Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guest Post: Literature's Handmaid

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).

K.Y. Craft

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!

K.Y. Craft

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



  1. Thanks, Ellie, for your insightful article.

    I sometimes feel desperately sad at the state of education nowadays. It seems school boards are running around trying to figure out how to get our kids to TEST well in science and math (both important and noble endeavors) but almost completely ignore the humanities. Our children are being more and more bereft of the stories that are their rightful inheritence in favor of standardized scores. Those who don't know about Troy and the great sagas of The Iliad and The Odyssey (and any of the other grand stories handed down through the centuries), I feel, are people who are missing a fundamental part of themselves. Mythology is a language that has been shared between peoples since before the beginning of recorded history, and to downplay that language now as something superfluous damages our humanity.

    Parents should step up to fill that void. Many do. But, alas, too many do not.


    1. It really is sad Lynn. The push for credits, meritocracy, achievements, scores, papers... all while the true meaning of "liberal arts" is lost. Once upon a time, I think it meant to train a person to be fully human. And it's not hard to see how we are losing that as a culture. What does it mean to be fully human, fully alive? I honestly believe that it means plumbing the depths of the human heart in exploring all the dimensions therein.

      Mythology wasn't just pretty stories. It really was and is a tool to do just that. And for children, it is a safe way to experience some of the elements of war, terror, tragedy and hate... without having to compromise their innocence. (Unlike the compromises we are forced to make when our kids get exposed to some of those things in the "real world.")

  2. I am thirty-five, and I STILL want glow-in-the-dark star stickers in constellations on my bedroom ceiling. (The husband... not so much.)

    This is a beautiful article. And now I'd like to read the Mayer/Craft book.

    1. I'm 42, and I recently painted my bedroom ceiling to look like the night sky. You might be able to tell from that confession that I'm not married. ;).

      I think those of us who long for the mythic will always want glow-in-the-dark stars on our ceilings. I mean, come on! They're stars, and they glow-in-the-dark! Inside our house!


  3. I ALWAYS wanted to paint my bedroom ceiling like the sky when I was younger. I wanted it to be blue with sponge-painted white clouds, and to stick glow-in-the-dark stars to replace the day sky when I turned out the lights at night. But my parents were never very project-oriented. They kinda said, "Oh, yeah, yeah honey," and I didn't have the drive to execute it myself

    On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing preventing me from putting stars on my bedroom ceiling at present. Hm. . .

  4. Gorgeous book, and excellent article. I've recently been thinking a lot about this issue of how humans become 'human' in the larger sense of what most enlivens and defines us as human. I am deeply troubled by the fact that so many young people, especially but not only boys, are having their imaginations shaped so much by violent video games and online porn. The kind of world forming in their souls is so flat and stark, so devoid of the rich depth filled into the universe through the mythic tradition. Writers and educators can only keep working to create and tell stories that can catch the touch the numbed edges of the modern soul.

    There's a quote I like from the end of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. It comes after Kublai Khan has looked at the movement of history and asked what the point is if its final destination is the inferno.

    And Polo said: "The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live ever day... There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."


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