restricted access The Myth of Persephone in Girls' Fantasy Literature by Holly Virginia Blackford (review)
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The Myth of Persephone in Girls' Fantasy Literature, by Holly Virginia Blackford. New York: Routledge, 2011. 248 pp. $141.00.

The Myth of Persephone in Girls' Fantasy Literature examines a variety of texts that all include a girl who, according to Holly Virginia Blackford, is experiencing the same mythical journey to the underworld and back as did Persephone. In each of the texts, Blackford uses the components of the myth to examine key relationships: mother and daughter, matriarchy and patriarchy, childhood and womanhood, nature and culture, growth and decline, choice and impotence, birth and death, England and Empire, ambivalence and certainty—some of these being involved in each girl's developmental journey.

Blackford uses this mythic framework as a guide to explore the pains and pleasures of a girl's development, subsequent separation from the grieving mother, who has her own fears of becoming old and sterile, and re-entry of the daughter into a patriarchal world. Although any such framework must not be considered as a fixed set of rules and some flexibility is acceptable, the application of the myth to such books as E. T. A. Hoffmann's Nutcracker and Mouse King (1816), J. M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy (1911), and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) is more plausible than onto others such as Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868-69), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), or Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1910-11), in which the deviations from the framework make Blackford's argument less convincing. Perhaps these texts stretch the framework because they also do not fit comfortably into the genre of girls' fantasy; it would have been useful if Blackford had provided her definition of "fantasy." Indeed, Blackford confusingly claims that she views "the myth of Persephone as provocative of a girls' gothic," but later on, she classifies the books as "mythic texts" (pp. 9, 12).

Blackford has done a substantial amount of research and gives an excellent explanation of the history of the Persephone myth and its many variations over the centuries, from Homer to Atwood. In addition, Blackford provides a useful description of the history of child developmental [End Page 245] psychology and of children's literature, especially in the late nineteenth century when all three topics were of great interest and underwent intense scrutiny and analysis. As Blackford explains, there is no one version of the Persephone myth, and in the many interpretations, there is often confusion regarding the relationship between the key characters Persephone, Demeter, Zeus, and Hades. In Blackford's analysis, there is sometimes similar confusion, which can weaken her argument. She admits that this confusion around the relationships of the central characters

is certainly applicable to Twilight, in which the parents seem amiable enough but in which the two territories of vampire and werewolf evoke for Bella her parents' divorce, custody negotiations, and separatism in terms of worlds. More confusing and more interesting is the relationship between Demeter and Hades as it crystallizes around imagery of the earth's bowels, which devour Persephone as if to prolong rather than steal childhood.

(p. 18)

Another example being that "confusingly, in The Secret Garden the most Byronic male character is actually not Mr. Craven, despite his status as a revised Heathcliff . . . but Ben, the master gardener with whom Mary has the most suspicious relationship" (p. 18). Although Blackford argues convincingly that the narcissus for which Persephone is tempted to reach, and which triggers her abduction into Hades, is represented in girls' literature by Byronic males, "after which girls reach because they are developmentally ready to reach beyond their mother's worlds," she then confusingly and contradictorily assigns this role to the female spider in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web (1952) (p. 8).

From chapter two onwards, Blackford provides an extremely comprehensive, in-depth analysis of Nutcracker and Mouse King, Little Women, Peter and Wendy, Wuthering Heights, The Secret Garden, Charlotte's Web, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (2005), and Neil Gaiman's Coraline (2002). A plot summary of each book would have been useful, as it...