Saturday 8 November 2014

Children's Adventures in Greek Mythology

The dad who invented children's lit
Literature for children was invented simultaneously with the romantic conception of childhood, in 1805. A very particular child was involved, Mary Godwin (later to pen Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus), born in 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. When her mother died, she became the centre of her father’s emotional world, even after he married yet another Mary, Mary Jane Clairmont, with whom he set up the M.J. Godwin Juvenile Library imprint.

His daughter Mary Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley
The Godwins' combined household contained no fewer than five children. They turned the task of keeping them entertained into a business. In 1805, when little Mary was 8, Godwin produced his exquisitely illustrated version of Aesop, Fables, Ancient and Modern under the pseudonym of Edward Baldwin. It transformed the terms of the debate on what  children should read by introducing the desideratum that it should stimulate their imaginative capacities:

The first real book for children?
Godwin wrote, “If we would benefit a child we must become in part a child ourselves. We must prattle to him...we must introduce quick unexpected turns which... have the effect of wit to children. Above all, we must make our narrations pictures, and render the objects we discourse about, visible to the fancy of the learner… I have fancied myself taking the child upon my knee, and have expressed them in such language as I should have been likely to employ when I wished to amuse the child and make what I was talking of take hold upon his attention.”

Co-written with sister
Godwin’s next children’s books were The Pantheon; or, Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome (1806) and History of Rome: From the building of the city to the ruin of the Republic (1809). More importantly, he commissioned from Charles Lamb a retelling of Shakespeare and the extraordinarily influential Adventures of Ulysses (1808), through which, along with a thousand imitations, generations of children, including James Joyce, have been entranced by Homer.

Norbury Rabbits & Badgers, Experts on the Greeks & Romans!
Lamb co-wrote it with his sister, whose name was—wait for it—Mary. She had stabbed their mother to death and was only allowed out of the lunatic asylum because her (alcoholic) brother had promised to oversee her. Despite (or perhaps because of) their emotional states, they really caught the magic and pathos of the Odyssey. On Tuesday I was completely uplifted by re-experiencing the effect Greek legends can have on seven and eight-year-olds at Stanford School in Norbury, on the invitation of their incredible teacher Fiona McGrath.  Thanks, Badger and Rabbit classes! You made my week!

PS: The version of Greek myths and of the Odyssey our own children loved most were the bittersweet strip cartoons by Marcia Williams. 

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