After a long summer break of pottering around castles, forts, forests, and museums we’re both just about settled back into our routines – H has started school and I’m back teaching on campus. We’ve been reading lots of Greek myth retellings lately, some a bit.. gorier.. than others (!), so I was really pleasantly surprised when we happened upon Leo and the Gorgon’s Curse by Joe Todd-Stanton. This is the fourth title in the Brownstone’s Mythical Collection but stands alone as its own story – so if, like us, you haven’t read any of the others, it will still definitely make sense!
It follows the tale of Leo, one of Professor Brownstone’s ancestors from long long ago, on his journey to become a Greek hero. We meet some well-known mythical heroes – Jason, Theseus, Hercules, Orpheus, Achilles, Odysseus – as we find out that the goddess Athena has been training a succession of strong skilled heroes to protect her beloved city. All sounds pretty normal so far..
The illustrations emphasize the story perfectly, while introducing lots of basic features of ancient Greek art and architecture. I absolutely love a good vase drawing, so the spread introducing Leo’s story was a highlight (and would make for some great art project inspiration!)
Leo desperately wants to be a hero, but his parents won’t let him take hero training with the other kiddos. He has to stick to his studies and learn how to take care of mythological creatures instead – the Brownstone mission and motto – though he does get a shiny (Latin!) pin as a reminder.
Still, Leo’s heroic tale starts off in a familiar way. The terrrrrrrrrible sea serpent Cetus is lurking down by the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion causing trouble, and Athena needs somebody to deal with it. She sends one of her strongest heroes, Perseus! But Leo sneaks along too, eager to see what it is really like being a hero. When he gets there he discovers that Cetus has a very good reason for being quite so cross: an arrow stuck in its tail. Just as it looks like Leo might become sea monster dinner, a girl appears who gently removes the arrow and calms Cetus completely. Leo takes the arrow to show to Athena..
.. but when he returns to Athens, everyone thinks he has defeated the monster. Leo is hailed as Leo The Serpent Slayer and honoured by Athena herself – how will he ever tell her the truth now? Leo is sent off on a variety of adventures to battle famous fierce mythical creatures: the Sphinx, the Minotaur, the Harpies, even the Cyclops! But Leo has a secret.. he hasn’t been slaying anything at all. He’s found a way to look after the creatures instead, helping them out of harm’s way with plenty of clever ideas. These are not at all your usual monster-slaying illustrations, either! As someone who has quickly rushed over one-too-many gory line drawings of a Minotaur being impaled by a sword when reading with H, I really enjoyed actually being able to look at and talk about the different types of creatures. The illustrations have such warmth and hit just the right amount of whimsical.
Leo’s helpful ways don’t stay hidden for long. Athena finds out what he’s been up to – and she comes up with a plan to test his loyalty by sending him on his most dangerous mission yet to defeat the Gorgon. I love that the story doesn’t shy away from Athena’s propensity for cruelty, and picks up on some of her character traits which don’t often pop up in kids’ myths. I won’t spoil the ending, though I will say that the closing sentiment – “there are many paths to becoming a hero, and sometimes not fighting is the bravest thing you can do” – is a bold and brilliant close to a not-so-typical heroic journey. It’s not often you could use the words ‘wholesome’ and ‘gorgon’ in the same sentence. We’ll definitely be investigating the other books in the series!