Mazes, Threads, and COVID-19

It was Anna Mik, PhD student at the University of Warsaw, who introduced me to the work of Polish artist Jan Bajtlik, whose magnificent book of mazes presents the myths of ancient Greece as a set of intriguing mazes. Everyone in the myths is in a maze of a different kind–Odysseus, Heracles, Atalanta, Zeus–they’re all there. Maze as story, story as maze, life as maze. Here, Anna discusses the role of the maze, the thread, and life in the time of COVID as a labyrinth that we are all finding our ways through–Elizabeth Hale

A journey through a labyrinth can be a dreadful experience. It might have been a true horror for Theseus walking through Dedalus’s maze with the anticipation of meeting the Minotaur just around the corner. For the Minotaur, on the other side,  the labyrinth was a prison, where he waited for the human offerings and ultimately was killed by the mythical hero. For Ariadne who gave Theseus a thread leading him towards the safe exit after killing her brother, the labyrinth was a mysterious and confusing space, where love and fear were accumulated and made her feel conflicted.

The mythical maze was never only an architectural wonder. It was also a metaphor of danger, coming of age, uncertainty, a struggle between death and life. It survived the centuries in stories, visual depictions and artistic visions. And even though it is so familiar to us, this motif does not cease to surprise us to this day.  Even if we live in an era of postmodernism, often perceived as a maze itself.

There are multiple examples of famous labyrinths in popular culture. Thousands of years after the Minotaur (allegedly) was slain, in the 1986 film Labyrinth, 16-year-old Sarah travels through the labyrinth. Trapped inside the world of her fantasies, she walks thorough paths representing her troubling adolescence. (she meets a lot of weird creatures on her way, paths change their courses, sometimes they are even upside-down) In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the titled protagonist has to face the horror of a maze in the Triwizard Tournament.

“The towering hedges cast black shadows across the path, and, whether because they were so tall and thick, or because they had been enchanted, they sound of the surrounding crowd was silenced the moment they entered the maze. Harry felt almost as though he was underwater again.” p. 539

In both of these works, mazes are not ‘stable’ and easy to pass through – they constantly change and surprise heroes and heroines with new turns and creatures living in it. They play with characters’ imagination, push their boundries, and distort cognitive perception. Thus, it rises up the question – is there anything good about the labyrinth at all?

Bajtlik’s solution: Greek Myths and Mazes

One Polish artist gives hope that there is something more to the ancient maze than horror and anxiety. Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (English translation, Walker Studio, 2019) was published in Poland in 2018 under a slightly different title: Nić Ariadny. Mity i labirynty [Ariadne’s Thread: Myths and Labyrinths]. It is a large format book in which double-page spreads present different stories from Greek myth: each one a different labyrinth leading a reader through various myths, locations, and ancient Greek phenomena. In such a manner, Greek Myths and Mazes is a great example of an interactive book for children, encouraged by the author to get through the maze, which has been marked with an entrance and an exit, and follow stories along the way. The pages are also an artistic showcase, as Bajtlik has conveyed complex and multi-layer stories through equally rich illustrations.

Odysseus’s Labyrinth–Jan Batlik (by permission of the artist)

However, what seems to be the most imperative, is the implication that each element of the ancient world is a labyrinth in itself, with all the unexpected turns, monsters waiting just around the corner, and the big uncertainty – will the hero or the heroine find their way out and fulfil their journey? The story of Odysseus would be a great example of such a labyrinth, through which the hero travels for 10 years, uncertain of his fate and gods’ favours. He does not know what waits ahead of him, he meets dead ends and turns leading him to monsters, he loses his crew on the way.  Nonetheless, he thrives, bearing in his heart and mind the image of the exit – his beloved home, Ithaca.

