Tag Archives: Helen of Troy

The Wooden Horse: my show & tell item

trojanhorse1.jpgMy previous blog posts have shared the experience of attending the Our Mythical Childhood show and tell at the University of Roehampton, but whilst I talked about other people’s contributions I didn’t discuss mine.  The book I chose to share with everyone was The Wooden Horse retold by Russell Punter, and illustrated by Matteo Pincelli.  It is an Usborne Young Reading (series 1) book, and was first published in 2011.  Unlike some of the contributors to the event, this book was not one from my childhood, I had only come across it about about a year ago when I had started looking at Helen of Troy in comics, graphic novels, and children’s illustrated/picture books.

It is a very simplified version of the story, but what I like (in books like this one) is how the author has to make certain choices and decisions about which bits of myths to use, and how best to distil the essence of the story, and in doing so decide what aspect they are going to portray.

Although this book is about the Wooden Horse, to give context the narrative is framed by Helen’s story.  Within the book there are only five named characters – Helen, Menelaus, Paris, Odysseus and Sinon.  The book begins with Helen – her name is actually the first word in the story, and ends with her being taken back to Sparta.  She is a very passive character, and the only time she is given a voice it is internal, when she thinks about what will happen when Menelaus reclaims her.  Despite this being a very simple version we can see how she is portrayed very much as an object – Menelaus is ‘proud’ of having a ‘lovely wife’, and we see her as a possession of his.  Once Troy has been defeated Helen is taken back alongside Trojan treasure – the implication being that she too is a piece of ‘treasure’, an object to be shipped back.  Probably the most interesting sentence in the book (for me), occurs on the final page : “Helen may not have wanted to go back to Greece, but she had no choice.” (p. 47)  Which speaks volumes.

STKarenTrojanHorse2In the afternoon of the ‘show & tell’ we chose books from the University of Roehampton’s special collections and, as I told in a previous post, I picked a book called The Trojan Horse, by James Reeves and illustrated by Krystyna Turska as I thought it would prove to be an ideal counter part to the book I had brought with me.  The episode of the wooden horse is framed in quite a different way and is told through the character of Ilias, a grown man (at the time of telling) but who was aged ten when Troy fell.  He and his younger sister, Ida, escaped and now live far from their ruined former home.  In The Wooden Horse Paris and Helen fell in love, but in this version Ilias describes how Paris stole Helen and kept her prisoner in Troy.  Most of the war is glossed over, and it is really only the episode of how the horse appeared and was brought into Troy and the terrible consequences, that is told.  It is Ilias’ life that frames the episode rather than Helen’s and we are given an insider’s view on events.  As mentioned above I enjoy seeing how writers will encapsulate a particular myth, and particularly liked how these two books, which on the outside might lead one to thinking they would be similar, provide very different aspects of the story.  Incidentally neither of them include the episode related in The Odyssey (IV: 265-289) about Helen calling out to men within the horse using the voices of their wives.

Whilst many of the contributor’s shared books or items that they remembered being influences from their childhood, I realised that I don’t actually recall any particular book with a classical theme from when I was a child.  I feel a bit bereft!  I’m sure there must have been books on mythology, but I can’t pinpoint when my interest in the classical world began to emerge.  What I do remember well was in sixth form we were allowed to take Classical Studies (which we couldn’t do before then), so in the lower sixth we did the O level, and in the upper sixth the A level (only one year each).  We had the most wonderful teacher, Mrs Janet Cox, whom I found very inspiring.  I had obviously discovered the classical world before this point, but this was where I really started learning about it.  Having a teacher who loved her subject made it come alive for all of us.  She would also play music and bring in biscuits for us at break time, and there were classically themed posters on the walls of the classroom.

Incidentally, I also remember that she kept bees in her garden, and it is because of her that I joined The Green Party when still a teenager!

She taught Latin to a mere handful of students at lunchtimes (when I was doing O levels), sadly I never took this option!  It was probably not suggested to me as I wasn’t particularly good at French (the one language we all had to do), and at the time it never really occurred to me to request joining the class.  Grown up Karen is very sad that teenage Karen did not do this!!!!

I enjoyed the ‘show & tell’ and having the opportunity to hear about other people’s formative experiences and books, and have also relished having the opportunity to reflect on my own journey within Classics.  I am also keenly looking out for children’s books that retell Helen’s story, and also that of the Trojan Horse.


