Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mythical Creatures

We're not talking about cute and cuddly anthropomorphized sweet critters here. We're talking mostly about things out of nightmares and bad daydreams, sharp of claw and red of tooth, creatures with bad personalities and disconcerting habits. Creatures from our venturesome, dangerous and shadowed past. (See Mythical Creatures book list).

They come from here and there and everywhere and we slowly keep adding to the crowd. You start listing a mythical creature or two and then the list keeps growing and growing. Leading the list would be some of the most prevalent creatures that seem to pop up in many cultures across the globe such as dragons, giants, and little people (elves, fairies, pygmies, pixies, dwarves, goblins, boggarts, leprechauns and trolls). Then you get into all sorts of categories which occur frequently such as fused animals (chimaera, gryphons, Pegasus, and Cerberus), animals related to fire (salamanders and the Phoenix), man-animal fusions (fauns, centaurs, sphinxes, manticores, mermaids, Anubis, Minotaur, Medusa and harpies), shape shifters (werewolves, vampires, selkies, boggarts and changelings), magical or religious creatures that look like people but are different (witches, warlocks, angels, cherubs and djinns/genies), variants on humans (Grendel, Cyclops, golems, ogres, Enkidu and Abiyoyo), and mysterious creatures that are just out there (Yeti, Sasquatch, Nessie, unicorns, basilisk and kraken). There are some local creatures that are creeping into the pantheon such as Quinkens and Bunyips from Australia and the chupacabras from Latin America (principally Mexico) as well as creatures that have been created by modern authors and which are also taking up residence such as Hugh Lofting's Pushmi-pullyu, J.R.R. Tolkien's Orcs, and E. Nesbit's Psammead.

In western literature most of our mythical creatures are sourced from just a handful of countries and interestingly they tend to be smaller peripheral countries to Europe. Ancient Greece is, of course, the progenitor of much in the stable of mythical creatures which is further supplemented with creatures from Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, and the UK. This is odd when you think about it. I can't think of a single distinctively German or French mythical creature with which you might associate either country as you might a leprechaun with Ireland or a troll with Scandinavia.

Another interesting thing is our cultural disengagement from the treasures of ancient Egypt. Their myths and religion are replete with some of the most astounding creatures but, somehow, after several thousands of years, they died out within their own land of origin and have not really passed into the traditions of others despite Egypt's proximity and engagement with Greece, Rome, and the rest of the cultures and countries of the Mediterranean. The one exception to this might be Anubis the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Anubis (shown as having a jackal's head on a human body), who exercised a certain fascination on the imagination of the artistic and literary community of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Myths and legends with their panoply of creatures form a framework for western European culture. While divided by language, ethnicity, and religion, educated Europeans share a mythological heritage that provides a common cultural skeleton for comprehension. It is akin to the pictographic system of writing in China. The languages used across that huge country are audibly different and incomprehensible to one another. Someone from Canton, while not comprehending what someone from Beijing is saying, can sit down and use the common pictographic system of writing to communicate.

Where do these mythical creatures fit into children's literature? Obviously they are there as a component to the rich web of folklore, myths and legends. They play many roles in those tales but with a couple of exceptions (Angels and cherubs and usually unicorns) they are a menace and a threat. Sometimes it is a physical threat such as with the Minotaur, Medussa, or Cerebrus. Quite frequently, though, they play a role that is a spur to thinking, observation and wit. Sphinxes, Cyclops, golems, witches, djinns, centaurs, and fauns may or may not be inherently dangerous to deal with, but you have to use your wits and manage your risks. As such, these creatures are part of the allure of the larger mythical tale and help give it a frisson of excitement and thrill of danger as well as the psychological drama and depth that the myths usually have. If the tale of Theseus consisted only of his contest of with Minotaur or alternatively if it dealt only with the themes associated with Minos and Ariadne, it would be just another tale. Take the drama of Minos' demands on the Athenians, the love between Theseus and Ariadne, Ariadne's defiance of her father, and add in the thrill of the Minotaur and you have a unique tale that has powered along for a couple thousand years.

These mysteriously shaped creatures give form to our primordial fears; our fears of what lurks there in the shadows of the night and which circle just outside the hearth's light. They do not though, in the ancient tales, merely scare us. In receiving a form, they become knowable and that which we know, we can begin to address. They prompt us to keep our wits about us - to be clever - and to be strong. They set up Theseus (with the Minotaur), Beowulf (with Grendel), Odysseus (with Cyclops and others) and Oedipus (with the sphinx), to be the heroes of wit and strength to which all children can aspire.

It is interesting that, alien and arresting as most of these creatures are in the imagination, children are rarely terrified of them. Certainly it is partly based on how you deliver the tale, but I suspect it is also a function of a couple of other factors as well. These creatures are not intended to just scare you - they are an integral part of the story. Also, children most often learn their myths and legends and are introduced to these creatures in their earliest years, at a time when everything is still relatively new to them and all things are conceivable. What is so different about a sphinx when you have just seen a camel?

