Myth and legend - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


18. Myth and legend


Maurice Saxby


Speaking about his collaboration with Leon Garfield when they were reframing some of the ancient Greek myths as The God Beneath the Sea, Edward Blishen said, ‘It was like working with a sort of radium of story’ (Blishen 1979: 33). It is this ‘original tremendous concentrate of story’ (33) embedded in myth and legend that, as Sir Philip Sidney expressed it, ‘holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner’. The very impulse that gave birth to myth and legend makes them the right and proper fare for all children, especially for those growing up in a technological and rational society.

At the heart of mythology - mythos, a story - is imagination, creativity, the urge to understand, to explain and to embellish. Throughout the ages all cultures have developed a body of myth and legend, at first as an oral tradition, then ultimately fixed in clay, stone, papyrus, vellum or paper and elevated to literature - if not always to sacred lore and belief. While folk and fairy tale, myth, legend and epic hero tales are all threads of one vast story, it would seem that myth, a universal phenomenon, is the progenitor. The folk tale ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, for example, in the version where Red Riding Hood is released from the stomach of the wolf to be reborn could well be a remnant of a nature myth explaining the setting and the rising of the sun.

For myth grows out of the need to form hypotheses and create explanations for natural phenomena: how the world came into being; the formation of rivers, lakes, mountains and other geographical features; why spring always follows winter just as the dawn always rises to herald the new day that will end with sunset. More than that, it seeks to explain what lies beyond the dawn and the sunset, beyond the edge of vision, beyond the immediately observable and knowable: what worlds, celestial kingdoms or nether regions exist beyond the horizon, above the sky or beneath the earth. Myth deals with imponderables: where, how and why did life as we know it originate; what supernatural being/s pre-existed human life; from whence did mortals come and whither are they bound? Just as imperative are questions about human nature and behaviour. What is the nature of ‘good’ and ‘evil’? When does folly slide over into sin? What fearful consequences follow disobedience of the ‘Law’? Are the wages of sin always the death of the spirit?

So myth postulates life before birth and an after life. It fashions a pantheon of deities, demigods, nymphs, satyrs and a multitude of other supernatural creatures. It seeks to explain the ways of the gods, the relationship of those gods with humanity and the consequences of divine anger. It chronicles the human longing for immortality, the passionate search for the water of everlasting life and eternal youth, the hope of bliss beyond the sufferings and trials of earthly life and the fear of eternal damnation.

The form and tone of the mythos, the environmental details, the characteristics and attributes of the local deities, spirits and the human participants in the drama vary with the culture that gave the stories birth. The myths of ancient Greece, which have most influenced the Western world, reflect the pure light, the blue skies, the lofty mountains, the plains and olive groves that shaped the lives of its people. Those of the Vikings are starker, harsher, grimmer and icier, as befits a landscape of forests, passes and ravines, bordered by sometimes perilous seas. The myths of India and the East are more exotic, colourful and flamboyant; those of the Australian Aborigines express a spirituality embedded in the land itself. Myth and legend, being truly multicultural, introduce children to a diversity of national temperaments and to different ways of confronting universal and ongoing questions about life and human nature.

But because all races throughout time have been awed by the unknown and the unknowable, that wonder, when expressed through myth, is elevated to religion. Gods not only demand obedience, reverence and worship but at times they require propitiation and appeasement. Here again the ancient Greeks were more light-hearted and less reverent than, say, the Egyptians or Sumerians. Because the Greek immortals frequently trafficked with mortals (Zeus fathered heroes such as Perseus and Heracles, who were thus demigods) they were not always treated with the respect demanded by the gods of other nations. And Hera, the wife of Zeus, was often driven by jealousy and rage to shrewishness. So by exposure to a rich array of mythology young readers gain an insight into human nature and are confronted with the essence of the divine and the supernatural.

Because of this, mythology gives rise to ceremony and ritual, an ongoing necessity in human behaviour. Even when ritual is minimalised, as it is in some religious groups or sects, it tends to be replaced by even more rigid rules and regulations, often more stringently enforced than what was abandoned.