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“The wrong plinth” and other stories: Our Mythical Childhood show and tell (part 1)


University of Roehampton Library

On Tuesday 19th June I attended a ‘Show and Tell’ event at Roehampton University, held in association with the Our Mythical Childhood project.  A group of interested parties (academics, graduate students, librarians) gathered in the Foyles Special Collections Room in the rather lovely Roehampton Library that opened last September (2017).  We had all been invited to bring along a classical-themed object of children’s culture to share with the others.  I’ll blogged about my own object separately, (a book called The Trojan Horse) so will focus on what everyone else brought to the table.

First up was a remote contributor, Rachel Bryant Davies of the University of Durham who had been unable to make the day in person; she presented to us, via the wonders of modern technology (skype). Her objects were colouring sheets for 19th century toy theatres – sheets that were designed to be coloured in, cut out and stuck on to cardboard or mounted and then used in the toy theatre.  The characters were representations of equestrian burlesques that were performed at Astley’s Amphitheatre in Lambeth. These included the siege of Troy, and the trick rider Andrew Ducrow striking classical poses on horseback, such as a Roman gladiator.  Children could engage with performances by recreating them at home.  Discussion at the table involved the idea that the mash-up of cultures (classical, medieval, 19th century) enabled the physicality of play.  By ‘modernising’ classical stories, they became less blasphemous and more playful. Although the theatres were probably owned by middle to upper class children, there are comments about poorer children pressing their faces to the publishers/booksellers windows to look at these theatres/character sheets – ‘consuming through the glass windows’.  To find out more about these theatres see Rachel’s recent book – Troy, Carthage and the Victorians: the drama of classical ruins in the 19th century imagination (Cambridge, 2018).


Susan playing ‘Aulos’

After this excellent start to proceedings, Susan Deacy, University of Roehampton (and organiser of the day) talked about Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green, originally published in 1958.  She was given a copy of this book by her Grandad when she was a child, and it opened her eyes to the fascinating world of classics.  Susan’s example was just the first of several, where contributors shared their early introductions to the classical world, and which book or object had a major impact on their early years.  Susan also shared her treble recorder which, when she was reunited with it a few years ago, she found was labelled ‘Aulos’ and thus resonated with her research on Athena (and indeed the aulos).  Although this was not a conscious ‘classical’ moment from her childhood, it resonated as a lovely synchonicity.


Liz sharing images of Once Upon a Time

Liz Hale, University of New England (Australia) shared Once Upon a Time: Children’s Stories From the Classics by Blanche Winder (first published in the 1920s we think), which had some wonderful illustrations – although another contributor (Robin) commented that her Mum had hid the book in the attic as she thought some of the illustrations were really scary! Winder tells the basic myths very much as fairy tales, these were very ‘safe’ and sanitised versions of the stories.



Robin and her Visitors’ Guide

Robin Diver, PhD Student at the University of Birmingham, brought A Visitors’ Guide to Ancient Rome (Usborne).  Aimed at children it gives ideas about the reality of living in an ancient city, from markets to healthcare, chariot racing to public baths; with pictures, top tips and snippets of information. Robin admitted to writing  ‘horrible’ novels about the ancient world when she was a child, inspiration coming from things like the visitors’ guide, and also a programme on Spartan women by Bettany Hughes that she watched when about 9.  Her stories attempted to bring Greeks and Romans together but at the time she didn’t really understand how they really interacted.  A few others also admitting writing books/stories when kids that were influenced by their interest in the classical world.  Liz wrote a play for puppets ‘Scipio in Canterbury’, and Anwen wrote a story involving time travel and Pompei, where the protagonist had a moral dilemma about the idea of preventing the eruption of Vesuvius!


Anna with Pandora

Next up was Anna Mik, University of Warsaw, who shared a gorgous children’s picture book, Pandora by Victoria Turnbull (2017). Pandora is a fox who lives alone in a world of broken things, a post apocalyptic world without nature, until the day a bird with a broken wing falls from the sky.  The text can be interpreted psychologically, looking at ideas of rebirth, or looking at the environment, which lead people to talking about the mythical character of Pandora, of her courage in going back to the jar, of being a ‘risk taker’, of the ideas about women’s curiosity, whether it is perceived as a good or bad thing.  Liz mentioned a YA trilogy, Pandora Jones by Barry Jonsberg that was worth looking at.


