The shadows where History is heaviest–Cairo Jim goes to Pompeii

Following on from my last post, where I paid tribute to Brenda the Wonder Camel’s brilliant scholarship in Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, I’m thinking more about humorous history books for kids in preparation for the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this May. I’ve been alternating between another Cairo Jim novel–Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, and British author Gary Northfield’s Julius Zebra novels. I can’t decide which I like more, which is sillier, which is ruder, and also which offers a more interesting reflection on history. In fact, there’s no competition–they’re equally good in different ways. And I’ll talk about Julius Zebra next time. For the moment, I’ll carry on with Cairo Jim.

At the house of Phibius Whiffius

In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus, the gang gathers in Pompeii. They meet a beautiful French archaeobotanist, called Bette Noir, who is trying to reconstruct an ancient perfume, Pardalium, which gives the possessor power over all things and everyone. She found the recipe at the House of the Garden of Hercules, owned by a perfumer, she says, who was resplendently named Phibius Whiffius. In order to complete her reconstruction, she needs the spittle of a panther, and has written off to the Dubbo Zoo in NSW, Australia to request some.

While Bette Noir, Doris and Jim are chatting over drinks in the Garden of Hercules, Brenda the Wonder Camel strikes again, quietly working in Bette’s lab. She has panther in her soul, at least that’s what I think she has, and she draws on it to extract the required spittle from the depths of her being, shooting it perfectly into a waiting pipette, sealing said pipette in an envelope, and writing a message from the Dubbo Zoo. What a camel. As a calf, Brenda has swallowed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which may account for her general brilliance.

Anyway, Bette Noir makes up the perfume, and then Neptune Flannelbottom gets hold of it, and uses it to bring the Telamons to life. Telamons are human-shaped columns, male caryatids, usually thought of as Atlas figures, support structures in other words. A telamon wandering around the streets of Pompeii could cause some damage. Luckily, Cairo Jim and his friends are equal to the challenge, and order is restored.

The evidence of time

This is all rather far-fetched. But it has a core of accuracy that provides a solid bedrock for a great deal of fun and games. There is indeed a House of the Garden of Hercules, and it is thought that the resident was involved in the perfume trade. McSkimming shares photographs of the house, and shots of different parts of Pompeii.

Cairo Jim, who early on reflects that as he walks through the streets of Pompeii, he is walking on the ‘evidence of time,’ is alert to every aspect of the city.

He observed the gentle sunlight, still not too bright at this time of day, and the way it was filtering down through the trees and the broken walls that he walked by. He listened to the birds as they sang their sweet, tiny songs all across the ruined city, and he thought how the birdsong seemed to be a balm . . . a soothing veil of sound cocooning Pompeii from the terrible memories of the past. He smelled the intoxicating aromas of ancient places–smells that he had come to recognise and love from his many years of being at sites such as this. The smells of old, old marble and terracotta, and the fragrances of shadows (he had discovered some time ago that the shadows where History is heaviest have a smell like no other), and the occasional whiff of rotting vegetation from fallen leaves all intermingled with each other, and drifted into his nostrils. (41-42).

This is just before Jim and the gang meet Bette Noir, learn about her plan to reconstruct the powerful scents of the past, and the mayhem and antics get going. Jim is moved by the scents he smells, to write a poem, which I quote below.

Pompeii had its yesterday

and yesterday before it,

but what took place, ‘neath skies of grey

and black–one can’t ignore it.

This pumice all around the town,

this litter of destruction

is testament to what went down:

Vesuvius’ interruption!

Yet now as boots with modern soles

tread quietly through the city,

we see despite the many holes

piled high with all the gritty

bits of Nature’s overflow

(these stones of igneous fury)

just what it is these ruins show:

that Time is judge and jury’ (43)

Well, it’s poetry of a sort. Doris the Macaw, one of Jim’s companions, objects: ‘There’s a time and place for poetry, and Pompeii is definitely not it!’ (43) Realism intrudes, until the preposterous plot gets going.

There’s a time and place for comedy

I’ve been mulling about the role of comedy in presenting history to young readers. Within the fun of Cairo Jim lurks a serious appreciation of ancient culture, and the novel gives a lot of information for those who seek it. With each novel I read, I learn a bit more about major archaeological sites, and with it, a bit more about ancient cultures. I’ve always preferred to glean my history from fiction: perhaps it’s the bit-by-bit approach I like, the puzzling things together, the finding things out, learning new things, being stimulated to look things up. For this post, I looked up the House of the Garden of Hercules, Telamons, and Pardalium, the ancient perfume that Bette Noir is trying to recreate. All of them are real things, though Pardalium may not possess the powers it has in this novel, and now they are things I know, as opposed to never having heard of (Pardalium), vaguely heard of (The House of the Garden of Hercules), or never really wondered about but should have (Telamons, or: what is a male Caryatid?).

Lightening the heaviness of history?