Moreover, myth is rich in symbols, and human existence is governed largely by metaphor. Even vehicles are controlled by road signs and highway symbols. So the odyssey in myth, legend and epic is often dangerous and demanding, even with its detours and resting places, but leads ultimately to home and fulfilment. It is an image of a universal life experience, but on a vast scale. In all cultures the heroic journey involves rivers that must be breasted, bridges to cross, mountains to climb: all symbols of life’s progress. The monsters - be they dragons, trolls or demons - are local expressions of a universal fear and uncertainty. On life’s journey each mortal, like the superheroes of myth and legend, often encounters a tutelary figure or receives unexpected aid from the Immortals, often in human guise. The powers of darkness that lurk by the wayside can be vanquished only if the traveller does not faint, is of unshakeable faith and wields the sword of understanding and action fashioned long ages ago and passed on from generation to generation. The slain dragon yields its gold to the victor and, if the conqueror has the resolution of a Sigurd and plucks out the heart of a Fafnir and tastes its blood upon the tongue, that individual will then understand the call of the birds, comprehend what the beasts are saying and grow wise in the ways of nature.

At some crisis point or points all humanity, like Cuchulain (hero of the great Irish saga, known as the Ulster Cycle, collected between about 100 BC and AD 100), will be confronted by a dark and brooding shadow whose menace chills the soul. It is the same shadow, the black side of his nature, that Ged is forced to face in Ursula Le Guin’s mythic novel A Wizard of Earthsea. Cuchulain leaps his salmon leap at the monster shadow and disperses it with his sword. Ged stares down his shadow through the power of the mind. Both stories carry an urgent message for today’s readers.

The border between myth and legend is ill defined. Traditionally, legend is story passed down by word of mouth from former times and popularly accepted as historical. However, in the passage of time, detail is added, the protagonist glorified and raised in heroic status. The superheroes, often of semi-divine origin, create their own legend within the myth of their race: Theseus, Perseus, Jason, Heracles, Odysseus and their company from Greece; Gilgamesh from Sumeria; Sigurd and Vainamoinen from old Scandinavia; Moses and Samson of the Old Testament; Beowulf, Arthur and Cuchulain from ancient Britain; Roland of France; El Cid of Spain and Maui of the Pacific are but a few. All have elements of the supernatural woven into their mythic life stories.

So, too, have many of the saints, prophets, seers and holy ones. Miracles of healing are attributed to saints such as Catherine of Siena and Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. Siddharta, a prince from north India and the future Buddha, is conceived after musical instruments play celestial music without the aid of human hands, trees have burst spontaneously into flower, and rivers have ceased to flow in order to witness the miracle that is taking place. The death of the wise and charitable Countess Cathleen of Ireland drives away the pestilence that has scourged her country, and she joins the hosts of heaven, sanctified by love. Joan of Arc of France is elevated to sainthood because she implicitly obeys her heavenly voices. The German saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a visionary whose music is still played today and whose poems are now believed to be prophetic warnings against the pollution and contamination of a selfish world:


There issues forth an unreality

An overpowering, dark cloud of menace,

That withers the earth’s green shoots,

And shrivels fruit upon the bough

Fruit that was meant to give the people food.

(Saxby 1990: 118)


Both Catherine and Hildegard are examples of practical, strong-minded women who challenged evil and corruption as they saw it, even in the Church, to the Pope himself.

Stories of the saints, martyrs, wise and holy men and women have long been passed down by word of mouth and then enshrined in written literature because of their inspirational quality: holiness backed up by steadfastness of purpose, resolute action and nobility of spirit. They still have a much-needed place in the literature for the children of a cynical and materialistic age. They are the prototypes for the plethora of tales of the supernatural, the fighting fantasies and those spurious stories of apocalyptic battles between the powers of light and the demons of doom that currently pervade children’s literature. From these archetypes have evolved the swaggering celluloid supermen of Hollywood, the witches, wizards and warlocks of pulp fiction. Only rarely does the synthetic hero have the enduring quality of those who were given literary permanence in heroic literature.

The ongoing quest for ‘stars’ in the contemporary media, be they sportspersons, entertainers or even humanitarians is also indicative of the same urge to worship that has given lasting life to the legendary folk heroes from around the world: Robin Hood, William Tell, Boadicea, Pochahontas, Davy Crockett or Lady Godiva. They are all larger-than-life characters whose exploits have perhaps been romanticised but who for that very reason stir the popular imagination and fulfil an ongoing human need to reverence the spark of nobility within ordinary people. Such heroes, because they belong to a specific family, society, tribe or region, provide a sense of identity for those whose roots are in that culture as well as a cross-cultural reference in a world where internationalism is seen as desirable; but not at the cost of losing pride in one’s country.

