- Classical Reception and Children’s Literature: Greece, Rome and Childhood Transformation ed. by Owen Hodkinson, Helen Lovatt
In the nearly 60 years since Philippe Ariés presented childhood as a social construct of modernity, scholars of the past have sought to explore the concept of the child in earlier cultures. Ariés’s Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1962) argued that premodern societies had no fully formed investment in the child. Changes in the European family structure in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the rise of capital investment, the move from countryside to city, the philosophical systems of Locke and Rousseau—all these and many other shifts in culture signaled a distinctly modern notion of how boys and girls were treated, taught, and imagined. And yet historians have shown that family structures based on sense and sentiment governed the home lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Notions of infancy (the word comes from the Latin, infans, connoting the inability to speak), puerility, and adolescence, different though they may have been from ours, nonetheless operated in the classical world. For the young boy (and sometimes the young girl), the curriculum of literacy shaped itself through close attention to Homer, Virgil, Aesop, and the myths of heroes.
If childhood for the classical world has been recovered, so too has its children’s literature. Much recent work on literary history has argued for a certain sensibility to children’s education—not just a teaching of entertaining stories or moral maxims but a cultivation of a taste for figurative diction, rhetorical performance, and personal style. Children’s literature has become a global and transhistorical phenomenon, and the volume Classical Reception and Children’s Literature seeks to understand how the cultural incorporation of Greek and Latin classics helps inform notions of childhood, as well as ideals of literate behavior.
Some do believe, however, that the best guide to the landscapes of that literature is not the scholar but the creative writer. To some extent, children’s literary study remains split between those who would study it critically and those who would make it. We value what Neil Gaiman or Maurice Sendak may [End Page 190] say about their writings and their influences. But if nearly a century of institutionalized literary criticism has taught us anything, it is that the writer may not be the only (or best) guide to his or her work. I long have treasured, for example, that moment in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince when the boy sees a picture of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, but the adults see only a picture of a hat. Sometimes our intentions do not get across. Sometimes people interpret different things. Sometimes something frightening can seem benign (and vice versa). “Grown-ups,” the Little Prince explains, “never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them” (Saint-Exupéry 2000, 2)
Such was my sense in reading through Classical Reception and Children’s Literature. The book begins as something of an homage to the work of Michael Cadnum, an American writer who has most recently transformed the myths of Phaethon and of Orpheus and Eurydice into tales for contemporary young readers. The first section of this volume offers Cadnum’s own reflections on his art, followed by an interview and then a review of his Metamorphoses of Ovid. Such a strategy may make this book initially welcoming to lay readers. But it does not prepare those readers well for the scholarly interrogations of Edith Hall on the place of Aesop in early education, or the theoretical armor of Aileen Hawkins’s and Alison Poe’s exploration of “Didacticism and Scopophilia” in stories of Narcissus. Nor would it prepare such readers for the theoretically informed engagement with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia books, for the erudition of the essay on the pseudo-Latinism of the J.K. Rowling’s Harry...