The shadows where History is heaviest–Cairo Jim goes to Pompeii

Following on from my last post, where I paid tribute to Brenda the Wonder Camel’s brilliant scholarship in Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, I’m thinking more about humorous history books for kids in preparation for the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this May. I’ve been alternating between another Cairo Jim novel–Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, and British author Gary Northfield’s Julius Zebra novels. I can’t decide which I like more, which is sillier, which is ruder, and also which offers a more interesting reflection on history. In fact, there’s no competition–they’re equally good in different ways. And I’ll talk about Julius Zebra next time. For the moment, I’ll carry on with Cairo Jim.

At the house of Phibius Whiffius

In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, the gang gathers in Pompeii. They meet a beautiful French archaeobotanist, called Bette Noir, who is trying to reconstruct an ancient perfume, Pardalium, which gives the possessor power over all things and everyone. She found the recipe at the House of the Garden of Hercules, owned by a perfumer, she says, who was resplendently named Phibius Whiffius. In order to complete her reconstruction, she needs the spittle of a panther, and has written off to the Dubbo Zoo in NSW, Australia to request some.

While Bette Noir, Doris and Jim are chatting over drinks in the Garden of Hercules, Brenda the Wonder Camel strikes again, quietly working in Bette’s lab. She has panther in her soul, at least that’s what I think she has, and she draws on it to extract the required spittle from the depths of her being, shooting it perfectly into a waiting pipette, sealing said pipette in an envelope, and writing a message from the Dubbo Zoo. What a camel. As a calf, Brenda has swallowed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which may account for her general brilliance.

Anyway, Bette Noir makes up the perfume, and then Neptune Flannelbottom gets hold of it, and uses it to bring the Telamons to life. Telamons are human-shaped columns, male caryatids, usually thought of as Atlas figures, support structures in other words. A telamon wandering around the streets of Pompeii could cause some damage. Luckily, Cairo Jim and his friends are equal to the challenge, and order is restored.

The evidence of time

This is all rather far-fetched. But it has a core of accuracy that provides a solid bedrock for a great deal of fun and games. There is indeed a House of the Garden of Hercules, and it is thought that the resident was involved in the perfume trade. McSkimming shares photographs of the house, and shots of different parts of Pompeii.

Cairo Jim, who early on reflects that as he walks through the streets of Pompeii, he is walking on the ‘evidence of time,’ is alert to every aspect of the city.

He observed the gentle sunlight, still not too bright at this time of day, and the way it was filtering down through the trees and the broken walls that he walked by. He listened to the birds as they sang their sweet, tiny songs all across the ruined city, and he thought how the birdsong seemed to be a balm . . . a soothing veil of sound cocooning Pompeii from the terrible memories of the past. He smelled the intoxicating aromas of ancient places–smells that he had come to recognise and love from his many years of being at sites such as this. The smells of old, old marble and terracotta, and the fragrances of shadows (he had discovered some time ago that the shadows where History is heaviest have a smell like no other), and the occasional whiff of rotting vegetation from fallen leaves all intermingled with each other, and drifted into his nostrils. (41-42).

This is just before Jim and the gang meet Bette Noir, learn about her plan to reconstruct the powerful scents of the past, and the mayhem and antics get going. Jim is moved by the scents he smells, to write a poem, which I quote below.

Pompeii had its yesterday

and yesterday before it,

but what took place, ‘neath skies of grey

and black–one can’t ignore it.

This pumice all around the town,

this litter of destruction

is testament to what went down:

Vesuvius’ interruption!

Yet now as boots with modern soles

tread quietly through the city,

we see despite the many holes

piled high with all the gritty

bits of Nature’s overflow

(these stones of igneous fury)

just what it is these ruins show:

that Time is judge and jury’ (43)

Well, it’s poetry of a sort. Doris the Macaw, one of Jim’s companions, objects: ‘There’s a time and place for poetry, and Pompeii is definitely not it!’ (43) Realism intrudes, until the preposterous plot gets going.

