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Classics For Kids

June 14, 1998|DORIS ORGEL | Doris Orgel is the author of numerous children's books. Her latest, "We Goddesses: Athena, Aphrodite, Hera," will be published by Dorling Kindersley next year. Her essay is provided exclusively to The Times by The Five Owls, a monthly magazine that encourages literacy and reading among young people. For a copy of The Five Owls, send $1 for postage and handling to The Five Owls, 2004 Sheridan Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN 55405

Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus, gods forever young and feasting in the sky . . . blue-bearded Poseidon with his Nereids and Tritons in the sea . . . oh, and the splendid goddesses: Aphrodite, bringer of beauty to the world . . . cool, self-sufficient Artemis . . . Athena, born to be brainy . . . their power and sheer beauty have long held a shining place in my imagination.

I fell in love with them as a preteen back in the '40s. In those times, quite young children read "Bulfinch's Mythology," Hawthorne's "Tanglewood Tales" and "Twice-Told Tales" and retellings by Edith Hamilton and Padraic Column. Children around age 12 or 13 tackled the real thing: Homer--the "Iliad" or "Odyssey" or both.

To me, the good parts of the "Iliad" were the ones about the goddesses and gods. Those came so alive, they made up for boring repetitions in other parts and for the general confusion over whys and wherefores caused by Homer starting and ending in the middle of the action.

Bulfinch (I still have my tattered old copy) dutifully included myths from a very few other traditions. But no one bothered much with those. Greek and Roman myths were the ones that mattered.

Not until the late '60s and early '70s, with the slow onset of multiculturalism, did myths from other traditions begin to be published. In the '80s, the floodgates opened wide. Since then, such quantities of retellings from so many other cultures have been pouring forth, I worried that "classic"--that is, Greek and Roman--myths might now be in eclipse.

Searching shelves A through G of the Children's Book Council's near-complete collection of books published in the last three years, I found: tales from the Sahara, the Yanomami (Venezuelan), the Navajo nation, Appalachia, New Mexico, the West African Gold Coast, Tibet, New Guinea, Siberia, the aborigines of Shadbroke Island in the Pacific--and not a single one from ancient Greece or Rome.

Poor old classic myths, I thought. Done for, obliterated by multicultural backlash.

Not so. Looking further, having rounded up 45 books to consider, a smallish, perhaps not reasonable number, I'm glad to report that Greek and Roman myths are holding their own. And they do deserve a place in today's multicultural scene. For these reasons:

First, regardless how familiar they may be to parents and educators, young readers first encountering them will find them just as strange and new as myths from cultures that have only recently begun to be explored.

The second reason has to do with new approaches to retelling. In the 19th century and on into the 1950s, Greece and Rome were held to be the sacred bedrock of Western civilization. Accordingly, retellers aimed to show that Greek and Roman beliefs, institutions and ways of life were models for, and similar to, ours. Now, with new ways of looking at history, retellers bring out differences, aspects of those cultures whose interest derives from being other, or contrary to, current value systems. For example, the Greeks, whose values have for so long been held up as exemplary, thought making war for purposes of pillaging perfectly acceptable; they treated foreigners as less than human and women as chattel.

Some current retellings point up connections between myth and geographical or societal context. Sometimes it's the illustrators who make this happen. For instance, Arvis Stewart, in her frontispiece to Alice Low's "Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes" (Macmillan, 1985) and Aliki, early on in "The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus" (HarperCollins, 1994), show the head of Mother Earth, both arising from, and existing as part of, a mountainous landscape typically Greek. This image conveys, perhaps more clearly than a verbal explanation could, how closely land and deities were linked in the ancients' minds.

If I could keep just one of all the books I had a chance to consider, I'd choose the late Rosemary Sutcliff's "Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad," eloquently illustrated by Alan Lee (Delacorte, 1993). I wish I'd had a book like that back when I struggled with Homer. Sutcliff never waxes pompous or ponderous, as retellers often do. Her supple prose effectively cuts through stylistic difficulties and confusions yet evokes much of the original's grandeur. She starts where the action really began, with the judgment of Paris, which led to the abduction of Helen, which caused the Trojan War. She tells about the birth and boyhood of Achilles, and she ends with the Trojan horse trick that resulted in Troy's defeat. By including these and other essentials (that Homer could afford to skip because his audiences already knew them), Sutcliff makes the story accessible and its characters moving to young readers today. Incidentally, she does not gloss over, or water down, the savagery, war lust and slave trading that were part of the civilization we recognize among our forebears.

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