The Myth of Persephone in Girls' Fantasy Literature

January 5, 2012

When I picked up this book, I was expecting two things: a study of the creative retelling of a key classical myth (or its reception) in children's literature; and a focus on texts of fantasy fiction, or at least texts with fantastical elements. In many ways, this book is neither.

Holly Virginia Blackford uses the myth of Persephone in a conceptual way: this is not a book that studies modern retellings of the myth, or texts that write "against" it from a feminist, post-colonial or other cultural perspective. Instead, Blackford offers a very particular interpretation of the myth, which she then uses as a framework to discuss texts that are not traditionally considered "children's" books or "fantasy". J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and E.B. White's Charlotte's Web may qualify as children's fantasy, but Louisa May Alcott's Little Women can hardly be described as such; nor is Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights children's literature. The problem here is one of definition: Blackford never explains whether "fantasy" refers to a genre, or rather is associated with the psychoanalytic, Freudian approach that this book adopts. By the end of the book, one would guess that the latter is true: nevertheless, the title remains misleading.

The same goes for the Persephone myth, but here Blackford is fairer with the reader. In the introduction, she clearly delineates her understanding of the myth as a metaphor for the ambiguity of female development: the rite of passage from girl to woman. She focuses on Persephone's temptation by the narcissus flower at the moment of her abduction to the underworld, and utilises Donald Winnicott's theory of the close links between child play and sexual bloom. In Blackford's analysis, Persephone's reach for the narcissus as a plaything is in the various texts analysed paralleled by the girl protagonist conjuring a "Byronic boy-toy", upon whom she projects developmental issues. Hence, this book includes texts with very loose Persephone resonances, such as Little Women and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden.

Blackford begins with an overview of Romantic, Victorian and Modernist literary Persephones - all well-known texts, securely placed within the tradition of reception. However, Blackford's psychoanalytic approach to the myth and its application to the texts she has chosen does not always work. J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy is one of her most successful examples: Wendy is whisked to an "other" (or "under") world by Peter Pan, a figure often associated with death. Mrs Darling's scream at her daughter's abduction parallels Demeter's agony. Wendy's sexual interest in Peter marks her rite of passage and leads to her unavoidable return home in order to grow up. Her daughters and granddaughters will all go to Neverland to complete the same process, signalling Persephone's descent and return.

However, I found Blackford's idea of Little Women's Jo mothering Amy, and Laurie as Amy's Byronic toy boy, less convincing. At points it seems to me that Blackford stretches the textual interpretation to fit her theory. Her analysis works better with German Romanticism and its obsession with the dark terrors of the psyche (she examines Marie as Persephone in E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) or Neil Gaiman's neo-Gothic Coraline, than Rowling's witty, modern fantasy.

Overall, the book is a noble effort to offer new insights into well-known children's texts (very broadly defined). But its methodology is not always gripping, and at points Blackford's Freudian interpretation becomes far too contrived, while her "new" template of the Persephone myth does not always work as an analytical tool.

The Myth of Persephone in Girls' Fantasy Literature

By Holly Virginia
Blackford Routledge/Taylor & Francis

248pp, £80.00

ISBN 0415895415

Published 3 October 2011

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