There’s a time and place for comedy

I’ve been mulling about the role of comedy in presenting history to young readers. Within the fun of Cairo Jim lurks a serious appreciation of ancient culture, and the novel gives a lot of information for those who seek it. With each novel I read, I learn a bit more about major archaeological sites, and with it, a bit more about ancient cultures. I’ve always preferred to glean my history from fiction: perhaps it’s the bit-by-bit approach I like, the puzzling things together, the finding things out, learning new things, being stimulated to look things up. For this post, I looked up the House of the Garden of Hercules, Telamons, and Pardalium, the ancient perfume that Bette Noir is trying to recreate. All of them are real things, though Pardalium may not possess the powers it has in this novel, and now they are things I know, as opposed to never having heard of (Pardalium), vaguely heard of (The House of the Garden of Hercules), or never really wondered about but should have (Telamons, or: what is a male Caryatid?).

Lightening the heaviness of history?

So, funny books can help you (or at least me) learn interesting facts. But can they lead you astray? This may be a worry for some guardians of scholarship, or of young minds: the danger that readers of The Crossroads of Orpheus may think that Phibius Whiffius is a real Pompeiian, that Pardalium has magic powers, that camels really can swallow the Encyclopedia Britannica and become psychic polymaths. Well, maybe not the last one (or … maybe they can . . consult your local camel to find out) . And indeed, that’s the clue: the comedy works because the funny bits are clearly of our own world, and that the real bits are clearly marked as real. Children encountering Phibius Whiffius may not instantly get the joke, but they will smell a literary rat, may ask a parent, or look things up. And they may have a discussion with parents or teachers or other children about Pompeii, what happened there, and be moved to find out more.

But having said that, Jim’s nostrils may quiver at the smells of time, and it is of course appropriate to reflect on the scale of the tragedy that Pompeii suffered, and to think with empathy about the difficulties of other parts of the world. But there is also space to reflect on how Romans (and others) lived: eating, drinking, making and smelling perfume. And sometimes, there’s simply the pure pleasure of laughter, the best medicine for all sorts of situations, past and present: lightening the heaviness, both of history and of the present.

Elizabeth Hale

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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.

When Hades Lives Next Door: Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten

Earlier this year I visited Canberra, and the brilliant National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature  to see what Australian texts I could find for the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  I was lucky enough to be shown around by the Centre’s Director, the wonderful Belle Alderman, who has spent countless hours building the collection, and ensuring, in company with a team of dedicated volunteers, not only that it contains a comprehensive collection of Australian children’s literature, but that it also contains as much writing about the collection as possible, recording reviews, scholarly work, and more.  It’s quite a collection, and testimony to the extraordinary creativity of Australian children’s authors and illustrators.

In passing, she mentioned the work of Bob Graham.  I hadn’t heard of Bob Graham (I use not being an Australian as an increasingly feeble excuse not to know about writers and illustrators and places and traditions that I surely ought to know by now). I found my way to G for Graham, and discovered a body of picture books that are lively, funny, warm-hearted, inclusive, kind, and insightful.

Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

Most of them were not particularly classical in intent, or inspiration, at least I don’t think so.  But all of a sudden one of them, Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten, blew me away.  I casually flicked it open, to read a story about a little girl whose family moves in next door to a scary old man who lives by himself, rides a crocodile at dark (or so the neighbourhood children say), and if you kick your ball over the fence, warns one of Rose’s friends, ‘forget it.’  

Screenshot 2018-08-27 20.38.51
Rose knocks on Mr. Wintergarten’s door . . .

Rose, of course, kicks her ball over the fence into the scary, bristly, grey garden of Mr. Wintergarten.  Despondently, she tells her mother what has happened.  Thank goodness for brave mothers. ‘They say he eats kids!’ says Rose.  ‘We’ll give him some cakes instead,’ says Rose’s mum,  who gives her some hot fairy cakes, and takes her to knock on the door of their intimidating neighbour. At the gate, they are met by his growling dog.  Rose gives the dog a cake.  When she knocks, Mr. Wintergarten lets her in, and though he growls at her, too, and tells her she can’t have her ball back, she leaves him the cakes, and some flowers from her garden.

Then, Mr. Wintergarten does something he has not done for a long time.  He opens his curtains, and watches her leaving with her mother.  He shares his fairy cake with his dog.  Then he does something else he has not done for a long time: he goes into his garden, finds the ball, and starts to play with it, coattails flying.  He kicks the ball back over the fence to Rose; his slipper goes with it, and she returns it.  Everyone is happy.  The story ends with a wide shot of Mr. Wintergarten’s fence coming down, as he plays soccer with Rose and her mother.

