by Ellie Peck
[Dear readers, Ellie has allowed me to publish this essay that originally appeared in Soul Gardening, a mother's journal of literature, poetry, and an artistic, holy lifestyle. It's directed to parents or educators of children, but as these things go, anything that is significant as regards the formation and evangelization-of-the-imagination of children, has to do in a profound way with humanity as a whole. Especially as the just-emerging adult generation is losing its ties to the storytelling and mythic tradition. And there's a neat review of a much-loved story and much-honored artist. We really need, as a society, to read out loud again. Enjoy!--C]
There are some people, whom I respect greatly, that belong to the camp of “Mythology is purely pagan nonsense that has no business in the formation of children.” The aim of this article is not to refute that point. While I personally think it can be done, I don’t want to fritter away my energy in a mythology apologia. I will however, for the sake of warming you skeptics or fence-sitters out there, say a few words that may cause you to give a longing look at the green grass on my side of the fence . . . one where fantastical, mythological and nonsensical stories are told in abundance (provided the concepts of Good and Evil are presented in clear, proper positions--a whole ‘nother topic).
First we look at the pure logic in it. Mythology, like it or not, has a rich history in our culture and references to it abound. I pity the day that will come, and perhaps already is here in some cases, where people will make a reference to Pandora’s Box or Achilles' Heel and receive nothing but quizzical looks or blank stares in return. William F. Russell makes this point in the introduction to his excellent and highly recommended book, Classic Myths to Read Aloud and goes on to say:
Children are constantly trying to make some sense of their world, and when they are allowed to acquire a store of traditional information, when they are given meaningful reading materials that draw upon that store of shared knowledge, children (and adults too) are able to create mental “hooks” on which they gather and attach new pieces of information.
He goes on to lament how two college students (headed to the Education Department) were overheard trying to make sense of “the wooden horse of Troy” and “And who in the world is this guy Troy, anyway?” Oh, how the literacy policewoman in me wants to weep!
More than just staying on top of important references, the tales of gods, goddesses, heroes, wars, love, and tragedy in mythology have delighted people for generations. They teach many good lessons, they stir up emotions, they inspire meaningful discussions and they expand vocabulary. And you will also find that the added bonus of understanding stories behind many of the sky’s constellations is quite satisfying for children too.
Onward now. I can share a bit about a gorgeous children’s book that may whet your appetite for more mythology. Apart from a couple compilations (like the superb D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths), there are only a few titles in the picture book world that directly tell traditional mythology tales. But the story Pegasus told by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by K.Y. Craft is in the top of its class. The first thing you’ll notice about this book is it’s incredible artwork. Each page deserves its own frame and lingering moments. I love when a story devotes the occasional, two page, wordless spread to illustrating a piece of the story. Kinuko Craft is a sublime artist who has won more than a hundred graphic-arts awards. Incidentally, she chooses her commissions well because all of her children’s books are worthy of looking over; they are fairy tales or mythological tales (e.g. The Twelve Dancing Princesses, King Midas, Tom Thumb, etc.). The work she puts into the story of Pegasus draws you right in, makes you feel the fear of the chimera, the indifference of the villagers, and the nobility of Bellerophon. Mariana Mayer does an excellent job of staging the story and staying true to its meaning. There are many little tangents available for further research if you are so inclined. The names are difficult to pronounce, some of the relationships are taken for granted, but with a perceptive reader (someone who speaks in almost a slow whisper when Bellerophon first sees Pegasus or who raises her voice in excitement while the battle blows are told), children fall deep into the spell of the story and are left a little bit thoughtful by its ending.
My children may not go through life knowing all of pop culture’s references (that’s fo-shizzle), but they’ll definitely not go into college wondering ‘who’ in the world Troy is. I’m determined to stoke the fires of their imagination with the great stories of Greek and Roman mythology. And I have great satisfaction when they try to make Orion out of the glow-in-the-dark star stickers in their bedroom. . .
“For Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness.”--Thomas Bullfinch
Ellie Peck blogs about children's books at www.bibliozealous.blogspot.com.