Myth and legend perhaps provide the most potent form of literature that can be offered to children - for a variety of reasons. Not only are they archetypes, but they generate linguistic power, stir the imagination, ease anxiety and help bring about inner harmony and much-needed emotional and spiritual wholeness.

So-called ‘high’ fantasy such as that of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and especially his Lord of the Rings trilogy, sometimes described as ‘mythological epic’, creatively synthesises elements from myth and legend (the journey, battle and pursuit) with medieval romance and boys’ adventure literature. The Australian Patricia Wrightson in her Book of Wirrun takes her Aboriginal hero on an epic journey across Australia. The creatures he encounters, such as the water spirit, the Yunggamurra, although derived from Aboriginal mythology, are universally recurring images.

From the epic hero tale comes adventure and survival literature - from Robinson Crusoe to Ann Holm’s I am David, Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, Ivan Southall’s Ash Road or Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming. Each involves a journey of sorts, a disaster and survival through grit, determination and moral integrity. In all such novels there is a moral dilemma and a social problem just as there is in heroic literature. So the seeds of the contemporary problem novel are to be found in traditional literature. Children immersed in that literature absorb not only the structure and pattern of story, which thus enables them to appreciate the most demanding contemporary writing, but are empowered linguistically.

Apart from the ringing tone and heightened language of the better retellings - to which we will return later in the chapter - our vocabulary and usage are enriched, unconsciously, by references to myth and legend: a jovial chap; a mercurial disposition; the Midas touch; even brand names such as Cyclops or Excalibur.

Even more importantly, the ancient tales demonstrate the universality and ongoing nature of the human condition. The televised cry of the distraught mother of an abducted child, ‘Please give me back my daughter!’ echoes the story of Demeter’s search for Persephone, carried off by Hades, the black monarch of the Underworld to his nether kingdom, so swiftly that only Hecate, the queen of black magic and evil ghosts, saw her go.


When night fell and Persephone failed to return home, her mother sent out a search party; and Demeter joined the searchers, lighting torches from the fires of the volcano, Etna, so as to search through nine long, grief-filled days and nights. She ate no food, she didn’t wash, and she took no rest. On the tenth night, when no moon shone, Hecate came out of the cave and appeared before the bereft mother.

(Saxby 1990: 26)


Medea’s slaying of her children because Jason has cast her aside for another woman who would advance his fortunes in the ancient city of Corinth is an archetypal story of what is happening all too frequently in our own culture. Perseus leaves home and goes forth to slay the Medusa because an evil Polydectes lusts after his mother and sends Perseus on a dangerous errand. Perseus, like any jealous but protective son, uses his grisly trophy to render Polydectes impotent by turning him into stone.

The ancient Greeks knew all about catharsis - the purging of the emotions by being party to true tragedy, which evokes both pity and terror. Such potent stories reflect an ongoing temper of mind and are products not just of a particular period or a specific culture. No other stories offer children the same imaginative or emotional depth, the same insight into the human condition and the essential truth of universal experience. They provide children with something of the same kind of experience that adults find in King Lear or Crime and Punishment. Whereas the protagonists of the fairy tale live ‘happily ever after’, the heroes (male or female) of myth and legend don’t necessarily triumph in the end. They have harder choices to make than Jack climbing his beanstalk. For they are often dogged by misfortune or traits of character. Pride - or hubris - always leads to nemesis, the downfall of the hero, as it does with Roland of France. But as with Roland his ultimate triumph is not as important as his persistence, courage and integrity. Without being overtly didactic, the stories of myth and legend have an inherent moral. Icarus flies too close to the sun and plummets to the sea. Orpheus looks back (remember Lot’s wife!) and must return from the Underworld bereft and alone. A taboo has not been heeded. So Orpheus is doomed to wander an earth which has lost its sweetness. Yet he endures, singing to the end: and his lyre is set among the stars.

We might well ask, as did Paul Hazard:


How would heroism be kept alive in our ageing earth if not by each fresh, young generation that begins anew the epic of the human race? The finest and noblest of books intended for children tell of heroism. They are the inspiration of those who, in later life, sacrifice themselves that they may secure safety for others.

(Hazard 1947: 170)


So it is with Beowulf - or King Arthur, who, some say:


sleeps still in Avalon, while his wounds heal, awaiting the call to the upper world as king in the hour of his country’s need. Others say that he sleeps in the fiery cradle of Etna or at Snowdon in Wales, or at Glastonbury. Perhaps he rests in the hearts of all noble men. Hic Iacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam que Futurus - Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King.

