I’m glad I’ve never been asked to write a children’s version of a five-thousand-year-old story – the oldest written (in cuneiform) story in the world, in fact. Being based on archaeological fragments, which amount to a story that comes to an end without a sense of completion, it must have been a great challenge for Kathy Henderson to impose a narrative sense without distorting the original.
What she has achieved is monumental. I would go so far as to call it a service to humanity, particularly in relation to the hammering that Iraq has taken in the last 30 years. As far as I know, Kathy Henderson does school visits and it would be fascinating to here how she wrote this retelling, not least the research.
You couldn’t map this as a story with a classic narrative structure, in the sense of the one that we teach to children – beginning, build-up etc. It would be ridiculous. What Kathy Henderson allows to come through, and which she illuminates, is the strange, at times numinous quality of the story. The climax of this is the encounter between the hero, Lugalbanda, and the mythic Anzu bird (shown in the illustration above).
Jung would have loved it. You can plot the journey of the psyche, as represented by Lugalbanda, from beginning to end: innocence and weakness, falling into sickness, the emergence from a cave apparently helpless but in fact with new power, a crucial period of self-reliance, the alliance through respect and cunning with the apparently-fearsome Anzu bird, the culmination as hero,
Who needs narrative structure when you’ve got that? And of course children get it. They always like the bit with the Anzu bird the best – the bit where we realise that we do not have to be afraid of the strength and power in ourselves as human beings. The context of the story is war – Lugalbanda’s father has launched an unprovoked attack on a neighbour – but it ends with a message of restraint. The newly-realised hero is sent for assistance in bringing the war to a close to a goddess, who advises him how to achieve victory and, as important, to preserve the people and culture of the vanquished city. So, we have the (male) hero and the (female) deity bringing resolution through conflict, followed by peace.
Children like hearing about things explained in this way: they may not understand it consciously but it resonates with (thank you, Jung) their unconscious, where this story makes most sense. That wouldn’t be possible without the quality of Kathy Henderson’s writing and Jane Ray’s art. So, this text is a doubly-beneficial one, meeting children’s need to understand themselves as human beings, through the adventure of the child protagonist, and their need for great words and pictures.
The text is certainly demanding. It mixes the speech-related sentence types of the oral story-teller – ‘And he began to prepare for war.’ – or – ‘His brothers carried him to a warm cave and tried to make him comfortable.’ – with those of a much more literary type, e.g. ‘They stormed through the fields of barley that surrounded the city and away across the plains like a herd of wild bulls.’ or ‘Now at last they came in sight of the city of Aratta, famous for its stone and its metals, for its craftsmen and its beautiful things, and there they pitched their camp at the city boundary, expecting to conquer it in a matter of days.’
I tend to approach the introduction of the text, therefore, with a light touch, reading most of it aloud myself. What I mean is, that I don’t examine the sentences in the same analytical way as I do with many texts.
One thing that does bare detailed examination, however, is Kathy Henderson’s use of similes. There are many! You could deconstruct some of the sentences containing them and try moving them into different positions, seeing if they work as fronted adverbials or if embedded, like this. I’ve included all of them so that you can choose the ones you like, if working with them in a whole class context (you might want to select the ones that have a matching picture from the book – not all of them do). Or, for an activity, you could enlarge and distribute so that different groups are examining different examples. If the children can cut up the sentences into their main idea/subordinate idea parts and move around, all the better.
This kind of analysis can help children to develop an ear for literary language. They’ll be more responsive next time they encounter it and may start to echo it in their own writing.
I have to mention of course that Jane Ray’s illustrations are as stunning as ever. In lessons introducing the book I’ve used the picture showing Lugalbanda’s home city, Uruk, by photocopying half of it and asking children to draw the other half, as the suggestion of symmetry in it is so satisfying. It also draws their close attention to the story’s context and setting.