In Search of Cupid and Psyche: Myth and Legend in Children's Literature


The Argument

Some scholars have proposed that the number of stories we can tell each other is finite, surprisingly small in fact, and the task of a creative writer is to retell old stories in original ways, or in ways that will prove coherent and meaningful, perhaps even essential, to new audiences. They point to basic similarities that obtain among stories from different times and different cultures as a compelling justification for their belief.

Some scholars note the presence of story elements—sometimes called archetypes—that are so widespread among the world of story they seem universal. Some even claim to perceive the outlines of ancient story types from which hundreds or even thousands of other stories have developed: if these types are not quite ‘the Big Bang’ of stories, then they may at least merit the status of supernovas from whose glorious expiration vast galaxies of story have spun free. In his poem, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice," Robert Graves asserts "There is one story and one story only/ That will prove worth your telling." For Graves, this "one story" is the personification of the yearly cycle, the passage from spring to spring made by the Goddess’s chosen lover-hero. The meta-story (or perhaps we might insert the term ‘meta-myth’) for Northrop Frye concerns a "golden age . . . [and] how that world was lost, and how we some day may be able to get it back again."

In my own work I have found both Graves and Frye enormously helpful, and it is Graves’s translation of "Cupid and Psyche" that forms the home base of our exploration of myth and legend in children’s literature.

"In Search of Cupid and Psyche" will look closely at the characters, plots and sub-plots, settings and structures within the second century story of Cupid and Psyche and follow their various transformations within a broad compass of children’s literature. We will also look at relevant Greek, Middle Eastern and African mythologies, standard critical analyses of the Cupid and Psyche story, and modern interpretations of myth and mythic criticism to better enable us to consider the production of meaning in children’s texts, how mythic elements function within a story to compel us to believe the story is "worth" the author’s telling, to question the ways that we as readers unconsciously react to story and what makes an ancient Roman love story so crucial to children’s literature.

Primary Reading


After reading Graves’s translation of the relevant chapters of Apuleius’s The Transformations of Lucius, or The Golden Ass, we will be reading retellings and adaptations of "Cupid and Psyche." While the retellings are apparently straightforward recreations of the story, the adaptations are deceptive: the myth is implicit rather than explicit. Adaptations include fairy tale and folktale, as well as retellings of fairy tale and folktale, colonial American children’s literature intended for the instruction of Puritan children, postcolonial African children’s literature and contemporary YA novels. While the assigned texts assume priority in our discussions, students will be expected to adapt our discussions of these materials, and the critical/analytical material, to their own critical examinations of other children’s literary texts as well.

What Is A Myth?

To intelligently discuss myth and legend in children’s literature, we will need to have a collective understanding of what we mean when we use the term myth. With this in mind, I have made several essays available I have found insightful and lucid, such as Bryan S. Rennie’s discussion of "Myth and Mythology" in his Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), and chapter 1 of Mircea Eliade’s Myth and Reality, trans Willard R. Trask. (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), and suggested other readings in mythology (see chapter1.html). The following are some additional meditations that should also be helpful.

Leeming, David Adams. The World of Myth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. In common parlance, a myth is an "old wives’ tale," a generally accepted belief unsubstantiated by fact. Thus, it is a myth that professors are absent-minded or that women are intuitive rather than rational. We also classify as myths the satires of gods and heroes of cults in which we do not believe, tales that once had religious significance. The stories of the exploits of Zeus and Hera, Theseus, Perseus, and Odysseus are in this sense myths. Collections of the myths of particular cultures are called mythologies: the exploits of the characters just mentioned form parts of Greek mythology; the stories of Osiris and Isis are part of Egyptian mythology. We also use the word "mythology" to refer to the academic field concerned with the study of myths and mythologies. We can also speak of myth as an abstract reality, like religion or science.

In the Western world, myths have traditionally been tales of pagan (i.e. non-Judeo-Christian) religions. We speak of Egyptian and Greek myths and sometimes of Hindu and Buddhist myths, but until recently even atheists have rarely spoken of Jewish or Christian myths. Yet if "myth" has always implied falsehood, if we have not believed in Zeus or the Golden Fleece, we have accepted the mythical tales of cultures we value—especially Greco-Roman culture—as somehow important and worth teaching our children. One of the assumptions of this book is that Greco-Roman myths (and those of other cultures) are not only worth teaching but are essential to our education.