As if one were needed, these creatures are, then, sometimes the extra incentive children need to engage with their own rich heritage. Some kids can enjoy Theseus, Ariadne and Minos on their own; for others you need the extra kick from a Minotaur to really get the child's full attention.

It is fascinating to look back at a half-way world of knowledge - a world where it was still believed that some of these mythical creatures actually existed. In the Middle Ages, around the eleven hundreds, there was something of a vogue for Bestiaries, a compilation describing the known animals of the world, usually tying them in some fashion to the Bible, to biblical stories or as allegories/metaphors for Christian teachings. Some fifty of these Bestiaries are still extant and most are luxuriously illustrated. There is only the roughest of boundaries between real creatures and mythical ones, a boundary as rough as that between real information about real animals and mere lore. While the language can be stilted, it has the quality of near-distance that can sometimes be fascinating to children. Indeed, the brevity of some of the explanations and willy-nilly spilling of seemingly unrelated facts has a childlike quality to it. Some samplings from the Bodleian Library's Ashmole Bestiary:

Beasts in the wild sense are creatures such as lions, panthers and tigers, wolves and foxes, dogs and apes, and all that roar and rage with their mouth or tongue except for snakes. They are called beasts because they possess their natural freedom and act as they themselves have willed. Their will is indeed free and they range hither and thither; where their instinct leads them, there they go.

In India, there is a beast called leucrota, swifter than all other wild beasts. It is as big as an ass; it has the hindquarters of a stag, the chest and legs of a lion, the head of a horse and cloven hooves. Its mouth stretches from ear to ear. Instead of teeth it has a continuous bone. So much for its shape; with its voice it imitates the sound of speech.

The gryphon is at once feathered and four-footed. It lives in the south and in mountains. The hinder part of its body is like a lion; its wings and face are like an eagle. It hates the horse bitterly and if it comes face to face with a man, it will attack him.

Further, these creatures keep popping up. J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings), C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), J.K Rowling (Harry Potter) and many others have lassoed these ancient creatures into their own more modern tales. T.H. White (see Featured Author essay) was fascinated by mythical creatures and, indeed, translated one of the Bestiaries and published it as The Book of Beasts. Edith Nesbit (see Featured Author essay), Susan Cooper, Robertson Davies, Madeleine L'Engle and many others have incorporated mythical creatures into their modern stories, creating continuity and depth.

The following book list is a compilation of stories that relate the original myths as well as modern tales that incorporate some of the better known creatures. We hope you enjoy.

Picture Books

Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D'Aulaire and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire Highly Recommended

D'Aulaires' Book Of Norse Myths by Ingri D'Aulaire and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire & Michael (INT) Chabon Highly Recommended

D'Aulaires' Book of Trolls by Ingri D'Aulaire and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire Recommended

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm and illustarted by Wanda Gag Recommended

Jack and the Beanstalk by Paul Galdone Recommended

The Elves and the Shoemaker by Paul Galdone Recommended

The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone Recommended

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Harald Wiberg and Viktor Rydberg Recommended

The Book of Fairy Poetry edited and illustrated by Michael Hague Recommended

Questionable Creatures by Pauline Baynes Suggested

Eric Carle's Dragons Dragons & Other Creatures That Never Were by Eric Carle and Laura Whipple Suggested

The Boy Who Painted Dragons by Demi Suggested

The Dragon's Tale by Demi Suggested

The Girl Who Drew a Phoenix by Demi Suggested

Jack And the Beanstalk by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by Matt Tavares Suggested

Hector & The Mythical Creatures by Judith Rossell Suggested

Where Fairies Dance edited and illustrated by Michael Hague Suggested

The Book of Dragons edited and illustrated by Michael Hague Suggested

Independent Reader

The Complete Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis &and illustrated by Pauline Baynes Highly Recommended

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay and illustrated by Norman Lindsay Highly Recommended

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting and illustrated by Michael Hague Highly Recommended

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith Highly Recommended

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen and illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger Recommended

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer Recommended

The Boggart by Susan Cooper Recommended

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville and illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott Recommended

Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi Recommended

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Caroline Funke Recommended

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson and illustrated by Sue Porter Recommended

Perseus by Geraldine McCaughrean Recommended

Theseus by Geraldine McCaughrean Recommended

Five Children And It by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by H.R. Millar Recommended

The Phoenix and the Carpet by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by H.R. Millar Recommended

Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville Suggested

Gifts from the Sea by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock and illustrated by Judy Pedersen Suggested

Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle Sugested

Eldest by Christopher Paolini Suggested

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan Suggested

Young Adult

Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch and illustrated by Sabra Moore and Richard P. Martin Recommended

Grendel by John Gardner Recommended

Bestiary by Richard Barber Suggested

The Manticore by Robertson Davies Suggested

Beasts by Elizabeth Morrison Suggested

The Book of Dragons & Other Mythical Beasts by Joe Nigg Suggested

How to Raise And Keep a Dragon by Joe Nigg and illustrated by Dan Malone Suggested

The Book of Beasts by T.H. White Suggested

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