Lately, I’ve been fascinated by classical reception in children’s literature, especially in books for young readers ages 9-12. I’ve been saying for a while now that some of the best books I’ve read in recent years have been written for this age group. I love how the genre’s standouts acknowledge the deeply flawed world we live in while still cultivating hope. (I’m thinking, in particular, of Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life.)
This is something literary fiction for adults does not always do as effectively. (Lauren Groff’s dreadful Fates and Furies comes to mind.) Perhaps we think adults don’t need hope as much as children do? But that would be inaccurate. Of course we do.
With classical receptions, I’m curious what value authors see for young readers in engaging classical figures, stories, and themes. According to Lisa Maurice, editor of the collection The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature, children’s authors drawn on ancient culture to “present ideological viewpoints that the young reader is expected to absorb” (3).* This may be so in many cases. It certainly is in the Adventures of Ulysses. But why use classical literature to do so? What is it about classical works that inspires authors to engage them in fiction for young readers, whether in explicit retellings or via intertextuality?
It’s a question I’ve been exploring by reading both direct adaptations of The Odyssey and children’s literature that integrates classical themes, myths, and figures more broadly.
In May, I read both. For my “reading all the Odysseys” project, I read Charles Lamb’s 1808 retelling for children. Three other children’s/YA novels I read this month—one 20th and two 21st century—also engage classical material, to varying degrees of explicitness.
Adventures of Ulysses by Charles Lamb
The first thing I must acknowledge is my major pet peeve: the use of Latin names. Ulysses. Minerva. Juno. Neptune.
They did not exist in ancient Greece, where the poem came into existence. Lamb may use Latin names. I will stick with the Greek ones.
The first major difference between Lamb’s retelling and translations: Lamb renders The Odyssey’s main events in chronological order. He also omits the first four books, which follow Telemachus. (Lamb notes in his introduction that he intended the Adventures of Ulysses as a companion to the Adventures of Telemachus. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the latter.)
The action begins with Odysseus and his fleet on their way home from Troy. Lamb includes their trip to the land of the Cicones, where Odysseus and company sack the city, kill its male inhabitants, and enslave its women and children. After, the crew ignores the advice of their leader, Odysseus, to leave straight away and chooses to feast instead. Result: A counter attack results in the loss of many men.
Next up for the survivors is the Lotus-eaters, then the ill-fated visit with Polyphemus the Cyclops, followed by the trip to Aeolus’ island, where he bestows the gift of wind to carry the men back to Ithaca. Again Odysseus’ crew ignores his warning not to open the wind bag (ha). Again the men pay a steep price, getting blown off course just as they see their beloved Ithaca. They end up on the island of the Laestrygonians, cannibal giants. Only Odysseus and the men on his ship survive. The rest of his fleet perish.
The survivors visit Circe on Aeaea, travel to Hades, then back to Circe. She helps them get past the Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis, but Odysseus’ men blow it again by eating Helios’ sacred cattle. This after Odysseus made them promise not to. Poseidon takes them all out with a massive storm. Only Odysseus is saved by Ino and her magic girdle. (It’s a belt, really, but the text says “girdle.” I can’t resist saying “magic girdle.”) He ends up in the court of the Phaeacians. They send him home, where Odysseus slaughters Penelope’s suitors. He and Penelope are happily reunited. The end.
Lamb omits the events of Book 24—the revenge of the suitors’ families and Athena’s insistence on peace. Interestingly, the Rieu translation notes that ancient and contemporary critics have debated whether Book 24 was added “by some later and lesser hands” (308). Is this why Lamb excises it? Is he trying to keep things brief? Does he not want to give credit to Athena for talking sense into Odysseus?
Obviously, Lamb compresses events considerably. He explains in his introduction that he has done so to give “rapidity to the narration, which I hope will make it more attractive, and give it more the air of a romance to young readers.” He also acknowledges that this means sacrificing “the subordinate characteristic to the essential interest of the story.” Though he does not say that “the essential interest of the story” might be relative.
Finally, Lamb emphasizes that his retelling “is not to be considered as seeking a comparison with any of the direct translations of the Odyssey, either in prose or verse.” In a way, this begs the question, why retell it at all then? If so much is lost, what is gained that is worth the tremendous effort of retelling?
There are two, fairly obvious, answers to this. First, the chronological narrative can be a useful reference—for readers of any age. Second, retellings can be a way to acclimate young readers to classical authors and themes from a young age. When they encounter the more challenging versions later, they bring familiarity that can make the works more accessible, less intimidating. Beyond this, I’m curious about the extent to which classical themes can serve goals of children’s fiction besides ideological conditioning. Specifically, I’m interested in the extent to which classical themes and stories can help children cope with painful realities about the human condition without becoming drained of hope and a sense of possibility.
