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Showing posts with label Greek Mythology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Greek Mythology. Show all posts


I am Pan! (2016)

Written and Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein

Roaring  Book Press

This book immediately caught my eye with its exuberant cover and title-as-declaration. In an era in which the word-count for the average picture book is ever shrinking, I was impressed by its heft when I lifted it from the shelf. Nearly 80 pages of story!

The books follows the lifespan of Pan - from his birth to his... death? Do gods die? We do get an answer of sorts. We also witness the passage from one era to the next, from an ancient world in which the gods are very real beings whose antics have very real consequences, to a modern world wherein the gods have become myths and stroll about incognito.

"Most of the retellings of the Greek myths I've seen take the stories and characters quite seriously. Or they treat the gods and goddesses as superheros, telling us how great, grand and powerful they were," writes Gerstein. "But from my reading, [they] could also be bad-tempered, silly, jealous, vengeful and ever stupid... that's what these myths are: gossip about the gods."

Following the momentous occasion of Pan's birth come ten stories of Pan's life, which chart how he charms and delights all of the gods - which is why Zeus names him 'Pan.' Pan meaning all, "because he delights ALL our hearts." It doesn't take him long before he wears out the patience of the gods with his unending pranks and mischief and is banished to Arcadia.

Pan falls in live with the moon, with nymphs and with his echo. He does battle with Monster Typhoon. All of the stories are funny and clever, and filled with enthusiasm. I think my favorite was "The Great Music Contest" in which Pan and Apollo try to outdo each other musically, with Mount Timolus serving as judge. After a few pages of childish banter, Gerstein includes two gorgeous double-page spreads back-to-back, one demonstrating Pan's prowess on the pipes, and the other demonstrating Apollo's skill on the harp. Each image is stunning, and make for a great contrast amidst so much foolishness.

In the end, Pan brings out the best in everyone he comes across, gods, nymphs and humans. "A perfect deity for kids," Gerstein writes. "Because though fully grown, at least he's one of them."

All hail Pan, goat-footed, two-horned lover of noise and chaos. God of music and confusion, sleep and shepherds, goats and goatherds, duck and duckherds, cows and cowherds, beekeepers and bees!


Odysseus and the Cyclops (1995)

Odysseus and the Cyclops
Retold and Illustrated by Warwick Hutton

Watercolor and pen on paper

Text set in Palatino

Margaret K. McElderry Books

I’ve said before that Warwick Hutton enjoys showing how small humans are in comparison to larger forces. This book is no different.

In other stories in which a protagonist faces a giant, the protagonist is often drawn normally, while the giant is enormous and fills the page. Or perhaps we only see the foot of the beast, or the eye.

In Hutton’s illustrative world, the giant is the normal-sized one, and it is the rest of the humans which are puny. In fact, we can often barely make out their expressions.

This cyclops is not nearly so monstrous. Were it not for his size and his single eye, he might not even be considered a monster. He is rather sensibly dressed and well-kempt, and appears to make his livelihood as a shepherd. We see him with his shepherding staff and flock of sheep, being led in and out of his cave. In fact, he seems so sensible, that Odysseus at first attempts to reason with him.

“Good sir, we are travelers on our way home. The great god Zeus respects all those who help travelers, and we wonder if you will sell us some of your cheese and let us go on our way?”

Polyphemus the Cyclops does not take Odysseus up on this good-natured offer, however, adding as an afterthought, “You might be good enough to eat, though.”

Odysseus and the Cyclops

I counted six men consumed over the course of the next two days of entrapment, two at a time, so that the bones decorating the cave floor gradually increase. The dwindling men must make their escape, and they must do so using their cunning. I got a real sense of the claustrophobia the men felt, their powerlessness. The only thing they have going for them is the fact that after two men, the cyclops seems too full to eat any more.

So. You have a jar of wine, a burning fire, a flock of sheep, and only one entrance with a cyclops guarding it. How would you escape?

Odysseus and the Cyclops
Hint: Go for the eye.