So, funny books can help you (or at least me) learn interesting facts. But can they lead you astray? This may be a worry for some guardians of scholarship, or of young minds: the danger that readers of The Crossroads of Orpheus may think that Phibius Whiffius is a real Pompeiian, that Pardalium has magic powers, that camels really can swallow the Encyclopedia Britannica and become psychic polymaths. Well, maybe not the last one (or … maybe they can . . consult your local camel to find out) . And indeed, that’s the clue: the comedy works because the funny bits are clearly of our own world, and that the real bits are clearly marked as real. Children encountering Phibius Whiffius may not instantly get the joke, but they will smell a literary rat, may ask a parent, or look things up. And they may have a discussion with parents or teachers or other children about Pompeii, what happened there, and be moved to find out more.

But having said that, Jim’s nostrils may quiver at the smells of time, and it is of course appropriate to reflect on the scale of the tragedy that Pompeii suffered, and to think with empathy about the difficulties of other parts of the world. But there is also space to reflect on how Romans (and others) lived: eating, drinking, making and smelling perfume. And sometimes, there’s simply the pure pleasure of laughter, the best medicine for all sorts of situations, past and present: lightening the heaviness, both of history and of the present.

Elizabeth Hale

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Seemingly Silly Books about a Serious Subject: Protecting the Past with Cairo Jim

In May this year, the Our Mythical Childhood project will host its second major conference: Our Mythical History.

I’ve signed up to talk about some exuberantly silly books about a very serious subject (history). I’m starting with the classical adventures in the Cairo Jim series of archaeological comedies by Australian author, Geoffrey McSkimming. I’ve ordered a pile of them through interlibrary loan, and am getting increasingly cheery emails from the wonderful librarians of UNE’s Dixson Library, as they let me know a new one has arrived. I’ve ordered all the ones with classical titles, and am only sorry that I didn’t have time to visit Sydney this summer to see Cairo Jim and the Tomb of Martenarten on stage.

There are currently 19 Cairo Jim novels, each one action packed, full of silly jokes and slapstick, and a lot of fun.

They feature the eponymous Cairo Jim, ‘that well-known archaeologist and little-known poet,’ a dreamy type who lives in the fictional ‘Valley of the Hairdressers’ in Cairo, and whose mission in life is to ‘protect the past.’ He travels the world with his helpers, Doris the Macaw and Brenda the Wondercamel, helping fight the nefarious Dr Neptune Flannelbottom Bones, a no-good scoundrel who is continually trying to get hold of powerful ancient artefacts, in company with his wicked raven helper, Desdemona. There are puns galore, secret societies, and amazing settings, reminding me of the interest I felt in seeing the scenery of other archeological adventures, such as the Indiana Jones or Mummy series.

I only know about Cairo Jim because of a recommendation a couple of years ago from the son of a colleague. I’m enjoying reading them, finding in them the occasional wonderful chuckle or vivid scene that makes me remember that jewels of literary insight are to be found in all sorts of curious places.

I’m currently reading  Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis. It’s set in Turkey, among the underground cities of Cappadocia, the fairy chimneys, Kaymakli. I write these names as if I know all about them, but in fact I don’t, I’ve heard the odd snippet, but really I’m wonderfully ignorant, and so reading this book takes me travelling with Jim, Brenda, and Doris, to a fascinating and beautiful part of the world.

It also takes us travelling to the past. The past, in the Cairo Jim novels, is in need of protection. From the predations of Neptune Flannelbottom Bone, and also from the neglect of the present. And as the villains and heroes enter the past, through important archaeological sites, they find the magic of ancient gods and rulers still alive, though often buried, covered in dust, hidden, or scattered to the winds. In this book, it’s the petticoats of Artemis that have the power, magic garments that, if united with the ‘belt of bountaeity,’ can cause mayhem and destruction, especially if they fall into Neptune Bone’s greedy hands. Even though they have been carefully hidden by a priest named Caius Vibius Salutaris, and protected by the green-fanged Belligerent Serpent of Antiocheia, the adventurers chase one another, drawn by the lure of the past, the desire for knowledge, and (in Bone’s case, greed). I won’t tell you how it ends. You can probably guess. The action comes thick and fast, and involves underground tunnels, rolling stone discs, lightning bolts, and the realisation that the magic of the mythical past is still alive, and not for mortals to handle.

There are a great many Cairo Jim novels, and McSkimming has written many other over-the-top adventures, including the Jocelyn Osgood, and Phyllis Wong series, and his book of poetry, Ogre in a Toga (which should win a prize for the title alone). McSkimming has a flair for the ridiculous, and for a turn of phrase, and it’s possible to read the books in one hilarious gulp.

Froth is not always enough, though, and I’ve been thinking about this as I work on my paper for Warsaw. What’s the difference between laughing at something serious and reflecting solemnly upon it? What’s the point? I’ll try to get there in time for my presentation.

One hint for me is in the depiction of Cairo Jim’s sidekick, the reflective and telepathic ‘wonder-camel,’ Brenda. Brenda is prone to snorting her thoughts, and exclaiming ‘quaooo,’ and at first, reading too quickly for plot, I missed how delightful a character she is. But all of a sudden, the pace slowed (or I did), and here she is at twilight while her companions chat around a campfire, quietly searching through the rubble of Aphrodisias, using her super-sensitive nose to seek for clues.

