Greek Myths Speak to Kids' Desires

Article excerpt

A plastic Scooby-Doo action figure poses as the warrior Odysseus, with a toy boat for his ship. A potted plant serves as the island from which the sirens (in this case Marge Simpson) sing, luring Odysseus toward the rocks.

After nightly readings of a children's book about Greek myths, my 5-year-old son was ready to act out favorite parts of the Odyssey. I knew the stories would appeal to him, with their fantastic monsters and gory battles. But I was unprepared for the intensity of his attraction.

Author Patrice Kindl isn't surprised. Her latest book for young adults, "Lost in the Labyrinth," offers a twist on the classic tale of Ariadne. "Greek myths endure because they are well told and well imagined," she says. And more important, "they have a big dose of action-adventure and fantasy."

That's obvious. But I was curious what value these 2,800-year- old stories held for my son. And I wondered why other children's stories - some, such as Aesop's Fables, with an overt moral lesson at their core that made them more palatable to adults - failed to hold his interest.

The late Bruno Bettelheim, a child psychologist, wrote about the impact of fairy tales on a child's moral and social development. Although Bettelheim's work has come to be viewed as tainted by his adherence to Freud, some of what he wrote in "The Uses of Enchantment" could be applied to any myth or folk tale. He asserted that the fantasy aspects of these stories, and their gruesome happenings, provide an imaginative laboratory in which children work out the problems of growing up.

In my household, the recurring issue is power, and my son's sense that he has none. As he is the only child among two parents and an au pair, who are, as he says, "always telling me what to do," it's not surprising. In Ben's fantasy life he is the strong guy who makes decisions, instead of the little boy who is outnumbered three to one.

Look at Hercules, who had the power to change his destiny, or Odysseus, who was clever enough to evade danger. My son, I realized, was seeking a measure of control over his own life by acting out these elemental stories.

At first glance, the Greek myths appear rife with interfamily struggles. Zeus is shown as both a paternal figure and an unstable bully. …