Jan Bajtlik works with the labyrinth as a cognitive tool that allows the child to read the myth not linearly, as in a ‘classic’ text. The path leads the reader in all different ways, allowing them to immerse in the story. They might get the wrong turn, walk through the danger, or take a dangerous route from which it will no longer be possible to withdraw (as in Hephaestus’ forge). The mythical labyrinth may also surprise the traveller with a beautiful view, a funny picture or, finally, a happy ending (as on Aeaea, Circe’s island)

All things considered, a feature that would seem the most vital is book’s metaphorical aspect. Being lost in a maze, just like being lost in a myth, perfectly reflects the shape of human existence, its impermanence, complexity, horror, and beauty. The book can affect the reader, not only a child, in an unusual way, especially during the  2020 lockdown. Isolation, danger, uncertainty, fear of the unknown – all these elements connect the world of ancient labyrinth and COVID-19 reality. If the ancient mazes have been able to gives any kind of hope, just like Jan Bajtlik, they would certainly give us a way out. Then again, only if Ariadne was there to bestow upon us an invaluable thread.  This may lead us to finding in ourselves Ariadne, ready to help us find a solution to the most dreadful situation. Being an Ariadne would mean being hopeful, despite the hopeless reality.

What’s in a title? From Ariadne’s Thread to Greek Myths and Mazes

As I have mentioned earlier, the English version of Bajtlik’s book was published in 2019 under a slightly different title from its Polish original. It made me wonder – does this change make any difference in book’s reception? After all, it seems that “Ariadne’s Thread”puts a certain kind of emphasis on the role of the heroine in Theseus’ success. Without the thread provided by Minos’ daughter, the young hero would probably not get out of the maze. What is more, the thread marks the path through a labyrinth thanks to which a hero does not make a mistake of taking the same wrong turn twice. Within the narrative structure of Bajtlik’s story, the thread plays a vital role as well. Thus, it is a shame that neither Ariadne nor her thread appear in the English title.

Nonetheless, Bajtlik’s Greek and Myths were translated also to Spanish, Catalan, French, German – in all of these editions “Ariadne’s thread” has been maintained in the title on the cover. Let’s read it as a good sign. There is a great hope for the Ariadne’s Thread to get us through these uncertain times.  After all, nowadays, it is accurate to consider reality being just another maze.  

–Anna Mik

Our Mythical Childhood–Education…Children’s and Young Adults’ Education Inspired by Classical Antiquity

We’re all working hard, in the Our Mythical Childhood project–and none more so than the team from Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. Lisa Maurice and Ayelet Peer have been developing the Our Mythical Childhood Education survey. It’s a gorgeous site, where they survey a host of educational resources in the teaching of Classical mythology. From textbooks to AV material, worksheets, blogs, exam material, websites, quizzes, lesson plans, syllabi, and the always intriguing category ‘Other,’ this database provides useful and fascinating information for teachers, students, parents, and scholars.

There are currently 100+ items in the survey, and I encourage you to look around.

http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey

Isn’t it attractive! I encourage you to look around!

Before you do (or after you have done!), I also encourage you to read Lisa Maurice’s thoughts about the OME project–I’ve interviewed her below…

Children’s and Young Adults’ Education
Inspired by Classical Antiquity–interview with Lisa Maurice.

Lisa Maurice is Associate Professor in Classical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. She’s published a host of scholarly work, including The Teacher in Ancient Rome (Lexington, 2013), and Screening Divinity
(Edinburgh University Press, June 2019),. She’s also the editor of three volumes in the Brill Metaforms series on the reception of the ancient world in popular culture: The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles (Brill, 2015); Rewriting the Ancient World: Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians in Modern Popular Fiction (Brill, 2017), and The Reception of Ancient Virtues and Vices in Modern Popular Culture (Brill, 2017). Shortly, her new edited collection Our Mythical Education, will be published through the Our Mythical Childhood project.

Thanks for taking my questions, Lisa! I’d like to start by asking you what inspired you to develope Our Mythical Education (OME)?

As you know, OME is part of the wider project, OMC, which aims at developing a pioneering approach to the reception of Classical Antiquity in children’s and young adults’ contemporary culture.   Myth is often the first meeting point that a child has with the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome and it is found in a huge variety of educational systems worldwide. 

Most studies or research into how the ancient world is taught focus almost exclusively on the study of the classical languages, which are often thought of as ‘real classics’.  Yet the powerful and gripping stories of classical mythology, which continue to fascinate in myriad cultures and over varied societies, have been frequently been used in fact as vehicles through which to teach or improve other skills, such as literacy, or put across ideological messages.  I go into this further, and many examples of it can be seen, in my forthcoming edited book, Our Mythical Education,which is (very excitingly!) now in the print layout stage at Warsaw University Press, and should be published in the coming months.  So, despite the fact that that little attention has really been paid to it in educational research, the belief that classical myth has played a fundamental role in so many societies and school systems was the initial inspiration behind the overall OME project.  Likewise, the desire to collect, examine and share the amazing materials I was sure existed, and were being used in a range of creative and effective ways, was a main impetus behind the creation of the database.

