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

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Retelling Theseus–Frank Sikalas and Kid Titan

A recent discovery is Brisbane based author, Frank Sikalas, whose charming retellings of mythology for kids are published through his Kid Titan imprint. I’ve been enjoying reading his graphic novels, Icarus Rising, which explores a future life for the doomed flying boy, and his Athena Warrior Goddess, dedicated to the coming of age of one of Greek mythology’s most powerful figures. And most of all, I’m enchanted by his picture book, Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero, which retells the famous legend and imparts all sorts of information about life in the age of legends.

Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero, by Frank Sikalas, illustrated by Anna Manatolos

I’m always interested to find out what draws young authors to classical myth, and I wrote to Frank Sikalas to find out. He grew up in a Greek family, ‘where the culture spilled out in every aspect of my upbringing… Greek school, Greek dancing classes, etc.’ After studying ancient history and mythology at the University of Queensland, he rediscovered his earlier love of storytelling and began writing the myths that he now publishes through Kid Titan.

Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero might be my favourite of Frank’s work so far. It does a lovely job of retelling the Theseus myth with sympathy for the different players, and conveying the spirit of the age of legends.

Anna Manatolos’s illustrations capture the whimsy of the original legend.

Frank explained that he lets the story determine what form he tells it in, and this picture book combines action with information, through word and image.

The development of this aesthetic began at the beginning of putting the first book together and the formation of Kid Titan. I felt that Kid Titan had to be represented in organic and natural tones more connected to the ancient times but with a fun and modern twist. I always think about it, every time Kid Titan is on display whether flyers or stickers.

Creating the visuals for the characters and book was one of research and style. I wanted unique styles for each publication and so once I selected and commissioned the artist, the process of putting it altogether began. I provided the artist the script and character descriptions. The process is a back and forward one where I approved the character concepts, scenes and pages.

A brooding Minotaur–by Frank Sikalas and Anna Manatolos

Other books that Frank Sikalas produces through Kid Titan are graphic novels–including adaptations of the myths of (Icarus Rising in which a revived Icarus helps rebuild a fallen world) and  Athena Warrior Goddess (in which the goddess Athena comes of age and builds her powers fighting the Titans). He doesn’t restrict himself to Greek mythology, but branches out into other areas, such as Norse and Chinese myth. Future ventures include Egyptian myths, and a young adult novel. There’s even a deck of playing cards featuring figures from myths around the world.

Frank Sikalas, launching Theseus

I asked Frank why he thinks we still connect to Classical myth.

We look towards and connect with classical mythology, I believe, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I believe it’s ingrained in us and passed on from century to century, generation to generation no matter where the myth comes from. Secondly, we seek to express ourselves, our culture and to make sense of our environments and what’s happening around us, no different to what our ancestors did.

Kid Titan, aka Frank Sikalas, dreaming up new ideas


It’s a constant source of amazement to me that so many creators from around the world are drawing on the Greek myths and combining them into new forms, and playing with new ideas. I’ll be eagerly keeping an eye on Kid Titan to see what Frank comes up with next.

Elizabeth Hale


Finding Icarus … Our Mythical Childhood Turns Two

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (1991). Used under Creative Commons License (accessed: May 24, 2018).

A very Mythical anniversary

On 1 October, 2 years ago, we began work on the Our Mythical Childhood project, and so, we are now two!  It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve found out.  Look here, at the Our Mythical Childhood website, and here, at the Our Mythical Childhood facebook, twitter, and blog pages, for summaries and updates.  There’s always something happening.

In honour of our second birthday, I thought it would be a nice idea to share some of the findings from the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  Because Miriam Riverlea and I are writing a guide to the field, we scour the site often, looking for inspiration, ideas, and illuminations among the entries that we, and our colleagues, have written.

If our project has turned two, that means we are two years into the five years of the project.  Which means we’ve come through our adolescence, and are into our adult years.  It means we’re striving, we’re growing wings, we’re hoping to fly.  I therefore looked up the term ‘Icarus.’

Who among us doesn’t wish to fly?

The myth of Icarus is often used to think about the adolescent years, years that are often depicted as times of striving, questing, struggling, failing, and falling to earth with a bump.  How many adolescents, and children for that matter, don’t listen to their parents?  How many children, it might be noted, find themselves in difficult situations because of their parents’ actions? (Icarus isn’t necessarily flying by his own choice.)  The complex of emotions and interactions in the Icarus myth map well onto children’s and young adult literature –adolescent enjoyment of risk-taking; the power, and peril, of invention and creativity, child-parent conflict and love.

