BMCR 2020.10.09

Topologies of the classical world in children’s fiction: palimpsests, maps, and fractals

, , Topologies of the classical world in children's fiction: palimpsests, maps, and fractals. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. x, 267 p. ISBN 9780198846031 $90.00.


In recent years several books have appeared that investigate the reception of the classical past in children’s literature; my own The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Eagles and Heroes (Metaforms: Studies in the Reception of Classical Antiquity) (Leiden: Brill, 2015); Katarzyna Marciniak’s, Our Mythical Childhood (Metaforms: Studies in the Reception of Classical Antiquity) (Leiden: Brill, 2016); Owen Hodkinson and Helen Lovatt’s, Classical Reception and Children’s Literature: Greece, Rome and Childhood Transformation (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017) and Deborah Roberts and Sheila Murnaghan’s, Childhood and the Classics: Britain and America, 1850-1965 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). This book joins these, in that it focusses on works of fiction for children and young adults, but is also innovative in that it employs a cognitive poetics approach to the field of classical reception, specifically examining the ways in which authors treat topology within the chosen field.

In their introduction, the authors explain that their aim is to examine how “British and American writers for middle-grade and high-school readers encourage their audience to think about the classical past and their own relationship to it, and how might this experience potentially influence readers’ outlook more generally” (4). In answering these questions, they argue that writers primarily use one of three cognitive models, through which they bridge the gap between ancient word and the young reader, when relating to the classical past. These models are outlined in terms of spatial metaphors – history is a palimpsest, history is a map, and history is fractal (6-9). In palimpsest works, history is seen as multi-layered, with each period lying on the foundations set down by earlier ones. Map texts use the concept of a physical journey on which the protagonist travels, in the course of which they gain insight, a process paralleled by the reader’s progress toward an improved understanding of the classical world. In fractal texts, elements of the narrative constantly recur as well as mirroring the structure of the overall work, in such a way that the issues faced by the individual are paralleled by the problems of society as a whole. Thus history is presented as inevitably repeating itself.

After the introduction, the work is divided into five further chapters, two each exploring the palimpsest and map models, and one on the less common fractal metaphor, followed by a conclusion. The first of the two palimpsest chapters focuses on the fantastic, with an examination of Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), and then further works in which the influence of Kipling’s book can be traced. Despite the focus of this book’s being juvenile fiction, these include three examples of works written for adults (Joseph O’Neill’s, Land Under England (1935), Warwick Deeping’s, The Man Who Went Back(1940) and C. S. Lewis’, That Hideous Strength (1945)) before moving on to children’s literature with discussions of Susan Cooper’s, (The Dark Is Rising (1973) and Silver on the Tree (1977) and Joan Aiken’s, The Shadow Guests (1980). The chapter concludes with “the most Kiplingesque of the examples of palimpsestic realism” (43) found by the authors, Philip Turner’s Sea Peril (1968).

The second chapter, which examines the palimpsest metaphor, is subtitled “Time Zones, Scars, and Family in (Mostly) Realistic Works”, and discusses first E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (1907) and then five historical novels: Caroline Dale Snedeker’s Theras and His Town (1924), The Forgotten Daughter (1933), and The White Isle (1940), Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow (1961) and Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (1954). The main thesis of this chapter is that the use of the palimpsestic model of history allows for the trauma and growth experienced by the characters in the novels to become a point of identification with the young reader living centuries after the fictional events portrayed. Because of this trope of trauma, the role of family in these works is emphasised, for the concept of family is seen as a way to represent both disparate experiences between parents and children and continuity throughout the ages. As Nelson and Morey point out, all their examples of palimpsestic models are older works, published in the twentieth century between 1906 and 1980. They argue, therefore, following Butler and O’Donovan’s work on the changing depiction of Roman Britain,[1] that due to altered attitudes towards imperialism, the implicit suggestion apparent in all these texts, that this trauma “be used to good and productive ends in the quest for greater maturity” (92) was no longer possible. I found this one of the most compelling arguments in the book, and I would have liked to have seen this enlarged upon further.