 
What I am looking for, Brenda thought deeply, is a single Latin letter.  That was the alphabet in which Caius Vibius Salutaris would have written his message, because that was the language used in Ephesus in Roman times. 
 
She didn’t know what that letter would be . . .  maybe a D or a V or a C.  Maybe not even one of those.  But she knew that once she found a single letter of the type used in the ancient Roman script, then she would probably find other letters.  Maybe they would be right next to the first letter she would find, or maybe, if the slab containing the first letter had smashed, the other letters would be on nearby fragments of marle in the grass.  If that was the case, then Jim and Doris and she would have an ancient jigsaw puzzle to piece together. 
 
As her sensitive nostrils moved across the marble, she concentrated—as hard as she had concentrated on anything before—and in her mind she began to see the curves and straight lines that made up the letters of the Latin alphabet. 
 
Carefully, with her unique Wonder Camel precision of mind, muscle and minutiae, she transferred the images in her head to the muscles of her nostrils.  (Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, 130-131)

You don’t need me to tell you that she is successful, finding first a cool smooth slab of marble, then identifying a D, then a G, then a full inscription (in English !?), exhorting the reader to ‘Dig Beneath.’

It’s a lovely scene–a moment of needed rest in the midst of a busy plot. And what I like so much about it is the way that McSkimming captures the joy of working with material from the past: the puzzling, the shifting things about, the trying things from different angles, the patiences, the ‘precision of mind, muscle, and minutiae.’ There’s a quietness to that work, even when urgent plotlines clamour all around.

Moments of seriousness like this offer a counterbalance to the excitement, showing the research side of archaeological adventuring, the knowledge and skill (and sensitive nostrils) to find and solve the clues. They slow the reader down, and encourage them to think a little before getting caught up in the next stage of the adventure, helping with context and exposition, and giving clues to the humanity of the past–the leaver of the clue, the carver of the marble.

As part of their mission to protect the past, Brenda, Jim and Doris are part of a society of scholars. When they are on the trail of a mysterious artefact, it is for the sake of knowledge and beauty and understanding, good things to keep in mind for readers young and old. So perhaps one way into thinking about seemingly silly or frothy books is to look for moments where the narrative digs beneath the surface, pauses for reflection, before taking a breath and the action, fun, and excitement begin again.

—Elizabeth Hale

**Three of the Cairo Jim novels have been reviewed on the Our Mythical Childhood survey: Cairo Jim and the Chaos from CreteCairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheusand Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods.

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

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


Friends, parties, gossip, love: Holiday Read: Lore Olympus

One of the nicest things about this time of year in the far South, is that things slow down, and there’s time to read.

I’m kicking back with a New Zealand-based web comic, Lore Olympus, written and drawn by Auckland graphic designer, Rachel Smythe. It’s a delightfully romantic retelling of the Hades-Persephone myth, written with wit and flair.

Thoroughly modern lovers–Hades and Persephone on the phone

‘Friends, parties, gossip, and of course love, a modern retelling of the Taking of Persephone.’

Hades is an electric-blue Mr Darcy-esque shy-boy billionaire-type, fully in charge of his underground kingdom, but needing a bit of help in the romance department.

Persephone is a hot-pink curvaceous innocent, whose hair grows at emotional moments, and who is escaping an overbearing helicopter-mother in Demeter.

Blushing Ingenue: Rachel Smythe’s Persephone

The figures of the pantheon come in and out, with side-stories about how they got that way. Eros takes Persephone shopping when she needs a wardrobe boost. An elegant Hera interferes, but only from the best of motives. Zeus, Poseidon and Hades are brotherly rivals, Artemis a sporty sidekick, and Apollo proves to be as thoroughly untrustworthy as the myths associated with him indicate.

Lore Olympus is grounded in research into the variants of the Persephone myth (Smythe lists influences and sources on her tumblr site). It’s wryly aware of the Olympians’ capriciousness, and Smythe seems to relish taking her time with the Hades-Persephone romance. After all, a web comic is episodic, and rewards the reader who enjoys the journey as much as the destination . . .

Lore Olympus is published online through web comics publisher Webtoon, and as you read it, you scroll downwards, following Persephone and Hades into this darkly romantic underworld–Smythe’s pacing and presentation exploits this publication style beautifully.

The Hades-Persephone story is very popular in Young Adult Romance, or Paranormal Fantasy (Goodreads review site lists 167 texts drawing on the myth) and many of them seek to recuperate Hades through his shy-boy persona, drawing on the tradition of the Byronic hero. It’s uneasy territory: the ‘taking of Persephone’ takes us into stories about abduction, rape, and coercion. Lore Olympus is well aware of the challenges of the story, however, and infuses it with strong post- #metoo ethics. Smythe’s Persephone, too, has her own defenses, not least an empowered charm and winning sense of humour.

So, if you are looking to sink into a lush romance with a classical twist, here’s your chance. Lore Olympus already has thousands of readers, and a devoted following: including me–I’m looking forward to reading the next few episodes over the holiday break.

–Elizabeth Hale