Schnitger, Percy Fawcett and others. And Evelyn Waugh’s travel books were a source of inspiration, especially for the times during which he made his trips.

Did you think about how aspects Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?

Not greatly. I suppose the fact that so many of the stories from Classical Antiquity are such strong and entertaining stories, and that they still hold the attention after so many centuries, means that the stories continue to have real currency, and are ripe to be interpreted in stories such as mine.

One thing I try to share with young readers is my experiences of being in the places where the ancient stories played out: describing, for example, the smells of an ancient place and the appearance of the crumbling ruins as evocatively as I can, so that the readers can get a vivid sense of the setting and thus place themselves in the story, ancient or modern. In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus I recreated the House of the Perfumer at Pompeii after spending a lot of quiet time visitng the site, and I tried to evoke the ancient and the modern mystery of that place through the descriptions.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

The series I’m writing at present, the Phyllis Wong Mysteries, do use classical material in some of the stories. In Phyllis Wong and the Waking of the Wizard, the legends of Myrddin (Merlin) come to life when a sinister figure from the past tries to lure the great wizard into the present to bring down civilisation as we know it …

Anything else you think we should know?

Two things: 1. A brand new Cairo Jim story is coming soon, and 2. licorice and Gruyère cheese don’t go well together.

Noted!  Thanks very much, Geoffrey—we look forward to the new CJ novel.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

Thinking about Nature with Donna Jo Napoli’s Fish Girl…

Like so many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nature lately–I’m sure don’t need to tell you why.  As part of the Our Mythical Childhood project, I’m thinking about how children’s writers and illustrators use myth to make sense of the natural world: what it is, how it works, how we live in it–how we should take care of it–what happens when we don’t.  Children are natural beings, and yet as adults, we’re aware that the human race has not done well by nature–seeing it as something to be plundered and exploited, rather than cherished and nurtured.  How we talk about it in their books has implications, and ramifications.  (It’s great to see children’s illustrators joining together to support children in their concerns about the environment.)

One set of myths that highlight our relation to nature centre on the figure of the mermaid–half woman, half fish–caught between worlds.  Stories like Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, TV series like H2O: Just Add Wateror films like Miyazaki’s Ponyo highlight human exploitation of the seas–through fishing, through pollution–and encourage a more respectful relation between both. Meanwhile Jessica Love’s Julian is a Mermaid, as I’ve discussed, explores diversity and respect for difference.

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Fish Girl, a lovely graphic novel by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner, explores these ideas, and more, in a story about isolation, exploitation, and eventual escape and survival.  Fish Girl is the story of a mermaid who was kidnapped as a baby by a fisherman who found her in his catch. Seeing financial opportunity, he set up a seaside attraction in an old house, calling it ‘Ocean Wonders,’ posing as Neptune, the ‘god of seas and storms,’ and charging visitors $2 to ‘see the mysterious fish girl.’ The mermaid is captive in a large tank, which she shares with fish and an octopus, and which is decorated like a girl’s bedroom. The mermaid’s job is to play hide-and-seek with visitors, who try to see her in her tank, and to collect the pennies they have thrown into the tank. She has reached adolescence, and her best friend is a red octopus.

Eventually, the mermaid meets a human girl, and they become friends.  The tank suddenly seems more confining and lonely, and the mermaid finds a way to leave it, to join the outside world. It’s a lovely, but melancholy book, highlighting the melancholy at the heart of mermaid myths, such as the Little Mermaid, and reminiscent in places of novels of kidnapping and isolation, such as Room.  The melancholy story is supported by David Wiesner’s delicate illustrations–the colour palette, of blues and greens and corals, entirely appropriate, but also making glancing allusions to Disney’s Little Mermaid, or Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo.

Children’s books don’t have to be direct to make serious points–and Fish Girl invites us to think about the natural world–its power, and its fragility–our place in it, and our responsibility for it.

I took my enjoyment of this lovely book as an excuse to write to Donna Jo Napoli, to interview her for the Our Mythical Childhood survey.  Donna Jo is a widely published author and academic.  She’s a linguist and a teacher, has a degree in Mathematics, and on top of all that, has a voluminous output of retellings and adaptations of myths, fairytales, and folklore, as well as stories about nature and inspirational people.  It was a delight to interview her.

 

Interview with Donna Jo Napoli

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1. What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories? 

