Championing Odysseus, part one: an interview with Cath Mayo

Cath Mayo and David Hair are New Zealand authors whose fascination with ancient culture led them to a shared goal.  They’ve both written young adult novels with classical twists.  Cath’s Young Adult novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow (written under the name Catherine Mayo) explore the life of a young Odysseus.  The Bow is analysed on the Our Mythical Childhood survey here.   Cath and David have just released their first co-written novelAthena’s ChampionIt’s the first in their ‘Olympus Trilogy,’ and marks a new venture for these two writers.  

Athena’s Champion is not aimed at youth audiences, but will likely cross over, and it seems timely to interview them both about their work bringing classical antiquity to modern youth audiences.  I’m beginning by interviewing Cath, and will post my interview with David in the next couple of weeks.  

Cath is an author, fiddle-player, violin-maker, sailor, mountain-climber, gardener and more (see her bio here on her website), who dreamed as a child of being Odysseus, and as an adult is writing his life from different angles.  Here, I asked her a few questions, about what drew her to working in this field, and where her work is taking her…  

Cath Mayo

 

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

My mum read Barbara Leonie Picard’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey to me when I was only seven or eight years old, and I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Greece ever since – and with the complex character of Odysseus in particular. So choosing to write about a teenage Odysseus in my first two YA novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow, was a no-brainer.

My current collaboration with David Hair has flowed on seamlessly from that – we’re co-writing a series of adult fantasy novels called Olympus, which are also set in Ancient Greece with Odysseus once again as the main character. The first one, Athena’s Champion (Canelo UK), comes out this November.

My YA novels were built up from scraps of myth – the murder of Atreus by his brother, for the first book, and the brief account in the Odyssey about how Odysseus came to own his great bow “when he was still a boy”, for the second.

In our current series, David and I are using some more substantial myths which closely pre-date the Trojan War, to show how Odysseus’s skills develop as he matures into the fully-formed hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some are famous, like the Judgement of Paris, the sack of Thebes by the sons of the Seven, and the marriage of Helen. Others are less well-known – for example, the abduction of Helen by Theseus, the madness of Alcmaeon and the invasion of the Peloponnese by Hyllus, son of Heracles.

In the original tellings of these myths, Odysseus didn’t always play an active part, so the challenge has been to weave him in, so that he’s not just a bit player but takes a substantial role.

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

They’re wonderful stories, first and foremost, covering the gamut of human experience and emotion, especially for the people who feel the tales are embedded in their ancestry, and in their spiritual legacy. In a recent BBC poll of “The 100 stories that Shaped the World”, Homer’s Odyssey was voted Number One.

In New Zealand, we’re blessed with two main traditions, our European background and our Maori heritage. Through these we can identify strongly with our origins, both here in the Pacific and back in Europe. And now we have a much more mixed society, we are becoming more aware of the internationality of myth.

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? 

I studied Latin for five years at school and – rather to my surprise – used it at University where I majored in History, focusing particularly on early Medieval history, from the late Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity through to the 12th century intellectual renaissance.

Later, I went back to university for three years to learn Ancient Greek, with an emphasis on Homeric Greek, so I could read the epic poems in the original and get a sense of the Greek psyche through their own use of words and ideas. This has turned out to be hugely useful – not only did I gain a very detailed knowledge of the Odyssey, I can go back to the Greek text and look at the original words. There are some great translations around, but each scholar comes to the text with their own interpretations and agenda.

I also immersed myself, for quite a number of years, in studying the archaeological evidence for the Greek and Aegean Late Bronze Age, right through from the various datings of the Trojan War to the analysis of food residues on the insides of temple pots…

This led to several fruitful correspondences with archaeologists, whose patience and generosity never fails to amaze me.

When I can, I like to go back to the original Greek and Latin texts for the mythological content, and I like to use earlier, Greek versions of myths – once you get into the Roman mythographers, from Virgil onwards, there’s usually an anti-Greek political agenda in there somewhere!

Timothy Gantz’s Early Greek Myth is an excellent portal for this – it’s a tough read, but Gantz outlines the evolution of each myth strand chronologically and gives impeccable source references. Robert Graves’s Greek Myths is a bit hit and miss in that regard.

