Leon Garfield Ted Hughes - Essay

Ted Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There have been many retellings of Greek myths for children but this interweaving of about twenty of them [in The God Beneath the Sea] must be among the best. It is difficult to add authentic language and atmosphere to such old and familiar stories. [Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen] have succeeded.

Victorian moralizing dullness was more concentrated on the ancient Greeks, and on what children should be taught from them, than on almost anything else. This dullness is monumentalized in masses of poetry and literature for children. Very few writers have been able to touch, let alone release, the real life sealed up in those old shapes. The joint authors of this book deliberately set out to crack the Victorian plaster, and the result may be a surprise to some people. These stories are, after all, primitive revelations, the life they dramatize is not a little demonic. (p. 66)

Beginning with the birth of Hephaestus, [the authors] follow a developing series of about twenty stories through the war with the Titans, the creation of the main gods and of men, down to Hera's unsuccessful attempt to dethrone Zeus. These goings on—usually so cloudy and familiar and abstract—are made vividly new, interesting, often exciting. The authors obviously enjoyed the job greatly. Their zest sweeps you along. It is a real feat, to make everything sound so first hand. These are in fact genuine imaginative retellings—the dramatic urgency, the casual invention of many beautiful details, the characterization, the striking flashes of language, the hectic impressionistic scenes, are just what you get in very good retellings of folktales by practised traditional narrators. Everything jumps to life in front of your eyes. Some moments are really wonderfully visualized. The authors have stripped away the pseudo-classical draperies and produced an intense, highly coloured, primitive atmosphere. We are reading about the elemental gods of tribes just awakening—with their dreams fresh—from barbarism and animal unconsciousness. Frequently, they read like Norse myths, or like some African myths—with richer, more suggestive vistas. (pp. 66-7)

It will be a good thing if the authors can be persuaded to make another collection as shapely and vivid as this one. (p. 67)

Ted Hughes, in Children's literature in education (© 1970, Agathon Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), No. 3 (November), 1970.