Sailing to Cythera and Other Anatole Stories

by Nancy Willard

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

Grandma’s wallpaper in “Sailing to Cythera” is no doubt patterned after The Embarkation for Cythera (1717), a famous painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau that depicts the elegant antics of players from the commedia dell’arte. In any event, actual or imagined voyages to mystical Cythera—geographically, the southernmost of the Greek Ionian Islands—have abounded for centuries in Western (especially French) art, literature, and mythology. For that reason, it is fitting that the island’s name is incorporated into the title of Nancy Willard’s fanciful collection of stories about Anatole’s quests for adventure and mythic transformation.

Indeed, familiar mythic archetypes and paradigms show up conspicuously in these pages: wise old men, nurturing earth mothers, dark woods of adventure, frightening obstacles, talking beasts, hard-won treasures, and the eternal return of the questing hero. While Willard’s intended juvenile audience may not recognize these literary models as the conscious and premeditated products of Willard’s craft, her young readers will already be acquainted with her essential themes, character types, and plots from the folktales and fairy tales that they have known since earliest childhood. In “Gospel Train,” for example, Anatole nearly misses the “midnight special” train departing from the afterworld, a potentially fatal misstep redolent of the familiar Cinderella story. All this is well-plowed ground for Willard: In her graduate studies at Stanford University, the author studied medieval folk songs, and she routinely taught fairy tales in her own creative writing classes at Vassar College. Clearly, fantasy for Willard is no vehicle for mere escapism and sentiment. On the contrary, the mythically rich fantasies of dream and story are promoted here as metaphorically powerful tools for the expression of abiding human truths; they provide a new perspective from which readers can evaluate the “real” world that they actually inhabit.

In fact, Willard—in this book and in her other works, both poetry and prose—places emphatic value on the actual, the tangible, even the mundane. Sailing to Cythera and Other Anatole Stories is littered with hard-edged, everyday objects: cocoa boxes, pocket watches, sneakers, dusty French dictionaries. Although surrounded by talking, personified animals, Plumpet has no qualms about picnicking voluptuously on roasted mice (“Lovely plump little things”), and, once he arrives at the fabled garden of the golden bough, Anatole discovers that he actually prefers the palpable reality and earthy physicality of Grandma’s less high-flown (but eminently more edible) vegetable garden back home. Grandma herself has said, “I can’t really enjoy a thing unless I can touch it.”

At the thematic core of the collection seems to be the mythically sound idea, variously voiced, that any journey is itself ultimately more important than its intended purpose or destination. In the course of his voyage to see Aunt Pitterpat, for example, Anatole learns much about his own nascent competence and the nature of time and timelessness; the departed cat, finally located perched atop a merry-go-round horse, confidently announces, “This ride never stops, and the music goes on forever.” In his quest for Erik Hanson’s memory, the boy achieves his real boon in overcoming his childish nighttime fears. One wise old man counsels Anatole that, at journey’s end, “The hardest part is getting home again.” Yet, Anatole is always able to return, and he always brings back much new knowledge.

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Critical Context