(Saxby 1989: 141)


This is the hope that myth and legend sets before us: that we all, if we pursue our odyssey to the end, will find ourselves and thus be saved: and in saving ourselves we save the world. It is thus that the world is being constantly redeemed and renewed.

Plato, in The Republic, states that the ultimate goal of education should be to create in children an active imagination, because imagination, he claims, is the means through which we recreate the world, and we each rediscover the meaning and significance of life, experience the joy of being alive. Plato would educate children through myth, through story and through folklore. Aristotle claims that the friend of wisdom is also the friend of myth.

In more recent times, Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, maintains that myths are metaphors or fields of reference to what ordinarily can’t be known or named. He says that they are guiding signs to a deep, rich, satisfying inner life, a vivifying spiritual experience. Campbell points out that in medieval times the tallest building in any city was the tower of the church, temple or mosque whereas today it is an office block - to which could be added the television tower. In forsaking myth for technology and commerce, a society runs the risk of being inwardly impoverished. We can now bring Mount Olympus into close range with our giant telescopes; listen through our headsets to the music of the spheres; read and print out the pronouncements of the oracle from the computer screen. Hermes has been replaced by the fax machine.

Yet the awesome wonder of the old tales remains; but only if the versions and retellings remain true to the spirit of the originals, as far as we can trace them. The prototypes of many myths and legends, however, have come down to us in fragmented form and are not accessible or even suitable for use with children.

In ancient days, tales of heroes were often sung by minstrels and gathered by poets in the form of an epic: a long narrative verse cycle clustered around the exploits of a named hero who embodied the cultural symbols and qualities which the society held dear. The first known and recorded epic would appear to be the legend of Gilgamesh sung to the harp by Sumerians and recorded in clay some 3,000 years before Christ. It exalts the wondrous exploits of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and celebrates his friendship with Enkidu. It probes the mysteries of life and whatever is beyond it. The Epic of Gilgamesh, an English version with an introduction by N. K. Sanders (1980) is a source book for retellings such as that in Maurice Saxby’s The Great Deeds of Superheroes, the introduction to which, ‘We all need heroes’ includes a comprehensive table charting the heroic pattern in myth and legend (Saxby 1989: 6-12). (A companion volume, The Great Deeds of Heroic Women (Saxby 1990) retells stories of goddesses, saints, warrior women and strong females who became legends in their own time.) The Gilgamesh story has been used by Ludmila Zeman as the basis for two rich and lavish picture books, Gilgamesh the King (1992) and The Revenge of Ishtar (1993), illustrated in Sumerian art style. The text, which is pitched at the newly independent reader, is pared down to an accessible level without being impoverished.

Myths and legends from ancient Greece used with children today come largely from Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey (c. 850 BC), telling the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath. After the fall of Troy, between 600 and 700 BC, Hesiod, Homer, Pindar and other Greek writers collected and wrote down the myths of the gods and the legendary stories of the heroes. Apollonius of Rhodes (c. 305-235 BC) and Apollodorus (fl. c. AD 100) also gave us versions of the stories. Other sources are the odes of Pindar (c. 502-446 BC) and the Greek dramatists, Sophocles (born c. 496 BC) and Euripides (born c. 480 BC) as well as the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid in the first century BC. Many of the common myths have been pieced together from several sources - fragments of poems and references in plays - and there are variant versions, even among the writers of the ancient world, as detailed by Robert Graves in The Greek Myths. Yet when they are retold faithfully the Greek tales are staggering in their imaginative power and psychological insight and are always intensely dramatic. Lillian Smith (1953: 66) has said that ‘to read them is to experience the wonder of the morning of the world’. It is also to experience the aspirations, joys, terrors, defeats, triumphs and the creative energy of humankind throughout the ages.

As few today can read ancient Greek, we are dependent on translations such as those of E. V. Rieu, whose Iliad and Odyssey would seem to capture the swift stateliness of Homer’s narration along with the detail of everyday life in ancient Greece. For young readers there is poetry and dignity as well as swift narrative action in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad (1993), combining as it does the drama of human emotion and that of a ferocious naval and military campaign. Alan Lee’s universal ‘Greek’-style illustrations both here and in Sutcliff’s The Wanderings of Odysseus (1994) harmoniously complement the text; and, with the ‘picture story’ format of the book, add tremendously to the reader appeal. Remarkably, most retellings of the Odyssey, including that of Barbara Leonie Picard for the Oxford Myths and Legends series, retain a third-person narrative throughout. In Homer, however, when Odysseus in Part II is presented to Alcinous, King of Phaecia, the hero narrates in the first person his adventures from his imprisonment on Calypso’s isle to his arrival at the palace of Alcinous. One of the few recent children’s versions to retain this structure is by Robin Lister (1987). Lister and his illustrator, Alan Baker have collaborated successfully here and in The Story of King Arthur (1988) to produce eye-catching illustrations and euphonious texts of two of the world’s most potent stories.