In the service of this, one thing I appreciate very much about Lamb’s version is that he does not look at the ancient Greeks through rose-colored glasses. I’m currently reading another children’s retelling that, disappointingly, omits the incident with the Cicones. Lamb includes it. In his 1892 introduction to my edition, John Cook acknowledges that the ancient Greeks “fought with great cruelty, and plundered and burned towns and cities without mercy” and that they practiced human sacrifice. I don’t fancy shielding children from this. Ancient Greek culture had beautiful and terrible elements, as (I would guess) all cultures do. Hope is, in part, being able to see the beauty even through the terribleness. Basing hope on a false foundation can enable its collapse.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Lamb’s retelling is how diminished Penelope is. His Penelope is stripped of her ambiguity and cunning. She is described as “[e]xceeding wise” and “Penelope the chaste.” I don’t object to her being called wise. Naturally. But wisdom is not the same as cleverness. “Wisdom” has an elevating quality. Combined with “chaste,” this Penelope is too saintly, too remote, to be compelling or to provide a useful model for being human. I mean, can wisdom ever be a bad thing? Whereas wily people may put their ability to good or bad use. That ambiguity feels more true both to life and to ancient Greek thought.
I miss the conniving Penelope, the one who tricks the suitors and tests Odysseus at the end. Lamb omits her test to ensure Odysseus’ identity. Instead, Telemachus instructs her to believe Odysseus, thus stripping her of her agency. After she accepts him, she asks him not to be mad at her for not believing him. If only, she tells him, Helen had been so careful. Perhaps the Trojan war could have been avoided.
Here is the description of Odysseus’ response: “he wept for joy to possess a wife so discreet, so answering to his own staid mind, that had a depth of wit proportioned to his own, and one that held chaste virtue at so high a price. And he thought the possession of such a one cheaply purchased with the loss of all Circe’s delights and Calypso’s immortality of joys; and his long labours and his severe sufferings past seemed as nothing, now they were crowned with the enjoyment of his virtuous and true wife, Penelope.”
His feelings about Penelope are flattering, I suppose, but again, they emphasize his agency, not hers. “[P]ossess” is dispiriting but true to the time. “[D]iscreet” can make Penelope seem static and incapable of affecting anything. Penelope’s uncertainty in translations, her weighing remarrying vs. waiting, disappears in Lamb. It’s all about Odysseus having made the right choices.
Take this moment when Odysseus is on Ogygia with Calypso: She has offered him immortality and endless youth if he stays with her. In Lamb’s retelling, Odysseus’ mindset is: “But death with glory has greater charms for a heroic mind, than a life that shall never die, with shame: and when he pledged his vows to Penelope, he reserved no stipulation that he would forsake her whenever a goddess should think him worthy of her. They had sworn to live and grow old together; and he would not survive her if he could, nor meanly share in immortality itself, from which she was excluded.” It’s a nice sentiment and all. But it reduces Penelope to a foil for Odysseus to show that he knows what’s what rather than allowing her to be a complex character in her own right. These passages transmits 19th century British values well enough, but they simplify the characters in the process.
Other points of interest:
Speaking of transmitting 19th century values, in Book 11, Odysseus travels to Hades to seek advice from Tiresias. While there, he speaks with several Greek heroes, including Achilles, who laments being dead. Odysseus chides Achilles for this since the Greeks revere him as a god, and he rules over the dead. Achilles replies that he would rather be a poor worker on earth than king in the underworld. He then changes the subject, asking Odysseus what he knows about Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus. In translations, Achilles’ words appear as dialogue.
In the Loeb: “Never try to reconcile me to death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, some landless man with hardly enough to live on, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished” (435-437).
In the translations, Achilles does not explain why he would make this choice. Lamb omits the dialogue and “tells” readers how Achilles replies and why he replies this way: “But Achilles made reply that he had much rather be a peasant-slave upon the earth than reign over all the dead. So much did the inactivity and slothful condition of that state displease his unquenchable and restless spirit.” That’s quite a bit of extrapolation from the original.
More explicit 19th century influence appears in Books 6, when Athena contrives for the princess Nausicaa to discover Odysseus, who has washed ashore from Ogygia. Athena visits Nausicaa in a dream and instructs her to do her laundry. Because how is she ever going to land a husband if she’s a slob? Nausicaa goes to her parents to ask their permission and finds her mother at her work:
In the Loeb: “Her mother sat at the hearth with her handmaids, spinning the yarn of purple dye” (225).
And here is Lamb: “The queen her mother was already up, and seated among her maids, spinning at her wheel, as the fashion was in those primitive times, when great ladies did not disdain housewifery” (emphasis all mine). I think the “great ladies” come off rather badly. But anyway, it’s interesting to note Lamb’s editorializing on why a queen would be working at crafts. Contributing to a household—how primitive!
