A few children’s books: gods and fairies

May 5, 2016

Some brief notes about children’s books I’ve read over the past few months:

colum-golden-fleeceThe Golden Fleece and the Heroes who Lived before Achilles
Padraic Colum
(Aladdin, 2004) [1921]
320 p.

The story of the quest of Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece is one of the best known episodes of Greek mythology. Padraic Colum re-tells the tale in a way suitable for children. The bulk of the story, as one would expect, is devoted to the voyage of the Argo and adventures encountered on the way. After the successful return of the Argonauts, Colum tells stories about some of Jason’s companions: Theseus, Heracles, Admetus, Peleus, and Orpheus, and he finishes up with the story of Jason and Medea (though not including, oddly, the particular story dramatized by Euripides in his Medea).

Colum also wrote a number of similar books, including one on episodes from the annals of the Trojan War and one on Norse mythology. I had hoped to read them, or suggest that my children read them, but now I am not so sure. I found Colum’s writing dull and lifeless. There is little stylistic colour, and the prose plods along. But perhaps my judgment is faulty or eccentric: this volume on the Golden Fleece was a Newbery Honor book when first published.

jacobs-english-fairy-talesEnglish Fairy Tales
Joseph Jacobs
(Everyman, 1993) [1890]
428 p.

A splendid collection of fairy tales collected from England during the nineteenth century. Well-written, occasionally gruesome, and almost always enjoyable. A classic.

hawthorne-wonder-bookA Wonder Book for Girls and Boys
Nathaniel Hawthorne
(Dover, 2003) [1851]
176 p.

For years now I’d been curious about this book, and its companion volume Tanglewood Tales. It was written, I believe, shortly after Hawthorne’s triumph with The Scarlet Letter, and was quite popular in its day. It is a re-telling of a half-dozen tales from Greek mythology: Perseus and Medusa, King Midas, Pandora’s box, Heracles and the Golden Apples, Baucis and Philemon, and Bellerophon and Pegasus. The tales are presented within a framing story in which a group of children, called by unfortunate fairy nicknames throughout (Cowslip, Squash-Blossom, Milkweed, and so on), are told stories by a young man to while away the time on a summer afternoon or before a cozy evening fire.

I could have done without the frame, which pops up not only at the beginning and end, but also between each of the stories; after a few episodes I began skipping it. The tales themselves, however, I enjoyed quite a bit. They are told in a down-to-earth manner, though perhaps with slightly too much informality for my tastes. I read the story of Pegasus (in which he helps Bellerophon fight the dreadful Chimaera) to my kids and they really enjoyed it; my own favourite was probably the story of King Midas.

Having said that, I wasn’t as taken with the book as I expected to be, and while I will probably leave a copy of Tanglewood Tales lying around for the kids in a few years, I’m not sure that I’ll read it myself.

black-ships-before-troyBlack Ships Before Troy
The Wanderings of Odysseus
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Laurel Leaf, 2005) [1993, 1995]
151 p. + 144 p.

I enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff’s paraphrase of the Arthurian legends so much that I decided to try these re-tellings of The Iliad and The Odyssey, both intended for older children. I was not disappointed, exactly. The tales are extremely well told, but I did find that they moved a little too briskly for my taste. Whereas her Arthurian tales I think could justly be described as “novelized”, such a description would be a stretch here. Moreover, it seems to me that Homer’s poems are quite accessible in themselves (what with so many fine translations available), and as I read Sutcliff’s stories I wondered, more than once, whether I ought to put it down and just read Homer again. But certainly if a child conceives an interest in Homer and finds the poetry daunting, these volumes could be recommended with confidence.

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