Charting Mythical Creatures with Jez Kemp and Tobias Druitt

Ever wondered where a centaur overlaps with a mermaid? Why on earth not? British designer Jez Kemp has developed the ultimate diagram to help you do so. Miriam Riverlea explains… and finds connections with the novels of Tobias Druitt into the bargain…

The internet is a trove of the weird and the wonderful, and it is exciting to see web-based material being recorded within the Mythical Childhood survey within the ‘Ephemeral’ category.  I recently came across this Mythical Creatures Chart (via the Partial Historians blog).  Created by British designer Jez Kemp in 2012, the chart applies the design principles of a Venn diagram to highlight the hybrid elements of mythological creatures, both from the classical and other traditions.  The colourful globular shapes represent different species (including human, horse, lion, bird…), which overlap each other, so that the Minotaur is the fusion between human and bull, and the Chimaera is positioned in the space where the lion, goat, snake, and lizard intersect. 

Like some sort of psychedelic rainbow coloured lava lamp, Kemp’s chart is a clever, visually striking way to organise the information (t-shirts and posters are available for purchase).  As he explains in a blog post, it features 17 real world animals to include 57 mythical creatures.  It also includes an area demarcating ‘More body parts’, to include humanoid figures like three-headed Geryon and the Hecatoncheires (the hundred-handed giants enlisted by the Titans in the war against the Olympians), and ‘Fewer body parts’ for the Cyclops and Monopod.  As is often the case in cross-cultural story collections in which the classical tradition dominates tales from other cultures, the number of creatures from the Greek and Roman mythology outnumbers those from other traditions.  Nevertheless, it is very interesting to see the more familiar creatures from the Greek myths in conjunction with those from other traditions (some of whom I have never heard of). 

There are other charts featuring mythical creatures on the web (Kemp refers to this one created by Unwin and Carline in 2009, which in turn prompted this more complex one), and Kemp has also plotted his data on to a Metro Map, with different coloured branch lines representing each species and their intersections.  This way of approaching mythology could be criticised for being somewhat reductive, in that it is concerned solely with these creatures’ physical bodies, and not any other aspects of their mythology.  It’s also clear from Kemp’s blog that it is easy to get caught up in pedantic issues of categorisation (He asks whether the Hydra is part lizard or snake? And the Chimaera has wings, but does it fly?)  The stories in which these creatures feature are not uniform or consistent, so it’s difficult, and unrealistic, to expect that they can be neatly mapped into a tidy diagram.   Kemp admits that he used his own discretion in selecting the creatures, particularly in the hazy area between mythology and religion (‘One person’s religion is another’s mythology’ he writes). If nothing else, the Chart is a reminder of the way that the human imagination employs ordinary elements in the creation of the fabulous and fantastical. 

A number of the hybrid creatures featured on the Chart also appear in Tobias Druitt’s Corydon and the Sea of Monsters (2005).  Medusa, the Sphinx, the Harpy, the Hydra, and the Minotaur are included within a large cast of mythological characters, alongside Pan, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, Perseus, Jason, Zeus, Hades and Kronos.  The text is a treatise on monstrosity, challenging preconceived definitions of heroism and other celebrated traits.  The god Pan tells his son Corydon that the Olympian gods:

‘made men think that there was only one way to be beautiful, only one way to be clever, only one way to be a real person – their way.  Everything else they called monstrous.’ (87)

Born with one leg of a goat, Corydon is cast out by his village and labelled pharmakos, the scapegoat who is sacrificed to ensure the wellbeing of the community.  He is captured by pirates, who have amassed a collection of monsters to display in a freak show.  Corydon and Medusa engineer an escape, and come to live with two other immortal Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale.  Medusa gives birth to baby boy, and the group becomes a kind of family.   They join forces with the other monsters to defend themselves against Perseus, who has raised an army with the support of his father Zeus.  Perseus looks like a hero, but he is an unappealing character, motivated by greed and crippled with insecurities.  It is Corydon who displays true heroism, in his encounters with the gods, his descent to the underworld, and in his support of his friends. 

While Perseus’ killing of Medusa remains one of the inviolable events of classical mythology, in other ways Druitt’s work is a radical reworking of the ancient tradition.  In bringing together the monsters from many different myths, and investing them with subjectivity and humanity, this text explores mythical creatures in a more dynamic way than Kemp’s chart, which focuses solely on their physical features.  Both texts, though, invite us to consider mythical monsters from a different perspective, and I am looking forward to seeing them both added to the Mythical Childhood survey. 

