Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Treasury of Literature for Children


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.

Like the King Arthur book, I'm afraid I had no interest in this particular story as a child. Unlike the King Arthur book, though, the problem wasn't the subject matter - it was the illustrations. Each story in the volume has its own illustrator, and its own style of illustrations, and as a small child I was attracted to the stories with nice or interesting illustrations. The illustrations on the Hercules story, however, were not attractive.

The problem wasn't caused by the illustrations showing unpleasant things, though some of them certainly do, especially the image of the man-eating mares of Diomedes doing what they do best. But one of my absolute favourite stories was Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, from The Jungle Book, which contains some quite frightening images - especially if you're my Mum and you're frightened of snakes. In Rikki-Tikki-Tavi's case, though, although the subject matter is frightening, the style of the illustrations themselves is not.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi illustration


The man-eating mares of Diomedes

In the case of the Hercules illustrations, however, the illustrations themselves, as well as the subject matter, were rather frightening to me. This picture of Atlas looks rather unnerving, and he has a very peculiar expression. Images of Amazons on wild horses and Hercules himself, wearing his traditional lion-skin and looking small, distant and tough, did not endear me to the story.

This is not to say that the subject matter is completely irrelevant. Another favourite of mine was What Katy Did, which benefited from cosy, safe illustrations, partly because it's a story about young women set in middle-class drawing rooms.

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.

6 comments:

  1. The style of those Hercules illustrations was sort of popular in high-brow and children's fantasy illustration in the late 70s and early 80s. I've never much cared for it either. It's sort of the bastard child of the pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco. There is one artist who has developed the style further into something more palatable, but his name escapes me. He's done a lot of covers for Terry Windling projects and won a couple of Hugos.

    The book obviously took its illustrations from a number of periods and sources. I'm pretty sure I had those Rikki-Tikki-Tavi illustrations in a book when I was a kid in the 60s or early 70s. And of course, those are the original Pooh illustrations on the cover.

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  2. Yeah, the illustrations vary wildly from story to story. The Pooh ones are indeed the originals, and of course they're gorgeous!

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  3. Glad you're feeling well again!

    Nothing much to say -- I don't have any books with these types of illustrations. But I will say that Rikki Tikki Tavi is one of my favourite stories ever -- as a kid and now.

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  4. Oh, and the only things that come close to Pooh illustrations are those for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by John Tenniel, and Denslow and Neill's work for the Oz books.

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  5. Rikki Tikki Tavi is fabulous - I spent years begging for a pet mongoose...

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  6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pStP-r1BlBc

    Here is a scene from A.D. the Roman Mini series/

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