Oliver’s Lego Athena

So far, aside from Susan’s recorder, all the ‘objects’ had been books, but Oliver Brookes, Roehampton graduate and trainee librarian, changed all that by introducing Lego Athena!  His thesis topic had been centred round the iconography of Athena, so he was delighted when Lego brought out a version whilst he was writing up, she was perfect to watch over him. He was fascinated by which aspects of Athena had been chosen to be represented by Lego – although they themselves call her “Battle Goddess“.  Oliver commented on the interesting experience in crafting your own figure or goddess out of all the pieces. Susan brought out her own Lego Athena, and playmobil Athena, and I followed soon after with my playmobil Helen and we talked again about choices made in deciding upon what objects/costumes are used to d


Athena meets Athena

esignate these figures as who they are.  Whether that matters more to adults/classicists in these examples, and whether the view of a child is more simplistic.

My offering was next but I will leave that for a separate post.

I will continue my write up of the day in Part 2, where more interesting objects are shared.


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‘Playing’ with Helen

Recently I’ve been ‘playing’ with Playmobil figures again, or ‘playpeople’ as my brother and I knew them back in the day.  No, I haven’t completely regressed to my childhood, I’ve been exploring options of representing Helen of Troy through this format.  Why? Well, it was partly sparked off by being invited to participate in a ‘show and tell’ day at Roehampton University, connected to the Our mythical childhood project. Participants have been asked to bring a “classical themed object of children’s culture” to talk about (I’ll blog about this event once it has happened).  I’ve decided on my object (it’s a book, but I’ll not talk about it now), but I started wondering about what else I would like to bring, which got me thinking about Lego and Playmobil representations of classical culture.  I suddenly wanted a Helen of Troy, if this seems a bit weird then you should know that my PhD was about representations of Helen in Greek myth and literature, and that since last year I have started looking at comic and graphic novel versions of Helen.

Playmobil have a ‘history’ range which encompasses Romans and Egyptians, and they produced two Greek Gods – Zeus and Athena – in 2016, and four more recently (Poseidon, Demeter, Artemis and Hermes).  Sadly, they haven’t produced any other Greek figures, even though I am sure a Trojan Horse would be a hit.  A quick look online shows that people have improvised their own Trojan War, so I realised I needed to improvise my own Helen.  Scouting around for figures I could possibly use I’ve resorted to doing a bit of shopping on ebay as I didn’t think the figures I already had (mostly dating back to late 70s early 80s) would do. I remember getting my first playperson, I possibly had a voucher or something to spend in the shop, and I chose a female figure with a horse, I called her Nina.  Looking back I didn’t have that many playmobil figures, my brother had more, and his seemed more exciting – Native American Indians, and American Civil war cavalry, Robin Hood and his merry men (and Maid Marian of course).  I had nurses and doctors, but he also had construction workers, so it wasn’t all glamorous.  I think the yellow car I had was the most exciting accessory. I collected all these from my parent’s house the other year so have them to hand, but none look like Helen.  These days there is a far greater range of figures and accessories than I could ever have dreamed of back in my youth; but this means I have a far greater chance of constructing Helen now – even though she might end of being a cobbled version of a Roman woman, Athena, and a fairy or a princess!


Helen in pink (Marvel Classics Comics Iliad, 1977)

My research has recently been looking into the colour of the outfit that Helen is depicted wearing in comics/graphic novels, and apart from white one colour that rises to the fore is pink. The colour pink has so many connotations these days, and we are all aware that it used to be a favourite for boys rather than girls.  Now it can be associated with femininity and being girly, but it can also have a sexual overtone, seen for example in Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield who basically adopted the colour as her own, and even had her own ‘Pink Palace‘ a whole house painted pink, filled with pink accoutrements such as a heart shaped pink bath, and pink furs.  By putting Helen in pink I believe artists are unsurprisingly tapping into the idea of Helen as a sex symbol, and differentiating her from the other, more sedately portrayed, women around her.  I’m presenting a poster about the ways Helen is depicted in comics at the Drawing on the Past conference in September so will leave the discussion here for now.

So I want to give my Helen a pink dress as a nod to her sexuality and femininity (whilst being aware I am using a children’s toy so don’t want to get too creepy about it!).  She will have blonde hair, to acknowledge that she is described as ‘golden’ or ‘tawny’ haired.  But I’m still a little stumped about what accessory she should have.  I think a hand-mirror would be great if I can get one, but there is no real object or symbol associated with her that I can think of, as she was only semi-divine.  Unlike Athena, with her owl, aegis and helmet for example.

So here is my first attempt, (she could be improved but I need to get the knack of pulling bodies apart to start on embellishments!). There may be other versions to follow.