Miriam Riverlea

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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

I came, I saw, I threw up–slapstick history in Julius Zebra

‘I’d forgotten what an impetuous little donkey you are’–The Emperor Hadrian, Julius Zebra: Entangled with the Egyptians.

As part of my mission to think about history and comedy, I’ve been reading Gary Northfield’s very funny Julius Zebra series of middle-grade chapter books  In the first of them, Rumble with the Romans, Julius, a zebra from the ‘stinky lake’ in the middle of Africa, is captured and taken to Rome to visit the circus.  Actually, that’s what he thinks at first.  In fact, he’s taken to be in the circus, to fight for his life in front of the Emperor Hadrian.  At first it doesn’t go so well for Julius and his friends, but when a gladiator calls him a ‘stripy horse,’ Julius sees red and finds his fighting instincts, becoming the crowd’s, and the Emperor’s favourite.

It’s a kind of Spartacus-meets-Gladiator –meets Asterix-meets-Beano-and-Dandy romp, mixing madcap mayhem with quite a bit of historical information along the way, and it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read about Ancient Rome in a a long time.

Bundle with the Britons is the second in the Julius Zebra series, in which Julius and his friends are sent to Britain to subdue the Britons by taking on their fearsome gladiators.  But when they go on a training run through a swamp, they meet an old woman in a hut, who tells them about the great Iceni warrior, Boudicca, and shows them how to paint themselves with woad, they join forces with their British counterparts, to overthrow the Romans.  Next up is Entangled with the Egyptians, where Julius, fleeing from Hadrian, ends up in Egypt, where he is mistaken for a horse god who can make it rain.  And the last, so far, in the series, is Grapple with the Greeks, in which the great hero Heracles drags Julius and his friends to Greece to help him find his lost Golden Apple.

Northfield creates a merry band of companions for his hero.  There’s Cornelius, the know-it all warthog.  He functions much like Brenda the Wonder-Camel in the Cairo Jim books, providing information when necessary.  (Even if Julius mishears half of it, and misunderstands the rest, the information is very helpful for readers.)  There’s Lucia, the crocodile, whose cunning escape plans seem always to lead the gang back to their captors.  Rufus, the amiable giraffe, always up for adventure, Felix, the rock-collecting antelope, and Milus, a grumpy lion.  Sometimes the gang is joined by their gladiatorial-combat instructor, Pliny the mouse.  And once Julius is reunited with his dimwitted brother, Brutus, even more mayhem ensues.

Together, Julius and friends travel the Roman empire, from Africa to Rome, to Britain, to Egypt and Greece, matching wits with Septimus, a bad-tempered teacher of gladiators, and the emperor himself.

The novels are an enticing mixture of text and cartoons, with a lot of shouting, slapstick and bad puns.  Chapters have titles like ‘I came, I saw, I threw up,’ (Romans) and ‘I want my Mummy’ (in Egyptians), and ‘Hoo noo broon coo’ (Britons), and the humour doesn’t err on the side of subtlety.  But again, along the way, is a great deal of information, delivered in part by Cornelius the warthog, and visible in the details of Northfield’s text and illustrations.  He’s clearly done his research, and for readers eager to know more about Ancient Rome, each volume has a final chapter in which Cornelius teaches how to count in Roman Numerals, and a glossary in which Northfield explains the fundamentals of daily life in antiquity.

These books don’t only give you a good laugh, they teach you something, namely details about a long-ago world. They make me want to know more–to check up on things I’d forgotten, and to think about things I hadn’t heard about before.  And they gave me something to think about: they may not be intended as post-colonial critiques of empire, but there’s certainly a resonance in seeing a group of African animals, kidnapped to entertain the humans of Rome, break free and start a rebellion, in Rome and Britain.  Hadrian’s obsession with his big Wall in Britain offers another sort of modern resonance.  Looking at how the animals band together to outwit the humans, whose intentions are seldom good, I can’t help thinking about how our human world exploits animals.  There are other resonances: animals, like children, are often bossed around by adults, and children identify with animals’ innocence and comparative kindness.  Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it’s nothing to what humans get up to.

Funny books don’t have to be educational, but they often are, perhaps despite themselves.  Through humour, action, fun characters, and amusing situations, Julius Zebra and friends convey a great deal of nonsense, but they also teach us a great deal about the the world–ancient or modern.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

‘A Greek God in the 31st Century? How could such a thing be possible?’ Ulysses 31 and other Japanese adventures in classical reception

This is the basis of a short talk I’m giving at UNE this week, for our Asian Studies Symposium, organised by my colleague, John C. Ryan. It’s a nice opportunity to reflect on some of the findings that have come my way through working on the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.