More Book 6 editorializing follows when Nausicaa asks her father to ready a cart to carry her laundry. Nausicaa doesn’t want to admit to her father her ulterior motive, but he catches her meaning.
In Emily Wilson: “She said this since she felt too shy to talk / of marriage to her father. But he knew, / and answered, ‘Child, I would not grudge the mules or anything you want’” (199)
In Loeb: “So she spoke, for she was ashamed to name the joys of marriage to her father; but he understood all, and answered, saying, ‘neither the mules do I begrudge you, my child, nor anything else’” (225).
Lamb’s retelling loses the dialogue in favor of narrating: Her father “was not displeased at this instance of his daughter’s discretion; for a sensible care about marriage may be permitted to a young maiden, provided it be accompanied with modesty and dutiful submission to her parents in the choice of her future husband” (my emphasis). In the translations, readers don’t actually know how the king feels about his daughter’s discretion. We only know that he understands and does not begrudge her. The ambiguity lends a tenderness to the scene. On a personal level, it reminds me of the respectful regard my father has always shown for my feelings, even when I was very small. Lamb’s editorializing reduces the moment to patronizing paternalism.
The Dark Prophecy and The Burning Maze (Trials of Apollo #2 and #3) by Rick Riordan
Here is my problem with book series: When a year passes between one book and the next, I forget what happened. I had to reread books one (in April) and two (in May) to prepare for book three (also May).
This series is Riordan’s third in the Percy Jackson universe. It follows the god Apollo in his quest to recover his immortality. Zeus revoked it as punishment and sent him to earth as a mortal teenager. Since his exile to mortality, Apollo’s oracles have stopped working. His quest involves recovering them from the clutches of evil Roman emperors.
With Riordan’s books, so much classical reception happens at the overt level, obviously: It’s a series about questing demigod children of ancient Greek gods. The entire pantheon of major and minor Greek gods and myths make cameos. Parsing all the references is a feat in itself. But Riordan does also integrate classical thought in his deeper narrative structures. For example, House of Hades—book four in the Heroes of Olympus series—includes a substantial katabasis narrative: a descent to and return from the underworld. Percy and Annabeth have an extended visit in Hades (hence the book’s title), as have classical heroes from Odysseus to Aeneas.
I cannot tell you how The Burning Maze integrates heroic themes because it would be a major spoiler. What I can say is that Riordan raised the stakes considerably in this latest installment. After 12 books in this world, you think you know what to expect. And then The Burning Maze happens. I am deeply curious to see where he goes next in this series. And I only have 10 months of waiting to find out.
The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson
This is the children’s book said to be one of J. K. Rowling’s inspirations for Harry Potter. The stories share intersecting plot points. There is a foundling whose true identity reveal is excruciatingly delayed. There are a spoiled child and a cruel caretaker. There is a secret portal to another world. I probably shouldn’t say more since they’d count as spoilers. I enjoyed the wit and humor in the story, though at times, it was painful to read. So many near-misses and such prolonged suffering for the main character!
Classical elements echo here, as they do in Harry Potter. The most obvious resonance is with the central plot device of mistaken identity and a baby abandoned to be raised by strangers of lower status than the birth family. These tropes exist in Greek myth, for example with Paris of Troy. They’re also popular plot points in ancient Greek novels like Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe and Heliodorus’ Aethiopica.
“Galatea” by Madeline Miller
This short story, which I acquired as an e-book, riffs on the myth of Pygmalion. In the classical myth, which comes to us through Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion sculpts then falls in love with a statue that is brought to life. Thanks to Aphrodite’s helping hand. Personally, I’d be wary of any gifts bestowed by Aphrodite (see: Paris, Helen, and the Trojan War). In Miller’s update, Pygmalion is an abusive spouse. There is snark and whatnot. If you enjoy Miller’s writing, you may enjoy this.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
I read this for work and found it utterly absorbing. It’s one of those expansive novels I love so much. I don’t mean this just in terms of size, though it’s a brick of a book. I mean that it creates a complex and layered world the reader can wander through and get lost it. It hangs together but without feeling forced and overly plotted. The story follows three generations of a Greek family. The story begins in 1922 with the Great Fire of Smyrna. A brother and sister who are in love with each other flee the fire and reinvent themselves in the United States as a married couple. Highly cringe-inducing, but it does lead to a fascinating story about history, love, family, genetics, and identity. Just please don’t think siblings marrying each other is normal among Greeks. I promise it is not.
What about you? What are you reading, thinking about, watching, enjoying these days?
* Page numbers refer to hardback editions. When I don’t include page numbers, it’s because I read a digital edition.