What do you hope that OME will achieve?

I hope that it will demonstrate just how central Classical myth has been in education, in so many places, and also how versatile a tool it is educationally speaking.  The tales continue to captivate children and youth (and adults!), but they are far more than just ‘stories’, and the complexity of ideas and emotions buried within the narratives have such potential; they are like a fuel source that can still be tapped in so many ways.  I hope that OME will help this potential be realised and will lead to the dissemination and expansion of existing resources.   And particularly, now that so many people are looking for online materials to use in teaching thanks to Covid-19, that they will use the database, and add to it as much as possible.

What sort of material are you looking for/choosing to write about?

We are interested in anything that uses Classical myth, in its broadest sense, within an educational context and framework – we have worksheets, textbooks, audio-visual sources, quizzes and exams, lesson plans, syllabi, blogs, websites, games, comics and more.  This includes materials used in the teaching of Latin and ancient Greek, and in subjects like social studies, history, literature, art, drama etc., and in multiple languages  The possibilities are very wide-ranging!

Can you tell us about some particularly interesting or inspiring items from the OME survey?

I think the sheer breadth of items is what inspires me most.  For example we have workplans and powerpoints from our project working with autistic children here in Israel run by Ayelet Peer under the auspices of our ACCLAIM network (see Susan Deacy’s blogpost on this ). This is an amazing venture, which uses the classical myths to help the students understand and cope with complex emotions, and demonstrates the creative ways in which mythology can be used in education. 

In a different vein, I love movies, and particularly Disney’s Hercules, so I have a soft spot for resources that work with this, like the unit curriculum which describes the 12 labours of Hercules and includes discussion prompts about the myth and how it compares to Hercules in popular culture, specifically the Disney movie.  And now that a remake of this film is happening, I am very curious to see what new resources will be developed when it comes out! 

Magda van Tillburg’s ancient mythis in comic book form…

Finally as a teacher of ancient languages, the comic books by Magda van Tilburg are fabulous – they were new to me, but they present ancient myths in the original languages, along with English translation, in comic book format.  There’s Circe (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/64), Dido and Aeneas (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/59), Ares and Aphrodite (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/63) and Phaethon (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/61), as well as a few more we haven’t yet added.  They are free and available online – what an amazing resource, and one I will definitely be using with my own Latin students.

How can people be in touch with submissions or items?

I thought you’d never ask!  You can contact my wonderful colleague Ayelet Peer on ayelet.peer@biu.ac.il and she will send you the short form to fill out and answer any of your questions.  Or email me on lisa.maurice@biu.ac.il. We are ready and waiting eagerly to hear from you!

Thanks! I’m off to consult the survey now–especially to find out more about the comics! — Liz Hale

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

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

Miraculous Ladybug: Mashing up myth and melodrama

Miriam Riverlea writes about a French animation for tweens that explores how to handle negative emotions, with the help of superheroes, mythology and more . . .

Miraculous Ladybug . . .

Recently my children have become quite obsessed with an animated cartoon, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir.  Currently being shown on ABC3, a children’s channel in Australia, the show first screened in South Korea in 2015, and has since been distributed in several western countries including the United States, Britain and Ireland.  It is a cross-cultural production by French animation companies Zagtoon and Method Animation, collaborating with studios in Japan, Italy and South Korea. 

Set in Paris, the story revolves around teenager Marinette Dupain-Cheng.  She is artistic, pretty, and a kind and loyal friend, yet gets comically awkward in the company of her classmate, Adrien Agreste.  Marinette has a secret crush on Adrien, and has another secret besides.  With the help of her ‘kwami’ Tiki, a tiny, magic creature who lives inside her handbag, Marinette can transform into the superhero Ladybug.  Resplendent in red and black, she is lithe and vivacious, and has a steadfast sense of justice.  In stark contrast to Marinette, Ladybug is confident and self-assured.  In addition to superb fighting skills, her special yoyo allows her to soar between roof tops, and she can call upon a magic lucky charm to supply her with a special object to counter her enemies’ powers. 