The Trojan Horse (2006)

The Trojan Horse
Written and illustrated by Albert Lorenz and Joy Schleh

Abrams Books for Young Readers

I have to think that for a writer, it must be difficult to translate Greek mytholgy into children's books. Even though they involve tremendous acts of heroism and bravery, they are all nonetheless predicated on jealousy, lust and anger. Also, Greek myths don't really begin and resolve as other stories. Rather, one story seamlessly leads to another, which leads to something else, which ends on a note far removed from whatever initially set things rolling.

Case in point, the marvelous tale of the Trojan Horse first begins with a wedding atop Mount Olympus and an incredibly bitchy contingent of immortal beings.

Interesting that it is a piece of fruit which sets things off, as I seem to recall a piece of fruit also being the catalyst of another religious mythology... Nonetheless, there are no smooth-talking serpents present in Mount Olympus, however, but rather the goddess Eris, who has cast an apple at the divine wedding with the words, "For the Fairest," written upon it. That seems innocent enough, but by the time we turn the page, thousands of blood-thirsty Greek warriors are sailing in Triremes across the ocean to make war with the horse-loving city of Troy.

The authors do a fine job in capturing this story as a single narrative experience. It doesn't seem nearly as disjointed as it could have been. There is a sharp distinction between the comical immaturity of the gods and the very real and bloody conflict on the ground below. They play off each other surprisingly well.

"That devious Odysseus!" says Zeus. "Why, he reminds me of me."

This is contrasted on the next page with the Spartan soldiers yelling, "WAR!" as they slide down from out of the Trojan Horse's belly into the sleeping city. What to us seems to be a life and death struggle, to the gods is only merely an entertainment. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Part of the Greek Mythology series.

Links: Albert Lorenz, Joy SchlehAbrams Books for Young Readers


King Midas and the Golden Touch (1999)

Retold by Charlotte Craft

Illustrated by K.Y. Craft

Oil over watercolor

Text type is 14-point Adobe Bernhard Modern with 10-point leading

Book design by Mahlon F. Craft

Harper Collins

While the author looked to Nathaniel Hawthorne's retelling of the ancient Greek myth for inspiration, the illustrator has been influenced by other sources.

So writes the illustrator, employing the third person in a brief note at the onset of this beautiful edition of the classic myth, Kinuko Craft, who has surely bought her way into heaven with these stunning, elegant paintings which seem like artifacts from long ago, when illustrating classic myths was a task on par with designing castles and painting the ceiling of chapels.

"According to some scholars, the Phyrgian King Midas on whom our present-day version of the myth may have been based appears to have lived in the 8th century B.C.," she continues. "I chose to set the main stage for my paintings somewhere in the Middle Ages, through, to bring the take just a bit closer to our own century." But lest we think she wantonly inverted the myth for her own pleasure, she also informs us that "geometric motifs taken from artifacts discovered in the archaeological dig [of the burial site thought to be King Midas in Anatolia] were incorporated into some of the scenes." Well, I daresay that's the least she could do!

King Midas and the Golden Touch

King Midas and the Golden Touch

King Midas and the Golden Touch

There are many stunning illustrations - the glowing visage of the angelic visitor appearing to Midas in his gold-filled dungeon. At first glance, it could be mistaken for the archangel appearing to certain shepherds. My favorite is the two-page wordless spread of Midas running maniacally down the winding staircase of his palace, everything behind him shining golden, as though the "golden touch" is a living virus spreading out - soon to encompass everything and everyone.

"Well, King Midas, are you not the happiest of men?"

"Oh, no! I am the most miserable of men!"

Part of the Greek Mythology series.

Links: K.Y. Craft, Charlotte Craft, Harper Collins


Young Zeus (2010)

Young Zeus by G. Brian Karas
By G. Brian Karas

15-Point Neutra Text Demi

Gouache and pencil on Canson Ingres paper

Scholastic Press

Do not judge a book by its cover, so they say. But I still do it - knowingly and often. The cover of this one looks eminently saccharine, does it not? The young, precocious child, holding aloft the lightning bolt, looking real proud of himself. I was pleasantly surprised. The text is rather thick with mythological nuance and detail.

