Saturday, July 21, 2018

Sheila Murnaghan and Deborah H. Roberts's "Childhood and the Classics"

Sheila Murnaghan is the Alfred Reginald Allen Memorial Professor of Greek at the University of Pennsylvania. Deborah H. Roberts is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Haverford College.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Childhood and the Classics: Britain and America, 1850-1965, and reported the following:
Page 99 is almost entirely filled with an illustration of Theseus killing the Minotaur by Willy Pogany from Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles [below left; click to enlarge]. This vigorous image captures many important themes of our book. As countless adult reminiscences attest, illustrations play an especially influential role in children’s first encounters with the classical past, and we give a lot of attention to the distinguished illustration tradition that accompanied the development of classical mythology as children’s literature. Published in New York in 1921, Colum’s book also reflects the emergence of the US as the new center of anglophone children’s publishing in the years after World War 1, with fresh, direct retellings and freer, less formal images, often by émigré writers like Colum (from Ireland) and Pogany (from Hungary). The myth of Theseus, legendary king of Athens, is frequently retold for children both as a tale of heroism and as a coming of age story, with the version in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s pioneering Tanglewood Tales (1853) being especially notable for its complex mixture of child-friendly jocularity and moral seriousness. Theseus’ encounter with the Minotaur is a common subject for illustration over the hundred-year period with which we are concerned, with wide variations in style and in the extent to which the Minotaur’s defeat is depicted as a scene of triumph or as one of pathos. The association of the Theseus myth with ancient Crete, the site of important archaeological discoveries around the turn of the twentieth century, means that it is also often regarded as a gateway to history for children, and Theseus appears in historical novels (such as Erick Berry’s 1933 The Winged Girl of Knossos) as well as in myth collections.
Learn more about Childhood and the Classics at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue