I came, I saw, I threw up–slapstick history in Julius Zebra

‘I’d forgotten what an impetuous little donkey you are’–The Emperor Hadrian, Julius Zebra: Entangled with the Egyptians.

As part of my mission to think about history and comedy, I’ve been reading Gary Northfield’s very funny Julius Zebra series of middle-grade chapter books  In the first of them, Rumble with the Romans, Julius, a zebra from the ‘stinky lake’ in the middle of Africa, is captured and taken to Rome to visit the circus.  Actually, that’s what he thinks at first.  In fact, he’s taken to be in the circus, to fight for his life in front of the Emperor Hadrian.  At first it doesn’t go so well for Julius and his friends, but when a gladiator calls him a ‘stripy horse,’ Julius sees red and finds his fighting instincts, becoming the crowd’s, and the Emperor’s favourite.

It’s a kind of Spartacus-meets-Gladiator –meets Asterix-meets-Beano-and-Dandy romp, mixing madcap mayhem with quite a bit of historical information along the way, and it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read about Ancient Rome in a a long time.

Bundle with the Britons is the second in the Julius Zebra series, in which Julius and his friends are sent to Britain to subdue the Britons by taking on their fearsome gladiators.  But when they go on a training run through a swamp, they meet an old woman in a hut, who tells them about the great Iceni warrior, Boudicca, and shows them how to paint themselves with woad, they join forces with their British counterparts, to overthrow the Romans.  Next up is Entangled with the Egyptians, where Julius, fleeing from Hadrian, ends up in Egypt, where he is mistaken for a horse god who can make it rain.  And the last, so far, in the series, is Grapple with the Greeks, in which the great hero Heracles drags Julius and his friends to Greece to help him find his lost Golden Apple.

Northfield creates a merry band of companions for his hero.  There’s Cornelius, the know-it all warthog.  He functions much like Brenda the Wonder-Camel in the Cairo Jim books, providing information when necessary.  (Even if Julius mishears half of it, and misunderstands the rest, the information is very helpful for readers.)  There’s Lucia, the crocodile, whose cunning escape plans seem always to lead the gang back to their captors.  Rufus, the amiable giraffe, always up for adventure, Felix, the rock-collecting antelope, and Milus, a grumpy lion.  Sometimes the gang is joined by their gladiatorial-combat instructor, Pliny the mouse.  And once Julius is reunited with his dimwitted brother, Brutus, even more mayhem ensues.

Together, Julius and friends travel the Roman empire, from Africa to Rome, to Britain, to Egypt and Greece, matching wits with Septimus, a bad-tempered teacher of gladiators, and the emperor himself.

The novels are an enticing mixture of text and cartoons, with a lot of shouting, slapstick and bad puns.  Chapters have titles like ‘I came, I saw, I threw up,’ (Romans) and ‘I want my Mummy’ (in Egyptians), and ‘Hoo noo broon coo’ (Britons), and the humour doesn’t err on the side of subtlety.  But again, along the way, is a great deal of information, delivered in part by Cornelius the warthog, and visible in the details of Northfield’s text and illustrations.  He’s clearly done his research, and for readers eager to know more about Ancient Rome, each volume has a final chapter in which Cornelius teaches how to count in Roman Numerals, and a glossary in which Northfield explains the fundamentals of daily life in antiquity.

These books don’t only give you a good laugh, they teach you something, namely details about a long-ago world. They make me want to know more–to check up on things I’d forgotten, and to think about things I hadn’t heard about before.  And they gave me something to think about: they may not be intended as post-colonial critiques of empire, but there’s certainly a resonance in seeing a group of African animals, kidnapped to entertain the humans of Rome, break free and start a rebellion, in Rome and Britain.  Hadrian’s obsession with his big Wall in Britain offers another sort of modern resonance.  Looking at how the animals band together to outwit the humans, whose intentions are seldom good, I can’t help thinking about how our human world exploits animals.  There are other resonances: animals, like children, are often bossed around by adults, and children identify with animals’ innocence and comparative kindness.  Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it’s nothing to what humans get up to.

Funny books don’t have to be educational, but they often are, perhaps despite themselves.  Through humour, action, fun characters, and amusing situations, Julius Zebra and friends convey a great deal of nonsense, but they also teach us a great deal about the the world–ancient or modern.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

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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

‘A Greek God in the 31st Century? How could such a thing be possible?’ Ulysses 31 and other Japanese adventures in classical reception

This is the basis of a short talk I’m giving at UNE this week, for our Asian Studies Symposium, organised by my colleague, John C. Ryan. It’s a nice opportunity to reflect on some of the findings that have come my way through working on the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.

