Harrison, aged 9, is the son of my colleague, Fincina, and is mad about LEGO. He’s been watching the Lego Masters reality competition, which has been screening in Australia, and I happen to know that a couple of years ago he and his family stayed at the Lego Hotel in Malaysia, which has all sorts of exciting activities for people who like building interesting things from small plastic bricks.
Harrison is also into mythology, and has been putting the two together. Here is his first creation, which he designed from pieces found in the family LEGO box. I think it’s marvellous: perfectly capturing the power and simplicity of a Greek god (in this case Zeus (or Jupiter, or Jove, depending on your preference)). I particularly like the double-lightning rod, which has a slight Star Wars quality to it, and the quirky raised eyebrow that indicates this all-powerful god has a bit of a sense of humour.
Harrison is now working on his next mythical mini-fig: a figure of Pan. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.
Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (2000) is a classic of Australian picture book art. It’s the story of a boy who is out and about looking for additions to his bottle-top collection, who sees a ‘thing’ on the beach–a great big, red sore-thumb of a creature, half coffee-pot, half-lobster, totally different from everyone and everything around it. The boy, being a boy, and thus perhaps open to moments of spontaneous creatiity, plays with the Lost Thing until dusk, then takes it home with him. His indifferent parents barely notice, but the boy realises the Thing needs to find a home of its own, and the pair set out on a quest that takes them through the city. It’s A dystopia: an anonymous industrialised city, where no one looks at each other, and communication takes place in formulae and rubber stamps.
It looks like the city of The Lost Thing is a very dull place indeed, and dullness is all-pervading and inescapable. The boy, for instance, is involved in collecting bottle-tops when he sees the Thing, and immediately returns to his collection once he has solved its problem: the tragedy of the story is that the Thing is never accepted, integrated, or even recognised by the society it stumbles into–its happy ending is to be sent back to where it comes from, taken care of by The Department of Odds and Ends, which the boy consults to find out where the Thing belongs.
The Federal Department of Odds and Ends helps the boy sweep the Thing under the carpet (or into the closet), in accordance with its motto, ‘sweepus underum carpetae.’) The boy narrates how he and the Thing make their way through the city until they find a mysterious doorway to a magical world, full of bright, colourful, curvy beings–the antithesis to the dull, angular city.
That’s it. That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is. I mean, I can’t say that the thing actually belonged in the place where it ended up. In fact, none of the the things there really belonged. They all seemed happy enough though, so maybe that didn’t matter. I don’t know. . .
Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing
It’s a slippery little story–the boy sliding out from any sense of knowledge or understanding of his actions, or of the Thing. Is he helping it? Is he shoving it out of the way? Is he solving a problem, or complicit in a continued set of injustices? Don’t ask the narrator. The subtitle of The Lost Thing is ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to,’ ironically suggesting that those who don’t read it, or notice the story, are those who are in most need of a dose of creative thinking.
A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to…
But for those of use who ignore more important things, there is a great deal in The Lost Thing to enjoy observing. And for me, on my quest to chase up the Classical elements in Australian literature, there are the mottoes: each one from a different ‘government’ department. There’s The Federal Department of Information (ignorare regulatum); the Federal Department of Tubes and Pipes (plumbiferus ductus). The Federal Department of Economics (consumere ergo sum), The Federal Department of Censorship (illuminare prohibitus), and of course, The Federal Department of Odds and Ends (sweepus underum carpetae).
Tan’s sly sense of humour is in full view in details like these. These little dog-Latin tags are the only Classical elements that I’ve found in The Lost Thing. And they’re beautifully appropriate for the society of Tan’s novel–a long way from the vivid extravagance of Classical myth–the Classicism of branding and advertising, of signs and labels, of bureaucracy and pencil-pushers–Latin, the language of Virgil and Ovid, put into the service of administrative meaninglessness, perfect for a society of grey men, women, and boys, who look up only briefly from their bottle-top collections to notice the glorious Lost Things of the world, too busy to realise that they themselves are lost…
Miriam Riverlea interviews Margot McGovern, an Adelaide-based writer and academic, about Neverland, her compelling debut novel, which draws on Homer’s Odyssey and other classic texts.
