The Classical Myths by Mino Milani

Marta Selleri – the author of this post – graduated in March 2022 from the Department of Classical Philology and Italian Studies, Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna, with the MPhil thesis “Il mito classico narrato da Mino Milani” [The Classical Myth as Narrated by Mino Milani], supervised by Prof. Valentina Garulli. The thesis combines her interest in children’s literature with the classical world. In June 2022 Marta took part in the conference “Antiquity Today: Fascinating, Relevant, Beneficial” organized by the Cluster: The Past for the Present and the Our Mythical Childhood Project.

The aim of my thesis was to analyse how the classical myth was narrated by Mino Milani, combining philological and pedagogical perspectives.

Mino Milani (19282022) was a children’s book writer born in Pavia (Italy), where he lived most of his life. He was a very prolific author and he wrote novels, comic strips, short stories, and more, set in very different eras. His production is held together by the desire and the ability to “stage the adventure”[1]. I chose three novels, published between 1993 and 1995 by EL Edizioni (Trieste): La storia di Dedalo e Icaro (1993), La storia di Orfeo ed Euridice (1994), La storia di Ulisse e Argo (1995). All of them are set in ancient Greece, in the distant and a historical time of gods and heroes.

Illustration by Nella Bosnia for Mino Milani’s La storia di Dedalo e Icaro, Edizioni El, 1993, used with the Publisher’s kind permission, photo by Marta Selleri.

First of all, as an introduction to the analysis of these novels, I analysed some definitions of “myth”, starting from those in common use, with a focus on Mircea Eliade’s studies which highlight, above all, the sacred and significant value of myth, considered by certain societies as a real, active, and living event[2]. Secondly, I analysed the difference between “myth” and “fairy tale”, starting from Vladimir Propp’s considerations on the subject[3]: according to him, fairy tales would derive directly from myth, deprived of its sacredness. This theory has not gained full consensus among researchers. However, may the fairy tale derive from myth or not, it is now accepted that myth has lost its sacred dimension in our society. Myth is depicted as a literary heritage of stories that continue to live in all forms of art in occidental society.

Illustration by Nella Bosnia for Mino Milani’s La storia di Orfeo ed Euridice, Edizioni El, 1994, used with the Publisher’s kind permission, photo by Marta Selleri.

In order to contextualise the aforementioned three novels by Milani, I reviewed the production of mythological topics for children in Italy during the twentieth century: Laura Orvieto – the first Italian writer of mythology for children, Gherardo Ugolini, Gianni Rodari, and Roberto Piumini.

In the second part of my thesis, I provided a textual analysis of Milani’s books, with a close comparison – when possible and appropriate – with classical sources. In addition to classical authors such as Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Valerius Flaccus, Apollonius Rhodius, Apollodorus, and Diodorus Siculus, it was sometimes necessary to refer to authors such as Dante – a crucial reference for Milani, Alessandro Manzoni, and the operas by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Milani’s writing is very rich in intertextual references and allusions. In this way, he succeeded in restoring the profound stratification of these stories. Among the many possible ones, I chose some thematic strands. Through them, I was able to explore the three stories transversally (e.g., the protagonists’ childhood, the initiation, the plots, the fairy-tales elements, the animals, the death and the kingdom of the dead). My aim was to identify the texts that were at the basis of Milani’s narrative choices in terms of vocabulary, characters, plots, imagery, and tones.

Illustration by Paolo D’Altan for Mino Milani’s La storia di Ulisse e Argo, Edizioni El, 1995, used with the Publisher’s kind permission, photo by Marta Selleri.

Subsequently, I used two pedagogical tools to analyse the stories. The first one is the “inactual” – a pedagogical principle theorised by Giovanni Maria Bertin in 1977 and based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought. Bertin claims that the pedagogical idea must be “inactual”: this means that it does not have to respond to or coincide with the prevailing tendencies of the present, but rather has to highlight the possible inconsistencies and partiality of these tendencies. This idea has to propose – within the present tendencies or against them – alternative instances[4]. The second tool is Edgar Morin’s paradigm of complexity, which suggests an overcoming of the classical, simple logical system[5]. In particular, it is employed and studied as an educational paradigm which is now indispensable in educational practice, based especially on metacognition – meaning the need for knowledge to reflect on itself – and on the intersection of interpretative and recontextualising methods.

Map for Mino Milani’s mythological stories – illustration by Marta Selleri.

By using these tools, I finally identified the classical myth narrated by Milani as an adventure tale that is both inactual and complex. In fact, myth – also beyond Milani – narrates situations where “it is not possible to dominate a contradiction or a tragedy”[6], and as such they are complex, detached from simplifying logic, perhaps also because they arose at a time when this logic had not been created yet. Milani transformed this mythical matter into the genre of adventure, which has important characteristics of “inactuality”. The presence of adventure as a genre in children’s bookshelves is decreasing and the heroism, the ability to make a choice, and to deal with death are often removed from children’s imaginary. However, adventure, in whatever place or time is set, can offer the readers a deep and real growth, a passage to an “elsewhere”[7], in which that growth is an existential one.

All these things considered, the mythological adventure told in Mino Milani’s novels – which, as it has been shown, can be defined both inactual and complex – can therefore play an important role in a pedagogical perspective, as it allows young readers to confront themselves to relevant issues and to gaze at contemporary society and beyond


[1] “Anche quando scrive romanzi storici o sceneggiature di fumetti, in realtà, fondamentalmente, mette in scena l’Avventura” (Giorgia Grilli, “Scrivere d’avventura per ragazzi. L’opera di Mino Milani”, Oblò 3, 2018, 55).

[2] Mircea Eliade, Mito e realtà, trans. Giovanni Cantoni, Torino: Boria, 1966 (ed. pr. Paris 1963).

[3] Vladimir Propp, Morfologia della fiaba, ed. and trans. Gian Luigi Bravo, Torino: Einaudi, 1966 (ed. pr. Sankt-Peterburg 1928).

[4] Giovanni Maria Bertin, Nietzsche. L’inattuale, idea pedagogica, Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1977.

[5] Edgar Morin, Introduzione al pensiero complesso, trans. Monica Corbani, Milano: Sperling & Kupfer, 1993 (ed. pr. Paris 1990).

[6] Morin, Introduzione al pensiero complesso, 63.

[7] About “elsewhere”: Antonio Faeti, I tesori nelle isole non trovate, Bergamo: Junior, 2018.

Post by Marta Selleri, placed by Olga Strycharczyk

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