It’s a very sweet story, about kindness, friendship, tolerance, difference, isolation, integration, families, youth, old age, and more.  And accordingly it appears on many a class and teaching list in Australia and around the world.  But what almost no one has noticed (apart from one or two reviewers) is that this is a simplified, and modified, version of the Persephone myth.  I noticed it immediately, because of my work in the survey.  Perhaps it was another example  of the frequency illusion that Miriam Riverlea has talked about, but as I read, I realised that Rose, and her sisters Blossom and Faith, are symbols of spring and of hope.  Their mother, who like many Bob Graham adults is dressed a bit like a hippie, is wearing Greek clothing, and is a kind of Demeter figure in her association with nature and nurturing.  The fairy cakes are versions of the honey cakes; the dog is a version of Cerberus (though with only one head, and no snake for a tail); and Mr. Wintergarten and his bristly grey garden are versions of Hades the god, and Hades the realm of the underworld.

Screenshot 2018-08-27 20.43.01
A different kind of Cerberus–by William Blake http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/collection/international/print/b/blake/ipd00006.html

In the original myth, Demeter didn’t march Persephone to the door of Hades and send her in to get her ball back.  Hades grabbed Persephone and Demeter made a profoundly brave journey to bring her daughter (and Spring) back to the earth.  It’s a myth about the seasons, of course, and that we are going into Spring now in Australia, may be why I’m thinking about this book right now.

The Hades Next Door

Anyway, retellings and adaptations don’t have to be faithful.  But there is something faithful in the spirit of this book, to the original myth, in its joy in nature, and its sympathy for the shades of Hades.  If we take out the darker elements of the myth, perhaps there’s an argument to be made that Persephone brightened Hades up a bit, and that Hades needs to be rescued from the underworld too.

Children’s literature is full of stories in which simple, artless, innocent children bring lonely and bitter old people back to life.  Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna are two of the more famous examples.  Perhaps they are Persephone stories in reverse as well.  I think Graham’s very clever to bring these two iconic stories together so sympathetically, and with such light-hearted illustrations. It doesn’t really matter that the classical inspiration is so light that most of us won’t notice it (though of course the joy of discovery is not to be underestimated!).  What matters is that it’s a good story, well told.

What’s the moral of this story?  That a bit of kindness goes a long way; that fairy cakes always perform a special kind of magic, and that even in a gentle picture book set in an ordinary Australian suburb, the myths of Ancient Greece are making themselves felt.  Hades might live next door. So might Persephone.  They certain live in several books in the National Centre for Children’s Literature, and I hope to visit them again soon.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

Illustrating the monomyth–Jerome’s Gift

Trent Denham’s Jerome’s Gift is an award-winning picture book that shows a child overcoming challenges through ingenuity, recycling, and making do.  It takes elements of the hero’s journey as inspiration, and is part of a planned trilogy, incorporating novel, graphic novel, and picture book, that Trent is working on.

I met Trent when he visited Armidale in 2014 as part of the UNE Writers and Illustrators in Residence program I was running with the help of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.  While he was with us, Trent completed some illustrations for the book, and shared his expertise in art, design, and digital elements.   He’s the brains behind the digital reconstruction of the destruction of Pompeii, which I will interview him about on a separate occasion.

For now, though, we’re talking about Jerome’s Gift, the inspiration behind it, and what led a Melbourne illustrator to spend so much time in the Middle Ages.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

JG_Cover_sml_01
Jerome’s Gift, cover copyright Trent Denham

 

What drew you to writing/working with particular myths, and what challenges did you face?

History has always been my strongest interest, even beyond my writing and artistic practice, and though I sway a little more toward the middle ages for my inspiration, I think it is safe to say that the foundations of that period and its culture are most certainly classical. European culture continually looked back to Antiquity as a high point in society,  rather than forward into the future. Looking at medieval works was what drew me deeper into the classics. I would go so far as to say that my thirst for history is what drives me in my art making and storytelling. I remember the moment I picked my first illustrated history book off the shelf in kindergarten and I was immediately enthralled.

As I grew up, I began to study and attempt to reproduce in drawing some of the great artworks of history – all of which depicted ancient myths and legends (though most were made in the high middle ages, renaissance, or neo-classical periods!). My older brother also had a beautifully illustrated kids book of stories about Achilles and Medusa and Odysseus, Cyclops, the Golden Fleece, to Thor and Siegfried. It carried me away (forever I think), to places where those stories were real, and had meaning and purpose for me to decipher. I have never really come back from that place.

