“Our Mythical Childhood at CAMWS” by Krishni Burns

The annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) took place in Albuquerque this April and Dr. Krishni Burns, the participant in Our Mythical Hope stream of Our Mythical Childhood, took part in this important event! Here is her conference report.

Monica Cyrino and the Local Committee.jpg
Prof. Monica Cyrino and the Local Committee

CAMWS is one of the largest classical conferences in North America, and this year was no exception. Nearly 700 scholars gathered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to attend panels, workshops, and round tables. CAMWS’s welcoming intellectual atmosphere also makes it an excellent venue for new research that is “nontraditional” or interdisciplinary. In addition to the usual collection of academic papers, CAMWS has a long tradition of pedagogy presentations and innovative receptions studies work. There were several panels on pop culture this year; the standout panels were “Casting Die: Classical Reception in Gaming,” organized by Dr. William S. Duffy of St. Philip’s College and “Wonder Woman and Warrior Princesses,” a panel organized by Dr. Anise Strong of Western Michigan University.

I organized a panel devoted to classical reception in Children’s culture, entitled “Travels, Treasures, and the Locus Terribilis: Myth in Children’s Media.” It took place on Friday afternoon in the University of New Mexico’s small movie theater in the Student Union. (CAMWS traditionally holds its Friday afternoon panels on the campus of the hosting university.) The study of classical reception in children’s culture is considerably less well established in North America than it is elsewhere in the world, so I was pleased that a few dozen people attended the panel. The panel’s unifying theme was how versions of classical myth were adapted to instruct children’s psychological development and how those myths were in turn shaped to give their pedagogical function appeal to their intended audience.

Dr. Rebecca Resinski (Hendrix College) opened the panel with her paper, “Midas, Mixed Messages, and the ‘Museum’ of Dugald Steer’s Mythology.” Dugald’s Mythology is a multimedia book of mythological tales, set in a narrative frame about a 19th-century antiquarian whose acquisitive tendencies lead him to become a modern day Midas. Dr. Resinski’s paper explored the contradiction of setting a cautionary tale about the greed for classical artifacts in a book that appeals to readers though interactive features that mimic the very antiquities that the main character searches for. Dr. Resinski proposed that Mythology functions as a miniature museum and that a readers’ navigation of its various content and messages contributes to the formation of cultural subjects.

In the panel’s second paper, “Fairy-Tale Landscapes in the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths,” Dr. Alison Poe (Fairfield University) analyzed the use of fairy-tale motifs in the landscapes of North America’s most influential children’s collection of Greek mythology. Dr. Poe pointed out that while the illustrations of architecture, people, and monsters tended to draw on classical originals for inspiration. Where such originals were lacking, D’Aulaires engaged with Romantic imagery commonly found in illustrated fairytale collections. The phenomenon is particularly evident in D’Aulaires’ forest landscapes, which resemble the wild woods of northern European folklore.

Next, my paper, “Spiritual Odysseys in Children’s Television,” drew attention to common features that appeared in adaptations of the Odyssey for children’s animated television shows. I used a segment from the TV show Martha Speaks called “Truman and the Deep Blue Sea” as an example. Children’s Odysseys tend to replace or supplant Odysseus with a younger character, who can act as a stand-in for child viewers. As a result, Odysseus becomes a mentor figure to the young character, or is absent altogether. The monsters in TV Odysseys become manifestations for adverse circumstances in the child character’s normal life. In Truman’s case, the Cyclops represents Truman’s struggle with seasickness in a nightmare and Truman imagines Odysseus mentoring him through his efforts to overcome his condition. Since I had a captive audience, I took a few minutes out of my talk to introduce Our Mythical Childhood to the audience and encourage them to visit the Survey’s website.

Dr. Krishni Burns (University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign) presenting her paper, titled “Spiritual Odysseys in Children’s Television”
Dr. Krishni Burns (University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign) introducing “Our Mythical Childhood” Project to the audience of the the annual meeting of the CAMWS

The final paper in the panel was given in absentia by Dr. Amanda Potter (Open University), who is also a participant in the Our Mythical Childhood Survey. The paper, “Domesticating Classical Monsters on BBC Children’s Television: Gorgons, Minotaurs and Sirens in Doctor Who, the Sarah Jane Adventures and Atlantis,” examined how these television shows present classical monsters as misunderstood, even tragic figures, to encourage the viewer to reevaluate first impressions and institutional prejudices. Dr. Potter wasn’t able to be present in person, but she was able to answer questions via Skype after her paper was read.

All papers in the panel were well received and the question and answer period generated some good discussion. One of the most prominent features of the discussion was how much work there still is to do in this particular area of reception studies. For example, Dr. Poe pointed out that D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is largely unstudied in spite of the work’s monumental impact on nearly every classicist in the room. The moment underlined how essential Our Mythical Childhood and its sister projects are to the future of classical studies.

Prepared by Dr. Krishni Burns (University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign)

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