Wikipedia is okay, especially for geographical overviews, but its entries vary hugely in reliability. The online Greek mythology site I really love is www.theoi.com and for the grittier stuff http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ and the online Loeb library https://www.loebclassics.com/

An inspirational text for Catherine: Barbara Leonie Picard's The Odyssey of Homer
An inspirational text for Catherine: Barbara Leonie Picard’s The Odyssey of Homer

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?)

There are two aspects to this issue – the myths as stories on the one hand, and the social and physical settings of the myths on the other.

In terms of the myths, David and I both begin by working closely with the earlier versions of the stories we’ve chosen, but as we get deeper into the writing process, the finer details tend to get distorted, as we pursue our story and the characters we’re developing.

To start with, I felt bad about doing this, but Prof Anne MacKay at Auckland University reassured me. She explained that myths aren’t static entities – even in the earliest versions there’s quite a bit of variation, and none of it is “right” or “wrong”. Modern story tellers are also part of the myth-making process, so our own interpretations and variations occur within the tradition.

David and I were confronted with a particularly thorny example of myth variation in action when we were planning Oracle’s War, the second book in our Olympus series. The last part of the book deals with the sacking of Thebes by the Epigoni, the sons of the Seven, and it fell to me ( I get all the best jobs!) to work out not only who the Seven and the Epigoni were, but how they were all related. There are any number of lists, and none of them agree – one even includes Eteocles among the Seven, even though he was the enemy king of Thebes at the time!

And the Seven and the Epigoni had the nasty habit of marrying their aunts, which makes familial relations curious, to say the least. It took me a week to create lists that were coherent, and to draw up a useful family tree.

All this, of course, needs to be next-to-invisible in the final narrative, but it has to be done so that at least we, the authors, understand what’s going on…

Both David and I are also very keen on setting the physical aspects of the books in the Late Bronze Age, rather than the “Heroic Age”, an invented fantasy world that evolved, along with the myths, over the centuries.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are early examples of this “Heroic Age” setting. They have their roots in the Bronze Age but over many lifetimes of retelling, the bards of the Homeric tradition introduced elements from their own eras. So the “Heroic Age” is a huge amorphous potpourri of cultural elements spanning between five hundred and a thousand years or so, depending on the myth and who is telling it. Scholars have lots of fun deciding which elements in the Iliad or the Odysseus date from which era – Bronze Age, Dark Age or early Archaic period.

“Historical” accuracy is more difficult to achieve – Greece in the Late Bronze Age is described as “prehistoric”. For most people, this suggests something pretty crude, like “Stone Age” or “Neanderthal”. But LBA Greece was a highly sophisticated society. In fact, “prehistoric” in this context is a technical term, meaning that their society didn’t keep written commentaries on political events.

Although Greece at that time did use writing, what has survived was employed very differently. The Linear B tablets – at least those that survived the great palace conflagrations at the end of the period – record things like food rations for female slaves, or the number of chariot wheels the palace owned, or the amount of perfumed oil a deity would be given.

Fortunately other contemporaneous societies – the Egyptians and the Hittites – did record such things as treaties and diplomatic correspondence. So, through their eyes, we occasionally glimpse the Ahhiyawa or Achaeans – the term used by the Hittites for the Ancient Greeks of the time. This gives us an external historical context, which we can match up with the archaeological findings to some degree.

You have written young adult fiction before this project.  What would you say are the differences or similarities in writing for young adults vs writing for adults?

I find there’s not that much difference – both my YA books and our Olympus series are action adventure stories, so they have the same imperatives. The story needs to keep moving, cliff-hangers keep the reader hooked, the language needs to be vivid and uncluttered, and there’s plenty of contrast between the “talkie” sections and the action scenes.

Because of the older readership age, the Olympus series can deal with more complex ideas. And it can take the depiction of violence and sex up a notch – though both David and I hate being gratuitous. The word count is longer with adult fiction, which gives the story more room to expand, and the characters – especially the bad guys – swear more often and more pungently. I think it’s the swearing that provides the biggest demarcation.

