Sheldon Oberman,
Island of the Minotaur:
Greek Myths of Ancient Crete

(Crocodile, 2004)

In the days when gods walked the Earth, Crete -- once a thriving Mediterranean power until a volcano destroyed it and spawned legends of Atlantis -- was the focal point of many legends that would dominate the Greek/Roman cycle of myths.

Island of the Minotaur, written by Sheldon Oberman, draws those legends together in a neat package that is suitable for young children (8 and above) to get their first taste of gods, goddesses, heroes and monsters; the stuff that makes Greek mythology so enduring. Adults, too, should enjoy the book, which is a fast read and a refresher on several key stories.

The book begins with the Titans, followed by the young Olympian gods who overthrew them. (Zeus was, of course, born in a cave on Crete.) Zeus protects the city for many generations, primarily through the might of the bronze giant Talus, but when the selfish King Minos comes to power and insults the god, the giant is undone by the divinely inspired Medea, consort to Jason of the Argonauts. Minos quickly begs Poseidon for his patronage, which the sea god grants, but Minos is adept at offending the Olympians and soon has an angry white bull to contend with -- and the resulting birth of the violent Minotaur.

This leads to what is probably the best-known sequences of Crete mythology -- the labyrinth of the Minotaur, the heroic arrival of Theseus from Athens and the flight of the inventor Daedalus with his ill-fated son Icarus.

Given his youthful target audience, Oberman has wisely smoothed over some of the rougher edges of the tales. For example, the rapes of Europa and Pasiphae -- the former by Zeus disguised as a bull, the latter by an actual bull -- are necessary to the plot but are glossed over to the point that most people, particularly children who don't know the stories already, won't even notice they're there. Instead, Oberman sticks to a common fairytale convention, in which women are "visited" by certain characters and later mysteriously give birth.

There is fighting and killing in these stories, too, but again, violence is never the focus and it's handled with a subtle touch.

The stories are written clearly and plainly, suitable for young readers without being dumbed down so much to insult them. Illustrations by Blair Drawson are colorful, exaggerated and humorous. Island of the Minotaur is a fun and informative reinterpretation of these ancient myths for a new generation of readers.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 21 February 2004



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