Having enjoyed 'Apollo the Brilliant One', the previous entry into George O'Connor's 'Olympians' series of large format graphic novels that explore the Greek gods and the myths behind them, I was happy for another one to come my way.
These are relatively simple books, aimed for children (with notes and discussion points for teachers or interested kids) and running less than eighty pages each. However, O'Connor does a good job at taking a complex set of myths and distilling them down to their essence. This one about Artemis is simpler than the book about her brother, Apollo, there not being a convenient set of muses to share the telling of the story, but it's still an engaging read.
To recount Athena's birth, we're given Leto, their mother, as an initial narrator, and we see this from a slightly different perspective as the same story in the Apollo volume. She explains how Zeus, the king of the gods, came to her, knocked her up and waltzed back off to Olympus. She gives birth during a storm to get by Hera's prohibition of any spot of dry land on Gaea. Athena, who's born quickly, stands during the nine-day wait for her brother and helps midwife his birth. Talk about being ready to go!
And she sure is ready to go. When Zeus summons the family to live on Olympus, naturally pissing off his wife, Hera, in the process, Artemis jumps on his lap to answer his question about what she wants. She gives him a whole shopping list: a silver bow that always shoots straight, a chariot pulled by four golden-horned stags, twelve hunting dogs, a score of nymphs to be her handmaidens, a hunting party of sixty... oh, and the mountains. All the mountains. And all the 'distant, wild, untouched places'. She doesn't hold back. And, as a little girl, she also wants to never be married and to never have children. Wow.
Of course, having described all that in her wishlist, actually showing what they do would be boring, so it makes sense for O'Connor to sidetrack into some odd other stories, like the cruel one of Niobe. Declaring herself more appropriate for worship than Leto, given that she'd birthed fourteen children not just two, she tears down Leto's image from temples in Thebes and replaces it with her own. And so Apollo and Artemis 'relieve Niobe of the burden of motherhood'. By shooting all her children dead with arrows that never miss. The cruel nature of Greek myths is epitomised in the story of Niobe, even if it ends with the mercy of Leto in turning her into a rock formation.
Given that these books are very much intended for children, I have to attempt to place myself into their mindset to see if this works. I believe it does, because it doesn't skimp on the cruelty imparted to Leto or Niobe, not to mention the lecherous gaze of Actaeon as he stumbles upon Artemis and her handmaidens skinnydipping in a pool at night, but tries to give it a context. Of course, I'll follow up by handing these books to my grandkids, to see how they work to those of their age groups.
O'Connor maintains the concept of telling these stories from multiple perspectives. Actaeon's is told by a couple of handmaidens of Artemis. Hera gets her shot as a narrator for a story I'd never heard before: the quest of Otus and Ephialtes, the Aloadai, grotesque sons of Poseidon who attempt each year to steal away Hera and Artemis to be their wives. Discovering new stories is the best aspect of these books for me and it highlights that even though they're aimed at children, they work well for an adult audience too.
Much of the rest of the book follows Orion the hunter, which detours neatly into all the mythical beasts that he hunted to present as offerings to Artemis. O'Connor's art is simple but elegant and engaging and it shines here, with depictions of animals even I hadn't heard of. Sure, there's the elephant, the crocodile and the gorilla. I know why the 'river horse' and the 'leopard camel'. I know the dragon, the gryphon and the manticore. But hey, what's the catoblepas or the leucocrotta or the eale. I love when I read children's books and have to google stuff. It deflates my ego.
Orion's story is a tough one, both for him and for Artemis, and it gives O'Connor the opportunity to tell a different but allied story too, that of Atalanta. You might think that all of this leaping around makes this book a hodgepodge of different snippets and, to a degree, you'd be right, but I am impressed at how much O'Connor does manage to keep some narrative flow. Sometimes limitations like page count and audience are too overwhelming to conquer, so a writer has to do what he can. I'd say that O'Connor makes a strong attempt at an impossible task.
What he achieves is an introduction that will flesh out some of what children (and adults) already know, add in new stories and details that they don't and give them a starting point to search for more. And, if a children's book can do any more than that, I don't know what. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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