Upon the Wild Waves: A Journey Through Myth in Children's Books November 12 2014

Yesterday I went to see one of the world's oldest and most celebrated illustrated books - the Book of Kells in Trinity College Dublin. If you've never been to see it, now is the perfect time to do so. Not only will you see the book itself in the Old Library building but there is another fine treat in store there.

Perfectly situated in the stunningly beautiful Long Room, 'Upon the Wild Waves' is a fantastic exhibition examining the effect that myths have had on children's books as well as on contemporary culture. 

 

Early children's books and their influence

Early children's literature was heavily influenced by biblical tales. You may be surprised to learn that so too are many classic and contemporary books. CS Lewis and Philip Pullman both used Christian ideas to create their unforgettable worlds in the Narnia books and in His Dark Materials. Even Enid Blyton, best known for her adventure and school stories, took inspiration from the Bible for some of her work. Her book The Strong Giant and Gideon, the Brave Soldier is on display here, but an absolute favourite of mine was The Land of Far Beyond. I must have read it about twenty times (as I did all my favourite books when I was little, oh to have the luxury of time to do that now!), but I wasn't aware at the time that it was a Christian allegory. In fact, I probably wouldn't have read it if I'd known. Terrible, I know, but children do not want to be preached at and it is a constant challenge for contemporary authors and illustrators to instruct and guide children without boring them with sermons.

Lessons taught in a certain way, or by a certain author, can be much more appealing to a child than the original, and this exhibition shows the many ways authors have been successful in this. Interestingly, the exhibition not only displays narratives intending to re-inforce lessons taught by religion or by myths, but it also displays books that have the exact opposite intention – to actually challenge these lessons, so that the reader is presented with an alternative to what was before thought of as 'truth'.

Some texts change one aspect of a story not so much to challenge the central message, but in order for the story to apply to and have resonance with a contemporary audience. An example of this is in the Arthurian section of the exhibition, where the D.C. Comic Camelot 3000 is on display, in which Tristan and Isolde are both women - that one change has a big impact on the story told, but the message in both the original and this retelling is the same: you cannot control with whom you fall in love.

 

Irish myths today

The Irish Myths section shows many different ways in which an author can be inspired by myths, and different ways they can use them to engage and excite younger readers. No Peace for Amelia by Siobhan Parkinson (another favourite of mine) is displayed with a paragraph highlighted where the character imagines herself as 'a modern warrior-woman, like Queen Maeve or Granuaile'. This is historical fiction set during the turbulence of 1916 and Parkinson combines history and myth to create this beautiful patriotic passage. In contrast, Eoin Colfer uses myths in a more playful way by toying with our notion of leprechauns in the hugely popular Artemis Fowl series where they are re-imagined as LEPrecon: Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance division.

 

From Irish Fairy Tales, written by James Stephens and illustrated by Arthur Rackham

 

Fantastic works from classic and contemporary illustrators are on display both in the pages of the books and also hanging in the Long Room: the brilliant PJ Lynch, whose work from The Names Upon the Harp by Marie Heaney is used in all the promotional material for the exhibition, Walter Crane, Maud Gonne, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, Niamh Sharkey, Jack B Yeats, and many more. 

Visit the exhibition if you can – the above is just a selection of what's on offer, but there is so much more also worthy of your time and consideration. The exhibition runs until April 2015. If you can't make it or don't live in Dublin there is an online version to explore.

Warning: there can be big queues so get there early!