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

Advertisements

Thinking about Nature with Donna Jo Napoli’s Fish Girl…

Like so many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nature lately–I’m sure don’t need to tell you why.  As part of the Our Mythical Childhood project, I’m thinking about how children’s writers and illustrators use myth to make sense of the natural world: what it is, how it works, how we live in it–how we should take care of it–what happens when we don’t.  Children are natural beings, and yet as adults, we’re aware that the human race has not done well by nature–seeing it as something to be plundered and exploited, rather than cherished and nurtured.  How we talk about it in their books has implications, and ramifications.  (It’s great to see children’s illustrators joining together to support children in their concerns about the environment.)

One set of myths that highlight our relation to nature centre on the figure of the mermaid–half woman, half fish–caught between worlds.  Stories like Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, TV series like H2O: Just Add Wateror films like Miyazaki’s Ponyo highlight human exploitation of the seas–through fishing, through pollution–and encourage a more respectful relation between both. Meanwhile Jessica Love’s Julian is a Mermaid, as I’ve discussed, explores diversity and respect for difference.

Screenshot 2019-05-08 21.57.44

Fish Girl, a lovely graphic novel by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner, explores these ideas, and more, in a story about isolation, exploitation, and eventual escape and survival.  Fish Girl is the story of a mermaid who was kidnapped as a baby by a fisherman who found her in his catch. Seeing financial opportunity, he set up a seaside attraction in an old house, calling it ‘Ocean Wonders,’ posing as Neptune, the ‘god of seas and storms,’ and charging visitors $2 to ‘see the mysterious fish girl.’ The mermaid is captive in a large tank, which she shares with fish and an octopus, and which is decorated like a girl’s bedroom. The mermaid’s job is to play hide-and-seek with visitors, who try to see her in her tank, and to collect the pennies they have thrown into the tank. She has reached adolescence, and her best friend is a red octopus.

Eventually, the mermaid meets a human girl, and they become friends.  The tank suddenly seems more confining and lonely, and the mermaid finds a way to leave it, to join the outside world. It’s a lovely, but melancholy book, highlighting the melancholy at the heart of mermaid myths, such as the Little Mermaid, and reminiscent in places of novels of kidnapping and isolation, such as Room.  The melancholy story is supported by David Wiesner’s delicate illustrations–the colour palette, of blues and greens and corals, entirely appropriate, but also making glancing allusions to Disney’s Little Mermaid, or Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo.

Children’s books don’t have to be direct to make serious points–and Fish Girl invites us to think about the natural world–its power, and its fragility–our place in it, and our responsibility for it.

I took my enjoyment of this lovely book as an excuse to write to Donna Jo Napoli, to interview her for the Our Mythical Childhood survey.  Donna Jo is a widely published author and academic.  She’s a linguist and a teacher, has a degree in Mathematics, and on top of all that, has a voluminous output of retellings and adaptations of myths, fairytales, and folklore, as well as stories about nature and inspirational people.  It was a delight to interview her.

 

Interview with Donna Jo Napoli

donnajo2017

1. What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories? 

I think it started with my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Reynolds. She brought the old tales to life — all their passion and intrigue and misery. I got involved in the Latin club, and then in the Latin Forum of the State of Florida. I even ran a state forum one year. When I went to college, I didn’t follow up on Latin. But in graduate school, I had to pass a test in reading Latin. I decided not to prepare for it, but just go in and see what happened. I passed — after four years away from Latin. And that’s because Mrs. Reynolds was so terrific. The experience reminded me of how much I loved those stories. After that I went for years not doing anything with Latin. But in Spring 2013, a classics professor at Swarthmore, Rosaria Munson, and I co-taught a course on The Hero’s Journey. We looked at Virgil’s Aeneid, then Dante’s Divina Commedia, then Eugenio Montale’s poetry — all in the original Latin, then Old Italian, then modern Italian — talking about historical change in language as well as variations on the themes in the different works. It was thrilling reading the Aeneid again. And it was thrilling seeing the relevance of the old works to modern life.

In FISH GIRL I didn’t think of any particular myth. Rather, I tried to use the ancient feeling that the seas are full of potential. Mysterious creatures live and rule there. Ordinary understandings of how life works don’t necessarily hold. Though David and I didn’t put in any snakes growing out of heads or talking animals, we allowed the octopus to grow to enormous size and then shrink again, where emotions were the key to the size changes. And we allowed the fish in Fish Girl’s tank to recognize that she was somehow changing and to respond accordingly.

