A while back, I posted about an illustrated collection of stories about King Arthur for children, and mentioned that it was one of two illustrated anthologies that were my particular favourites when I was little. This is the other, a collection of sections from children's classics, poems and short stories including things like 'The Smuggler's Song', Oscar Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant' and an extract from Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
The book includes Nathaniel Hawthorne's re-telling of the story of the Labours of Hercules. Hawthorne's version is fine. It's bowdlerised, of course; it skims over Hercules' murder of his wife and children, referring to it vaguely as 'some evil deed'. It uses the Roman names for gods and goddesses, which makes no difference, and it skims some of the Labours themselves, focusing on what Hawthorne presumably considered the more interesting ones - he skips over the Stymphalian birds and the bull in one sentence, but devotes a large section to the Apples of the Hesperides, for example. He also describes the Pillars of Hercules as the Straits of Gibralter, which would help children to understand where they were, but introduces a more modern tone. Overall though, the re-telling is a bit functional, but perfectly fine.
The man-eating mares of Diomedes
Illustration for What Katy Did
But I think it was the nature of the Hercules illustrations that put me off - they were too alien, too strange, too cruel and not warm or familiar enough. The cobras in the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi illustrations were alien and scary, but they were balanced by a cute mongoose and presented in a realistic and therefore familiar and comforting way. And this close insight into the workings of my eight-year-old mind is a useful reminder that often, the things we value or consider important are not those a child will - and the impression people get of Classics in popular culture may depend on the most random of elements.