Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Lisa Maurice (ed.), The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children's Literature: Heroes and Eagles. Metaforms, 6. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015. Pp. 350. ISBN 9789004298590. $175.00.

Reviewed by Krishni Burns, University of Akron (

Version at BMCR home site


Considering how profoundly children's literature shapes the general public's interest in and understanding of classics, this collected volume is both welcome and long overdue. Lisa Maurice's introduction highlights how painfully remiss we have been in the area compared to the work of other disciplines. While Maurice is able to cite many studies of children's literature of the 19th century, every work she mentions in her review of the scholarship on classical reception in children's literature is forthcoming.

It is perhaps the sheer magnitude of the project that is the collection's main stumbling block. There is a huge body of juvenile literature that has accumulated over the past century that is practically virgin territory for scholars. It is an ambitious project to examine the reception of Greece and Rome in all modern children's literature, and the volume cannot but fail to live up to the expectations created by its title. There is far too much material to offer a comprehensive examination and the chapters in this volume are most successful when they keep their focus narrow instead of attempting comprehensive analyses of entire genres. In several instances authors are tempted into overly ambitious subject matter that requires a great deal of preliminary explanation along with summaries of their case studies. The result is a large percentage of groundwork followed by a cursory look at their topic under the constraint of space.

As scholarship, the chapters in the volume vary in quality from informative to exceptional. Some authors, such as Joanna Paul and Deborah Roberts, have the option of engaging with a large body of scholarship on children's fiction and do so with success. Others offer close readings of texts that are not themselves groundbreaking, but are essential, at this stage in our understanding of the subject, to the future production of more sophisticated analyses. The title implies that material from Greece and Rome will receive equal coverage, but in practice the Greek chapters outnumber the Roman chapters more than three to one.

The volume is not intended as a classroom text, but several chapters (Lisa Maurice's, Niall W. Slater's, and the three in the volume's third section), could be useful reading for undergraduates. These chapters assess popular children's and young adult material that will be familiar to students and as such might challenge them to reassess their own understanding of myth and the processes by which such works have influenced that understanding. Lisa Maurice's introduction is both an eloquent, if perhaps unnecessary, argument for the necessity of studying classical reception in children's literature and an excellent overview of the history of classical reception in pop culture that might make excellent reading for an undergraduate class.

The book is divided into four parts: Classics and Ideology in Children's literature; Ancient Mythology, Modern Authors; Classical Mythology for Children; and Ancient Rome for Children. (A full table of contents is available in the preview link above.) These divisions do not sit naturally on the collection, but they do make the volume more user-friendly.

The first section contains three papers that deal primarily with the use of classical material to construct adult concepts of childhood. The first chapter by Elizabeth Hale would have benefited from a larger treatment of her topic. As is, she makes interesting but unavoidably superficial observations on some classical themes in a number of the most popular novels with young protagonists from the long 19th century. Combined with a short review of the scholarly literature on the topic to date, this entry seems like a second introduction to the collection. Joanna Paul avoids Hale's troubles by focusing on just one of the authors mentioned by Hale, E. Nesbit. Her entry gives a persuasive deconstruction of Nesbit's uses of the ancient past to comment on the politics of contemporary England and the source material of ancient culture as the fuel for youthful imagination in her time-slip novel The Story of the Amulet. Katarzyna Marciniak's excellent offering demonstrates how Polish scholarly editions of Greek myths for children sought to shape Poland's society in the pre WWII era, and now help children learn coping mechanisms both to deal with today's difficulties and to understand Poland's traumatic past. This article has the distinction of being not only an excellent piece of scholarship but also a moving piece of literature, and is one of the finest arguments for the importance of teaching classical myths to children that I have ever encountered.

The unifying theme of the second section of the volume is the interpretation of Greek mythology in pop culture media. I applaud the inclusion of this section even though two of the chosen media, picture books and video games, are out of place in a volume nominally on literature. Both topics are in desperate need of further attention, although single chapters in an edited volume might not be the best venue for them.