One of the first to recognise the literary merit of the Greek tales for children was Nathaniel Hawthorne. In A Wonder Book (1851) he retells them in lush but vivid prose, treating them more as fairy tales than as high drama. He adds his own detail, giving Midas a daughter whom he calls Marygold and who is turned into gold by her father along with everything else he touches.

Hawthorne’s cavalier treatment of the text motivated Charles Kingsley to restore the purity of the tales. In his introduction to The Heroes Kingsley wrote, ‘Now, I love these old Hellens heartily,’, (1856/1903: 209) and so proclaimed his enthusiasm for the language as well as the story. His version is lofty in idealism yet homely in detail, poetic in expression yet dramatic in action. The stories as he tells them reflect his belief that we ‘call it a “heroic” thing to suffer pain and grief, that we may do good to our fellow men’.

Later Padraic Colum in The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles (1921) used the technique of having Orpheus sing the stories to the heroes as they sailed in search of the golden fleece. His retelling is poetic and full of wonder. Yet he is not in awe of the gods, but treats them with familiar respect.

Since Hawthorne, Kingsley and Colum, versions of the Greek stories have proliferated. For the reteller it is easy to seize upon a tailor-made story and recount it in facile, easily digestible prose. Sheila Egoff dismisses most modern retellers, such as Roger Lancelyn Green in Tales of the Greek Heroes (1958) and Doris Gates in The Warrior Goddess: Athena (1972), as ‘faceless and styleless’ (Egoff 1981: 214). While Green is certainly no stylist, and he lacks Kingsley’s ‘awesome wonder’, he tells the stories clearly and dramatically, preserving traditional storylines and making them accessible to young readers. Through his collections he has provided a basic introduction to a wide range of traditional literature: King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953), Tales of the Greek Heroes (1958), The Tale of Troy (1958), Myths of the Norsemen (1960), The Luck of Troy (1961) and Tales of Ancient Egypt (1967).

Current publishing projects to keep the Greek and Roman myths and legends alive for a contemporary audience have had mixed success. Anthony Horowitz’s retellings for The Kingfisher Book of Myths and Legends (1985) are workmanlike and make for easy if not inspired reading. Most disappointing are Geraldine McCaughrean’s versions for The Orchard Book of Greek Myths (1992). Here the tragedy of Persephone is reduced to melodrama through banal dialogue and trite narrative. Persephone, captured by Pluto (Hades), cries out: ‘Who are you? What do you want of me? Oh let me go! Help me, somebody! Mother, help me!’; in the Underworld Persephone sobs: ‘I want to go home! I want my mother!’; and Demeter calls: ‘Persephone darling! Time to go home!’ (McCaughrean 1992: 16).

Of the recent picture story books based on myths and legends, those retold and illustrated by Warwick Hutton - Theseus and the Minotaur (1989), The Trojan Horse (1992) and Perseus (1993) - remain faithful to the traditional storyline but are told simply and directly as adventure stories in language adapted to the ability of newly independent readers. Hutton’s illustrations are modern interpretations of classical Greek design.

