Mythical Jigsaws and Alphabetical Odysseys: An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland and More

An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was created by British illustrator Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954). Sleigh was a printer and mural painter who was drawn, like many a creator before him, to the wonderful world of fairies, fairy tales, and mythology. His Ancient Mappe is vast, nearly six feet in length, and containing figures and realms from fairytales, myths, and children’s fantasy.

Peter Pan, Oberon, the Kingdom of Carbonel (which later featured in Sleigh’s daughter Barbara’s series about a kingdom of cats), nymphs, dryads, centaurs, psammeads, sea monsters, ice kings and queens and more feature in this marvellous image, showing just how populated fairyland is.

It’s drawn in an arts-and-crafts style, and suggests a yearning for another world (entirely possible to feel this way at the end of a shattering world war), and what I like about it is both its delicacy of colour, and its sense of the grown-upness of fairyland. It is not necessarily aimed at children.

When I stumbled across it, while doing some research for another project on nineteenth-century children’s literature that I’m planning for 2021, I was so taken I immediately thought I should get a copy.

And then, I discovered that there is a jigsaw version of it, which I promptly bought.

Alas, it only covers about 3 feet of Fairyland, probably a good thing, as my desk and dining table are covered with mythical manuscripts. But in the odd moment, I’ve been enjoying piecing it together, and identifying the classical elements that pop up in it.

Jigsaws are in at the moment, as part of a non-digital mindful return to old pursuits. It turns out that the gentle act of sorting through pieces, and working out where to put them is restful and absorbing, and good for the brain.

Combing through the puzzle pieces for the back end of a centaur, or figuring out where Cerberus has his lair (up in the mountains!), somehow frees up the mind to think and reflect more naturally. When I started tutoring at Brandeis University, I learned from working with an inspirational artist and teacher, Karen Klein, that giving students something to do with their hands (drawing a picture, playing with plasticine or pipecleaners), freed up their conversation, made them less self-conscious, perhaps less anxious, able to talk, almost idly, about whatever the subject of the day was.

Our Mythical Alphabet

And I’ve been finding, as I sift through the puzzle pieces, that I’ve been thinking about the book I’m writing with Miriam Riverlea, in which we too sift through many pieces, to put together a puzzle. In our case, it’s a guide to the way that classical mythology works in children’s literature, and we’re looking at it from all sorts of angles. How do particular mythical figures feature in children’s books? What happens to them in the pages? Does a child’s version of a myth highlight specific features? Which myths work for children, and which do not? Why are some figures more popular than others? How do the aesthetics of children’s literature shape the reception of classical antiquity more generally?

We’ve pieced together an Alphabetical Odyssey of a book (and last week I presented its overall format to my colleagues in the Our Mythical Childhood project at the Our Mythical History workshop–report to come). We use the non-hierarchical structure of the alphabet, combined with the loose adventurousness of an Odyssey, a journey on which anything might happen, and frequently does. My colleagues, as they always do, asked intelligent questions–about how we devised our topics, how capacious they are, how do we handle overlap, how do we identify useful texts, how will we present images, classical motifs, children’s literature concepts, and more. How do we handle multicultural topics, how do we think about diversity and difference–all important issues, and a reminder, if any were needed, that the topic may seem highly specialised, but in fact contains multiple and important influences and impacts.

As the work on the book intensifies, I’ll keep using this blog as a place to think about some of the issues that come up.

Back to the Mappe

I’m writing this while waiting for the plane that will take me back to the Southern Hemisphere. The week in Warsaw was intense, thinking about Mythical History, and hearing about the wonderful work my colleagues are doing (such as setting up the Our Mythical Education database, and launching the Myth and Autism network). It’s a shame Bernard Sleigh’s not around to invite to one of our Mythical conferences–I feel sure that if he did come, he’d incorporate our project into a map even larger than his one of Fairyland. But I’m looking forward to getting back to my three-feet jigsaw extract. Hopefully when I get home, all this mythical thinking will have helped me work out just where to find the missing bits of centaur, where exactly to place Cerberus’s lair–and of course, pinning down the elements of our Alphabetical Odyssey…

–Elizabeth Hale

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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

 

 

 

Why treehouses are all the rage in children’s books

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There is a rich tradition of trees in mythology.
Shutterstock

Elizabeth Hale, University of New England and Lynnette Lounsbury, Avondale College of Higher Education

Two of Australia’s most popular children’s storytellers live in a treehouse. It’s a Thirteen-Storey one, at least it started out that way. The storytellers are Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths, responsible for an array of children’s comedies, who live in a fantasy treehouse paradise. There they write and illustrate their stories, distracted by the lemonade fountains, see-through shark-infested swimming pool and a marshmallow gun that shoots directly into your mouth.