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

We know a great deal of facts about the world now, many more than the ancients did. But we still lack understanding of many things. For example, we don’t even really know how it is that trees manage to pump water up from the ground to their crowns. We’ve rejected osmosis as the answer — but there is no presently agreed upon answer. And that is a rather mundane thing — something happening around us all the time, but we haven’t a clue about what’s going on. We are much more in the dark about the arcane things. And the more we learn about both life on earth and space way out there, the more we recognize how little we truly understand.

The ancients tried to give reasons for everything… for earthquakes and tsunamis and lightning. They sought to see a comprehensive picture. And within that picture, they tried to adjust to the vagaries of human behavior. I think young people today would like a comprehensive picture within which they could make some kind of sense of the natural world and human behavior within it. It is comforting to see characters in the ancient tales struggle with the same human foibles we struggle with. And it is comforting to see that they too were stupified by natural events around them… different natural events from the ones that stupify us today, perhaps… but no less enigmatic.

3. 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?  

Ah, I answered some of that in question 1. For most fiction work I do that is placed in classical times, I use translations into English of Homer, Hesiod, and Apollodorus. I stay away from Wikipedia on this — although I love Wikipedia for many other things (it is a great source of information about languages and linguistics, for example, because the Linguistic Society of America urges its members to add information to Wikipedia and correct anything that’s dubious).

Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers? Absolutely. I did a book for National Geographic called Treasury of Greek Mythology. In there I chose to present the stories that I most love. They were written in Greek, of course, and I don’t read Greek, so I had to look at translations. An interesting thing about translations is that the same story is quite differently translated by scholars in different points of history…. or that’s what I concluded from my very small and limited study. Looking at translations from the 1700s through today, I found myself making choices based on my own sensibilities — which is what I’m sure those translators did. I also read many of the stories in Latin — in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I suspect that Ovid influenced me most. Certainly with respect to the creation tale. Ovid’s words swirl and transform themselves, wonderfully evocative and still illusive. I aimed for that sense in my rendering of the creation tale.

4. How concerned were you with “accuracy” or “fidelity” to the original? (another way of saying that might be—that I think writers are often more “faithful” to originals in adapting its spirit rather than being tied down at the level of detail—is this something you thought about?) 

Yes, this is a major concern I had, more so in Treasury than in Fish Girl, since Fish Girl was a character that David and I created in a more-nearly modern world. For Treasury I always used the details that were in the originals — I never changed them. But I added a modern psychology, which was a personal choice, but I expect that choice was unavoidable. That is, I cannot help but see the behaviors of characters as reflecting the way I, as a person of today, understand human behavior.

5. Are you planning any further forays into classical material? 

I don’t plan far ahead. Whatever I’m working on at the moment is my world. Presently, I’m deep into the world of the Ancient Hebrews. But I’m nearly finished with this project. Where I will go next is unclear to me. I have a story in my head set in India in the late 1800s, and I’d like to work on that. But interruptions happen — and I am always open to happy serendipities. Will I ever return to the classical world of Greece? I can’t know that — but the stories are eternal fonts of wisdom and pain — so I hope I do.

6. Anything else you think we should know? 

Ha! what a funny question. But I will answer it. People often assume that I know more than I know. It’s as though working with the classics gives you an aura of respectability and of nearly encyclopedic knowledge. The truth is, I bumble through things. I’m not afraid to deal with what I don’t understand, because I understand so little that if I let that fear stop me, I wouldn’t write anything. And, you know, if I fully understood things, I would have no motivation to write. For me, writing is a way of tackling problems, a way of trying to get a sense a peace. But rarely do I ever feel I “know” something or truly “understand” it.

 

Thank you!

—Elizabeth Hale

Mermaids, mythical moments, and the power of acceptance: Julián is a Mermaid

One of the nicest things about working in the Our Mythical Childhood project is looking in my office pigeonhole to see what interesting books have come in.  This morning it was this lovely picture book: Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love.

Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love

In it, a little boy named Julián is obsessed with mermaids.  He reads about them on the train, he imagines himself as one when he goes swimming, and he dresses up as one while his abuela (grandmother) is out of the room.

