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

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