Greek myths speak to kids' desires

A plastic Scooby-Doo action figure poses as the warrior Odysseus, with a toy boat for his ship. A potted plant serves as the island from which the sirens (in this case Marge Simpson) sing, luring Odysseus toward the rocks.

After nightly readings of a children's book about Greek myths, my 5-year-old son was ready to act out favorite parts of the Odyssey. I knew the stories would appeal to him, with their fantastic monsters and gory battles. But I was unprepared for the intensity of his attraction.

Author Patrice Kindl isn't surprised. Her latest book for young adults, "Lost in the Labyrinth," offers a twist on the classic tale of Ariadne. "Greek myths endure because they are well told and well imagined," she says. And more important, "they have a big dose of action-adventure and fantasy."

That's obvious. But I was curious what value these 2,800-year-old stories held for my son. And I wondered why other children's stories - some, such as Aesop's Fables, with an overt moral lesson at their core that made them more palatable to adults - failed to hold his interest.

The late Bruno Bettelheim, a child psychologist, wrote about the impact of fairy tales on a child's moral and social development. Although Bettelheim's work has come to be viewed as tainted by his adherence to Freud, some of what he wrote in "The Uses of Enchantment" could be applied to any myth or folk tale. He asserted that the fantasy aspects of these stories, and their gruesome happenings, provide an imaginative laboratory in which children work out the problems of growing up.

In my household, the recurring issue is power, and my son's sense that he has none. As he is the only child among two parents and an au pair, who are, as he says, "always telling me what to do," it's not surprising. In Ben's fantasy life he is the strong guy who makes decisions, instead of the little boy who is outnumbered three to one.

Look at Hercules, who had the power to change his destiny, or Odysseus, who was clever enough to evade danger. My son, I realized, was seeking a measure of control over his own life by acting out these elemental stories.

At first glance, the Greek myths appear rife with interfamily struggles. Zeus is shown as both a paternal figure and an unstable bully. Hera is his grumpy, vindictive wife whose machinations have to be undone by the kinder goddesses. One has to ask, is this how kids sometimes see their parents?

It's possible to overanalyze all this in relation to children. Sometimes a myth is just a myth. But it's enough to say that deeper issues are often involved.

Ms. Kindl, the author, says another draw of Greek mythology is that each character has a vital role to fulfill.

"Kids today don't see themselves as being important," she says. "Because many parents are well-off financially, kids don't have to pitch in as much as they did in previous generations. Not much is required of them. So they become separated from the idea of their value to society."

Whether or not children feel useful in the scheme of things, it's clear they relish the idea of a journey, especially one in which a character's mettle is tested. Of course, this idea is repeated in modern children's literature and in films from "Star Wars" to the Harry Potter series. The fantasy-adventure genre never quite goes out of style.

A colleague who used to teach mythology to his 6th-grade students thinks a big attraction of Greek myths is their simplicity. Everything is black and white, there's no moral gray area. The characters don't have to make the compromises that adults in real life often do.

It's this unambiguous moral universe that young children inhabit so completely. During our Odyssey reenactment, I asked my son what we should do with the bad guys. "Kill them," was his reply. Now, as a peace-loving parent, I don't like to hear him say that. But within the context of his game, and his reading of the myths, that was the only choice.

An important value of Greek myths is that they allow children a safe way to explore scary places and threatening circumstances. For example, King Minos's labyrinth, says Kindl, is all about secrets, hidden passageways, and what lies around the corner. Myths engage kids in the battle between good and evil.

"Children love to be frightened," Kindl says, "but they also want the luxury of being able to close the book."


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