Late last year I read Margot McGovern’s debut Neverland (2018), a young adult novel with a compelling main character, an evocative setting, and an intricate web of intertextual references to both classical and classic texts. It tells the story of seventeen year-old Kit Learmonth, a damaged young woman with a love of Homer and a compulsion to self-harm. After a failed suicide attempt, Kit returns to her childhood home, a private island that has belonged to her wealthy family for generations. Its official title is Learmonth Island, but everyone refers to it by Kit’s childhood name, Neverland. When Kit was young she imagined the island being inhabited by pirates and mermaids, which her father wrote about in his bestselling book. But since Kit’s parents perished in a storm at sea when she was twelve, Neverland has become a facility for damaged teenagers, run by Kit’s psychiatrist uncle.
Initially, Kit resists treatment, preferring to party with her friends and return to her childhood world of myth and fantasy. But as repressed memories of her childhood continue to haunt her, she comes to realise that she must do what Peter Pan never did – grow up. Instead, she models herself on the figure of Odysseus – a persevering, battle-scarred sailor, who returns home to find that his island kingdom is not the place he remembers.
I’ve written more about the classical allusions inNeverland in the OMC survey, and contacted Margot McGovern to ask her about the significance of Odysseus in Neverland, as well as other aspects of the novel. I hope you find her responses as interesting as I did.
1. Together with Peter Pan and The Great Gatsby, Homer’s Odyssey figures as an important intertext in Neverland. How do you see Odysseus’ character, and his protracted journey home, informing Kit’s personality and psychology?
Their connection is rooted in the Odyssey’s theme of homecoming. At the start of their stories, both Kit and Odysseus have survived a traumatic ordeal and are struggling to find a way back from that experience. While Odysseus’ journey is physical and Kit’s psychological, the questions they face are the same: How do I get home? And is home still the place I remember?
Kit also feels that, like Odysseus, she’s lived much of her life as a minor player in another hero’s epic (in her case, the hero being her father), and now finds herself at the start of a new story. Her story. She’s not convinced she fits the ‘hero’ role, so I gave her some of Odysseus’ cunning and strong-headedness, and a little outside guidance from her psychiatrist Dr Ward, to help her on her way.
2. I’ve read that you were surprised when you reread Peter Pan as an adult you were shocked by how dark it is, and how different from your childhood memories of it. Nostalgia, and its power to distort memory, figures prominently within Neverland. Are we all at risk of misremembering our childhoods and the books we read when young?
I don’t know that we’re at risk of misremembering the books we love as children so much as we’re capable of returning to those stories with greater experience and perspective. In Kit’s case, she’s supressed memories of a trauma and uses the stories she loved as a child to create an alternate, fantastical history for herself in order to cope. One of her main challenges is to go back and distinguish between story and memory. But, more generally, I think revisiting the books we love uncritically as children is an opportunity to develop a deeper, more complex relationship with those texts. And the same can be said for the past.
3. Neverland appears to have an Australian setting, but it seems only subtly conveyed (via passing references to surfing and the minor soapie star Ethan Hale, straight out of Home and Away!). Was the decision to limit cultural context a deliberate one?
Yes. The book is set on (the fictional) Learmonth Island, which is owned by Kit’s family, but Kit almost always refers to it as Neverland, and insists that everyone else does too. She’s determined to see it as an enchanted, storybook place, and wants the reader to view it that way too. So she very deliberately describes it in romanticised, non-geographically descript terms.
However, when I was growing up my family had a shack in Coobowie, a small fishing town on the heel of the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. Much of the coastline down there is rocky and windswept with a history of shipwrecks—as kids we were convinced the bay was a secret pirate hideout—and on a clear day, with binoculars, Troubridge Island and its lighthouse were just visible on the horizon. Our dinghy couldn’t make it that far, so the island became a mysterious, magical place forever beyond reach, and Learmonth Island is informed by those memories too.
4. Kit is well versed in Ancient Greek literature and language. Was this aspect of her character integral from the beginning, or did her passion for the Classics emerge during the course of writing the novel? And what is your own connection to the classical world?
