Ulysses' Odyssey in Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures

This week, my students have been discussing Flora and Ulysses, by bestselling American children’s writer, Kate DiCamillo. It’s the tale of a lonely girl named Flora, who looks out of her bedroom window one day to see a squirrel being sucked into a rogue vacuum cleaner, along with a book of poetry and some crackers.

Racing to the rescue, Flora gives the squirrel CPR and mouth-to-mouth, and brings him back to life. As they look into one another’s eyes, it is a case of instant love and recognition, and she names the squirrel Ulysses, after the vacuum cleaner (its brand is the Ulysses2000).

What has happened inside that vacuum cleaner? We don’t know for sure, but Ulysses awakes from his experience transformed into a poet. When Flora takes him home, he sneaks downstairs at night, lured by the smell of cheese crackers in the kitchen, and spends a little time at her mother’s typewriter composing poetry.

And so it goes. Flora’s mother, a romance writer, does not take kindly to her grumpy daughter’s new pet, and begins a plot to remove Ulysses from the scene (a sack and a shovel feature). Flora’s father, a sad accountant, introduces Flora to his neighbour, Dr Meescham, a philosopher from another country who advises Flora to believe in the squirrel, and to believe in whatever the world throws at her. Flora’s neighbour (the owner of the vacuum cleaner) shows up with another book of poetry, and her scientific nephew, William, who complicates the plot by befriending Flora’s mother and advising her on her latest romance novel. Ulysses saves Flora’s father’s bald head from the claws of his landlord’s cat, a wicked creature named Mr Klaus. In the local diner, Ulysses is nearly killed by a knife-wielding chef, who does not take kindly to hungry squirrels looking for donuts, and Flora saves him by sticking out her foot and tripping said chef. Ulysses writes poetry. Flora, who hasn’t been sure, learns that her parents love her. The novel closes with Flora, lonely no longer, sitting on the horsehair couch of Dr Meescham, surrounded by her friends and family, and Ulysses, who provides an epilogue which sums up the novel’s deeper meanings.

Words for Flora

Nothing

would be

easier without

you,

because you

are

everything

all of it–

sprinkles, quarks, giant

donuts, eggs sunny-side up–

you are the ever-expanding

universe

to me.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

Flare up like flame–reading Rilke to Ulysses

It’s a very strange book: sometimes so wacky that you think it’s overreaching; sometimes very touching, sometimes (often) very funny, sometimes (often) thoughtful and profound. And it’s highly literate and highly literary. The novel abounds with different kinds of writing and thinking. Flora and her father enjoy reading comic books–The Great Incandesto, Terrible things can happen, The Criminal Mind are Flora’s go-to books when she encounters challenges. Flora’s mother writes romances. Ulysses writes poetry. Tootie Tickham reads Yeats and Rilke and James Joyce. William and Dr Meescham think about science and philosophy. Dr Meescham quotes Pascal. Tootie Tickham quotes Rilke:

‘I was moved by your poetry,’ said Tootie to the squirrel.

Ulysses puffed out his chest.

‘And I have some poetry that I would like to recite to you in honour of the recent, um, transformations in your life.’ Tootie put a hand on her chest. ‘This is Rilke,’ she said.

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.’

Ulysses stared up at Tootie, his eyes bright.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

In reading Rilke to Ulysses, Tootie gives the squirrel a model for his poetry, at least that’s what I think is going on. It’s a lovely moment, sending Ulysses on a quest, a poetic journey to chase the truth. His poems are interspersed through the novel, often summing up preceding plot points, and providing much-needed moments of rest in a novel that is full of antics. We should all be so lucky to read the poetry of our animal companions.

Ulysses’ Odyssey

Ulysses’ odyssey offers a nice counterpoint to Flora’s journey of discovery. Hers is a journey from isolation to integration, from reading comics alone in her room to being surrounded by friend on Dr Meescham’s magical couch, reassured that both her parents love her, despite their divorce (the novel delicately doesn’t promise that they will reunite, but shows them united in their love for their daughter). Flora begins the novel a self-professed ‘cynic,’ guarding her heart from disappointment. Her motto is ‘Do not hope. Instead, observe,’ and is taken from the advice comic she likes to read, TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.

It’s hard to imagine a children’s book that could leave Flora in this state–of cynical despair. Optimism is children’s literature’s stock in trade. Flora’s mother, who seems hard-bitten and bossy to her daughter, confesses her worries, to Ulysses (before forcing him to write a fake farewell note to Flora):

‘It really has nothing to do with you. It’s about Flora. Flora Belle. She is a strange child. And the world is not kind to the strange. She was strange before, and she’s stranger now. Now she is walking around with a squirrel on her shoulder. Talking to a squirrel. Talking to a typing, flying squirrel. Not good. Not good at all.’

Was Flora strange?

He supposed so.

But what was wrong with that?

She was strange in a good way. She was strange in a lovable way. Her heart was so big. It was capacious.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

Of course, Flora’s mother misses the point. The world may not be kind to the strange, but where would good stories be without them? And Ulysses proves himself to be a better, truer, kinder writer than she is, and a good friend. To paraphrase E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (which is the next novel we discuss in my class), ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Ulysses was both.’ Ulysses sees Flora as she truly is, and not in terms of externals or social judgements.

This all might seem rather minute, a small domestic drama, and the novel is set in an ordinary American suburb (home, apartment, neighbourhood diner). But in its very smallness, Flora and Ulysses dreams big dreams, which Ulysses sums up in his poems. Almost all of them are about roundness, and about the world. When Ulysses awakes in Flora’s arms following his incident with the vacuum cleaner, he looks into her eyes, and sees a whole world there, and his poetry throughout the novel is about the roundness and completeness of the world.

So, whether we see the novel as a mock epic (and Flora continually imposes this idea on Ulysses’ actions, viewing them as snippets from the superhero comics she loves), or a suburban odyssey, what is definitely going on is that DiCamillo takes seriously the needs of child protagonists and child readers, finding in the smallest of them, big ideas, hopes, and dreams.

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

“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.

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

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.

Screenshot 2019-05-08 21.57.44

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

donnajo2017

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