"Throughout my research, I kept looking for the earliest accounts, and so largely drew from Hesiod's Theogony and The Library of Apollodorus," writes the author in a short introduction. He clearly did his homework, and it shows. This is no simple tale.

Young Zeus
"...Cronos had one weakness - the fear of being overthrown
by one of his own children. To make sure that could  never
happen, he ate up all his babies."

We begin with the ghostly form of the Goddess Rhea, floating through inky depths of space and time, toward the tiny Island of Crete, and there to keep her infant son, Zeus, hid from his murderous father, Cronus.

Zeus grows up alone, excepting for a she-goat named Amaltheia, and wishes more than anything that he had brothers and sisters to play with. So Amaltheia tells him the tale - a tale which begins not with his parents, Rhea and Cronus, but well before, with his grandparents, Uranus and Gaia and their many, many children.

In addition to Zeus' father, they had also given birth to twelve magnificent giants, known as the Titans. Then there were three Cyclopes (I appreciate him using this plural form of Cyclops) and three Hundred-Handers, alarmingly surreal and disturbing creatures with fifty heads and one hundred arms. These latter six monsters - due to the fact that they were monsters - were then unjustly cast into the Underworld. But more about them later.

Young Zeus

The story continues with young Cronus, at his mother's behest, taking up sickle in hand and battling and banishing his wicked father to the bottom of a deep sea. He then took his place upon his father's throne and commenced to eatin' his own offspring, lest they one day toss him into the same sea!

Karas even paints a nice picture of Cronus devouring one of his siblings, legs and bare bottom disappearing in his gaping maw. Quite a contrast to the cover art.

Young Zeus

Before everything is said and done, Zeus will poison his father, face dragons in a fiery, inverted underworld, and take part in a climactic battle between the enormous Titans, the Cyclopes, the Hundred-Handers, and a few dozen lightning bolts.

Young Zeus
"Enough!" shouted Zeus. "From now on, we do things my way."
"Who made you boss?"
"I did!" said Zeus.

Read my exclusive interview with G. Brian Karas.

Part of the Greek Mythology series

Links: G. Brian Karas, Scholastic Press


Medusa (2000)

Retold and illustrated by Deborah Nourse Lattimore

Typography by Alicia Milkes

Joanna Cotler Books

One thing I appreciate about stories based on Greek Mythology is how contrary they run to what one would narratively expect. In doing so, they make me realize just how conditioned I've become.

Take Medusa. I knew the end of the story, wherein the hideous gorgon is slain by the young hero, Perseus - very classic monster-movie stuff - but I was unfamiliar with the beginnings of the tale, which Lattimore goes into in lush, grotesque detail.

...there lived in the muddy depths of the ocean a sea witch. She was one part poisonous eel, one part giant water snake, and a third part woman - in such a hideous combination that all creatures who looked at her froze in terror and could barely swim away. The only thing more frightening than this sea witch were her many children. They clung to her with their long, scaly bodies, bent fins, and gaping teeth.

I love the way Lattimore writes, and I love her illustrations. She loves using bright, bold colors which instantly fool my eyes into thinking they're gazing at something beautiful, when in reality, a second glance reveals its grotesqueness. The mother of Medusa is a terrible sight: a witchy, evil creature with long teeth and a black tongue, a body that trails off into long, bloody tentacles. And around her, squirm her children who resemble dragons from some alien ocean.

Yet strangely, from the loins of this creature comes a woman more beautiful than beautiful, the lovely Medusa, who resembles a starry-eyes Barbie. As her brothers and sisters squirm and writhe, Medusa spends her days sitting upon the craggy rocks, watching the waves crash, her long, blond hair billowing in the breeze. All who see her fall in love with her, including the King of the Ocean, Poseidon.

