Children of the Fox Characters
by Jill Paton Walsh

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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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A recurrent theme in literature for young people is that of a child developing mature, unselfish attitudes and a willingness to risk danger for the welfare of others. In each of the stories of Children of the Fox, the main character learns that leaving home and having a great adventure sometimes involves hardship and sacrifice. But these characters also discover an inner strength that helps them to endure the hardship and makes them heroic. Because they are ordinary young people who rise to meet extraordinary circumstances, these characters reveal the great potential within each human being.

Aster, the sheltered fourteen-year-old Athenian girl who narrates Crossing to Salamis, longs for freedom from the impoverished and secluded life she lives with her mother, brother, governess, and their slave-girl. Because her brother Nikias was still too young to inherit the family estate when her father was killed at the battle of Marathon, Aster's unscrupulous uncle now controls the family fortune. He refuses to give Aster's family any money, forcing them to earn a living by weaving. To preserve the family reputation from any seeming impropriety, Aster's mother, Myro, confines herself and her daughter to their home. In contrast to Myro's narrow mindedness, Phryne, the Spartan governess, believes that women should be allowed more freedom and do not need an adult male to escort them at all times. Out of devotion to the family, she remains with them after the death of Myro's husband even though there is no money to pay her wages. The slave-girl Lysia represents a third attitude toward women and their role. Forced to work without wages and with no choice of where she will live, her desires are ignored. But ironically, she has more freedom than her young mistress, because she is allowed to go to the market and can learn all the latest gossip.

Aster's secluded life comes to an abrupt end when Athens must be evacuated and all citizens are taken across the channel to the island of Salamis. There Aster has freedom to run, play, gather food, and learn survival techniques from Phryne. In spite of her sheltered upbringing, she discovers within herself the courage to undertake a dangerous mission to warn Themistokles of treachery.

Demeas, the son of an olive tree farmer, narrates The Walls of Athens. He returns with his family to their burned farm and ruined olive grove after the defeat of the Persians. When all of the other strong young men are called to Athens to rebuild the city walls, Demeas resents being left behind to help his wounded father restore the farm. One day he comes across a runner who has fallen and broken his leg while carrying a secret message to Themistokles, and Demeas agrees to carry the message all the way to Sparta for him. As he passes through the beautiful Greek countryside left unravaged by the war, Demeas discovers how much he loves his farm and Athens. He pushes himself to the edge of his physical endurance to carry a message that may save Athens from future destruction.

Lala, the young barbarian princess in Persian Gold, tells the tale of Themistokles's escape from Greece and his flight to the court of the Great King of Persia. Feisty and courageous, she has been allowed to run and play with her brother Perdiccas instead of staying in the palace with the women. A perceptive narrator, Lala explains well the motivations for other characters' actions; her dialogue with Themistokles reveals why the Athenian council banished their general-hero and why he chose to defect to the enemy. Lala's extended discussion with the Athenian who came to write down her story provides insight into Themistokles, a man of confusing loyalties.

The theme connecting all of the stories is the question of motivation. What causes an Athenian general, a sheltered but proud freeborn girl, a young farm boy, and a clever princess to join forces, at great risk to themselves? These tales suggest that the impulse to act with courage and self-sacrifice crosses the boundaries of gender and social status.