A seventeen-year-old girl in crisis and Homer might not seem like the most obvious pairing, and I didn’t set out to specifically write a story that incorporates the Classics, but it’s something that became integral early on. Much of the narrative centres on Kit’s attempts to recover a lost world and her relationship with the Classics became a way to reflect and strengthen that.
For my part, I’m more admirer than scholar. I’m particularly drawn to the idea that Ancient Greek heroes aren’t necessarily ‘good’. They accomplish great things despite being as flawed and human as the rest of us. It makes their stories relatable in a way that transcends time and distance.
5. Kit makes her own translations of ancient texts, but her readings aren’t always correct, as in the way she misinterprets the allegory of Plato’s Cave. Do you think we are in danger of misunderstanding the Classics as we adapt them?
In the instance of Plato’s Cave, Kit is being deliberately obtuse, but it’s fair to say that she appropriates the texts to suit her circumstances. And as a writer, it was really fun (and quite freeing), to give those texts to a teen character and see what she made of them. More broadly, I think the way we engage with the Classics necessarily changes over time and while it’s essential that we’re able to view them in context, it’s equally important to consider them with modern eyes and approach them with new questions. I’m excited by many recent translations and adaptations of Homer, and am a particular fan of Madeline Miller’s work. In The Song of Achilles and Circe she conveys a deep understanding and love of Homer, while also offering a modern critique and fresh perspective, and that friction between respect and critique in those books feels vital.
6. The novel’s depiction of self-harm is very confronting. How did you navigate the challenges of representing this and other conditions like anorexia accurately, while avoiding glamourising such illnesses?
Because Kit is reluctant to see herself and her friends as unwell and she isn’t always a reliable narrator, it felt necessary to be quite direct in showing her self-harm and the way her illness and her friends illnesses affect their lives and wellbeing, as well as their relationships with family and friends. But I was also aware of the potential danger of taking things too far in the other direction and reducing the characters to their illnesses. It was tricky to balance! I tried to keep the characters always at the fore and to focus on telling Kit’s story, with her illness as part of that narrative.
7. Kit’s perspective dominates the narrative to the point that some of the other characters remain somewhat inscrutable. I’d like to know a bit more about the figure of Dr Hannah Ward.
Hannah is one of two psychiatrists on the island. There are hints that she, like Kit, self-harmed when she was younger, but she’s also the one character who resists being drawn into Kit’s world. So she’s a voice of reason—Pallas Athene to Kit’s Odysseus—but also someone with first-hand experience of what Kit and her friends are going through and proof that there’s hope for them, even if they don’t yet see it.
8. What are you working on now, and do you have plans to draw upon classical material in future projects?
I’m currently working on a stand-alone YA fantasy. It doesn’t engage the Classics in a direct way, as Neverland does, but draws on several fairy tales and Greek myths about the afterlife. I suspect my work will always be influenced by those early stories that shaped me as a reader!
Bluey is a six year old Blue Heeler puppy. She lives in a house on a hill in Brisbane with her four year old sister, Bingo, their mum, Chilli, and dad, Bandit. Together, they play and sing, dance and do dishes, and work their way cheerfully and creatively through life.
Bluey, the show that bears her name, is a charming animated show, made by Ludo Studio. My four year old nephew, Harry, is one of the millions of children who love the show. He quotes it frequently. He can do the floss dance like Bluey and Bingo, and has tried to show me how to do it. Like their granny, I’ve had to have a few goes before getting it right.
It’s a terrific show. Each 7-minute episode takes a warm but realistic approach to the fun and challenges of being a kid, and also of being around kids. I’m glad that my nephew likes it. He pretends to give people injections, after watching Bluey and Bingo play ‘hospital’ with their dad, saying ‘Sting!! Brave boy.’ His siblings talk about ‘dollarbucks’ and ‘dollarydoos’ when pretending to play shop. And so on.
Nothing much Classical there, though the puppies have a singing teacher called Calypso, and Bandit does call himself ‘Telemachus’ when he plays a patient in the hospital episode. I wrote to the creator, Joe Brum, asking him where that reference came from–he replied it came from his own childhood, watching Ulysses 31. Cultural moments like that pop up from time to time, but the main emphasis is on the here and now. Rather than being mythical or fairytale figures, the children play at being spies, and cooks, nurses, doctors, fruitbats and naughty grannies. And the setting is firmly Australian–a great pleasure of the show is seeing a lush Queensland landscape and wildlife beautifully animated.