"I am just like a goddess!" muses Medusa to herself. "I am even more beautiful than Athena herself. And when I marry Poseidon, I will be Queen of all the Oceans!"

Aha. Not smart, Medusa. No sooner do those words come from her beautiful, lush lips, than Athena herself rises from the foam of the ocean and casts her curse:

"You are no goddess, but the bragging daughter of a mud toad! You came from the sea and to the sea you will return. But only after you live out your days in such ugliness that anyone who looks at you will turn to stone. One day a boy from the sea will come to kill you. This is my curse!"

Suddenly, Medusa doubles over in agony, her hair turning into twisting, terrible serpents. She has been turned ugly! And anyone who looks at her will turn to stone! Egads!



A fisherman rescues a beautiful woman and her young son from a wooden chest which has just washed ashore. The grateful woman tells a fantastic tale of how Zeus magically impregnated her with golden dust, and her father cast her and her son out to perish. The woman is Danae and her son is Perseus.

It is Perseus who is fated to fulfill Athena's prophecy. For when his mother is held captive by the evil Polydectes, Athena whispers her plan to him.

"Danae!" he announces, "I have decided to make you my queen. And your son, Perseus, will bring us a wedding gift - the head of Medusa! If you defy me, and if Perseus fails, then it will be death for you both!"

And so everything is going according to plan, so far as Athena is concerned. She successfully turned the beautiful Medusa into a hideous monster, and she has now secured a young man who will kill her. Athena - with the help of Hermes - helps Perseus on his quest, leading him to the gray sisters - whom Lattimore illustrates as mangled, dirty angels with bloody, empty eye sockets and whithered mouths. They lead him to the sea nymphs, who in turn lead him to the Isle of Hyperboreans, where Medusa lives, but not before outfitting him with golden sandals, a leather pouch and the Cap of Darkness. All the meanwhile, it is Athena who is pulling the strings.

It should be clear to anyone reading this story that it is Athena who is the true villain here. After all, Medusa is not truly a monster, but only a beautiful young woman horribly and unjustly disfigured. Does it not seem that the narrative should logically take a twist here, and somehow the good, brave Perseus realizes he's been tricked, finds a way to reverse Athena's curse, and the story should end with he and the now-returned-to-her-former-beauty Medusa marrying and living happily ever after?

Well, that doesn't happen.

Part of the Greek Mythology series.


Theseus and the Minotaur (1988)

Theseus and the Minotaur by Lenoard Everett FisherRetold and Illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher

Fisher begins with a map of the part of the world in which our story unfolds. Ancient Greece is the locale, and we very clearly shown the passage from Athens to Crete, from Crete to Naxos, and lastly, the tragic final voyage from Naxos back to Athens.

My criticism of Hutton's version of the story was that I felt he spent too much time explaining the entire circumstances behind the existence of the minotaur and the nature of the tribute, and not enough time wandering through the bowels of the labyrinth in search of monstrous prey. Fisher exacerbates this, but also manages to give a more satisfying end battle sequence.

We begin with the birth of Theseus, and are told that, "at the moment of his birth, his father, King Ageus of Athens, buried his favorite gold-hilted sword and sandals under a great rock."

When Theseus is big and strong enough to move the rock, my sword and my sandals will be his. Then and only then will Theseus be my heir and successor!

I tried doing something similar to this when Arlo was born, but Melinda didn't go for it.

At first glance, this set-up appears to be a direct precursor to the Sword in the Stone from the King Arthur legends. On the next page, Theseus has indeed grown to such a stature that he is easily able to lift the rock and retrieve the hidden items. Now he must travel to find his father, who has since remarried and had another child. Along the way, Theseus must battle a giant named Procrustes and two robbers named Scinis and Sciron. Word of his battles spreads and he is able to return to his father's court, a hero!

But the joyous reunion is short lived. His father tells him of tale of the King Minos, of his labyrinth, and of the beast that lives there. "Its dark passages are endless and confusing. No one escapes the labyrinth, not even the Minotaur. Soon I must send the fourteen. Pity them, and pity us to have to bear such burdens."