The source for retellings of the Norse myths is, in the main, two thirteenth-century Icelandic sagas compiled after Iceland had been Christianised for over one hundred years: the so-called Elder Edda of thirty-four poems, sometimes referred to as the Iliad of the North, and the Younger Edda, a prose collection written partly by Snorri Sturluson who lived between about 1179 and 1241. The dramatic succinctness yet the imaginative power of these stories has been faithfully retained in Dorothy Hosford’s Thunder of the Gods (1952) while her earlier Songs of the Volsungs (1949) is a prose adaptation of William Morris’s verse drama Sigurd the Volsung; his version of the ancient Volsunga Saga of Sigmund and his son Sigurd. Hosford’s account of the death of Balder is told with stark directness and moving simplicity yet with the pathos and intensity of the old Eddas.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, a later reteller, has by his own admission not hesitated to develop hints of action in the Eddas, flesh out dramatic situations and add snatches of dialogue, to hone some sound or meaning. Hence his Axe-Age, Wolf-Age: A Selection from the Norse Myths (1985) and Northern Lights: Legends, Sagas and Folk-tales (1987) have a hard glittering edge as befits the ‘fatalism, courage, loyalty, superstition, cunning, melancholy, a sense of wonder, curiosity about all that’s new’ which in his foreword to The Faber Book of Northern Legends (1977) he claims as the ‘most pronounced strain in the make-up of the Germanic heroic peoples, as revealed through their prose and poetry’ (Crossley- Holland 1977: 20). This author’s sombre yet ringing prose version (1982, re-issued in 1999) of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon poem dating back to before AD 1000, is extended to become an atmospheric horror-hero story by Charles Keeping’s chilling black-and-white drawings. (Rosemary Sutcliff has also retold the story of Beowulf in prose as Beowulf: Dragon Slayer (1966), while Ian Serraillier tells the tale in verse, Beowulf the Warrior (1954)). As with Keeping’s illustrations for Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen’s sagas of creation and the early Greek world, The God beneath the Sea (1970) and The Golden Shadow (1973), there is an overtone of sexuality which is often latent but at times explicit in the early stories themselves.

Also at times chilled by northern mist and tempest is the Kalevala: The Land of Heroes, fragments of heroic songs collected by a nineteenth-century Finnish folklorist and poet, Elias Lonnrot. These songs tell of Vainamoinen the Wise, Ilmarinen the Smith and the hare-brained rogue, Lemminkainen, and of their feud with Mistress Louhi, the sorceress of the bitter North. Ursula Synge has retold the stories in lyric prose in Kalevala: Heroic Tales from Finland (1977); and a striking picture book for young children, Louhi Witch of North Farm (1986) has text by Toni de Gerez and ice-cold pictures by Barbara Cooney.

Since Caxton printed Mallory’s Morte dArthur in 1485, the Arthurian romances have attracted many scholarly retellings as well as popularised chapbook versions. Robin Hood stories taken from early ballads and oral sources have also proliferated. From America has come Howard Pyle’s grandly medieval cycle of both the Robin Hood (1883) and Arthurian stories (1903). But perhaps the finest modern interpreter of the old hero tales from the Middle Ages has been Rosemary Sutcliff. Her Arthurian trilogy remains one of the most accessible and poetic yet scholarly versions for children and adults - The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1981); The Light Beyond the Forest: The Quest for the Holy Grail (1979); and The Road to Camlann: The Death of King Arthur (1981). Her Tristan and Iseult (1971) pares away accretions to the romantic love story to lay bare in taut narrative the stark tragedy of the star-crossed lovers.

A latter-day Celtic revival was perhaps fuelled by the publication in 1949 of a translation of the thirteenth-century Welsh classic The Mabinogion by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Here the story is dense and concentrated, and daunting to young readers. More easily digestible are the tales from the Mabinogion included in Barbara Leonie Picard’s Hero Tales from the British Isles (1963) and Gwyn Jones’s Welsh Legends and Folktales (1955). Gwyn Jones and Kevin Crossley-Holland collaborated to tell in measured prose Tales from the Mabinogion (1984) with strong, stylised illustrations by Margaret Jones.

A comprehensive analysis of available editions of myths, legends and fairy tales up to 1976 is Elizabeth Cook’s The Ordinary and the Fabulous (2nd edn, 1976), while Mary Steele in 1989 compiled Traditional Tales: A Signal Bookguide which details then available collections of legend and hero tales, Norse myths, Irish myths, Welsh legends, Greek legends, Robin Hood stories and traditional tales from around the world.

Perhaps one of the most useful references to world mythology is the Hodder and Stoughton series of some twelve titles ranging from Gods, Men and Monsters from Greek Mythology (1977) to Warriors, Gods and Spirits from Central American Mythology (1983). Each volume sets the stories in their cultural and historical context; the retellings are dramatic, vivid and arresting; the illustrations colourful and energetic. For children exploring world mythology they provide an invaluable resource. Similarly Penelope Farmer’s Beginnings: Creation Myths of the World (1978) and John Bailey’s Gods and Men: Myths and Legends from the World’s Religions (1981), although spare and tightly told, are useful springboards for further research.