Barbara Weinlich offers a theoretically dense reading of the visual narrative of three monsters, Medusa, the sirens, and the Minotaur in a pair of modern bestiaries aimed at a primary school readership. The chapter is in close dialogue with Jane Doonan's formalist Looking at pictures in Picture Books.1 While Weinlich's formalist analysis of her subject matter is in keeping with her art-theoretical approach, one can't help but wish for a more active engagement with the source material. Both the intervening centuries of medieval Bestiaries and the modern mythological picture book tradition are completely absent. This is a shame, since that material would have supported her assessment of the gendered nature of her chosen texts' metanarrative as well as making her work relevant to a wider field. Mary McMenomy, on the other hand, strikes the balance between comprehensiveness and analysis beautifully. Her chapter examines the tension between the mechanics of videogame play and the mythological narrative of the game and the effect of that tension on both the educational and social aspects of video games. McMenomy's success comes from a few carefully chosen case studies that allow her to demonstrate her point without being overwhelmed by material. Lisa Maurice herself gives a workmanlike assessment of centaurs in modern children's literature, with a few new insights into how the modern conceptualization of animal characters interacts with the earlier classical material across the work of the 20th and 21st centuries' most notable YA authors. Niall W. Slater's chapter, "Classical Memories in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia" gives a helpful distillation of the source material for the classical allusions in that august literary work.

The third section of the volume focuses heavily on the Odyssey. The modern books discussed here are all direct adaptations of specific ancient mythical texts, with the result that the adaptor's art receives scrutiny. Of all the sections in the book, this section shows the most cohesion, thanks to similar topics (Murnaghan and Miles), similar themes (Miles and Roberts) and a certain amount of collaboration among participants. While other sections have outstanding chapters of particular excellence, this section is the most successful at building the understanding of the reader. The common conclusion of all three chapters is the usefulness of adapted Greek myths as vehicles to guide the development of good character among youthful readers.

The modern variations of the Odyssey's Circe episode are the subject of Sheila Murnaghan's contribution. Murnaghan points out interestingly that the story's focus today has shifted from the interactions between Circe and Odysseus to the psychological state of the men/pigs, under the influence of Aesop's fables. The chapter pairs well with the next, Geoffrey Miles' offering, which demonstrates themes of feminism and the critique of the heroic ideal in modern versions of the Odyssey without once making use of the same texts as Murnaghan. Both chapters comment on the usefulness of the Odysseus myth as a tool for shaping the developing character of young readers. Deborah Roberts's chapter makes several well informed, thoughtful observations on adaptors' efforts to preserve childhood innocence in mythic compendiums aimed at a younger audience, but does not quite reach the point of drawing larger conclusions about the process. Once again, one suspects that a longer treatment of the topic would have been appropriate.

Section four, the only section that touches on the reception of Rome, marks a shift from the mythical to the historical. The transition is stark enough that one might wish for an additional introduction to soften it.

Catherine Butler begins with a strong examination of changing British attitudes to imperialism as reflected in historical fiction. The books she discusses, all of them told from the point of view of ancient Briton young adults who travel to the Roman Empire under duress, demonstrate the usefulness of the Roman empire for sorting out complex modern political attitudes. Tony Keen offers an interesting counterpoint to Butler's article. He demonstrates that the comic strip that is his subject matter has an anti-imperialistic bent that is the exact opposite of the message of the novels that Butler examines. Keen makes some reference to Butler's work, but a further comparison would have been welcome. Keen's analysis is illuminating as far as it goes, but he treats his adventure comic as a text and just barely touches on the visual nature of the medium. The final entry in the volume, by Eran Almagor, is a theoretically dense comparison between the classical referent/reception text and the adult adapter/child reader relationship. Unlike Keen, Almagor does touch on the illustrations in his comic but unfortunately does not provide examples, so that further research by the reader is required to understand his points fully.

As a whole, The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children's Literature: Heroes and Eagles is a useful contribution to classical reception studies and an excellent piece of work. It suffers, to a lesser extent than many, from the usual ills of the edited volume, but that does not take away from the overall merit of the collection. The pieces are uneven, but the worst among them is not without scholarly value and the best are phenomenal contributions to the field. Likewise, some of the entries seem slightly out of place because their content does not intersect with that of the rest of the volume. I cannot call this a deficiency, though, because the two finest pieces of scholarship in the volume, Katarzyna Marciniak's " (De)constructing Arcadia," and Mary McMenomy's, "Reading the Fiction of Video Games," fall into this category and their exclusion would have been a loss. This is an exciting area of study and the field is in desperate need of more of it to produce truly revolutionary scholarship. More books, more conferences, and more edited volumes like this one.


1.   Doonan, J. (1993). Looking at Pictures in Picture Books. Lockwood: The Thimble Press.

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