For some reason, Ulysses 31, a Franco-Japanese animated space opera passed me by as a kid watching tv in 1980s New Zealand. But working on the Our Mythical Childhood project has caught me up on this wonderfully wacky version of Homer’s Odyssey in which a space-warrior, Ulysses, with majestic bearing and amazing hair, is trapped in Olympus with his son, Telemachus, Telemachus’s timid robot Nono, and Yumi, a blue-skinned alien girl (who is trying to revive her brother, Numinor who is in suspended animation following an unfortunate encounter with some Cyclops). They travel through the space known as Olympus, and try to make their way home, visiting strange planets, and having adventures loosely based on the adventures of the original Ulysses.

Ulysses 31

Hot pool time machine? Thermae Romae

Japanese adaptation of classical material is a fascinating field, especially because of its vivid visuals, and its unusual combination of imagination and humour. My first encounter with it was probably Mari Yamizaki’s amazing manga series, Thermae Romae (2012). This series, which has been adapted into an animated series, and two films, features the adventures of Lucius, a Roman bath-designer who is stuck for ideas, and is magically transported to modern-day Japan, where he is struck with awe (as we all are) by Japanese bathroom facilities. Travelling back to his own time and place, he adapts what he has seen into his designs, and becomes an in-demand designer, favoured by the Emperor, Hadrian. Being in-demand in Ancient Rome, of course, can be quite a precarious situation, and adventures, and mayhem, ensue.

Apart from its potty scenario, what I like so much about Therumae Romae is the way Yamazaki exploits the similarities and differences of Roman and Japanese societies. Both are known for their love of baths, both countries are known for their hot springs, and perhaps less obviously both cultures are polytheistic, and full of interesting and unusual superstitions, gods, and mythical creatures.

Mythical Creatures and Romantic Comedy:A Centaur’s Life

Mythical creatures appear in all sorts of Japanese films and manga. I think of Hayao Miyazaki’s well-known animations, such as the marvellous Spirited Away, in which the heroine, Chihiro, has to work at a mysterious bath-house (another bath house!) where the myriad spirits of Japanese culture come to relax. The variety of spirits, who represent aspects of air and water, land and sky, and different kinds of emotions, is not so far removed from the symbolism of the Greek and Roman myths, gods, and metamorphoses.

A Centaur’s Life (2011- present) by Kei Murayama, is a popular coming-of-age romance-oriented comedy-soap-opera manga about the life and worries (the original Japanese translates literally as ‘A Centaur’s Worries’) of a teenage centaur, Himeno Kimihara. Dating, career, friends, growing up, overcoming fears, learning new skills, these are the focus of this amusing (and sometimes racy) series. Himeno is not the only mythical creature in this story, featuring satyrs, mermaids, and demons, and suggesting that adolescence is a metamorphic and mythical state, to be viewed with caution.

Boy Bands and Classical Busts: Sekkou Boys

I’ve written before about Sekkou Boys, a short comedy anime series that sends up the boy band industry and the Japanese obsession with pop idols. It features a quartet of classical gypsum busts (Mars, Hermes, St Giorgio, and Medici) who are trying to become more than one-hit wonders, in company with their rookie manager Miki.  Like A Centaur’s Life, Sekkou Boys doesn’t labour the classical angle, but occasionally draws on the busts’ history and character, such as when the cheeky Hermes operates a side-line, selling health supplements. The supplements are called ‘Trismegistus,’ in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the thrice-great Hermes, associated with healing and wisdom.

Getting Serious: Historical Manga

Other instances of Japanese classical reception are more serious. In Plinius, Mari Yamazaki teams up with another manga-great, Miki Tori, to retell the life of the great Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny. Another historical biography is called Historie, by Hitoshi Iwaaki: it tells the imagined life of Eumenes, a secretary to Alexander the Great, and later a General himself. These works provide lavish illustrations of the ancient world, and allow readers entry into them through vivid characters with interesting lives.

Metamorphosis and Invention: Kid Icarus, Persona, Ludere Deorum

Invention, imagination, filling in gaps, and adapting and modifying material for new contexts is a part of Classical Reception, in Japan and elsewhere as well. Classical material finds its way into games as well as stories and films, such as the hit Nintendo game, Kid Icarus, in which a flying boy leaps up platforms propped by classical columns, and shoots arrows to collect hearts as currency. Sequels, such as Kid Icarus: Myths and Monsters and Kid Icarus: Uprising are popular, and extend the figure into an elaborate mythical-verse, involving goodies, baddies, battles, metamorphoses and more.

Metamorphosis is a vital part in other games, such as Persona, by Atlus games, in which players transform into heroic figures from Greek and Roman myth, such as Orpheus the great poet and singer, and Nyx, the goddess of the night. In this game, which the Belarussian students in the Our Mythical Childhood project have written about, players explore their characters’ emotions even as they work on strategy and gamesmanship, showing the increasing sophistication and reach of games, and the power of myth to connect to young people’s emotions.

Ludere Deorum

Ludere Deorum, a story about humans transported to the school of the gods, in order to increase the bonds between gods and humans, further crosses over between visual novel and game. In it, readers/viewers/players travel with a Japanese schoolgirl, Yui, from Japan to the godly realm, to romance different gods (Apollon, Hades, Tsukito, Takeru, Balder, Loki, Anubis, and Thoth), in a kind of choose-your-own-adventure story/game.

