Thursday, October 16, 2014

Theseus and the Minotaur

"Adventure, mythology, and a Minotaur!
What's not to like?"
 - Frank Cammuso
(from back cover)
I'm not sure I've ever written about Greek or Roman mythology on my blog.  While I've read books of both kinds, I think mythology didn't really come to life for me until I read the Percy Jackson series, much like many readers today.  I've always loved the clever way that Rick Riordan weaves multiple strands of the myths together.  But this first book in the TOON Graphics for Visual Readers series, Theseus and the Minotaur, brings a reality to the myths, brings them to life.

The story opens with a man retelling this myth to two young people on a boat.  He reminds them (and the reader) "This is an ancient one, a heroic tale that has been told thousands of times, transformed by generations of narrators with fertile imaginations." (p. 9)  It is a terrific opening, particularly because this story has many layers of gods and men and wars.  So many layers that I am not sure I can even sum it all up successfully in a way that makes sense.  But I'll try!

Pommaux weaves two strands of the myth together to create one storyline.  First there is the story of Theseus' mother, Aethra.  On the same day, she was in a "watery embrace" with Poseidon, and met and married King Aegeus in secret.  Later, when she delivered her baby boy, Theseus, she believed he had two fathers - a god and a king.  In the meantime, King Aegeus had returned to his country (where he was married to another woman, Medea) and his worries about his country's impending struggle with the island of Crete.  Crete's ruler, Minos had some son issues of his own.  His son, Asterion, was born of his wife's love for a beautiful white bull, and was "monstrous" (p. 15) - half-man, half-bull.  Asterion is better known as the Minotaur.  In order to keep Crete safe from the Minotaur, Minos built a labyrinth.  He ordered Aegeus to bring him tributes on a regular basis.  Those tributes would go into the labyrinth and never return.

Whew! Dizzy yet?  I have to admit, I read this story a few times through before I was able to distill it into its core facts.  And this isn't because Pommaux adds in unnecessary details or spends too much time creating a family tree.  On the contrary, Pommaux uses descriptive language, but in a simple style of writing.  For instance, "Crazed with grief, Minos threatened to wage war against Aegeus unless, every nine years, he sent seven Athenian young men and seven Athenian young women to the Labyrinth." (p. 19)  I love how Pommaux describes Minos as crazed with grief.  I think that is a term that readers may not come across often, but it gives a strong explanation to Minos' actions.  But I digress...

The reason it is so difficult to simplify this text into a couple of paragraphs of summary is because the mythology is complicated.  There are reasons why the humans in this story act the ways they do - love, pride, anger, fear, bravery.  There are reasons, too, why the gods act the way they do - jealousy, temptation, boredom.  All of those individual emotions and actions wreak havoc with the lives down below.  Minos is responsible for appeasing the gods, and asks for a sign from Poseidon.  Poseidon sends a glorious bull, but demands it be sacrificed to him.  Minos ignores Poseidon because he thinks the bull is so beautiful.  So Poseidon gets angry and makes Minos' wife fall in love with the bull.  And we all know how that ends...with the Minotaur.

There are certain themes that Pommaux brings up in the text over and over again.  One of those is the contradiction between free will and fate.  It is Minos' free will that keeps him from doing what Poseidon requires and sacrificing the bull.  Is it his wife's fate to be in love with a bull, or to be the mother of the Minotaur?  Or is it not fate, because Poseidon created this situation as a punishment for Minos?  Minos is a particularly fascinating character to me.  He is proud, brash, a little bit ugly (both physically and in character), yet he never seems to learn from either his punishments or his mistakes.  He sends his beloved son, Androgeous, to Athens, to boast of his strength and might.  Minos loves his son very much, but it is more important to Minos to show him off.  And of course, Minos risks Androgeos' life by doing so.  I feel a little bit of pity for Minos and his bull-headedness.

There are many, many things to discuss in this story - brains v. brawn, the father-son relationships that we see depicted, the idea of the labyrinth... And these multiple themes point out that this is a leap for TOON Books.  Their previous titles have been mostly aimed at beginning readers (with the exception of The Secret of the Stone Frog).  This book marks the start of a new series of titles.  These TOON Graphics for Visual Readers are exciting in their own right.  The books are larger in size (8 1/2 x 11), but the covers have the same smooth, high quality feel.  If you couldn't tell from the summary of the myth, the subject matter is also suited to a slightly older reader.  The fact that the myth is so complex, and rich with thematic matter, means there is lots to discuss with older readers.  To aid in discussion, there is a list of possible questions on the inside back cover.

In this title in the series, I am also really pleased with the shift towards nonfiction.  Not many publishers pay attention to all of the little details that make a book useful in the classroom.  And there are many details that are used effectively here.  There is a map of the action on the front inside cover, pronunciation of the Greek names throughout the text, further reading and an illustrated index.  And if all of that wasn't enough, there is my favorite part - trading card sized text boxes that remind readers of all of the main characters in this story.  The "trading cards" include facts about the characters' families, birth places, siblings, and the meaning of their names.  There is so much supplemental information included here.

I can't wait to explore other titles in this series and I will share them with you in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in more information about the series, there was a great article about TOON Books in the New York Times a few weeks ago, located here.  For now, Theseus and the Minotaur is a great place to start.

Theseus and the Minotaur.  Yvan Pommaux.  TOON Books, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review

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