Ladybug is supported by another superhero, Cat Noir.  As his name suggests, he cuts a svelte figure in his sleek black cat costume, and is able to summon the earthshattering force of a cataclysm.  He is devoted to Ladybug, but she spurns his affections, which seems a bit foolish, given that Cat Noir is actually Adrien in disguise.  The characters remain ignorant of what is patently obvious to viewers, and much of the fun of the show derives from the comedy of errors of unfulfilled romance and hidden identities.  I’ve been enjoying watching my children cringe and giggle as they witness sexual tension for the first time. 

Mythological mashups. . .

But there is another reason I am enamoured with this cartoon.  Amid the melodrama, Miraculous borrows from the world of mythology, folktale, and popular culture, particularly in the formulation of the supervillains whom Ladybug and Cat Noir must combat each episode.   The show’s villain is Hawk Moth, a sinister masked figure who preys on people experiencing negative emotions. 

Watching over Paris from his stark lair, he transforms a white butterfly into a dark purple ‘akuma’, and releases it into the city to find its vulnerable target.  This person becomes ‘evilised’ or ‘akumatised’, a process which exaggerates an element of what they are feeling into special powers.  Using telepathy, Hawk Moth endows them with a new name, and charges them with the task of stealing Ladybug and Cat Noir’s miraculous, the special talisman that gives them their magic powers.  (In another twist, Hawk Moth is actually Adrien’s father, the successful but reclusive fashion designer Gabriel Agreste).

Each episode runs to the same formula.  Someone in Marinette’s life, a classmate, family member, or member of the local community, is transformed into a villain bent on causing destruction as they seek to achieving their goals.  A number of these characters draw on mythology.  In Dark Cupid, a boy becomes a malevolent version of Eros, shooting arrows that transform positive feelings of love and friendship into hate.  In the episode Syren, Ondine a talented swimmer becomes an evil mermaid who wants to build an exclusive underwater kingdom with the boy she likes.  One villain takes the form of a huge spider, drawing upon the African folktale figure Anansi, in another, an ancient historian becomes the Pharoah, using the powers of the Egyptian gods to resurrect Queen Nefertiti.  And from what I’ve read, previous holders of the Ladybug miraculous apparently include Hippolyta the Amazon and Joan of Arc.  In this way, the show’s creators have developed their own kind of Miraculous universe that simultaneously celebrates French culture (Paris’ food, iconic architecture and landmarks play a big part in the setting), Oriental traditions (Marinette is guided by Master Wang Fu, the immortal guardian of the miraculouses, which resemble the animals of the Chinese zodiac), as well as ancient mythology from the classical and other traditions. 

It’s not necessary to be familiar with particular mythic figures to appreciate these storylines, in fact, subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny isn’t particularly constructive.  Rather, what this kind of wholesale borrowing from the world of mythology or folktales highlights is that it these characters have come to function in our contemporary world as a kind of treasure trove of material for telling new stories.  In the episode Heroes’ Day, Hawk Moth simultaneously akumatises lots of his supervillains, who come together to fight Ladybug and Cat Noir at the spiritual centre of Paris, the Eifel Tower.  It is a mash up not only of all the evil characters from previous episodes, but also one which brings together diverse figures from myth, folktale and popular culture. 

Handling negative emotions

Central to this show is the power of emotions, and the destructive impact of negative feelings.  It is revealed that Marinette’s optimistic personality renders her less susceptible to being evilised.  There are other times when the series seems to engage with psychoanalytic themes of desire, projection, and self-perception.  In Weredad, Marinette’s father, the baker, becomes akumatised.  He is determined to protect his beloved daughter from being heartbroken, and like a fairy tale giant, seeks to trap her within a thorny prison that resembles Jack’s beanstalk and like Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted castle.  Helping children to manage their emotions is a key aspect of children’s texts, and these stories, with their predictable, repetitive formula, play out scenarios that are both familiar and fantastical. 

Once Ladybug has captured the akuma transformed it to its original white colour, she uses her special power to return everything to the way it was.  There’s something very comforting about this resolution.  A swarm of red and black creatures flurries across the city, repairing the damage of the fighting and returning the person who was evilised back to their normal self.  They often seem a bit sheepish about what they have done, and Ladybug offers them absolution for their crimes.  Ladybug and Cat Noir transform back into their everyday teenage selves, with their secret identities safe for another day, another episode. 

Miriam Riverlea