‘A Greek God in the 31st Century? How could such a thing be possible?’

One of the many wonderful things about visual storytelling is that anything is possible in what the artists choose to show us, even the gods of the 31st century. And yet within them all, certain themes emerge: the writers, artists, animators and more, are using Greek and Roman myths and history to think about invention, and adaptation, about choices and options, about emotions and growth, about what it means to be a human–in Greece, in Rome, in Japan, and even in the 31st Century.

–Elizabeth Hale

Lisl Weil’s Wise and Witty Retellings: King Midas’ Secret and More

Lisl Weil (1910-2006) was an artist, writer, dancer and television presenter who grew up in Vienna, and immigrated to America in 1939. She lived in New York, and illustrated over a hundred books. She was a dancer, and performed live illustration work with symphony orchestras around the country. A fascinating and creative woman!

I found her work thanks to Miriam Riverlea, who uncovered a copy of King Midas’ Secret and Other Follies on our recent research trip to Te Puna National Library of New Zealand. You never know what a keyword will turn up.

I was immediately taken by Weil’s work, which has a sly wit and combines a warm morality with an easy charm, both in images and in words.

This is how King Midas’ Secret begins.

In the days of the ancient gods, the land of Greece was a strange place. Flowers spoke and fabulous beasts were seen every day. Kings and peasants lived in the valleys. The gods lived high up in the clouds atop a great mountain called Olympus. When the gods came down from Mount Olympus, life in this strange land became even stranger.

You could never be sure the bull you saw was not a god in disguise. But the people were the same as they are today. Some were good, some were bad, and many were foolish.

The father of all the gods kept this in mind. Wise people still do. (5-7)

‘You could never be sure the bull you saw was not a god in disguise’–Zeus shows a leg in King Midas’ Secret and Other Follies, Lisle Weil, 1969

King Midas’s Secret and Other Follies is a small collection of myths:

There is the tale of a fame-desiring King Midas, who foolishly thought he could judge the gods’ musical skill and was rewarded with asses’ ears.

The story of Narcissus, a ‘handsome boy,’ who sleeps in, misses the school chariot, and falls into a pond while admiring his reflection.

Next is Icarus, a ‘handy lad,’ who tries to outfly the birds while wearing his father’s wings of wax and feather, and fell from the sky.

And last is the story of the Sphinx: ‘a monster. There was no doubt about it.’ She is so puffed up with her own cleverness that when Oedipus solved her special riddle, she burst with rage.

Each story is accompanied by illustrations in shades of blue, gold, and the occasional purple, drawn with a witty economy of line. At the end of each story, a cheeky chorus sings the moral. For King Midas, the moral is:

Don’t be conceited, or else the wrong fame 

might easily shine upon your name.’ (19)

‘Don’t be conceited, or else the wrong fame might easily shine upon your name’ King Midas’ Secret, Weil, 1969

What I like so much about Weil’s work is its lightness of touch, its combination of wit and warmth. And while purists may notice that she elides great swathes of the original myths, leaving out some of the difficult bits (instead of falling to his death, Icarus is caught by Daedalus in a great upside down umbrella; instead of committing suicide, the Sphinx bursts with rage), what I think she does so nicely is balance the humor and morality of these cautionary myths with a care for children.

Much (in fact most) children’s literature is didactic in some way. We don’t tend to give children books that will encourage them to behave badly unjustifiably; while we want to encourage children’s sense of imagination, adventure, fun, and more, we want them to remain safe. Weil’s cheery choruses seem to wink as they chant their refrain:

Wise people say:

Don’t fly off into the blue

Unless you know what’s in store for you. (33)

How to hide your asses’ ears, King Midas’ Secret, Weil, 1969

The illustrations are simple, and funny, as in the selection Midas’s head gear, developed with his barber to hide his unfortunate ears: but a slight blush on his face reveals that the joke is also cruel for the sufferer. At the same time, one can see her enjoyment of the amazing shapes both of classical clothing and architecture, and of the mythical beasts and monsters. So much about this book, and Weil’s other forays into classical retellings, Of Witches and Monsters and Wondrous Creatures (1985) and Pandora’s Box (1986), shows both an understanding of the humour and games-playing of classical myth, and its darker or deeper sides as well. Her Pandora’s Box shows sympathy for all players; while Of Witches and Monsters and Wondrous Creatures encourages young readers to think about what mythical beasts tell us about the human condition, and human thinking about ourself and the world.

It may take some digging to find out why Weil drew, or was drawn to, this mythological material. And so far, from the hundreds of books she was involved in, I have found only these three with links to Classical Antiquity. Regardless, there’s something unique and rather wonderful about the wit and wisdom with which she approaches these retellings for young readers.

–Elizabeth Hale