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Becoming a librarian (Thing 10)

Skipping over Thing 9 (I will go back I promise!) for now, Thing 10 seems easy enough to cope with after being on leave for several days.

Although as a youngster I toyed with the idea of becoming a librarian, (as well as being an artist/writer who lived in a cottage in the country – still hoping for that dream to come true!), I was apparently not motivated enough to really think about pursuing the dream.  I attempted to get a Saturday job in our local library, but it was kind of the ‘dream Saturday job’ around, so they had huge waiting lists, and I never got anywhere with that and ended up on the deli counter at Morrisons instead (not great for a vegetarian!).

So I did my first degree in Ancient History, and a second degree (M.Phil – looking at prostitutes and gender in Greek and Roman New Comedy), and then erm a third degree (Ph.D. on Helen of Troy), whilst working on the doctorate I got a part time job in the University library (Lampeter) – hurrah dream Saturday job finally achieved!  I remember being amazed at how the other library staff knew what the Dewey Decimal numbers were for everything – students would come in and ask where a section was, or a topic, and would be given the number, as well as the location in the building.  of course after a while doing lots of shelving I realised that you just picked it up as you went along.  In some ways I actually miss shelving and tidying, because you really come to know your stock, and are well equipped to point students in the right direction (n.b. I’ve only worked in academic libraries).  And on the quiet nights I even got to sit and do some tapestry work while on the issue counter!!!  (I’m not a knitting librarian, but I’m handy with other crafts!).

Finally the time came to enter the big wide world, and sadly there are not that many graduate jobs/library jobs out in West Wales (not when compared to the number of graduates living there), and so I ended up coming to Cardiff to get a full time job.  I entered full time permanent work for the first time (argh that was a shock to the system) and became an acquisitions assistant for the Sir Herbert Duthie Library, in the University of Wales, College of Medicine.

This job ended up being quite a good foundation.  There were two acquisitions assistants, and the other girl started about 2 weeks after me – so I was the old hand!  But we also did our stints on the issue desk, and had our sections to tidy in the morning.  The library didn’t have a separate reference desk, so the issue desk handled all enquiries.  It was a bit of a shock from working in a humanities based academic library, to a medical library where suddenly there were lots of databases, and websites, and impact factors to deal with (This is about 10 years ago – and we hadn’t dealt with stuff like that in Lampeter); not to mention the odd stroppy consultant who would think they were God, and could treat you like…..

After a while our cataloguer left, so myself and the other acquisitions assistant started taking up the slack while we waited for them to appoint someone.  He’d shown us how to catalogue, and left instructions, and we muddled through, gradually gaining knowledge and experience.  Months later they appointed a Systems librarian who had responsibility for the cataloguing – in practice this meant no time for them to do actual cataloguing, especially as we were going through a library management system changeover, so cataloguing just became a firm part of our job (sadly without the grade to match!).

Meanwhile we were both enrolled on the Aberystwyth distance learning course, and most fantastically the course was being paid for by our employer (you won’t get that these days), with the proviso that we had to stay with the library a certain number of years after qualifying – which was fair enough.  We had all good intentions to finish at quickly as possible, but life got in the way, so we took a little longer than we’d hoped.  It was however really good to be both doing the course at the same time, as we were able to support one another, even when we were on different modules.  And we were able to attend the study schools together too.

In 2004, UWCM merged with Cardiff University, and our job roles changed.  For most people the merger probably meant little difference, but sadly our roles were thrown up in the air.  CU had a centralised acquisitions and cataloguing department, so our main roles were taken off us, and there was no longer scope for both of us to be doing what was left over, plus as we weren’t yet qualified we couldn’t get the medical cataloguing job that was created.  My colleague got a job in an outlying medical library attached to the University, and I stayed on (though I did try for a full time job in Lampeter, and just got pipped to the post there).

A few years down the line I was finally qualified, and the medical cataloguing position became vacant again in the centralised department, and here I now am.

So, like many librarians I did a degree in a different subject, and then did my Library Masters at a later date.  I’m now thinking about Chartership, especially since taking part in the cpd23 activities.  This year two of our library staff became Mentors – there had been a slight dearth in mentors in South Wales, so this is great news, and I know there will be someone available if I take the plunge.  I enjoy my cataloguing role, and I like to take on new projects where possible (which is good because it has become somewhat of a necessity in this role!).  So, Chartership, here I come…(hopefully)…

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