The new format of the monthly recommendations posts I was doing. Not necessarily all things that are good, but three things in a category. Maybe reasons one is better than another, or how I could see using all of them. Today, I’m looking at three children’s books about Pandora to talk about the need for flexible myths.
I recently read several reviews for a children’s book about Esther (the Bible character) that criticized it for diverging from the Biblical account. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine anyone complaining that an account of Esther diverged from the Biblical account if someone retold the story in a way that actually mentioned God. (Fun facts: God’s not mentioned in the book itself.)
In fact, I know that I’ve heard it told that way in church, just like I’ve been told accounts of Noah’s Ark that change the story (two of every animal!) to make it simpler, and seen the two Genesis creation stories combined into one. We all do this sort of thing, because that’s how stories work. We change things to emphasize what’s important to us or in a given situation, to better communicate the main ideas to the audience, or to make sense of a story that is strange to us because of cultural differences.
Even when they’re based on actual historical events (like with Paul Revere!) that we can all agree really happened, we understand that there are some liberties taken when telling the story and that any two people might tell the story differently. That’s the explanation I always heard for the four Gospels growing up – well, they’re all true, it’s just that some people remember things a little differently. So you look for the main ideas and try to figure out what each storyteller is trying to say.
Recognizing this is important for a couple of reasons. First, it stops us from being dogmatic and forcing a particular subjective view of something on other people. Seeing multiple accounts can help us get a more complete picture. Finally, it also can help people hold onto their own perspectives and maintain their faith when they come across conflicting information. Too often I’ve seen people forced out of churches where they weren’t welcome because they started to question conflicting stories or had doubts about literal readings that seem to contradict science. That to me is tragic, and I think having a more flexible approach to all our stories gives people the room to think about what’s important and whether they have faith in the big ideas instead of getting caught up in the details.
With all that in mind, here’s three fairly different approaches to the story of Pandora. I’ve talked about it before, but some of the common elements in a Pandora story: there’s a jar or box that she’s not supposed to open, but she does and all the evils in the world fly out of it while hope stays inside. Some of the things I look for to tell the stories apart: Whether or not it was a mistake to open the jar, what it means that hope stays, who’s blamed for evil in the world, what’s done to deal with the situation. All of these can communicate very different ideas about responsibility, obedience, guilt, and what it means to be human. Collecting many versions of the story makes it much more open to discussion and illustrates how important small changes in detail can be to a story’s meaning.
1. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
This is not actually a book about Pandora, but a very simplified overview of Greek myth in general. It links all the stories together like one long account, drawing on connections between parents and children or others who appear in each other’s stories to transition into each new tale. All of the stories are fairly short, Pandora’s is actually only a page long. To be fair, I think it’s not like we have a whole lot of information about her from ancient sources either.
In keeping with the longer story framework, it actually starts in the last line of the previous story, where it’s mentioned that she’s sent as a punishment for mortals. She is described here as a “beautiful but silly woman.” When her story actually starts, it’s with a summary of the account in Works and Days where she’s gifted by the gods.
Perhaps in an attempt to make her more sympathetic, these gifts are shifted a bit. Instead of being taught weaving by Athena, she’s just given nice clothes. Instead of Hermes giving her a deceitful nature and teaching her to use words and lies, he just…doesn’t show up until it’s time to take her to Earth. The result is that she doesn’t look evil and she’s not actually to blame for what she does, she just wasn’t given any sense.
It’s…not a great solution. But it does deal with the serious misogyny in their source by making the flaw both not her fault (since it seems the gods may have intentionally made her “silly”) and making it a personal failing rather than a trait inherent to womanhood. And since they do have Zeus gifting her with curiosity, it potentially opens discussion about how she could become wiser if she learns from her experience and uses that curiosity more effectively.
Pandora’s “curiosity got the better of her” in this case and she opened the jar, allowing all the miseries to fly out of the jar but she put the lid back in time to trap Hope. The story explains that if Hope escaped the jar, the miseries would have destroyed it. Why they couldn’t destroy it while they were all in the jar I don’t know, but at least the authors tried to make sense of why Hope was in a jar of evil.
One thing I really like about this is their answer for what causes human evil, as opposed to the chaotic natural “evils” that bring about suffering. What Pandora lets out of the jar are temptations that spring from worry and want. Greed, Slander, Envy. These things “stung and bit the mortals,” leading them to act out in harmful ways. There’s an understanding here that we’re all responsible for our own decisions and can’t blame some external source, but also that desperate circumstances outside our control can influence people to do terrible things. Both important points.
Another thing I always look for in these illustrated versions is how the evils in the jar are portrayed. Depicting them as bugs seems to be fairly common, and that is how we see them here. However, they’re not just bugs, they have human features that are exaggerated to emphasize the problem. For example, Distrust’s primary feature is a giant ear, suggesting that we become distrustful when we allow others to spread doubt through things like gossip or fear-mongering. (Also note Pandora’s vacant, astonished expression. In keeping with her actions being due to ignorance rather than any sort of malice, she doesn’t really have any agency to react after the miseries are let loose. She just stares and the story moves on.)
It’s not a bad intro. But I don’t like when curiosity is treated as a flaw and I’m troubled by Pandora’s absence as a real, full character here. Time to look at some more fleshed-out versions from authors who were comfortable taking a lot more liberties.