For some reason, Ulysses 31, a Franco-Japanese animated space opera passed me by as a kid watching tv in 1980s New Zealand. But working on the Our Mythical Childhood project has caught me up on this wonderfully wacky version of Homer’s Odyssey in which a space-warrior, Ulysses, with majestic bearing and amazing hair, is trapped in Olympus with his son, Telemachus, Telemachus’s timid robot Nono, and Yumi, a blue-skinned alien girl (who is trying to revive her brother, Numinor who is in suspended animation following an unfortunate encounter with some Cyclops). They travel through the space known as Olympus, and try to make their way home, visiting strange planets, and having adventures loosely based on the adventures of the original Ulysses.

Ulysses 31

Hot pool time machine? Thermae Romae

Japanese adaptation of classical material is a fascinating field, especially because of its vivid visuals, and its unusual combination of imagination and humour. My first encounter with it was probably Mari Yamizaki’s amazing manga series, Thermae Romae (2012). This series, which has been adapted into an animated series, and two films, features the adventures of Lucius, a Roman bath-designer who is stuck for ideas, and is magically transported to modern-day Japan, where he is struck with awe (as we all are) by Japanese bathroom facilities. Travelling back to his own time and place, he adapts what he has seen into his designs, and becomes an in-demand designer, favoured by the Emperor, Hadrian. Being in-demand in Ancient Rome, of course, can be quite a precarious situation, and adventures, and mayhem, ensue.

Apart from its potty scenario, what I like so much about Therumae Romae is the way Yamazaki exploits the similarities and differences of Roman and Japanese societies. Both are known for their love of baths, both countries are known for their hot springs, and perhaps less obviously both cultures are polytheistic, and full of interesting and unusual superstitions, gods, and mythical creatures.

Mythical Creatures and Romantic Comedy:A Centaur’s Life

Mythical creatures appear in all sorts of Japanese films and manga. I think of Hayao Miyazaki’s well-known animations, such as the marvellous Spirited Away, in which the heroine, Chihiro, has to work at a mysterious bath-house (another bath house!) where the myriad spirits of Japanese culture come to relax. The variety of spirits, who represent aspects of air and water, land and sky, and different kinds of emotions, is not so far removed from the symbolism of the Greek and Roman myths, gods, and metamorphoses.

A Centaur’s Life (2011- present) by Kei Murayama, is a popular coming-of-age romance-oriented comedy-soap-opera manga about the life and worries (the original Japanese translates literally as ‘A Centaur’s Worries’) of a teenage centaur, Himeno Kimihara. Dating, career, friends, growing up, overcoming fears, learning new skills, these are the focus of this amusing (and sometimes racy) series. Himeno is not the only mythical creature in this story, featuring satyrs, mermaids, and demons, and suggesting that adolescence is a metamorphic and mythical state, to be viewed with caution.

Boy Bands and Classical Busts: Sekkou Boys

I’ve written before about Sekkou Boys, a short comedy anime series that sends up the boy band industry and the Japanese obsession with pop idols. It features a quartet of classical gypsum busts (Mars, Hermes, St Giorgio, and Medici) who are trying to become more than one-hit wonders, in company with their rookie manager Miki.  Like A Centaur’s Life, Sekkou Boys doesn’t labour the classical angle, but occasionally draws on the busts’ history and character, such as when the cheeky Hermes operates a side-line, selling health supplements. The supplements are called ‘Trismegistus,’ in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the thrice-great Hermes, associated with healing and wisdom.

Getting Serious: Historical Manga

Other instances of Japanese classical reception are more serious. In Plinius, Mari Yamazaki teams up with another manga-great, Miki Tori, to retell the life of the great Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny. Another historical biography is called Historie, by Hitoshi Iwaaki: it tells the imagined life of Eumenes, a secretary to Alexander the Great, and later a General himself. These works provide lavish illustrations of the ancient world, and allow readers entry into them through vivid characters with interesting lives.

Metamorphosis and Invention: Kid Icarus, Persona, Ludere Deorum

Invention, imagination, filling in gaps, and adapting and modifying material for new contexts is a part of Classical Reception, in Japan and elsewhere as well. Classical material finds its way into games as well as stories and films, such as the hit Nintendo game, Kid Icarus, in which a flying boy leaps up platforms propped by classical columns, and shoots arrows to collect hearts as currency. Sequels, such as Kid Icarus: Myths and Monsters and Kid Icarus: Uprising are popular, and extend the figure into an elaborate mythical-verse, involving goodies, baddies, battles, metamorphoses and more.

