d’Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
Book review by Monica Friedman
The Classic Work of Classical Mythology for Children
I fondly remember d’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths as the first “big” book I ever read, probably around the age of seven. It’s a captivating introduction to the world of ancient Greek legend, presented accessibly, and maintaining the amazing sense of wonder and awe belonging to these stories, combined with the down to earth reality of the all too human Greek gods and goddesses.
The ancient Greeks, the book explains, “did not worship dark idols like their neighbors, but created instead their own beautiful, radiant gods.”
It’s a lovely way to learn both the ancient worldview alongside the ancient cosmogony.
The story begins when “Sky smiles down at Earth…and they were joined in love.” From these two entities sprung forth all living things: the gods and goddesses, the men and monsters.
The pantheon is presented, in all their glory, with all their flaws: Zeus’s power and his philandering, Hera’s cleverness and her jealousy, Aphrodite’s beauty and her wandering eye. In the story of Hermes we see the young god’s mischief, the merry inspiration that causes his serene brother Apollo to lose his temper.
In the tale of Persephone’s descent into Hades, we witness a mother’s love, a god’s desire, and one of the many small mistakes that lead to earth-shaking consequences.
Beautifully illustrated, this volume brings all the stories to life with a winking eye and surprising detail. There are thin black and white line drawings, more detailed sketches reproduced with sepia backgrounds, and charming, full color illustrations for some of the more striking moments in the stories, all rendered by the husband and wife illustrator who, twenty years before producing this memorable work, won a Caldecott Medal for their biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Although the Greek myths, at times, have a tendency toward raunchiness, the rampant sexuality of the gods is handled with restraint. Zeus’s compulsive wandering is characterized as a desire to “marry mortal girls. The more wives he had, the more children he would have, and all the better for Greece.” The rape of Europa happens thusly: “he put a royal crown of jewels on her head as a token of his love, and she lived in Crete in glory and delight to the end of her days,” while Pasiphae’s peculiar affliction is described as a desire to “enjoy the beauty of the bull at close range.” Review continues.
Satyrs are merely “mischievous” and all the sexual indiscretions of the original tales are reframed as one being falling in love with another.
Stirring a child’s imagination is the prime directive of D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, and it succeeds admirably. Iris sliding down her rainbow dressed in iridescent drops, Dionysus’s presentation on Mount Olympus (and every god and goddess’s reaction to his arrival), Icarus’s fateful fall from the sky, every battle, every betrayal, every feat of magic, strength, cunning, or courage serve to awaken the young mind to the beauty and the possibility of the physical world. The explanations of the world of the ancient Greeks did not simply answer the questions provoked by nature; they inspired thousands of years of art, and as arranged in this book, they continue to inspire.
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