December 02, 2010


The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles. By Padraic Colum. Illustrated by Willy Pogány. Random House. $10.99.

The Phoenix and the Carpet. By E. Nesbit. Illustrated by H.R. Millar. Random House. $10.99.

Century Quartet, Book II: Star of Stone. By P.D. Baccalario. Translated by Leah D. Janeczko. Random House. $16.99.

     The great myths persist because they are, above all, great stories – so good that they provide fodder for many reinterpretations and recastings over centuries and even millennia. The Greek myths remain among the most popular of all, and poet Padraic Colum’s 1921 collection remains one of the best modern retellings. It is, of course, “modern” only by comparison with those from the 19th century and before: the language, which flows beautifully, may seem somewhat old-fashioned to modern young readers who are used to punchier prose. But because the subject matter is ancient, sensitive readers will be carried along in the tales all the more effectively because of the slightly out-of-favor elegance of Colum’s writing – and the beautifully designed but quite stylized illustrations by Willy Pogány, which appeared in the original publication. The stories are told with a delicacy that is foreign to newer tales for young readers – for example, the many violent elements of the tales are told blandly and quickly, not detailed or dwelled on; and all women who are not wives are “friends,” resulting in a complete absence of sexuality in the adventures. This toning-down is not true to the original myths but is certainly in keeping with what was deemed appropriate for youthful readers nearly a century ago. Yet the book – part of the “Looking Glass Library” series of attractive small-size hardcovers – is quite wonderful on its own terms. The story of Jason and the Argonauts is interwoven with tales of individual heroes’ exploits before and after the quest, including a variety of events that even adults may not recall from their readings of mythology. The interconnectedness of many of the stories is completely in keeping with Greek myth, but the unity will be surprising to those used to thinking of the heroic tales as discrete. The book opens and closes with Jason, ending in a version of the tragedy of his relationship with Medea and his later life. But there is so much else here. The tale of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and Thetis, makes much of Peleus’ capture of his sea-goddess wife and the unrelenting enmity of ocean dwellers to Peleus thereafter – and the famous scene of Thetis dipping Achilles in the river to make him invulnerable is nowhere to be found: here, Thetis holds him in a fire instead (as the goddess Demeter does for another baby in another part of the book). The story of Heracles is of a deeply flawed hero, not simply a man of gigantic strength: he not only goes mad and does murder, requiring him to undertake his famous labors, but also repeatedly feels great anger and perhaps madness rising in him as his life goes on; yet there is rough humor in him, too, and he releases two thieves after they tell him the Aesopian tale of a war between mice and frogs. Less-known heroes get their due here, too, such as “Zetes and Calais, the sons of the North Wind,” who conquer the Harpies during the Argonauts’ quest. The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles is exciting and often fascinating, a wonderful introduction or reintroduction to some of the world’s greatest stories.

     E. Nesbit’s mythmaking is more recent – she lived from 1858 to 1924 – but has its own resonance that sets it above much other work for young readers. The Phoenix and the Carpet dates to 1904, 17 years before Colum’s book of Greek myths, and its language too will require some adjustment by 21st-century readers picking up the new “Looking Glass Library” edition. But, again, a bit of adjustment is well worthwhile. Nesbit essentially invented the modern adventure story for children, giving a veneer of reality to the fantastic happenings in her books – and becoming an important influence on C.S. Lewis, among others. The Phoenix and the Carpet is the second book of a loosely connected trilogy that begins with Five Children and It and concludes with The Story of the Amulet. The “It” of the first book, a wish-granting but grumpy sand fairy called the Psammead, has very little to do with The Phoenix and the Carpet, which stands quite well on its own. The five children introduced in the earlier book – Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and the Lamb (as baby brother Hilary is always called) – get a new carpet here, to replace one from the nursery that is destroyed in an accidental fire. The children find an egg in the carpet; the egg hatches into a talking Phoenix; and the Phoenix tells them that the carpet is magical and will grant them three wishes per day. So the kids are off to find treasure; visit India, France and Persia; meet a kind burglar and arrange for him to marry a friendly cook; and a great deal more. The underlying unreality of the wish-fulfilling carpet and talking Phoenix coexists effectively with realistic depictions of Edwardian London, including a climactic scene that takes place during a Christmas pantomime at a West End theater. Those “reality” elements will likely seem more like fantasy to 21st-century readers, but even if the book is read entirely as make-believe, it is well paced, interestingly written and filled with touches that humanize and differentiate the five children at its core.

     Heirs of Nesbit have tended to pay less attention to characterization and more to plot pacing, and even well-done modern fantasies – such as the Century Quartet by Italian author P.D. (Pierdomenico) Baccalario – focus more on mystery and intricacy than on characterization. Star of Stone, like the tetralogy’s first book, Ring of Fire, gets a (+++) rating for this very reason, although it has to be said that Baccalario’s labyrinthine plotting will thoroughly engage today’s young readers in a way that the more diffuse and episodic story lines of earlier authors may not. Like the previous book, set in Rome, the second one, set in New York, requires four 12-year-olds (all of whom were born on February 29) to search for an ancient object of power connected to one of the “four elements” (air, earth, fire and water). Elettra, from Rome, was crucial to the first search; Harvey, from New York, is central in Star of Stone; and the two remaining books will feature Mistral (from Paris) and Sheng (from Shanghai). Actually, all four youths work together to evade the inevitable bad guys trying to thwart them for various nefarious reasons (since the kids’ discovery of the four objects will help them save the world, and their failure to do so will presumably end it, the evildoers must be nefarious indeed). In New York, four postcards written in code send the four young people through mysterious and abandoned locations around New York in their search for the earth-connected object of the book's title, always trying to stay a step or two ahead of the baddies. A clever element in this tetralogy is the inclusion in each book of a bound-in color section of clues that readers can follow and try to interpret as they read the story. The narrative prose tends to be somewhat overwrought in Leah D. Janeczko’s translation, and presumably in the original, although the dialogue is simplistic. The interruption of the plot’s progress for three short interludes labeled staisima (a stasimon was a choral ode within Greek plays) ties the Century Quartet neatly to the days of ancient Greece without, however, producing any particular resonance. A well-crafted modern fantasy adventure that will certainly please mystery fans, Star of Stone and the four-book series to which it belongs are very much of modern times both in strengths and in weaknesses.

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