Since its arrival on the literary scene in 2011, this Treehouse has grown by 13 storeys at a time. The next edition will be 104 storeys. The books have sold over 3 million copies in Australia alone. The treehouse now contains a detective agency, a mashed potato and gravy train and a machine that makes money… or honey… depending on what you’d prefer. These delights interrupt Andy and Terry as they write for their publisher, Mr Bignose. Indeed the treehouse functions as a metaphor for the writing process … its storeys provide food for the stories produced inside.

Treehouses feature often in children’s stories. In Dav Pilkey’s popular Captain Underpants series, the heroes George and Harold write comics in their treehouse and retreat to it when things get out of hand, to regroup and create their way out of trouble. There are, of course, Tolkien’s Ents, the walking trees who fight on the side of good against Sauron and his army. Or Dr Seuss’s Lorax, who guards the Truffula trees from devastation. Ents and the Lorax are guardians of the ecosystem. When they act we know that something is badly out of kilter – in these cases in the fight between good and evil.

Mention Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, meanwhile, and many a grown-up gets misty-eyed. Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has been going strong for 25 years, and has nearly 100 titles. Carter Higgins’s Everything You Need for a Treehouse helps you get kitted out for your own woodland home. And mythology is full of trees.

The World Tree in a 17th century Icelandic manuscript.
Wikimedia Commons

The World Tree of ancient Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, is similar to the thirteen-storey treehouse, linking the nine realms of the world (of fire, of ice, of elves, of gods, of fertility, of giants, of dwarves, of humans, and of the dishonorable dead). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when King Eresichthyon of Thessaly cut down the Greek Goddess Demeter’s favourite oak tree she teamed up with her sister Fames to torment him with a hunger so eternal that he eventually ate himself.

The Russian witch, Baba Yaga, lives in a mobile treehouse on a chicken foot, like an old-fashioned Grey Nomad. The Biblical serpent tempted Eve to taste fruit of the tree of knowledge. And many European forests are inhabited by tree creatures, such as sylphs and dryads, eco-friendly creatures that appear in fantasy literature such as Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher.

So it’s not surprising that living in the trees gives Andy and Terry and George and Harold access to fantasy spaces, and to magic and mystery. A technical term for this is liminality: in a liminal space, you are on the borders of things, or thresholds (the word come from the Latin for threshold, limen). If you live in a tree, you are up in the air, but connected to the earth.

At heart, most myths respond to fundamental practical needs. Tree house stories recognise that children need time in nature. For generations of urban children, these books offer a fantasy of unsupervised creative spaces where they can control their own adventures, face dangers that test them and engage with others in a less restricted way.

Baba Yaga by Alexandre Benois.

Wikimedia Commons

In Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature Rich Life (2016), author Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature deficit disorder” to describe the human costs of alienation from the natural world. Opportunities for play in nature have dramatically declined in urbanised societies and with them, benefits such as creativity, problem-solving and emotional and intellectual development.

Writers like Denton and Griffiths recognise the child’s need for nature. So does Tina Matthews, in whose Waiting for Later a tree provides company for a child whose family is too busy to spend time with her. And so does mythology which regularly takes characters into nature, to confront, to challenge or to come to terms with life.

The ConversationWhile the Thirteen-Storey Treehouse may not be directly inspired by Yggdrasil or Demeter’s Oak, or hop about like Baba Yaga’s hut, it understands the relation between creativity and time in the woods, taking part in a grand literary tradition that goes as far back as myth itself.