Each year new versions of mythic and heroic literature are published for the children’s market. Geraldine McCaughrean in 1989 produced a lively and dramatic retelling of the story of a hero whose exploits were the subject of medieval manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish, El Cid. In 1992 appeared Margaret Hodges’s adaptation of the Cervantes novel Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (1605-15) as a ‘literary’ hero tale. Among notable picture-book additions to the field is Margaret Early’s William Tell (1991).

Perhaps the ancient myths, legends and hero tales are today taking second place to more contemporary myths of religious, political, sporting and cultural icons, along with the stars of screen and stage. International figures such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, along with superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, take their place alongside Odysseus, King Arthur, Robin Hood and the like - although in Australia, at least, Ned Kelly would today out-rival Robin Hood in popularity. The language applied to Elvis Presley has much in common with that usually reserved for King Arthur, or divine beings; the monsters of the ancient world are replaced by dictators, corrupt presidents and terrorist leaders.

The thirst for heroes - both ancient and modern - appears to be unabated. Shackleton comes to the giant screen; the exploits of Harry Potter and Tolkien’s hobbits enthral audiences across the globe. Arthurian romances proliferate around the world through seminars and television programmes for those with a scholarly interest in the legend, and through retellings from a fresh point of view - such as Robert Leeson’s The Song of Arthur (Walker Books, 2000) where Arthur is presented through the eyes of Taliesin, a bard and storyteller. Penelope Lively reworks Virgil’s epic story of the fall of Troy, told from a Roman perspective, In Search of a Homeland: The Story of the Aeneid (2001) a work that stands alongside Rosemary Sutcliff’s retellings of Homer.

In this visual era, the myths, legends and hero tales have inspired an array of beautifully illustrated and sumptuously presented picture books designed to entice young readers and adults. Margaret Early’s richly decorated and bordered pages help give her Robin Hood (1996) international coinage, and Deborah Klein’s illustrations add similar international appeal to Nadia Wheatley’s view of the less well-known side of the Emperor Charlemagne, The Greatest Treasure of Charlemagne the King (1997). Anna Fienberg and Kim Gamble have collaborated to produce a picture book, Joseph (2001), that shimmers with desert heat in retelling the biblical narrative of the boy who came to be Governor of Egypt; while Ireland’s patron saint is reintroduced to children across the world in Joyce Denham in Patrick: Saint of Ireland (2002) with Diana Mayo’s suitably Celtic-style illustrations.

The last two decades have seen a great ingathering of heroic stories not unlike that which took place in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, while the earlier collectors and retellers produced great epics such as the Kalevala, the present emphasis is more on heroic folk tale through which is preserved elements of both myth and legend. As early as 1954, Janis Andrups and Vitauts Kalve, in Latvian Literature; Essays, wrote of the ‘tendency towards creating legends out of material provided by Latvian past history’ (170). Gulcin Alpoge has documented the upsurge in the collection and classification of Turkish traditional literature, which began in the late 1940s. She notes that, after 1980, Turkish publishing houses began to issue such traditional literature in its original form, and into the twenty-first century, folk tales - as part of national mythology - take equal place with picture books and novels on children’s lists:


Folktales and Fairytales are retold as closely as possible in their original form. Very few re-interpret a folktale or have brought the story forward to modern times. In south-eastern Europe the folktale seems to be the most popular genre, but it is often used as metaphor and modernised. Turkish fairytales, however, are still located mostly in the traditional imaginary space and fairytale past.

(Alpoge 2002: 27-8)


The line between myth, legend and folk tale is fragile. Many folk tales contain myth elements - pourquoi stories, for instance - and the classification of legend as opposed to folklore is frequently problematical. The more generic term ‘traditional literature’ is ultimately more reliable and useful. The Romanian story of a girl who dresses up as a fully armoured knight to protect her father’s kingdom (a tale that has currency also in Greece, Russia, Italy and the Czech Republic), for example, appears along with similar heroic tales in Dorling Kindersley’s The Illustrated Book of Fairy Tales (1997/2002) where the term ‘fairy tale’ is used in its very broadest sense. More frequently, folk tales having elements of myth and legend have been retold and illustrated in a style that reflects the country of origin. John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (1987), an African tale inspired by G. M. Theale’s Kaffir Tales of 1895, is a book dedicated to the children of South Africa and acknowledges the expertise of the Zimbabwe Mission and the Afro-American Institute. The Massai story The Orphan Boy (1990) by Tololwa M. Mollel goes beyond legend to explore the heroic virtues of strength, loyalty and male bonding. The illustrator, Paul Morin, also worked on Alice McLerran’s The Ghost Dance (1995), a lament for the Paiute people of North America, and the stuff of legend. In the same year, James Riordan published The Songs My Paddle Sings: Native American Legends (illustrated by Michael Foreman), which includes creation and other myths along with the story of the legendary Hiawatha, uniter of the Iroquois, and also an Apache Cinderella story. Even earlier, in Australia, Allan Baillie had collaborated with the Chinese professor Chun-Chan Yeh, to provide the text of an ancient Chinese legendary hero tale, Bawshou Rescues the Sun (1991).