I’m not sure if I ever consciously chose to adapt a particular myth with my book. What I ended up with was a variation on the ‘mono-myth’; as Joseph Campbell would put it- the hero’s journey is a universal story or experience across many if not all cultures, and it was natural for my story to develop in that way. I only latterly came to  understand that about half way through the project, as part of my continued studies.

Many of the adaptations per se, or inspirations for my story have come through traditional folk tales, fables, which are a kind of myth themselves in a long tradition of oral storytelling, but also through an allegorical visual medium. Artists like Brueghel, and even more modern fantasy literature and art  (which again draws heavily from mythology) have been a big influence.

 

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

My understanding of myth is that it exists to help us through our own times and experience. It is for that reason that myth is so adaptable, and often at variance with other versions of itself. You can tell any myth from various perspectives in order to describe a particular situation. This is helpful in that it is relatable to the listener – how many ways can a Shakespeare be told and adapted for a contemporary audience for instance? It is endless!

What was truly revelatory for me was the discovery that the artists I always looked up to- the ones depicting scenes from Antiquity and mythology- have adapted those scenes for their own times! In doing this, they can make a deeper commentary on their own historical period! For example, Brueghel’s biblical “massacre of the innocents” is depicted in his own native Flanders. Why? To draw a parallel with the wartime atrocities committed by the Spanish in his own lifetime.  Or his “Fall of Icarus” that features a 16th century galleon and not a Greek ship. The contemporary context places the lesson of the myth for his own audience. In turn, others can then reference Brughel’s work to give it new meaning (but you will have to look close!).

And that is how the tradition of art and storytelling continues- it changes and evolves to keep relevance in our own time. So the artists and authors I look to, in turn looked back on others yet more distant in history, and so on until the depths of time when our primitive ancestors first looked to the stars and told stories to make sense of their world.
These types of story will always be relevant to us because we have carried them with us forever, and we did so because they help us understand ourselves and the world we live in.

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?  

Yes I did study some classics, and a lot of other history both old and new, as part of my Creative Arts degree. But the truth is that I have always undertaken studies on my own, outside of educational institutions, and was always reading stuff at home that would never have been presented to me in schools. My library is full of strange and wonderful things.

Though most of my reading is in more academic texts these days, some of my favourite and most influential books were from when I was a kid.

 


Timeless Myths, by Brenda R Lewis and illustrated by Rob McCaig, Brimax Books, 1980. That was my older brother’s book mentioned earlier (I now have a copy of my own)
And of course…

The Adventures of Asterix and Obelix, by Goscinny and Uderzo, full of fascinating detail and glimpses into history, if a little tongue in cheek =)

Other great and influential artists are John Howe and Alan Lee,  both of whom have illustrated many myths and legends, but are probably better know for their work on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

When you were developing Jerome’s Gift, did you think about how myth and antiquity would translate for young readers, esp. in Australia? 

Yes and no. I understand that regional references and situations are easier for more people to connect with, but I don’t really make stories for ‘everyone’, I make stories for strange young kids like I was, who might pick up an old history book in kindergarten and think “yes, this is for me”

Are you planning any further forays?

Definitely! In fact the history of Jerome’s Gift goes back a few stories, and the further back it goes, the deeper into myth and its own antiquity it gets. For me though, I like to use History and Mythology as a theoretical framework and not the basis of the story itself. For example, for my next book I am using chapter titles that borrow names of the siblings of Titans (like Zelos, which means ‘rivalry’, or Nike which means ‘victory’). In this way I can both reference familiar mythology, and use it as a structure to build my own narrative that relates to an understood theme. It gives me direction and inspiration to create a new world.

–Trent Denham

Stay tuned for an interview with Trent about his work on A Day in Pompeii….

A Cockatoo Called Caesar

When I was a child I was bitten very hard on the finger by a pet-shop cockatoo called Cocky.  Perhaps if he’d been called Caesar our encounter would have been more civilised.  We change pace this week with a lovely piece from Anne Rogerson (Charles Tesoriero Senior Lecturer in Latin at Sydney University) about the curious habit of calling cockatoos Caesar, and their import in iconic Australian children’s books.  

A Cockatoo Called Caesar

I can’t remember whom I encountered first as a child – the engaging young Norah of Billabong or Julius Caesar. I think that it was probably Norah. I was certainly reading Mary Grant Bruce’s stories about life on a Victorian cattle station, and then abroad in England and Ireland during WWI, while still in primary school, long before I had anything but the haziest knowledge of Roman history.