Could you talk a little about your joint project–how it came about, how you work together …?

 

David and I met during a Storylines day a few years ago – we’d been selected as YA authors and took part in the same events. Between times, we chatted a lot about writing and about Ancient Greece, which we both love. That led to shared dinners and a thriving friendship.

Then David sprung the idea of co-writing the Olympus series. I’d played in bands for years, so the idea of improvising with someone else wasn’t new. But I had no idea how that might work with words, rather than music. Scary!

We plan a lot. David was about to head off to Bangkok to live, so after a first, pretty intensive weekend face-to-face, we brainstormed our way through a string of Storyboards on Skype, searching out how the story would feel, the way the gods and magic would work, and the overall shape of each plot. We also set up an Excel timeline spreadsheet, and wrote countless background documents about characters and settings and places.

This sounds a bit nerdy. But all that hard work behind the scenes should be invisible, so readers get a fast-moving adventure story and compelling characters who leap off the page.

I’d read a few collaborative novels before and they mostly have each author writing their own main character, so you get two alternating narrations. But we’ve got one main character and one point of view, so that wasn’t going to work for us.

David is a fulltime writer, while I run a busy violin repair business, so he does the first drafts – he’s brilliant at getting the guts of the story down fast. I love character-building and creating physical settings, and feeling the book growing and filling out under my fingers, so I work on the second draft.

Crucially, we’ve found the same voice. Either of us can chuck out or add in any number of words or ideas – we’re both pretty ruthless like that – but by the end of the process, I often don’t know which words or ideas are David’s and which are mine.

Thank you!

-Cath Mayo in conversation with Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Mythical Week in Wellington

In mid-July, Liz Hale and I travelled to New Zealand, to attend and present at the biannual ACLAR (Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research) conference at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW).  With Babette Puetz (Classics, VUW), we talked about classical reception in children’s literature. I spoke about Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s American Goddess Girl series; Babette spoke about Zeustian Logic, by New Zealand author Sabrina Malcolm; and Liz gave the ACLAR delegates a tour of the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  The theme of the conference was ‘Houses of Learning,’ a topic that brought to light many rich texts and approaches.

We also had the opportunity to spend a couple of days researching in the Dorothy Neal White Collection of Children’s Literature at Te Puna, the National Library, of New Zealand, where we examined an array of children’s texts that engage with the classical world.

It was especially exciting to view texts by local New Zealand writers, including Ken Catran, author of the historical novels The Golden Prince (1999), Voyage with Jason (2000), and Odysseus (2005).  It was also fascinating to see how some of the Greek myths had been rendered as readers for New Zealand school children, another area of reception that is often under-represented.  Downstairs from the reading room, we joined a group making Maori masks, based on Cliff Whiting’s creation myth mural, ‘Te wehenga o Rangi rāua ko Papa.’

Classics and Kiwi Culture–Intersections and Invasions

My involvement in the Our Mythical Childhood project has heightened my awareness of the ways in which ancient myth invades our contemporary world, and on this trip I was particularly curious to see ways that classical and Kiwi culture intersect. One of the most explicit examples of their convergence is in the work of the lithographer Marian Maguire, who juxtaposes the iconography of Ancient Greek vase paintings with New Zealand’s colonial past, and with indigenous mythology. In one piece, Ajax and Achilles play dice at Milford Sound; in another, Captain Cook arrives on his boat bearing an ancient Greek vase. And in another still, Odysseus clings to the remnants of his raft, about to be blasted by the Maori god of the sea, Tangaroa.

I was fortunate to have the chance to see the collection of Maguire’s works displayed at the Classics Department at VUW and was struck by their clarity and precision. I was also struck by the remarkable way her work explores the resonance of the stories and artistic traditions of ancient Greece within another culture on the opposite side of the world. Although her work isn’t intended for children, it has important implications for the research questions at the heart of the OMC project, and I’m eager to read Maguire’s chapter in the recently published collection Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society (2017), edited by Diana Burton, Jeff Tatum and Simon Perris of VUW’s Classics Department.