Theseus knows what he must do.

I like the way Fisher paints the interior of the labyrinth. Very dark, very foreboding. Though there are no forking paths, it appears to be only one singular and gloomy passageway. It only gets one painting, too, for with a turn of the page later, Theseus has found his prey. I know the whole conceit of Ariadne's ball of thread is that he does not have to get lost, but can find the Minotaur straight away, but still, the child in me lusts after a truly terrifying sequence of a man lost in the bowels of the maze. Isn't that what you think of when you imagine the labyrinth?

Fisher's minotaur resembles a tall, strong man wearing an oversized bull mask, but he does manage to make him look terrifyingly enraged, and I love the description of their battle:

Quickly he backed away from the beast, holding his sword straight out before him. Again the snorting Minotaur attacked. It lowered its head and charged, hoping to pin Theseus to one of its great horns. But Theseus dodged the attack and came up behind the huge beast, chopping a blow that drew blood from the Minotaur's shoulder.

It goes on for several more sentences, in this way, and I could really imagine the fight the two of them must have had.

Finally, since this is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, we know that things can not end happily. Ariadne and the rest of the prisoners are rescued, but that night the god Dionysus appears to Theseus in a dream, and commands him to leave Ariadne behind on Naxos so that he can marry her. Theseus does as he is told, which is slightly different than how Hutton interpreted the tale. Fisher's Theseus seems to be a real hero when it comes to giants and beasts, but at the first call of the gods, he cowers and asks no questions. His cowardice then indirectly results in the death of his father, who runs to the edge of the cliff and throws himself into the sea at the sight of the black sail on the returning vessel.

Part of the Greek Mythology series.

Links: Holiday House


Theseus and the Minotaur (1989)

Theseus and the Minotaur Retold and Illustrated by Warwick Hutton

Margaret K. McElderry

This is one of the most downbeat of adventures, and Hutton doesn't do much to up-play it. He has a very dry, straightforward way of telling a story, which can comes across as unemotional. "Every nine years," he begins, "the people of Athens had to make a dreadful payment in tribute to Minos, king of Crete, because one of his sons had been killed in Athens." And that's the narrative tone for the story.

I was disappointed that the labyrinth gets such short shrift. I love seeing how different artists portray it, and love imagining victims lost within its passages. Instead, we spend most of the story watching Theseus journey across the seas and falling in love with the lovely Ariadne.

Finally, midway through, there are two pages of Theseus traversing the labyrinth. Thanks to Ariadne's ball of string, however, he has no problem finding the snoozing minotaur. The battle takes place in a single sentence: "Despite the thick stench and deep, wild roars, Theseus bravely cut and struck with the sword until the monster half-man lay dead."

A quick off-page rescue later, and Theseus, Ariadne and the other captives are racing to their boat. Hutton really enjoys these nautical sequences. I get the feeling he wishes the whole story could have just been comprised of people sailing in ships. So, Theseus has slain the beast, Ariadne is his forever, and everyone lives happily ever after!

No. Theseus strands Ariadne on the island of Naxos while she has fallen asleep. She awakens and realizes she has been abandoned. The sly Dionysus then appears out of nowhere and marries her in a brief ceremony.

Meanwhile, Theseus is still headed for Crete when he realizes, Wait! What happened to that beautiful woman I just rescued? Wasn't she just here a moment ago? He's so distraught that he forgets to hoist the white sail, like he told his father he would.

There was great joy and happiness among his companions when they landed on their own shore, but Theseus knew from the way people looked at him that something was wrong. "You said if you were safe you would hoist the white sail! Did you forget?" the people asked. "Your father, King Aegeus, watched and watched from the clifftop for your ship to come back. When at last he saw it far out in the distance with its black sail still up, he thought you must be dead. He stumbled, weeping, to his feet, and then fell from the cliff to the sea below. Theseus, you father is dead. You are now our king."

Way to go, Theseus!

Part of the Greek Mythology series.
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