Colourful myths

29th September 1995 at 01:00
The Last Quest of Gilgamesh, Written and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman. Tundra Books #163;10.95, 0 88776 328 6

Theseus and the Minotaur, Retold by Jules Cashford, illustrated by Daniel De'Angeli, Barefoot Books #163;9.99 1 898000 21 2

Hualachi and the Magic Sandals, Told by Juliet Heslewood, illustrated by Jan Nesbitt, Barefoot Books #163;9.99, 1 898000 92 1

3 Billy Goats Gruff, Told and illustrated by Ted Dewan, Scholastic Children's Books #163;3.99 0 590 55916 8,

Max and Ruby's Midas, Written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Hutchinson #163;7.99 0 09176554 4

The Leopard's Drum: An Asante Tale from West Africa, Written and illustrated by Jessica Souhami. Frances Lincoln #163;8.99 0 7112 0906 5

Kesuna and the Cave Demons, A Balinese Folk Tale, Retold and illustrated by Gini Wade, Dutton Children's Books #163;9.99 0 525 69040 9

What Made Tiddalik Laugh, Retold and illustrated by Joanna Troughton, Dutton Children's Books #163;9.99, 0 525 69063 8

Nikos the Fisherman, Written and illustrated by Fiona French, Oxford #163;9.99. 0 19 279971 1

A good story, indifferently illustrated, will always be more valuable than a dull one with gorgeous pictures. The best of these books have good pictures, if not great ones, and you can hardly go wrong with a myth if you take it straight.

Ludmila Zeman's The Last Quest of Gilgamesh is the third in her series of illustrated versions of the Gilgamesh story. She does two things well: she takes the tale seriously, and she paints with considerable finesse. Her illustrations have a rich Mesopotamian earth-colouring and a virtuosic rendering of texture. There's a respect for the source here that has freed rather than stultified the artist's imagination.

Barefoot Books have a laudable programme: they aim to publish "new and traditional myths, legends and fairy tales whose themes demonstrate the pitfalls and dangers that surround our passage through life; the qualities that are needed to face these dangers; and the equal importance of action and reflection in doing so." There could hardly be a more valuable task. I only wish the execution were not so plonkingly solemn, not to say evasive. Jules Cashford's Theseus and the Minotaur stresses the meaning of the Theseus myth, and takes a Jungian line in doing so; but when you're telling the story, either you spell out exactly what Pasiphae was doing in the wooden cow or you leave it alone. To say nothing more than "the bull fell for the trick" is merely to baffle. What trick? What did he do, Miss? Why? Daniel De'Angeli's pictures are meticulously patterned and cross-hatched, but likely to appeal more to adults who think they know what good taste looks like than to children. So, of course, is Jungian psychology, which famously deals with the problems we come up against when we're grown up. Why offer it to young readers? They have quite different concerns.

Hualachi and the Magic Sandals, also from Barefoot Books, is a slighter story, but more engagingly illustrated by Jan Nesbitt in bright watercolour.

Ted Dewan's 3 Billy Goats Gruff, however, is just the thing. The familiar yarn is done informally, but it's not messed about: it's a million miles from the sort of smirking look-how-clever-I-can-be stuff that winks at the adults while pretending to entertain the children. This hits the good old storytelling spot. Ted Dewan is a formidable illustrator,whose Inside the Whale was a huge and deserved success. Here his style is looser, more painterly, but still under the control of a complete technical assurance.

Equally assured is Rosemary Wells' Max and Ruby's Midas. Her quirky rabbits illustrate a version of the Midas tale that is an adaptation, not an alteration, and a witty one at that. The verso of the title-page is interesting: under the usual bibliographical stuff it says that "The artwork for each picture is an ink drawing with watercolour painting." More publishers should include information like that; it takes up little space, gives delight, and hurts not.

The illustrations for Jessica Souhami's The Leopard's Drum, we're told, are adapted from the author's shadow puppets, and fine vigorous colourful ones they are. Their flatness is not limiting, because the patterning is expressive and not mere space-filling: the leopard's brilliant spots are pride made visible. The story is a strong Aesop-like fable, too. Nyame the Sky-God covets the boastful Osebo's magnificent drum, and all the animals try to get it for him, but only the tortoise has the wit to succeed. She's rewarded with a strong and gorgeously patterned new shell, and the leopard learns his lesson.

Gini Wade's Kesuna and the Cave Demons is also gorgeously patterned, with Balinese batik-like motifs, but the story is less satisfying. The good sister is rewarded by the golden bird Tjilalongan because she's good; the bad one is saved from the cave demons because . . . Well, for no particular reason. That won't do. This may be a genuine folk tale, but the pictures don't rescue it from banality. Stories need tension and resolution. Joanna Troughton's What Made Tiddalik Laugh is more successful because it's a better story: all the animals will die because the giant frog has swallowed all the water, and the only way to get it back is to make him laugh. But nothing can do that until he sees the duckbilled platypus, which is so improbable that he roars with laughter, and all the water comes swooshing out.

Finally, Fiona French's Nikos the Fisherman is not a folk tale or a myth but a modern tale that plays both with monsters from Greek mythology and with modern devices like sunglasses for the Gorgon's eyes and moussaka and baklava for the hungry Minotaur. Good fun, and lots of patterns.

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