Metamorphosis is a vital part in other games, such as Persona, by Atlus games, in which players transform into heroic figures from Greek and Roman myth, such as Orpheus the great poet and singer, and Nyx, the goddess of the night. In this game, which the Belarussian students in the Our Mythical Childhood project have written about, players explore their characters’ emotions even as they work on strategy and gamesmanship, showing the increasing sophistication and reach of games, and the power of myth to connect to young people’s emotions.

Ludere Deorum

Ludere Deorum, a story about humans transported to the school of the gods, in order to increase the bonds between gods and humans, further crosses over between visual novel and game. In it, readers/viewers/players travel with a Japanese schoolgirl, Yui, from Japan to the godly realm, to romance different gods (Apollon, Hades, Tsukito, Takeru, Balder, Loki, Anubis, and Thoth), in a kind of choose-your-own-adventure story/game.

‘A Greek God in the 31st Century? How could such a thing be possible?’

One of the many wonderful things about visual storytelling is that anything is possible in what the artists choose to show us, even the gods of the 31st century. And yet within them all, certain themes emerge: the writers, artists, animators and more, are using Greek and Roman myths and history to think about invention, and adaptation, about choices and options, about emotions and growth, about what it means to be a human–in Greece, in Rome, in Japan, and even in the 31st Century.

–Elizabeth Hale

Oedipus, Bilbo Baggins and Atreyu – Deadly riddles and Sphinxes in Greek Mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story”

From Sphinxes to Hobbits, from the ancient world to children’s fantasy,  Michael Kleu takes a look at the riddling tradition in Tolkien, Ende, and Apollodorus…

When Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of J.R.R.Tolkien’s  The Hobbit or There and Back Again (1937), got lost in the cave system and tunnels of the Misty Mountains, he found by chance – or rather by fate – the One Ring, a powerful magical artefact crafted by the evil entity Sauron a long time previously. Shortly afterwards, Bilbo met the strange creature Gollum, who challenged him to a game of riddles. If Bilbo won the game, Gollum was supposed to show the little Hobbit a way out of the tunnels. If the creature won the game, it could eat poor Bilbo. Lost and alone, Bilbo had no choice but to agree to Gollum’s terms. After the opponents had played the game for some rounds the Hobbit won the contest by asking what he had in his pocket. Since Gollum, of course, had no chance to know that Bilbo had pocketed the One Ring, the Hobbit won the game of riddles in a rather unfair fashion and could only escape the creature’s rage by accidentally using the magic ring, that made him invisible.

In Greek mythology something quite similar had happened to Oedipus. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, had promised the throne of Thebes and the hand of his sister Jocasta to anyone who would free the city from theSphinx, a creature that lived close to the city and strangled and swallowed all travelers that couldn’t solve her famous puzzle:

“What is it that speaks with one single voice and has first four, then two and finally three legs?”

Oedipus accepted the challenge and solved the Sphinx’s riddle: As a child a human first crawls on all fours, before he walks on two legs and finally needs a supporting stick in the old age. After having heard the correct answer, the Sphinx committed suicide by jumping from a rock. Thebes was freed, and Oedipus became king (Apollod. 3,5,8).

Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, 450-440 BC, Altes Museum Berlin, CC BY-SA 2.0

In both cases an unhuman creature threatens a hero with death if he cannot solve its riddle and in both cases the creature will eat the hero if he fails. But there is one more parallel. At some point during the game it is Bilbo’s turn to come up with a riddle:

“No-legs lay on one-leg, two-legs sat near on three-legs, four-legs got some.”

Gollum doesn’t need long to find the solution: “Fish on a little table, man at table sitting on a stool, the cat has the bone.”