I think it started with my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Reynolds. She brought the old tales to life — all their passion and intrigue and misery. I got involved in the Latin club, and then in the Latin Forum of the State of Florida. I even ran a state forum one year. When I went to college, I didn’t follow up on Latin. But in graduate school, I had to pass a test in reading Latin. I decided not to prepare for it, but just go in and see what happened. I passed — after four years away from Latin. And that’s because Mrs. Reynolds was so terrific. The experience reminded me of how much I loved those stories. After that I went for years not doing anything with Latin. But in Spring 2013, a classics professor at Swarthmore, Rosaria Munson, and I co-taught a course on The Hero’s Journey. We looked at Virgil’s Aeneid, then Dante’s Divina Commedia, then Eugenio Montale’s poetry — all in the original Latin, then Old Italian, then modern Italian — talking about historical change in language as well as variations on the themes in the different works. It was thrilling reading the Aeneid again. And it was thrilling seeing the relevance of the old works to modern life.

In FISH GIRL I didn’t think of any particular myth. Rather, I tried to use the ancient feeling that the seas are full of potential. Mysterious creatures live and rule there. Ordinary understandings of how life works don’t necessarily hold. Though David and I didn’t put in any snakes growing out of heads or talking animals, we allowed the octopus to grow to enormous size and then shrink again, where emotions were the key to the size changes. And we allowed the fish in Fish Girl’s tank to recognize that she was somehow changing and to respond accordingly.

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

We know a great deal of facts about the world now, many more than the ancients did. But we still lack understanding of many things. For example, we don’t even really know how it is that trees manage to pump water up from the ground to their crowns. We’ve rejected osmosis as the answer — but there is no presently agreed upon answer. And that is a rather mundane thing — something happening around us all the time, but we haven’t a clue about what’s going on. We are much more in the dark about the arcane things. And the more we learn about both life on earth and space way out there, the more we recognize how little we truly understand.

The ancients tried to give reasons for everything… for earthquakes and tsunamis and lightning. They sought to see a comprehensive picture. And within that picture, they tried to adjust to the vagaries of human behavior. I think young people today would like a comprehensive picture within which they could make some kind of sense of the natural world and human behavior within it. It is comforting to see characters in the ancient tales struggle with the same human foibles we struggle with. And it is comforting to see that they too were stupified by natural events around them… different natural events from the ones that stupify us today, perhaps… but no less enigmatic.

3. 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 in this respect?  

Ah, I answered some of that in question 1. For most fiction work I do that is placed in classical times, I use translations into English of Homer, Hesiod, and Apollodorus. I stay away from Wikipedia on this — although I love Wikipedia for many other things (it is a great source of information about languages and linguistics, for example, because the Linguistic Society of America urges its members to add information to Wikipedia and correct anything that’s dubious).

Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers? Absolutely. I did a book for National Geographic called Treasury of Greek Mythology. In there I chose to present the stories that I most love. They were written in Greek, of course, and I don’t read Greek, so I had to look at translations. An interesting thing about translations is that the same story is quite differently translated by scholars in different points of history…. or that’s what I concluded from my very small and limited study. Looking at translations from the 1700s through today, I found myself making choices based on my own sensibilities — which is what I’m sure those translators did. I also read many of the stories in Latin — in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I suspect that Ovid influenced me most. Certainly with respect to the creation tale. Ovid’s words swirl and transform themselves, wonderfully evocative and still illusive. I aimed for that sense in my rendering of the creation tale.

4. How concerned were you with “accuracy” or “fidelity” to the original? (another way of saying that might be—that I think writers are often more “faithful” to originals in adapting its spirit rather than being tied down at the level of detail—is this something you thought about?) 

Yes, this is a major concern I had, more so in Treasury than in Fish Girl, since Fish Girl was a character that David and I created in a more-nearly modern world. For Treasury I always used the details that were in the originals — I never changed them. But I added a modern psychology, which was a personal choice, but I expect that choice was unavoidable. That is, I cannot help but see the behaviors of characters as reflecting the way I, as a person of today, understand human behavior.

5. Are you planning any further forays into classical material? 

I don’t plan far ahead. Whatever I’m working on at the moment is my world. Presently, I’m deep into the world of the Ancient Hebrews. But I’m nearly finished with this project. Where I will go next is unclear to me. I have a story in my head set in India in the late 1800s, and I’d like to work on that. But interruptions happen — and I am always open to happy serendipities. Will I ever return to the classical world of Greece? I can’t know that — but the stories are eternal fonts of wisdom and pain — so I hope I do.

6. Anything else you think we should know? 

Ha! what a funny question. But I will answer it. People often assume that I know more than I know. It’s as though working with the classics gives you an aura of respectability and of nearly encyclopedic knowledge. The truth is, I bumble through things. I’m not afraid to deal with what I don’t understand, because I understand so little that if I let that fear stop me, I wouldn’t write anything. And, you know, if I fully understood things, I would have no motivation to write. For me, writing is a way of tackling problems, a way of trying to get a sense a peace. But rarely do I ever feel I “know” something or truly “understand” it.

 

Thank you!

—Elizabeth Hale