'The_Fall_of_Icarus',_17th_century,_Musée_Antoine_Vivenel

Looking for Icarus

Searching Icarus in the Our Mythical Childhood Survey brought up 34 entries, from the literary, oral, electronic, and audiovisual categories.  I’ve selected a few, ones in which the Icarus myth features.

Icarus and the Sages

This 1976 Russian animation directed and written by Fyodor Khitruk shows Icarus living in the clouds with the philosophers, who have all found their places in history.  Determined to be known for something, he makes a machine and attempts to fly. Hanna Paulouskaya points out in entry 43 on Icarus and the Sages, that although he falls, the moral of the story (which conflates Icarus’s famous fall, with his father Daedalus’s invention),is to take a leap, to explore the freedom of ideas and inventions.  You can watch the film here on the Soyuz Multifilm youtube site:

Melting Point

Australian writer, Nadia Wheatley, is best-known for her book My Place which chronicles the history of one part of Sydney from 1788 to 1988.  Her sensitivity to history and cultural changes appears again in ‘Melting Point,’ a 1994 short story about a Greek-Australian teenager, Xenia, who meditates on her heritage while translating Ovid’s version of the fall of Icarus, in class.  In entry 132 on ‘Melting Point’, Miriam Riverlea notes ‘Melting Point is a unique and complex retelling of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and an important text for the study of reception of myth itself.’

Be Careful, Icarus!

American writer Joan Holub is the co-author of the Goddess Girls series of popular tween fiction.  In Be Careful, Icarus! (2015) she teams up with illustrator Leslie Patricelli, to take on the challenge of telling myths for babies.  As Sonya Nevin notes in entry 229, Be Careful, Icarus! is ‘a beautifully-illustrated series that creatively transposes ancient myths into real-life scenarios faced by pre-school-aged children.’

Icarus Swinebuckle

Another American picture book is this lovely one, Icarus Swinebuckle (entry 300), written and illustrated by Michael Garland in the year 2000.  Icarus Swinebuckle is a pig who wants to fly, and though his friends and neighbours think it’s impossible, he perserveres.  Garland sets this version in the American age of invention–his Icarus dresses rather like Benjamin Franklin, to humorous and moving effect.

Harry and Hortense at Hormone High

In this intense young adult novel by a third American, Paul Zindel (1984), a boy who believes he is the reincarnation of Icarus, and has the power to change the world, falls to a tragic end, observed by his friends who are unable to help or save him.  Here, the myth’s tragic qualities are highlighted, in a meditation on mental illness, coming of age, and adolescent agency.  See entry 133 on Harry and Hortense at Hormone High, by Miriam Riverlea.

Kid Icarus

Kid Icarus is a popular video game produced by Japanese games-maker, Nintendo.  It appeared first in 1986, and was rebooted in 2012.  Here, a boy called Pit, a boy angel, leader of the ‘Icarus’ army, breaks free from the underworld where Medusa has trapped his leader, Palutena. Using his special skills, he fights to overcome Medusa and restore light to the darkness.  As Nanci Santos notes in entry 338, Kid Icarus works with a basic good vs evil format, and draws on a range of mythologies to create its worldview.

How Lunga Went to the Sky Alive

For entry 161, Divine Che Neba collected this myth, How Lunga Went to the Sky Alivefrom a storyteller in Ndu, in the North West of Cameroon. It’s about Lunga, a man with mythical properties, who visits the heavens to consult the gods about a problem.  But the gods are not there, and to return, the servants tie him to some ropes, for him to jump safely back to earth.  On his journey downwards, the winds disconnect him, and he falls to earth.  Because of his mythic properties, he does not die, but his footprints can still be seen in the rocks where he landed.

 

Icarus is everywhere

These are just a few examples, and I’ve only chosen items that feature Icarus or have parallels to his story.  He appears as a supporting character in many other texts.

The appeal of the myth is clear: the gift, and the curse, of flight features throughout, and the story’s ready adaptation to cautionary tales, morality fables, emotional dilemmas, and more.  And Icarus appears in many places, well beyond children’s literature.  The Icarus Project, for instance, is a mental health organisation; Icarus is the title of a documentary about doping in competitive cycling; it’s also the title of a Journal of Solar System Studies, and the name given to drones, to devices to hack and hijack drones, and also to insure drones.  The Icarus Deception is a how-to book to help you unleash your creativity.  The Icarus Factor is a very strange episode of Star Trek: Next Generation;  Codename Icarus is a creepy kid’s spy show from the 1970s. And so on…

Resonances of flight, of falling, of frailty, of creativity and invention, of hubris, of love and fear of the sun, and an ambiguous relation to authority and agency abound. . .   It won’t be long before there are well more than 34 entries on Icarus in the Our Mythical Survey.

Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Hades Lives Next Door: Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten

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

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

Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hades Next Door

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

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

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

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

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