When his grandmother comes back to find Julián wearing a headdress from a potted plant and a flower arrangement and posing with her curtains as a fishtail, she frowns for a moment.  She then disappears for a moment, comes back dressed up herself and gives Julián a special necklace to complete his outfit, then takes him for a walk through the city streets, where they join a parade . . .  for mermaids.

It’s a moving moment, of acceptance and understanding, and of an adult making the effort to integrate a child into the community he wants to be part of.  Being a mermaid is of course a metaphor for thinking about identity, about gender roles, about finding one’s place in the world, and about facilitating that for children.  Jessica Love’s beautiful book encapsulates important ideas about difference and about love, acceptance, and integration.  I won’t show any of the images: you can find the book yourself and enjoy the discoveries within the way I did.

The necklace of acceptance

Children’s literature these days is doing important work thinking about empowerment, identity and acceptance.  It encourages empathy and understanding, and Julián is a Mermaid is an excellent example of a text that draws one in, to achieve the difficult feat of walking in someone else’s (mermaid) shoes.  Looking at how Love captures the play of emotions across Julián’s face as his grandmother leaves the room to get the necklace for him, I found myself becoming this little boy for a moment.  What would happen if she didn’t accept him?  What would he do, what would he become?  (Where would he go?  How would he manage?)  Thank goodness for grandmothers might be the subtext of this book, and the relief and joy I felt when she returns, bearing the necklace of acceptance, was palpable.

The parade Julián and his abuela join is the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, in Coney Island, New York.  I looked it up.  It celebrates the beginning of summer, has been held annually for 36 years, and looks like a lot of fun

 

Like so many parades, it’s an expression of the carnivalesque, of the acceptance and joy of difference, of creativity, of the mythical spirit within us all.

The power of momentary mythicalness

I’ve used the word moment a lot in this little piece, because I think Julián is a Mermaid is a book about the power of moments, about their power to give expression to the rest of our lives.  Children’s literature, folktales, fairytales and myths are full of such moments, when the imaginary comes into contact with, and transforms, the real.  At the moment of the story Julian is a Mermaid.  Who knows if he will be one all his life, or if the desire is a momentary part of the fleeting fluid magic of childhood imagination?  Like all good picture books, Julián is a Mermaid leaves the question open, to powerful and moving effect.

 

–Elizabeth Hale

 

Myths on the Move–Our Mythical Animation . . .

 

Our Mythical Childhood went to Greenwich University in June, to the Children and Youth on the Move conference, hosted by the Children’s History Society.  The theme was movement, and so we talked about the ways that animators mobilise classical myth in their work for children.

Sonya Nevin showed how she and Steve Simons move myth in their Panoply animations of Greek vases.  We were privileged to see their animation of the Sappho Vase for the National Museum of Poland.

Anna Mik showed us how Walt Disney played with mermaid myths in the 1933 Silly Symphony cartoon, King Neptune.  You can read her Our Mythical Childhood survey entry on King Neptune here.

Hanna Paulouskaya showed us how Soviet animators such as Aleksandra Shezhko-Blotskaya used classical myth to move around the land as part of a national narrative.

And I talked about how the Australian animation, The Deepmoves myth underwater, using classical myths to appeal to an international audience.

Questions and discussion took us around the world, showing once again how myth functions both locally and universally, and to what ends  We talked about the rights of the mermaid, about what a siren really looks like, and what they really get up to.  We talked about how myth is put to use, encouraging Soviet schoolchildren to travel, for instance, or connecting Australian viewers to a wider world of mystery and story.  Sonya showed us how children move myth to their own ends, through the activities she and Steve give them–making their own shields and vases, for instance, and incorporating them in their own stories and mythology.  

The conference in general was emotionally moving, looking at how children move (or are forced to move) around the world, and also about how children’s culture moves through social changes, and how children move culture on, transforming and reshaping adult ideas for new generations.   Putting animation and mythology into these contexts, it is clear that mythology moves as culture moves, offering useful ways to frame children’s experiences and the way that reception is framed in its turn.

— Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

Ordinary Mermaids: H2O Just Add Water

This week, I talked at the Childrens Media Symposium at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Subject:  H2O: Just Add Water, a popular TV series featuring teenage mermaids, filmed not far from here (in Australian terms),… 

H20: Just Add Water, is a suburban-beachside-teen-comedy-fantasy show  that screened from 2006 to 2010 on Australian TV and around the world.  In it, three teenage girls (proper Emma, wild-girl Rikki, and girl-next-door Cleo) are transformed into mermaids when they swim in a mysterious pool during the full moon.