Every now and then, the show rises above the every day, reflecting on what it means to be alive. On the weekend, Harry and I watched Beach (episode 26) : in which the family goes to the beach, and Bluey learns the pleasure of going for a walk by herself. And I like to think that this is one of the episodes in which the Classical plays a small role.
While Chilli goes for a walk, Bandit watches Bluey and Bingo, playing in the sand, bury Bluey’s legs. They make a sandcastle in the shape of a mermaid’s tail. Bluey finds a shell in which she can hear the sound of the ocean and wants to show her mother. Bingo pretends to be King Neptune, allowing mermaid-Bluey to have the use of her legs ‘for a day,’ and to follow her mother down the beach.
Bluey follows her mother’s footprints down the beach, a long way for a little dog. She meets a surfer, who reminds her that mermaids only have legs for one day; a flock of seagulls she dispatches with a sharp little bark. She bravely edges around a pelican sitting in her way, and is chased by a group of soldier crabs, who take up residence in a tumbling sand-castle. Even a blue jellyfish is no obstacle for brave Bluey, who pokes it with a stick, then jumps over it to join her mum.
It’s an epic journey: a long way for a little dog with little legs. In that walk down the beach, Bluey faces obstacles and sticks it out. Much of epic involves overcoming challenges, but also having a vision and seeing it through. Like Odysseus finding his Penelope, Bluey chases after her mum and is rewarded by her admiration as they share their memories of the different things they’ve seen.
What is so lovely about Bluey is its understanding of the world’s bigness and smallness, especially in relation to children’s experiences. A walk along the beach could be a small thing, but for Bluey it’s a big adventure, in which she learns the joy of striking out alone, and also the pleasure of coming home in her mum’s company. And in this episode, as in so many of them, the creators play it just right, balancing myth, play, and real experiences in a way that does Bluey’s journey justice.
There are many glorious picture books published in Australia, and Once there was a boyis on of them. It’s a seemingly simple book that stays in the mind for a long time. It is by a wonderful artist, Dub Leffler, who is descended from the Bigambul and Mandandanji people of South-West Queensland, and who grew up in Quirindi, not far from Armidale. He has worked with luminaries such as Shaun Tan and Banksy, and in Once there was a boy, he has created a lovely piece of storytelling that recasts a whole lot of invasion narratives into a simple fable about a boy who lives alone on an island, and a girl who visits without invitation, eats his fruit, sleeps in his bed, and breaks his heart.
I’ve put this book on the syllabus for my summer class Introduction to Literature through Children’s Books, because I want to talk about how intertextuality, adaptation and retelling work in storytelling. Once there was a boy, in which I can see echoes of the myth of Pandora, the folktale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the Perrault recording of the Bluebeard story, and more. It’s a really clever book–simple, rich, and resonant., with exquisite artwork.
How far do we go with influence-chasing, however? It’s something I’ll be discussing with the class: intertextuality is appealing, but only if it’s meaningful, and one can end up down a rabbit-hole of references and parallels which go well beyond what the author intends, or wants to acknowledge.
That said, Once there was a boy offers a take on the Pandora myth that points to its place as a cautionary ‘don’t touch’ tale. A curious little girl, who has invited herself in to the boy’s island home, looks under the bed (despite being told not to), and deals with the consequences of her actions.
The original Pandora myth ends with the discovery of Hope, trapped in the famous box, operating as a balm for the ills of the world that have been released on first opening.
Where does Hope lie in Once there was a boy? I think it resides in the actions of the little girl, who reflects on what she has done, and makes a profound gesture in order to heal and reconcile, giving her own heart to the little boy. It’s possible to read this book as a reflection on colonisation, whereby the girl represents the naive intrusion of colonisers, and the boy represents the place and people they dislodge and disrupt. Once there was a boy has a strong resonance in relation to the power structures of post-colonial Australia. Leffler doesn’t dwell on the challenges and problematics of reconciliation and reparation, but the meaning is clear: for true reconciliation to occur, acts of reparation need to take place.