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Black Lamb


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Pagan primer

June 1st, 2003


Her hair needed pulling. She wore poor clothes that we could mock, and had “germs with no returns.” She sat silently while we stood and pledged our allegiance to the flag each morning: there was something about her religion, we were told. She never wore a Hallowe’en costume, was excused from carol practice, and mythologynever received a Valentine. She seemed to spend most of the year alone in the library, a fitting banishment from our revels, we thought. Books were boring and so was she.

Unfortunately, she rode my bus, and it often happened that the last available place was next to her. One morning, to the catcalls of classmates, I was forced to share her seat. She sat poring over a colorful book, and as she turned a page my attention was immediately drawn to an illustration. There was a great hole in the earth, and a dark man in a chariot pulled by four black horses was descending into the underworld. In one hand he held the reins to the steeds, while in the other he grasped, as captive, a frightened young woman. “Do you know about the Greek Gods?” I heard the voice next to me say. I looked up at her and admitted that I didn’t. “Here,” she said, handing me the book. “These are my favorite stories.”

Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths has never been out of print since it was first published by Doubleday in 1962, and it has served many children as their first introduction to Greek mythology. The illustrations, created by the D’Aulaires using stone lithography (where images are first traced upon slabs of Bavarian limestone), are unforgettable — from the horror of Cronus at feed (with the impressions of his children’s faces pressed upon his abdomen) to the glorious rising of Aphrodite from sea foam.

The D’Aulaires collaborated together on more than a dozen books. They came from different backgrounds: Edgar (born 1898), a Swiss student of Matisse, became devoted to frescoes, while Ingri (born 1904 in Norway) became a renowned portraitist of children. The two first met in an art school in Munich in 1925 and shortly after married. They moved to the U.S. in 1929 and published their first book, The Magic Rug, in 1931. But their Book of Greek Myths is their masterpiece.

The pair also collaborated on the text, creating a simple yet elegant style of storytelling. After my initial astonishment at their use of yellows, blues, and browns, the words themselves soon became the dominant feature. I was hooked on the very first sentence:

“In olden times, when men still worshipped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty.”

Through this book, the hated little girl found shelter from loneliness and from the cheerless Jehovah of her fathers. And I saw an alternative to the lurid reds of a Catholic Hell and all the cautery, skewers and variations of the cross that have helped populate Heaven. I doubt that the D’Aulaires set out to convert children to paganism, but that is part of their book’s legacy. Interestingly, both the girl and I would become devoted to drama — hail, Thalia and Melpomene! — and I’ve discovered many other thespians who hold the D’Aulaires’ book dear.

Now, once a year, I curl-up with my battered fourth edition and lose myself in the myths. As for my fellow pagan, she married a bookish technician from England, who carried her off to Saudi Arabia where he had been offered a plum job. I imagine her there in that grim vastness of the One-True-God, sitting regally in her well-appointed home, wearing a flamboyant dress with dramatic paste jewelry. I see her holding a forbidden highball aloft while showing her own children the D’Aulaires’ radiant pantheon of rogues, heroes and lovers. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Silvis | Link to this Entry


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