The English word "myth" is derived from the Greek mythos, meaning word or story. Human beings have traditionally used stoires to describe or explain things they could not explain otherwise. Ancient myths were stories by means of which our forebears were able to assimilate the mysteries that occurred around and within them. In this sense, myth is related to metaphor, in which an object or event is compared to an apparently dissimilar object or event in such a way as to make its otherwise inexplicable essence clear: Thus, when Yeats speaks of "Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle," the girl in the poem is, in fact, not a gazelle; but something true about her grace and her presence is conveyed when the image of a gazelle is substituted in our minds. In the same way, something of the sense of loss and death we may feel in winter is conveyed by the story of the abduction of Persephone. In short, both s story and as extended metaphor, myth is the direct ancestor of what we think of today as literature. The meaning of myths, like the meaning of any literature, is, as Northrop Frye has said, "inside them, in the implications of their incidents" (Fables of Identity, p. 32).—page 3-5.

Hooke, S.H. Middle Eastern Mythology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, 1971. Since there is a considerable amount of ambiguity in the meaning and use of the term ‘myth’, it is desirable that something should be said about its use in this book. The usual distinction drawn between myth, legend, saga, folk-story, and Märchen is based upon literary criteria; a further current usage distinguishes between myth and historical truth, with the implication that anything which is characterized as a myth is unworthy of belief. The criterion used in this study is neither literary, nor historical, but functional. The myth is a product of human imagination arising out of a definite situation and intended to do something. Hence the right question to ask about the myth is not, ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What is it intended to do?’—p. 11.
  Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957, 1971. In the second paragraph of the Poetics Aristotle speaks of the differences in works of fiction which are caused by the different elevations of the characters in them. In some fictions, he says, the characters are better than we are, in others worse, in still others on the same level. This passage has not received much attention from modern critics, as the importance Aristotle assigns to goodness and badness seems to indicate a somewhat narrowly moralistic view of literature. Aristotle’s words for good and bad, however, are spoudaios and phaulos, which have a figurative sense of weighty and light. In literary fictions the plot consists of somebody doing something. The somebody, if an individual, is the hero, and the something he does or fails to do is what he can do, or could have done, on the level of the postulates made about him by the author and the consequent expectations of the audience. Fictions, therefore, may be classified, not morally, but by the hero’s power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same. Thus:
  1. If superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god. Such stories have an important place in literature, but are as a rule found outside the normal literary categories.
  2. If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, märchen, and their literary affiliates and derivatives.
  3. If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader. He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy, and is primarily the kind of hero that Aristotle had in mind.
  4. If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity and demand from the poet the same canons of probability that find in our own experience. This gives us the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction. "High" and "low" have no connotations of comparative value, but are purely diagrammatic, as they are when they refer to biblical critics or Anglicans. On this level the difficulty in retaining the word "hero," which has a more limited meaning among the preceding modes, occasionally strikes an author. Thackeray thus feels obliged to call Vanity Fair a novel without a hero.
  5. If inferior in power of intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation as the situation is being judged by the norms of a greater freedom.
Looking over this table, we can see that European fiction, during the last fifteen centuries, has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list. In the pre-medieval period literature is closely attached to Christian, late Classical, Celtic or Teutonic myths. If Christianity had not been both an imported myth and a devourer of rival ones, this phase of Western literature would be easier to isolate. In the form in which we possess it, most of it has already moved in the category of romance. Romance divides into two main forms: a secular form dealing with chivalry and knight-errantry, and a religious form devoted to legends of saints. Both lean heavily on miraculous violations of natural law for their interest as stories. Fictions of romance dominate literature until the cult of the prince and the courtier in the Renaissance brings the high mimetic mode into the foreground. The characteristics of this mode are most clearly seen in the genres of drama, particularly tragedy, and national epic. Then a new kind of middle-class culture introduces the low mimetic, which predominates in English literature from Defoe’s time to the end of the nineteenth century. In French literature it begins and ends about fifty years earlier. During the last hundred years, most serious fiction has tended increasingly to be ironic in mode.

Something of the same progression may be traced in Classical literature too, in a greatly foreshortened form. Where a religion is mythological and polytheistic, where there are promiscuous incarnations, deified heroes and kings of divine descent, where the same adjective "godlike" can be applied either to Zeus or to Achilles, it is hardly possible to separate the mythical, romantic, and high mimetic strands completely. Where the religion is theological, and insists on a sharp division between divine and human natures, romance becomes more clearly isolated, as it does in the legends of Christian chivalry and sanctity, in the Arabian Nights of Mohammedanism, in the stories of the judges and thaumaturgic prophets of Israel. Similarly, the inability of the Classical world to shake off the divine leader in its later period has much to do with the abortive development of low mimetic and ironic modes that god barely started with Roman satire. At the same time the establishing of the high mimetic mode, the developing of a literary tradition with a consistent sense of an order of nature in it, is one of the great feats of Greek civilization. Oriental fiction does not, so far as I know, get very far away from mythical and romantic formulas