A Little Bush-Maid by Mary Grant Bruce (author's photograph)
A Little Bush-Maid by Mary Grant Bruce (author’s photograph)

At first glance, it may not seem that this popular and determinedly Australian series of young adult novels has much to do with the Classics. Its heroes and heroines are hard-working, horse-riding, cheerful and clean-cut young people, who – though well-educated – aren’t given to dwelling on academic matters and are rarely seen to read a book. But it was while re-reading the series recently that I realized that a little snippet of Roman history had been hiding in plain sight in the early chapters of the first Billabong novel all along.

 

A Little Bush Maid (1910) introduces Norah, her father, her brother Jim and his school friends, and the “menagerie” of Norah and Jim’s pets. These are many and various, including a wide variety of native and introduced species, an aviary full of unnamed birds, a parrot called Fudge and – last but most certainly not least – “old Caesar, a very fine white cockatoo”. Only Caesar gets a naming story. He was shot while very young and rescued by Norah, who brought him home and handed him to her brother, whom he promptly bit:

 

“Jim was no hero – at the age of eleven, he dropped the cockatoo like a hot coal. “Great Caesar!” he exclaimed, sucking his thumb, and Caesar he was christened in that moment.”

Mary Grant Bruce, A Little Bush Maid (1910), Chapter 2

 

As one might expect from such an introduction, Caesar’s story is characterized by aggression, particularly towards other animals and visitors to the homestead. He exists in a state of deepest enmity with the housekeeper’s cat, and their relationship is one of battles, strategic plotting and occasionally (for the warlike but chained Caesar rarely wins these fights) a “wild state of triumph” on the part of the victorious bird.

 

Thinking about the bellicose cockatoo of A Little Bush Maid set me wondering about the subliminal effects of his Roman name on the impressionable young reader that I was in the 1980s when I began to read the Billabong books. I didn’t know any boys for whom “Great Caesar!” was a customary exclamation, and I hadn’t yet come across the Superman comics, where “Great Caesar’s ghost!” is a catch-phrase of Perry White, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet. Nor had I read any Mark Twain, where the once-popular oath is also recorded, or encountered the comic strip by A. E. Hayward titled “Great Caesar’s Ghost” and published in the New York Herald in the mid-1910s. For me, Jim’s “Great Caesar!” was simply something to take at face value, and the cockatoo’s name likewise.

It was much more recently that I learned that Caesar is a popular name for cockatoos, along with Napoleon, Alexander, Angel Baby and Houdini (Mattie Sue Athan, Guide to Companion Parrot Behaviour, 2nd edition (2010), p. 194). Cockatoo Caesars appear in the Wall Street Journal (“Polly Want a Xanax? Neurotic Parrots Can Drive Their Owners Crazy”), and the Journal of the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (a good news story about a nervous and neglected cockatoo called Charlie who was rehabilitated and renamed Caesar to mark his happier new self). They also inhabit a corner of their own on the internet. There are those whose percussion performances on saucepan lids, coffee tins and salt and pepper shakers are immortalized on YouTube, one who does a head banging dance to the strains of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’, and another who mimics her owner’s typing on the computer keyboard (female cockatoos are called Caesar too). Others are not so outgoing – one poor Caesar appears as the terrorized victim of persistent bullying by a companion cockatoo called Carmen. But whatever their accomplishments or state of mind, it is a curious fact that from Australia to the United States of America, from 1910 to 2018, if you meet a pet cockatoo the chances are reasonably good that it will be called Caesar.

 

Is this anything more than a curiosity? Maybe not, but it is still perhaps worth thinking about the Classical names casually dropped into our lives, and our children’s literature, as the names of our pets. They are intended to reflect on the character of the animals so called, and it is no surprise that confident and cocky birds like cockatoos are graced so often with the name of Caesar. But they also tell us something about popular perceptions of the ancient figures they (if very distantly at times) recall. And in turn they have a small part in shaping our own impressions of the historical characters whom we later learn so much more about. Somewhere still in the back of my mind, whenever I read Caesar’s commentaries today, Norah’s pet bobs up and down on his perch, “a giant among cockatoos, [who] had a full sense of his own importance.”

Anne Rogerson

Anne Rogerson