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For many families, August is a month of  journies. Travel is transformative because  it breaks your habits, makes you an observer, and changes your perception of home.  The ultimate story about how a journey can transform a person is Homer’s The Odyssey, but I assumed I wouldn’t have a chance to share this legend with my kids until they became teenagers.

So I was surprised and pleased when I stumbled upon Mary Pope Osbourne‘s Tales From the Odyssey in the Montclair Public Library. Ms. Osbourne is the author of the middle-grade historical fiction series The Magic Treehouse, which my daughter laps up. Osbourne, who writes for the 7-10 crowd, is masterful at keeping language simple while making plot dense and informative, so I thought she’d be just the person to write a middle grade version of The Odyssey, which my daughter and I pledged to read bit by bit on our journies in a dented S.U.V this summer.  We’ve read the series aloud in the car, in bed, lakeside and poolside.

Ms. Osbourne’s Tales from the Odyssey, bound up neatly in a two volume set, is not a “fractured” or reinvented version of Greek myth in the style of Rick Riordian’s wonderful Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.  Her plot studiously follows the arc of Homer’s epic as translated by masters like Robert Fagles and Allen Mandelbaum. Even as she strips down the language for children,  she is careful to match Homer’s tone and characterization. For example,  Riordian’s Calypso is a lonely, appealing, relateable teenager who got a raw deal from the Gods, while Osbourne’s Calypso is a glittering, dangerous, love-sick captor of heroes in the tradition of Homer. This is a middle-grade retelling for purists who want children to have a foundation in the original storyline before they move on to more inventive retellings of Greek myth.

In terms of the age appropriateness, I might have gotten a little ahead of myself by presenting my not-yet 6-year-old with The Odyssey, in any form.  My daughter reads above grade level but she is emotionally 6, and I balked when the Cyclops chomped down a handful of Greek soldiers like french fries; when the immoral cattle of Helios lowed as they were being grilled and eaten by Odysseus’ men; and on and on. I kept telling my daughter that we should put the book down until she grew older, and she would beg for “just one more chapter.” My daughter seemed enthralled by being a little scared by this book, but I don’t think it’s the right choice for every kid, whether they are 6 , 8  or 10. There is lots of violence in this series, yet the sexuality is muted. It is not clear that Odysseus has anything more than a friendship with the various island enchantresses who shelter him.  The reunion between Penelope and Odysseus is deftly handled and true to the original.

Mary Pope Osborne’s Tales From the Odyssey is a book that should be read critically and discussed.  Some of the values in the story should be challenged.  With its eternal themes of revenge, seduction, longing, death, loyalty, and bravery, it’s something I’d want to discuss with my kids at any age.

I cannot wait for the pageantry and ritual of the Olympic opening ceremony tonight, thought there are a whole lot of traditions from ancient Greece I’m glad we have shed. The ancient Olympics, which began in 776 B.C., were open only to free men who spoke Greek. Not only were women barred from competing, married women were forbidden to attend under pain of death. (See The Perseus Digital Library). I assume maidens were permitted to attend so that they could be seen, appreciated and vetted for marriage by the aristocrats who funded the athletes.

By 560 B.C., there was a separate set of athletic games for women called the Heraia, dedicated to the goddess of marriage, Hera, and probably positioned as a prenuptial initiation rite.

Understanding the cultural history of the Olympics reminds me how important it is to ACT on the sexism  of Greek mythology when sharing these ancient stories with modern children.  On story in particular that had always fascinated and troubled me is the tale of great female athlete Atalanta, which goes something like this:

The cruel king who fathered Atalanta abandoned her in the woods because she was not the son he had hoped for. She was nursed and raised by a she-bear, the goddess Artemis in disguise. After she was caught in a snare by a huntsman who taught her to speak, she won fame all over Greece for her fleetness of foot.  She humiliated an army of ineffectual Greek warriors by slaying the monstrous Caledonian boar with one deftly placed arrow. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an oracle warns her “you must shun any marriage; if this advice will not be taken; though you stay alive, you will have lost yourself.” (Allen Mandelbaum’s translation)

Atalanta’s worthless father, the king, reclaims her as she wins more fame for her hunting, grace and fleetness of foot. She makes him promise that any suitor who wishes to marry must beat her in a footrace, or be put to death. She is gorgeous, almost supernatural, as she runs, as so many great athletes are.  Many suitors are beaten and put to the sword. Finally a young prince named Melanion (or Hippomenes in the Roman version) sacrifices to Aphrodite, who gives him three golden apples. As he races Atalanta for her hand, he throws down the apples on the path. Each time, she strays a little further from her course to retrieve the irresistible, gleaming apple. Just as she picks up the third fruit, he crosses the finish line and “wins her” as his wife. In their passion, the married couple forgets to sacrifice to Aphrodite. Miffed, she turns them into a pair of fierce, growling lions.

It has always bothered me that Melanion must conquer Atalanta and make her stray from the path of greatness in order to win her. This story begs for retelling, and this week I’ll give my kids a chance to do that. The perspective I’d like to change in the story is that of Melanion.  I’ll report back in part 2 of this blog post.