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….

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Playful, pocket-sized, pastel Pegasus and the naughty ponies of Miniwings

What could be more playful than a winged horse?  A whole herd of tiny winged ponies!  In this post we look at the power of the cute factor in representations of Pegasus through the Miniwings series by NZ-based writer Sally Sutton and illustrator Kirsten Richards.  

Miniwings

Miniwings are a series of books by New Zealand author, Sally Sutton and illustrator Kirsten Richards,  about two little girls, Sophia and Clara, who have toy winged horses (named Oceana, Firestorm, Moonlight, and more), who come to life when adults aren’t around.  It’s a popular form of children’s literature, sometimes called ‘toy fantasy,’ where toys have secret lives of their own.  Sometimes, as in the case of Winnie-the-Pooh, they look to the child (Christopher Robin) for guidance.  Sometimes, as in the case of Miniwings, they cause all sorts of comic mayhem.

‘Collect all six heart-warming and hilarious glitter-twinkly adventures’ is what the publisher’s site urges little girls to do.  The Miniwings have their own language, in which words like pinky-purple and glitter are sprinkled liberally.  The flying ponies are super-cute, in shades of pastel: pale pink, blue, green, purple, coral…  they’re emininently desirable, and thoroughly collectible.

The original Miniwings–Pegasus

In some ways, Miniwings comes a long way from the original flying pony– the mythical winged stallion Pegasus, who sprang from the blood of Medusa, when the hero Perseus severed her head from her shoulders, and on whom the hero Bellerophon rode to defeat the Chimaera.

Millennium Pegasus, Dudley (UK).  By Brianboru100 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Millennium Pegasus, Dudley (UK). By Brianboru100 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In other ways it’s a natural progression: from winged stallion to cuddly mischief-maker.  They say every little girl wants a pony; I didn’t, but I did like the idea of Pegasus, the winged horse, who sprang out of the drops of blood from the Gorgon Medusa’s neck, when Perseus severed it.  I imagined hanging out with Pegasus, feeding him golden apples.

It never occurred to me that Pegasus might be lonely as the only flying horse in all of Greek mythology (curious how many singular figures there are in that body of myths–or at least in the myths that are selected and passed on to us as children).

But this might have occurred to Sally Sutton.  Shrink Pegasus to pocket size, give him several siblings/friends, make him mischievous rather than majestic, and you have a charming mythical figure ready-made for fantasy-comedy adventures in a domestic setting.

Playful Classics and Secret Fantasies

A major trope in children’s fantasy is the idea of secrecy, and the idea that adults cannot always understand, identify, or see the fantasy that kids know about.  It underscores a secret, magic, world for children, with special rules and delights.  Miniwings is that kind of children’s fantasy novel: Clara and Sophia are the guardians of their fantasy zone–though it threatens to disrupt real life as well.

In each volume a different winged pony causes a different kind of havoc: the titles are a clue to this.  Glitterwing’s Book Week Blunder kicks off the series, followed by Whizz’s Internet Oopsie, and Oceana’s Kitty Catastrophe , while Firestorm’s Musical Muck-Up is due in bookstores in May this year.  With these stories, which show the mythical creatures causing mayhem in different areas of kids’ daily lives,you can see a lovely comedy ensuing.  It’s a kind of fantasy known as ‘intrusion fantasy,’ an offshoot of magical realism, where fantasy elements intrude into real life, or coexist alongside it.  There’s no need to go through a portal to another world: magic comes straight to you … how lovely (at least sometimes)!

One of the things I’m most interested in, in my work for the Our Mythical Childhood project is the intersection between classical reception and children’s literature.  And I’m particularly interested in the idea of playfulness.  I don’t know (yet) whether Sutton and Richards have done serious research into the myth and origins of Pegasus, or whether they simply like the idea of a tiny flying horse.  Similarly, I don’t know whether the makers of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic series are devotees to the myth of Pegasus, or simply want to allow their characters the joy of flight.

Fantasy, animation, illustration, and children’s texts are delightfully open to playful interpretations. And so is myth, which likely accounts for its so many modifications and variations, of the kinds we are tracking in the Our Mythical Childhood project.  Indeed, the image for Our Mythical Childhood is a dreaming child asleep on her Pegasus rocking horse, delightfully designed  by Matylda Tracewska.

For pure pastel Pegasine (Pegasian?) playfulness, you can’t go much further down that route than Miniwings.  I showed my four year old niece Miniwings on my phone and asked if she would like a copy.  She glanced at it, said ‘yes,’ matter of factly, and then asked me to pass her the toy unicorn she currently likes to sleep with.

My niece has a birthday coming up in a couple of months.  Whether the Miniwings will fly from my Mythical Childhood bookshelf, to her real childhood nest of toys (dolls, babies, princesses, animals real and mythical), is an open question.

–Elizabeth Hale