Although the parallel to the riddle of the sphinx is striking, it seems to be another tradition to which J.R.R. Tolkien is referring here. In a German book from 1847 I found a quite similar riddle in several versions in German and English language:

“Two legs sat upon three legs, with one leg in his lap. In comes four legs, and runs away with one leg. Up jumps two legs, catches up three legs, throws it after four legs, and maks (sic!) him bring back one leg.”[1]  xx

(In this case two legs is a man, three legs a three-legged stool, four legs a dog and one leg a walking stick.)  Here the parallel is even more striking and indeed Tolkien wrote in a letter to his publisher (letter no.110) that he did not invent this particular riddle but took it from somewhere, (unfortunately he did not mention from where exactly).[2]  Therefore, he obviously did not directly adapt the riddle of the sphinx. Nevertheless, the leg-riddle from 1847 might belong to a category of riddles that goes back to the myth of Oedipus.[3]

Of course, Tolkien was heavily influenced by Nordic and Germanic traditions. Thus, his riddles were surely influenced by the Exeter Book and other collections of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of riddling as well as of the Alvíssmál, a poem collected in thePoetic Edda.[4] On the other hand, even when it has been only for a short time,Tolkien had studied Classics in Exeter and was definitely familiar with Greek and Latin literature. Therefore, it seems still quite possible that at least regarding the hero being threatened to be eaten by an unhuman creature if he fails to win a riddle contest, Tolkien was influenced by the myth of Oedipus.

Picture: Michael Kleu

In Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story, 1979) the black centaur Cairon, who is the most famous physician in the magical land of Fantastica and therefore a clear reference to Chiron is a first indication that the author used elements of Greek myths for his book. And as we will see know, Ende’s story was very concretely influenced by the myth of Oedipus. To reach the so-called Southern Oracle, the hero Atreyu is supposed to pass a way between two Sphinxes facing each other. This is only possible when the eyes of the Sphinxes are closed because a traveler will freeze if he is caught by their gaze, since the eyes of the Sphinxes ask by nonverbal communication all known riddles at the same time and the passerby can only move after having solved all of them, what eventually leads to the death of the people concerned.

The oracle is of course a fixed element in Greek myth and the Delphic Oracle is of major importance for Oedipus’s fate. Furthermore, the freezing of the passerby evokes references to Medusa. Therefore, Ende has mixed some well-known elements of Greek mythology to create a new story. On the other hand, it is quite interesting that Atreyu has no chance to pass the Sphinxes with the help of his own skills, wits or abilities. In fact, it seems to depend on pure chance or fate if someone can pass the Sphinxes or not. At least the gnome Engywook, who is Fantastica’s leading scientist in this field, even after many years of study could not find any form of pattern regarding the question why the Sphinxes let pass some people while they stop others.

While the classical reception is obvious in Die unendliche Geschichte, the case of The Hobbit is a much more complicated case of what might happen when  mixing several myths and traditions. But why do we find deadly riddles in both books for young people? Are such riddles supposed to address notably children and teenagers? The fact that one can find the same topic in fantasy stories for adults suggests that these are interested in riddles in a similar way.[5] But there is nevertheless one important connection between adolescents, riddles of and death: According to Ps.-Plutarch (1.4) no-one less than Homer shall have died of sorrow after he could not have solved some young fisherman’s riddle …

–Michael Kleu is an Ancient Historian at the University of Köln, in Germany, and is fascinated by Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy.  He runs the popularFantastische Antike blog, where his interests combine…  

[1]EduardFiedler: Volksreime und Volkslieder in Anhalt-Deßau, Deßau 1847, p. 43.

[2] Tolkien wrote in the letter to his publisher that he invented most of the riddles from the chapter “A riddle in the Dark” while he took the no-leg riddle and another one from somewhere else. Although he calls the other riddle a traditional one, unfortunately, he does not mention from where he took the riddle with the legs. In the letter Tolkien also wrote that he was inspired by “old literary (but not ‘folk-lore’) riddles” and in one case he mentions American books with nursery rhymes.

[3] The riddle of the Sphinx was a part of the Byzantine Greek Anthology’s riddle collection (book 14 no. 64). Thus, the riddle could have been passed on via the myth of Oedipus and via riddle collections. Neither in Symphosius’ late antique collection (Aenigmata) nor in the Book of Exeter I could find riddles similar to the one under discussion.

[4] In the Alvíssmál Thor and the dwarf Alviss try to settle a dispute in form of a contest in which Alviss must answer Thor’s questions. The contest takes so long that at some point the sunrise turns the dwarf into stone – in Nordic mythology sunlight does that to dwarves – what resembles the fate of the three trolls in “The Hobbit”. For the influence of theAnglo-Saxon tradition of riddling and the Alvíssmál on “The Hobbit” cf. A.Roberts: The Riddles of The Hobbit, Basingstoke/New York 2013.

[5] In Stephen King’s “The Waste Lands” and “Wizard and Glass” (The Dark Tower III & IV) the protagonists have to riddle for their lives against a sentient monorail that has lost its mind.