“Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood or appreciated.”
As a rule, we don’t review books for young readers on Popmatters, but we’re working to change that. Literature consumed by young readers can set the pace for a lifetime of preferences. Books not only fuel the imagination, they can lead to career choices, to courses of study, and set cultural mindsets while reinforcing familial norms. And one book leads to another.
Mrs. Cahoun, my fifth grade teacher, had a shelf full of biographies of famous Americans. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver, Dolly Madison, Charles Lindbergh. The books were not shelved in chronological order, and Daniel Boone’s biography was the last one. Boone’s bio led me to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. Wilder’s books opened the door to a quest for more information on pioneer women and the westward expansion. By the time I was eleven years old, I could discuss Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. But then junior high English classes introduced me to J. R. R. Tolkien and from there it was just a short hop, skip, and jump to King Arthur and an obsession with all things Avalon and “right over might”.
Like those biographies of my far past, one good book should lead to another and spark some small curiosity flame in younger readers. Stephanie Spinner’s Quiver is not just an excellent book, it’s a stepping stone to Greek mythology. (By young, we’re talking 12 and up, maybe a couple years below that, depending on the kid. Hell, eight year olds read Harry Potter.) When Spinner introduces readers to Atalanta, a young woman warrior (known as the “fastest mortal of her time”), she creates a palatable foray into a complex and fascinating field. Women heroines abound in Greek mythology. Powerful goddesses rule. Young women will enjoy the sense of female empowerment they get from reading this book, and it’s not overdone or insulting. Atalanta is heroic, but not to the extreme.
Atalanta’s heart is “dedicated to the goddess Artemis.” Vowing never to marry and pledging herself to the goddess of the hunt, Atalanta is dismayed when she is summoned by her father, the Arcadian king she never met (because, this being Greek mythology, Atalanta was raised, naturally, by hunters after a she-bear saved her life), and told she must marry, thus insuring an heir to his throne. She’s got to beat her suitors in a race, and, being the swiftest in the land, thinks this will be a piece of cake.
Hopefully, young readers will read this and go on to do more than watch reruns of Hercules vs. The Sons of the Sun. Maybe they’ll figure out O Brother, Where Art Thou?. And then, when they get older, they can appreciate The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill. Greek mythology never goes away, it just gets a new face every few years. Thomas Bullfinch said it right. We should “… teach mythology not as a study but as a relaxation from study.” It’s one of the original popular cultures, come to think of it.