2. Pandora’s Box by Jean Marzollo
I love this book. It’s so silly, and definitely not afraid to step outside of the box (heh) for the sake of a fun story. And it’s one I really look forward to sharing with my kids in the future, because it’s a good intro both to Pandora’s story and to the comic book medium. It’s not actually a comic, but the simplistic and colorful art style feels similar and the format directs the reader to explore every part of the page to complete the story.
There’s just so much going on in every page. That can make it very difficult to read aloud to a group. (I tried that once – with a group of adults no less. Awkward.) However, it also makes it a great option to read in a smaller setting with small children who you can then invite to look at the pictures and other information to help them engage with the story.
First, there’s the actual narrative, told in simple short lines, seen at the top of this page. This is what I would recommend actually reading out loud as written, though definitely don’t do it thinking you can just read straight through the book. I’ve found that’s hard to do with any story, at least this time the author/illustrator has set it up so the kids are supposed to interrupt and investigate. I appreciate that.
There are no speech bubbles like there would be in comics, but the characters’ dialogue is shown in the pictures. It’s separated from the main narrative by a change in font and direction (the dialogue lines form curves while the narrative are just straight lines of text), and they appear closest to the character speaking. It seems like a good way to help kids learn to look at the placement of objects on a page to interpret actions. Some of this dialogue is more relevant to the story (though in those cases it mostly just expands on what was already said in the narrative), sometimes it’s just a bit odd. For example, the story starts before Pandora, with Prometheus stealing fire for humans. This is very important, because now he and his brother can eat oatmeal!
At the bottom of every page, some chickens comment on the story. It’s…weird. I remember liking that sort of thing as a kid, though, so I’m not saying it shouldn’t be there or doesn’t fit. They’re just a bit odd from an adult perspective. And trying to read these comments out loud to a group…heh. I gave up on that by the third page. But I can see how it would be useful for kids.
I like that this story isn’t about Pandora’s screw-up in opening the box or even about a dictator god punishing mortals, it’s about a conflict between two people (and the groups they represent). Prometheus thinks it’s unfair that only gods have fire, so he steals it. Zeus doesn’t like that and decides to get back at them by playing a prank. There’s a short squicky bit where Pandora is “given in marriage” and Epimetheus calls her a great present, but after that she’s treated as a full character with strengths and weaknesses like anyone. She is shown trying everything but opening the box to find out what’s inside before finally giving up – a relatable scene for kids and a lesson in creativity!
Also, no one really blames her at the end. It specifically states that even though there were consequences, people were still glad Prometheus stole fire. That can be expanded easily to state that even though curiosity sometimes has unintended consequences, that desire to learn still leads to good things as well. On the last page, the author even suggests Zeus wasn’t really mad and that he gave Pandora curiosity as a legitimate gift, because it was good for people to have but also he wanted them to learn a lesson. It’s one of the most positive re-tellings I’ve seen, very much in line with my own views on the story.
3. Pandora by Robert Burleigh (Illustrated by Raul Colón)
IT’S. SO. PRETTY! (Please excuse the awkward angle of the photo, though.)
This book is the source of the photo at the top of the blog post. I’ll get to the story in a minute, but I just love the art in this one. That was definitely the main motivation in picking up a copy and stands out as the book’s strongest feature. I want to show you all the pages, but I think I might get in trouble for that. So I’ll just go with one more. (It’s definitely worth clicking to see the full-size version of this one, in my opinion.)
Here’s an example of the evils not depicted as bugs, but rather as giant spectral beasts. I see some wolf-like ones, a bird, maybe a dragon or a bat or both. They all look really cool, and the fact that you can’t quite tell what they are just sort of adds to the spookiness. The text drawn on the page also adds to that, I like the way the curved line suggests a wind-like sound while the capital letters indicate volume. Like they’re both whispering and yelling, both there and not-there. Beautiful.
I’ve never read this one aloud, and I really want to. I’ll have to find opportunities for that. This line in particular sticks in my head and demands to be shared. Someday.
Onto the story. It’s unique in that we don’t see Pandora brought, she’s already there. This is her story, she’s not a consequence or plot device. Both she and the jar arrived at around the same time, with no explanation or connection to Prometheus’ actions. Therefore she hasn’t heard from the gods not to open the box, she only knows this from her husband. Just this great big thing that’s been there for her entire existence and that no one knows anything about. Who wouldn’t be curious?
Prometheus’s theft and punishment is described later in the story, with no mention of Pandora as an additional punishment for mortals. Pandora takes it as a warning rather than a direct connection to her arrival: if she disobeys this order, what will happen to her? (As a side note, I really like the inversion here, with Prometheus and Epimetheus being tiny side characters in her story instead of the other way around.)
She ponders this for a long time and finally reasons that she would not have been gifted with curiosity and then expected not to use it. Immediately after this, she has an experience that makes her braver than she’s ever been, and she opens the jar. And of course, all the bad spills out, and she does feel guilty. But her mentor doesn’t reprimand her, simply says that they need to be brave. It ends on a hopeful note, stating that Pandora will hold onto hope and use her gifts to make things better.
This is easily my favorite of the versions I’ve found. A bit more advanced than the first two, definitely for a slightly older group. And I like that because it means the story can grow with the kids. You start off with a very simple explanation, add depth as they grow and then invite them to tell the story in their own ways. That’s especially important in a story like this, where it’s been muddled to the point where it almost always contradicts itself. In its most basic form, the story delivers more questions than answers. Learning to find and answer those questions for ourselves is an important part of engaging with any story and making it something that applies to us, not just some random person we’ll never know, real or not.