Aboriginal myths and legends (non-sacred) have been retold by native Australians, notably Arone Raymond Meeks and Dick Roughsey (in the 1970s), but these books were edited and published by white Australians. In the following decades, Aboriginal people began to take more responsibility for the retelling, illustrating and publishing of their myths. Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, based in Western Australia, has in the past twenty years produced highly acclaimed books such as Daisy Utemorrah’s Do Not Go around the Edges (1990) that ranges through legend and Dreamtime stories and which expresses this Aboriginal elder’s deep and wise personal philosophy. In 1992, Magabala published Tjarany Roughtail by Gracie Greene, Joe Tramacchi and Lucille Gill, with text in both English and dialect; it was voted Australian Book of the Year, and is a landmark in postcolonial publishing.

Such publishing is indicative of an almost world-wide recognition of the desire to collect and preserve the mythology - sometimes in folk tale rather than epic form - of ‘the people’, for such stories are part of deep cultural roots. Not a few entries in the biennial IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Awards arose out of this recognition, either as the basis for literary stories or for picture books that reflect in both word and picture the culture from which they spring. Entries from central and southeastern Europe, from Asian countries such as Japan, and others from Latin America have drawn on their country’s store of mythology. Writers and artists around the world are turning to their country’s cultural heritage for inspiration - Serpil Ura and Can Goknil, for example, in Turkey. Tales from Africa, South America and Asia are gaining international currency through translation and by being included in anthologies such as Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Crystal Pool (1998).

The loom of myth and legend is seemingly never still, even today. The mythos of southeast Asia, Third World countries, the Middle East, Australia and Papua New Guinea, for example, are slowly being woven from their oral sources. In time they will take their place with those from Europe, the Near East and the old world to provide children the world over with a fabric which is both timeless and multicultural.



Alpoge, G. (2002) ‘Turkish Traditional Literature’, Bookbird 40, 1: 27-30.

Andrups, J. and Kalve, V. (1954) Latvian Literature; Essays, Stockholm: Goppers.

Blishen, E. (1979) ‘The Impulse to Story’, in Saxby, M. (ed.) Through Folklore to Literature, Sydney: IBBY Publications.

Campbell, J. (1988) The Hero with a Thousand Faces, London: Paladin.

Cook, E. (1976) The Ordinary and the Fabulous, 2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crossley-Holland, K. (1977) The Faber Book of Northern Legends, London: Faber.

Egoff, S. (1981) Thursday’s Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children’s Literature, Chicago: American Library Association.

Graves, R. (1960) The Greek Myths, London: Penguin.

Hazard, P. (1947) Books, Children and Men, trans. Mitchell, M., Boston: American Library Association.

Kingsley, C. (1856/1903) The Water Babies and the Heroes, London and New York: Macmillan.

McCaughrean, G. (1992) The Orchard Book of Greek Myths, London: Orchard.

Saxby, M. (1989) The Great Deeds of Superheroes, Sydney: Millennium.

- (1990) The Great Deeds of Heroic Women, Sydney: Millennium.

Smith, L. (1953) The Unreluctant Years: A Critical Approach to Children’s Literature, Chicago: American Library Association.

Steele, M. (1989) Traditional Tales: A Signal Bookguide, South Woodchester: Thimble Press.


Further reading

Armour, R. A. (1986) Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Brunei, P. (ed.) (1992) Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes, London: Routledge.

Butler, B. (1975) The Myth of the Hero, London: Rider.

Cotterell, A. (ed.) The Illustrated Encyclopedia ofMyths and Legends, London: Marshall.

Davidson, H. R. E. (1964) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Larve, G. A. (1975) Ancient Myth and Modern Man, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1978) Myth and Meaning, London: Routledge.

Murray, H. A. (ed.) (1960) Myth and Mythmaking, Boston: Beacon Press.

Sirk, G. S. (1970) Myth, Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Willis, R. (1993) World Mythology: The Illustrated Guide, London: Duncan Baird.