Gold_Coast_skyline
Gold Coast–Just add mermaids By Petra [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Following this, they become part-time mermaids.  Whenever they get wet, they transform instantly into a mermaid.  If they want to avoid discovery (and they do), it becomes difficult to wash dishes, have showers go to pool parties held by the popular kids, hold down a part-time job feeding dolphins at Seaworld . . .  Emma, a serious competitive swimmer, has to give up her career.

H20: Just Add Water is filmed on Australia’s Gold Coast, a beachside tourist destination, with many theme parks, hotels, and a glitzy property-development culture.  Alongside is a languid suburban lifestyle, with which a coastal hippie mysticism co-exists.  The main threat facing the girls, is the threat of discovery, of being turned into museum exhibits, or scientific experiments.

Sea_world_australia
Sea World..  Just where you’d think a mermaid would have an after-school job . . .

Various villains and ne’er-do-wells seem determined to unmask the girls.  There’s Zane, the black-shirt wearing troubled rich-kid, his mean-girl girlfriend Miriam, and the bombshell grant-getting scientist, Dr Denman, who stumbles on their secret and seeks to monetize their magical properties.  For people like them, and Zane’s property-developer father, the magical powers of Mako Island, the place where the girls come into their mermaid-hood, are also up for grabs.  Environmental themes loosely pervade this series: the mermaids use their power to protect nature from over-fishing and over-development.  Indeed the girls have magical powers, which come in handy.  With the power of thought, Cleo can move water; Emma can freeze it; Rikki can heat it up.  Working individually or together, they use their powers to solve problems, avoid discovery, or defeat the bad guys.

Almost every culture has a mermaid figure.  From the sirens of Greek mythology to the Cameroonian Jengu, to the Little Mermaid of Danish lore, to the Aboriginal Yawk-Yawk, to the Siren of Warsaw, these figures–half-woman, half-fish or other sea-creature, symbolize the power of nature, and the power of femininity.

H20: Just Add Water plays with those themes.  Once a month, when the moon is full, one of the girls sees its reflection in water and goes into an altered state.  Controlled Emma starts feverishly kissing boys.  Shy Cleo commands the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood when she suddenly has the exquisite singing voice of a mythical Siren.  Rambunctious Rikki starts setting fire to things with her touch.

In these episodes, which are scattered through more everyday, sit-com-like episodes, we see the show’s attempt to deal with matters of femininity.  A mysterious older lady, Miss Chatham, herself a former mermaid, explains the mysteries of the full moon, and gives hints about mermaid-lore.  From the beginning of their transition, the girls are inducted into a set of feminine mysteries: submerging into magical water in the chamber of the volcanic  island, is of course highly symbolic of femininity.

There are not many allusions made to classical mermaids in the show.  Those that do appear, come when one or other of the characters does a little research in the subject.  For the most part, H2O: Just Add Water offers a mermaid myth bolted on to a suburban teen sitcom.

In some ways, it would be unfair to expect much more from a show like this, created deliberately with an international audience in mind, drawing on the relative cultural anonymity of the Gold Coast, with its resemblance to Miami and other coastal resort cultures[1].  Certainly, expecting H2O to provide an in-depth exploration of Australian myths, is a bridge too far, and makers of Australian content for children often wrestle with the market-trimming challenges that cultural specificity cause.

Which may be why the show’s mermaid myths do not go much further than to express a general sense of girl-power, in which mermaid tails help you swim extra fast and rescue handsome boys in distress, and in which magical powers help you freeze your arch-rival in her tracks.

The lyrics to H2O’s theme song confirm the anodyne dream like this:

Cause I’m no ordinary girl

I’m from the deep blue underworld

Land or sea

I’ve got the power if I just believe[2]

And there we have the secret to the show: a promise of extraordinariness, delivered in an ordinary manner; promising access to a fantasy world for girls, simply by believing, showing that myth, however gently or simply delivered, is just around the corner.  Despite the promises, Cleo, Rikki, and Emma, are ordinary girls–and therein lies their power.

 – – Elizabeth Hale

[1] See Anna Potter, Susan Ward: H2O: Just Add Branding: Producing High-Quality Children’s Drama for Multi-Channel Environments. Media International Australia, November 2009.

[2] Kate Alexa, ‘No Ordinary Girl,’ Lyrics