March 16, 2006


Corydon & the Island of Monsters. By Tobias Druitt. Knopf. $15.95.

     This is the story of a mormoluke, a goat-footed demon that steals and eats children; a purple-faced, snake-headed gorgon that turns people to stone; two brass-winged terrors that haunt an island mountain; a snake girl; a minotaur; and a few others of that ilk.  They are the good guys.

     It is also a love story – especially of love between monsters.  And it is a tale of the wrong that gods do, the evil that men do in the name of heroism, the uses of forgetfulness, and many other matters besides.  Oh: and it is written by someone who does not exist.

     Tobias Druitt is the pen name of a mother-and-son writing team: Diane Purkiss and Michael Dowling.  Purkiss, a faculty member of Keble College at Oxford, and Dowling, who is studying ancient Greek, clearly know their Greek mythology inside out.  And that is how they turn it: inside out.

     The heroes here are attacking the monsters simply because that’s what heroes do.  The monsters are far more human, far more humane, far better than the heroes: readers will never see Jason or Perseus in quite the same light after reading this book.  The mormoluke, who does have a goat’s foot (and leg), is Corydon, and far from stealing or eating children, he is taunted by the children of his village, thrown out by his own mother, and named the village’s pharmakos, its scapegoat, who is supposed to go away and die so the village will be free of plague and ill luck.

     Uncooperatively, Corydon does not die – the gorgons Sthenno and Euryale save him – but he is captured by a band of men putting on the ancient Greek equivalent of a P.T. Barnum freak show.  It is there that Corydon meets Medusa, the Sphinx and various other known mythological villains, all of whom turn out to be misunderstood and mishandled as well as misshapen.  It is through Corydon that the monsters successfully battle the heroes, although there are casualties, as the ancient myths report.  For example, Perseus wins his epic battle with Medusa through pure treachery, and Medusa is much mourned and much celebrated by the other monsters.  “Perseus became king, and head of a huge shipping and trading company,” the book tells us.  “Zeus also set him up with a good portfolio of part shares in silver mines and pine plantations.”  He also sells figurines from the Golden Hoard as souvenirs.

     The main flaw in Corydon & the Island of Monsters is that it is not quite sure what sort of book it wants to be.  It is deeply moving in some sections, farcical in others, satirical elsewhere, and a straightforward reconsideration of ancient myth in still other places.  It is aimed at ages 8-12, but some scenes will be too intense for younger preteens, and only readers well steeped in Greek mythology will fully understand all the characters and events.  It comes across as an adult novel masquerading (through some of its sillier passages) as a children’s book.  It is a striking reinterpretation of Greek myths as well as a darned good adventure story, but its appeal is likely to be limited.

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