Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis . . .

Scouring the UNE library shelves for inspiration last week, I came upon a copy of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, the Latin translation of . . . you know what. It belonged to an old friend, and so I checked it out, along with several other translations of children’s books, to think about what inspires us to translate our favourite books into our favourite languages.

As the great Wilfried Stroh explains (in Latin) there’s a long tradition of children’s books in Latin from Winnie ille Pu to Fabula de Jemima Anate-Aquatica. . . It’s no easy task to achieve, either. Anyway, here’s Peter Needham’s opening lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin,

Puer Qui Vixit

Dominus et Domina Dursley, qui vivebant in aedibus Gestationius Ligustrorum numero quattuor signatis, no sine superbia dicebant se ratione ordinaria vivendi uti neque se paenitere illius rationis. in toto orbe terrarum vix credas quemquam esse minus deditum rebus novis et arcanis, quod ineptias tales omnino spernebant.

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, trans. Peter Needham (1)

Magic, eh! You can look up the English for yourselves.

In the meantime, some thoughts about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I am teaching this summer as part of a unit introducing techniques of literary study through children’s books. The idea is that in seemingly simple texts such as Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and other well-known kids’ books, we can explore different elements of literary technique and thought. Some of these books (such as Matilda and Once There Was a Boy) are highly intertextual and draw on myths, legends, and fairy tales, and so I’m exploring that aspect as well.

Harry Potter and the many allusions to Latin

Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is full of allusions and intertexts. It’s a pastiche of styles and influences, and much of its success must surely come from the way in which Rowling tells a story that is familiar in concept and structure, but also original, imaginative, and new. Roald Dahl’s influence is clear in the horrible Dursleys–grotesque in shape and behaviour–contrasted with Harry’s innocence but also his ability to take vengeance when necessary. The battles of Star Wars, between Luke, a novice good-guy and Darth Vader, an overwhelmingly powerful bad-guy, complete with colour-coded technological swords, are another clear influence–if we swap Harry for Luke, and wands for light-sabres, the parallels are clearer still. The influence of the British school story, with competitions between student Houses, good, bad, and unfair teachers, is also clear: the Quidditch matches of Harry Potter are not unlike the obsession with rugby in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (and a host of imitators). And so on. There are books, articles, talks galore that dig out and enjoy the parallels.

You don’t have to recognise the allusions to enjoy Harry Potter, of course, but it makes for a rich reading experience if you do. And for the classically-inclined (Rowling herself was a classics student), the novels are peppered with references to the ancient world, through names, mythical creatures, snatches of Latin, and classical precedents and parallels.

Names

There are the names of important witches and wizards, for instance: Minerva McGonagall, the wise and wily deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, named after the Roman version of the goddess Athena (and, incidentally, Scotland’s weirdest poet, William McGonagall). Albus Dumbledore, headmaster and personification of goodness: where Albus means ‘white,’ or ‘shining’, and Dumbledore is a dialectal word for bumblebee. Rubeus Hagrid, his loyal sidekick, takes his first name from the Latin for red, a popular name in mediaeval times. Dedalus Diggle is one of the first wizards to celebrate the initial defeat of Voldemort: his name recalls the great inventor, father of Icarus, designer of the labyrinth. Severus Snape recalls the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), but more than that, his name means ‘severe, or serious’; Draco Malfoy is named after the Latin for dragon (as befits a proud member of Slytherin), and also the first lawmaker of the city-state of Athens, known for his harshness (such as giving the death penalty for minor crimes, like stealing a cabbage). Hermione Granger is named after the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, a spirited woman who fights to marry the man she wants, Orestes. Argus Filch, the grouchy janitor/groundskeeper, seems to be everywhere at once, like his namesake, the hundred-eyed guardian, Argus Panoptes, whose eyes ended up decorating the tail of Hera’s bird, the peacock.

These are only the names from the first book in the series. Throughout, Rowling is very clever with her use of names, balancing Latin and English, Old French, and dialects, and applying them meaningfully to major and minor characters alike. (I was delighted to see that Professor Sprout, the herbology teacher, rejoices in the first name, Pomona–the Roman goddess of apples and ‘fruitful abundance’) These names create a tapestry of additional meaning, supporting the sense that the Harry Potter books are set in a world like, but not quite like, our own, full of echoes and allusions.

Mythological Creatures

Magical names are part of a magical world, and much of the appeal of the novels comes from the interweaving of magical creatures with everyday life. Rowling draws again on mythology: Harry Potter’s wand has the feather of a phoenix in it; so too, Dumbledore has a companion phoenix (Fawkes, named after Guido Fawkes, one of the gunpowder plot conspirators). Dragons feature, in names, in passwords (caput Draconis), and in an egg that Hagrid won off a guy down the pub. ‘Galloping Gorgons’ cries Hagrid when he remembers something he ought to have done, perhaps feed ‘Fluffy,’ the three-headed dog who guards a trapdoor to a secret underworld, much like his mythological counterpart Cerberus. And of course there are the centaurs, learned stargazers who live in the forest near the school and worry about the messages in the planets.

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

And into the clearing came–was it a man, or a horse? to the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse’s gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tale. Harry and Hermione’s jaws dropped.

‘Oh it’s you, Ronan,’ said Hagrid in relief. ‘How are yeh?’

He walked forward and shook the centaur’s hand.

‘Good evening to you, Hagrid,’ said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. ‘Were you going to shoot me?’

‘Can’t be too careful, Ronan,’ said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. ‘There’s summat bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter, an’ Hermione Granger, by the way. Students up at the school. An’ this is Ronan, you two. He’s a centaur.’

‘We’d noticed,’ said Hermione faintly.

(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 184)

The mythological creatures add depth and mystery to the novels–suggesting a pagan otherworldliness, or old magic, that is qualitatively different from the witches and wizards of modern faerie. They don’t participate much in the action, but come by occasionally, giving a sense that they’ve seen many a battle between good and evil. . .

Spells and Magical Latin

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

Classical Parallels and Storytelling

Going deeper into storytelling and interextuality: as a hero story, the Harry Potter novels participate in all sorts of classical traditions. One can view them as a quest, in which Harry finds the resources (external and internal) to battle ultimate evil in the form of Voldemort. One can view them, as Vassiliki Panoussi does, as a foundation epic, in which Harry and his friends build an army to establish a brave new world. There are echoes of Greek tragedy, as Brett Rogers notes, in Rowling’s world view, especially where the tyranny of educators over students is concerned. Harry Potter, like much great fantasy literature, has richness, depth, and a profound morality, which drawing on classical parallels helps point to.

Harrius Potter and Our Mythical Childhood

The Our Mythical Childhood survey, of course, has entries on the world of Harry Potter. There’s entry 641 on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and entry 65 on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while I didn’t grow up reading these books, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army, I am entranced by the mixture of Latin and magic, imagination and power that make the Harry Potter novels a mythical experience–in English, in Latin, or even in Ancient Greek .

–Elizabeth Hale

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“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.

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

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

Funny Bones–Geoffrey McSkimming’s Archaeological Adventures

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

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

Here’s what we talked about. 

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

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

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

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

GMSK Author pic Final © 9 diamonds press
Geoffrey McSkimming

 

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?

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

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

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

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

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

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

Anything else you think we should know?

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

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

–Elizabeth Hale