Chapters four and five deal with the second mode of representing history identified by the authors, that of a map. i.e. works that utilise the motif of a journey, which may be either spatial or temporal, or in the author’s words, “texts that in evoking the past incorporate detailed descriptions of protagonists’ physical journeys over unfamiliar terrain” (94). Since there are a vast number of books, even within those that deal with the classical past, that use this cognitive metaphor, the authors isolate two subtypes for discussion here, those that involve a symbolic or actual visit to the underworld, and those that utilise a grotesque or antic map text. The first of the two chapters deals with the former category and covers a wide range of books: E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906), C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair (1953), Roger Lancelyn Green’s Mystery at Mycenae (1957), Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries series (2001–9), K. M. Peyton’s Roman Pony trilogy (2007–9), Katherine Marsh’s The Night Tourist (2007) and The Twilight Prisoner (2009), and Tony Abbott’s Underworlds series (2011–12); all  these involve an encounter of some sort with death, thereby helping the reader come to terms with this inevitable element of life. While most focus on Persephone-related themes, the final works by Marsh and Abbott invoke the Orpheus myth, but all feature characters descending into underworlds, whether real or figurative, providing lessons for the reader in how to cope with and relate to the inevitable fact of death.

Chapter five examines books that use the map metaphor in a different way, in texts that are fantastic or what the authors identify as emphasising grotesquerie and play. Into this category fall several featuring anthropomorphic animals (Paul Shipton’s Gryllus the Pig duology (2004–6), Gary Northfield’s Julius Zebra series (2015–18), and Robin Price’s Spartapuss series (2004–15)) as well as the more fantastic The Dogs of Pompeii (2011) by Vaughan Edwards and Barry Creyton, and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (2005–9). In contrast to stories in which the ancient world is distant and inaccessible, these books present it as an accessible place, familiar to the reader from popular culture. A common feature of these works noted by Nelson and Morey is the emphasis on acts of, and desire for, consumption, which are burlesqued and presented as material for comedy and mockery. Since this is a familiar twenty-first-century trope, this theme of consumption connects the young reader with the ancient past, as well as implying that that this past itself can easily be consumed. In the authors’ words, “embedding it within artifacts of contemporary pop culture might make the mastery of history, myth, and ancient literature essentially painless as a form of mindless “eating” of broccoli mistaken for Cheetos” (186).

“History as Fractal”, the third, and least common, spatial metaphor, is the subject of the next chapter.  By fractal, Nelson and Morey take the idea of “the irregular geometric shape in which each part is a scaled-down version of the whole, identical to it save in size” (187), and use this to symbolise a pattern of mirroring within texts, so that it presents a series of events in which the same patterns repeatedly recur. A result of this endless cycle of repetitions is the idea that there is little hope for change or improvement, and thus this mode is commonly found in the dystopian genre.  This chapter highlights this, examining patterns of conflict in a number of (primarily) dystopian young-adult fantasies. Works examined are Diana Wynne Jones’s The Game (2007), Alan Garner’s Red Shift (1971), John Christopher’s Fireball series (1981–86), N. M. Browne’s Warriors series (2000–09), Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy (2008–10), the first three of Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series (2015–18),[2] and Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series (1996–2017).

A conclusion rounds off the book, in which the authors consider why exactly the spatial metaphors they have identified are such attractive tools to authors addressing issues of citizenship, agency, suffering, and the place of the individual within the family within the context of writing about the classical past. In answer to this question, they suggest that the classical world becomes “both an ingredient of and a lens for examining a contemporary civilization far removed from it both geographically and historically” (240). Moreover, the multifaceted nature of the Greco-Roman civilisations makes them especially adaptable for different modes of cognition, related to each author’s particular agenda. Nelson and Morey plausibly demonstrate how specific attitudes toward the past are indeed matched by specific topological orientations, and that these engender specific cognitive reactions from the reader.

It must be stated that in my opinion some of the examples chosen to demonstrate the different modes fit rather more easily than others into the relevant cognitive metaphor category to which they are assigned. Similarly, the heavy emphasis on cognitive theory, with its necessary language and terminology, does not make for an easy read, and there are places where the somewhat jargon-laden and dense prose obscures rather than clarifies meaning and intent. Nevertheless, this book provides an interesting and thought-provoking mode of considering literature in general and children’s literature in particular, and the insights and analyses of the individual texts, the strongest element of the work, are engaging and illuminating. Nelson and Morey have produced a book that will be of interest and use to scholars of children’s literature, classical reception, and those interested in cognitive poetics, and have provided a springboard into this latter approach that will surely provide a stimulus for further work.


[1] Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan, Reading History in Children’s Books (London: Palgrave, 2012).

[2] The fourth and final book in the series, A Sky Beyond the Storm, is due to be released in December 2020.