One lunchtime I visited Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, where I encountered Age of Fishes (1980), by Auckland artist Richard Killeen. It’s an arrangement of large silhouetted shapes hung on a white wall, in shades of blue, yellow, brown and black. While some of the cut-outs are recognisable as marine creatures, others are more abstract, and to my mind, some of them resemble the silhouettes of archaic pottery vessels.

Another of Killeen’s works, Welcome to the South Pacific (1979) happened to be on display in the VUW Council Chamber, where the ACLAR conference was held, and I enjoyed the interplay of the different elements, while also reflecting on the notion that I was beginning to recognise classical motifs even in the most abstract of shapes.

Frequency Illusion, Classics Style

Perhaps it was a simply a case of frequency illusion, a form of cognitive bias in which we register a concept and immediately begin to observe it everywhere. (Colloquially, the phenomenon is known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, after the West German militant group). On one city street, Pandora’s jewellery shop was located next to an interior design firm called Attica. And I noticed winged figures everywhere, not only at the library in Gerald McDermott’s retelling of the Icarus myth, Sun Flight (1980), but also on Te Papa’s colourful windows, and even on the hoodie of the man who made our morning coffee.

Back at home in Australia, I am still reflecting on how to make sense of these encounters, profound and frivolous.  The classical past is a rich depository of images, narratives, and motifs that the modern world continues to draw upon. My week in Wellington revealed that it is not merely within the pages of texts that ancient stories endure, but everywhere I look. I feel very fortunate to be taking part in the Our Mythical Childhood project, as it seeks to understand the myriad, diverse, and often surprising ways that the classical past infiltrates contemporary children’s culture.

–Miriam Riverlea, PhD Monash, is collaborating with Liz Hale on Classical Antiquity in Children’s Literature: An Alphabetical Odyssey.  It will be a guide to the field, taking into account issues of reception, children’s culture, and more.  Miriam’s PhD, My First Book of Greek Myths: Retelling Ancient Myths to Modern Children, can be read here.

 

Quaerite et Invenietis: Surveying Classics in Children’s Literature

Hot tip for researchers in classical reception!  In Warsaw this month, the OurMythicalChildhood team launched its wonderful survey of Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture Inspired by Classical Antiquity  Read on to find out more . . . .

I’m writing this from Chopin airport, waiting for my plane to take me away from the magic that is OurMythicalChildhood’s Warsaw team.  It was a wonderful visit: exciting and challenging.  I’ll be posting more about it in the next weeks, as I’m hoping to share some of what the students in the project have been up to.  At The Present Meets the Past they gave excellent presentations about their discoveries while working on the survey, sharing their findings from literature, film, games, and toys: they’re sending me information for a posting later in June.

In the meantime, some information about the survey.  It represents the work of the past year, in which our teams have been gathering entries from around the world.  Currently there are 450 entries, and we’re committed to producing over 1000 more during the project.  See the OurMythicalChildhood website for more information about the project as a whole.

The survey is truly a team effort.  Each entry is written by a researcher, identifying and uncovering the classical elements in books, films, games, toys, and ephemera from children’s culture around the world.  It is peer-reviewed twice by senior members of the team, checking for accuracy and insights.  Each entry contains a summary and analysis of the item, providing scholarly insights from different angles (classics, reception, children’s literature, film…).  Each entry is also tagged with markers from different fields of knowledge–classics, children’s literature, genre, more . ., throwing up interesting combinations and providing surprising results.

This survey will be a useful tool for researchers and teachers of classical antiquity and children’s literature alike.  It reveals the ongoing power of classics in popular culture day, the care and enjoyment with which children’s writers draw on ancient motifs, and the sheer fun that is to be had in finding one’s way through a labyrinth of curious texts.

Katarzyna Marciniak launched the survey during the Present Meets the Past workshop, and it is open for use, as a living work of scholarly inquiry.  So we invite you, please, to use it and to join with us in our mythical explorations.  The motto at the base of the site reads: Quaerite et invenietis (seek, and ye shall find), and we hope you will find what you’re looking for, and more, and that you will also share with us your discoveries and insights along the way.

Screenshot 20http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey18-05-31 17.21.26

–Elizabeth Hale