Elizabeth Hale, Senior Lecturer in English and Writing (children’s literature), University of New England and Lynnette Lounsbury, Lecturer in Communications and History, Avondale College of Higher Education

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Playing with Classics

In May I’ll be going to Warsaw, to be part of the Present Meets the Past Workshops at the University of Warsaw.  It’s a joyous occasion, in which the Panoply animations of some important Greek vases at the National Museum of Poland will be launched, and there will be discussions from all the Our Mythical Childhood team on how our different projects are going.

I’m going to talk about ‘playing with classics.’  This is my very short abstract.

In this presentation I will talk about what it might mean to play with classics. Looking at examples from children’s literature, games, toys, and the web, I’ll discuss the power of play in uncovering serious truths, and the power of classics to adapt to the joy and humour of playful moments.

Theorising Play

In a waiting room in Dunedin last year, I happened upon a copy of New Zealand Memories, a magazine dedicated to New Zealand heritage.  As I browsed through it, I came upon an article about Brian Sutton-Smith.  Smith was New Zealand’s (and perhaps the world’s) foremost theorist of play.  He gathered the songs and stories and jokes of New Zealand children, and wrote about them in scholarship and in stories.  He spent many years in the United States as a professor, advancing the field of play studies, and consulting for museums and television programs.

Reading about him, and following up and reading some of his works, I was reminded not only of the naughty jokes of my own childhood, but of the energy and concentration of play.  Sutton Smith’s work argues for the profundity of play, as a learning activity and as a way of finding out about the world.  I was inspired to see that he was also interested in children’s folklore: the songs, stories, and lore of children, that happen in playgrounds and beyond.  As a child I liked reading my father’s tattered copy of Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, thinking about the similarities and differences between my schoolyard songs, and others.

Folklore, Play and the Latin Classroom

What does this have to do with classical antiquity?  A lot, especially given that so many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century children were forced to learn Latin.  Children’s jokes reflect a shared experience. In my post on Frederic Farrar’s nineteenth-century school novels, I quoted one of the little doggerels that was popular at the time:

Latin is a language, dead as dead can be.

It killed the Ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me.

It appears in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, with a couple of variants, further evidence of what Christopher Stray identifies in his curious and wonderful book, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England 1830-1960, namely an influential culture of learning in British (and Colonial) society, where the learning of Latin was a shared joy, and sometimes a shared misery.  Jokes were one way of surviving a time of trial; there were also darker rituals (such as biting down on the Latin grammar book during a caning) that hinted at other types of educational misery).  And there were some really elaborate curiosities, such as the 1845 Eureka machine, which composed Latin hexameters for any occasion.

Cicero sic in at

I’m also fascinated by little Latin rhymes, from generations of schoolkids, perhaps forced to learn the language, or loving Latin so much they wanted to play with it.

Caesar adsum iam forte

Cicero aderat

Caesar sic in omnibus

Cicero sic inat

Read it out loud, and you should get the joke (if not, I’ll put it at the end of this post).

This is what they call ‘dog Latin,’ or ‘cod Latin.’  In some versions it’s Cicero, in other versions it’s Brutus.  The price of fame is that you live on in harmless classroom jokes like these.   Not unlike my absolute favourite joke of all time:

Q: Where did Napoleon keep his armies?

A: In his sleevies!

If jokes like these send up anything, it’s the strangeness of what the education system decides we should be taught.  Playful moments like these expose that strangeness, and work with it, in creative directions that to my mind are as, if not more, meaningful than the facts or factoids that can be delivered in the form of learning.

With apologies to Cicero, Caesar, Napoleon . . .
With apologies to Cicero, Caesar, Napoleon . . .

Playing with Classics

The classical tradition is so serious, and yet it opens up so much in the world of play as well.  In Warsaw, I’ll talk about how some of my Australian colleagues (Legonium, Lego Pompeii, The Brickman, Lego Classicisists) have been doing amazing work with Lego, using playful means to expose students to classical antiquity.  At the University of New England, where I work, the students of the UNECA Classics Association have board game nights, where they recapture games of the past, and play classics-inspired games too.

Gaudium bono est

Dr Seuss said ‘Fun is good,’ and I think that statement extends to play as well.  The Romans didn’t spend all their time learning Latin, and nor should we.  And when we play with classics, just think what we can learn.

–Elizabeth Hale

*Caesar had some jam for tea.  Cicero had a rat. Caesar sick in omnibus.  Cicero sick in hat.