We shall here deal chiefly with the five epochs of Western literature, as given above, using Classical parallels only incidentally. In each mode a distinction will be useful between naïve and sophisticated literature. The word naïve I take from Schiller’s essay on naïve and sentimental poetry: I mean by it, however, primitive or popular, whereas in Schiller it means something more like Classical. The word sentimental also means something else in English, but we do not have enough genuine critical terms to dispense with it. In quotation marks, therefore, "sentimental" refers to a later recreation of an earlier mode. Thus romanticism is a "sentimental" form of romance, and the fairy tale, for the most part, a "sentimental" for of folk tale. Also there is a general distinction between fictions in which the hero becomes isolated from his society, and fictions in which he is incorporated into it. This distinction is expressed by the words "tragic" and "comic" when they refer to aspects of plot in general and not simply to forms of drama..—page33-35


Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth. Amended and enlarged edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948, 1980.

My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry—‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of ‘the unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute’. The language was tampered with in late Minoan times when invaders from Central Asia began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remodel or falsify the myths to justify the social changes. Then came the early Greek philosophers who were strongly opposed to magical poetry as threatening their new religion of logic, and under their influence a rational poetic language (now called the Classical) was elaborated in honour of their patron Apollo and imposed on the world as the last word in spiritual illumination: a view that has prevailed practically ever since in European schools and universities, where myths are now studied only as quaint relics of the nursery age of mankind.

One of the most uncompromising rejections of early Greek mythology was made by Socrates. Myths frightened or offended him; he preferred to turn his back on them and discipline his mind to think scientifically: ‘to investigate the reason of the being of everything—of everything as it is, not as it appears, and to reject all opinions of which no account can be given.’

Here is a typical passage from Plato’s Phaedrus, (Cary’s translation):

Phae. Tell me, Socrates, is not Boreas reported to have carried off Orithya from somewhere about this part of the Ilissus?

Socr. So it is said.

Phae. Must it not have been from this spot? For the water hereabouts appears beautiful, clear and transparent, and well suited for damsels to sport about.

Socr. No, but lower down, as much s two or three stadia, where we cross over to the temple of the Huntress, and where there is, on the very spot, a kind of altar sacred to Boreas.

Phae. I never noticed it. But tell me, by Jupiter, Socrates, do you believe that this fabulous account is true?



Socr. If I disbelieved it, as the wise do, I should not be guilty of any absurdity: then having recourse to subtleties, I should say that a blast of Boreas threw her down from the neighbouring cliffs, as she was sporting with Pharmacea, and that having thus met her death she was said to have been carried off by Boreas, or from Mars’ hill; for there is also another report that she was carried off from thence and not from this spot. But I, for my part, Phaedrus, consider such things as pretty enough, but as the province of a very curious, painstaking, and not very happy man, and for no other reason than that after this he must set us right as to the form of the Hippocentaurs, and then as to that of the Chimaera; besides, there pours in upon him a crowd of similar monsters, Gorgons and Pegasus, and other monstrous creatures, incredible in number and absurdity, which if anyone were to disbelieve and endeavour to reconcile each with probability, employing for this purpose a kind of vulgar cleverness, he will stand in need of abundant leisure. But I have no leisure at all for such matters; and the cause of it, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, according to the Delphic precept, to know myself. But it appears to me to be ridiculous, while I am still ignorant of this to busy myself about matters that do not concern me.

The face was, that by Socrates’ time the sense of most myths belonging to the previous epoch was either forgotten or kept a close religious secret, though they were still preserved pictorially in religious art and still current as fairy-tales from which the poets quoted. When invited to believe in the Chimaera, the horse-centaurs, or the winged horse Pegasus, all of them straight-forward Pelasgian cult-symbols, a philosopher felt bound to reject them as a zoölogical improbabilities; and because he had no notion of the true identity of ‘the nymph Orithya’ or of the history of the ancient Athenian cult of Boreas, he could give only an inept naturalistic explanation of her rape at Mount Ilissus: ‘doubtless she was blown off one of the cliffs hereabouts and met her death at the foot.’

All the problems that Socrates mentions have been faced in this book and solved to my own satisfaction at least; but though ‘a very curious and painstaking person’ I cannot agree that I am any less happy than Socrates was, or that I have more leisure than he had, or that an understanding of the language of myth is irrelevant to self-knowledge. I deduce from the petulant tone of his phrase ‘vulgar cleverness’ that he had spent a long time worrying about the Chimaera, the horse-centaurs and the rest, but that the ‘reasons of their being’ had eluded him because he was no poet and mistrusted poets, and because, as he admitted to Phaedrus, he was a confirmed townsman who seldom visited the countryside ‘fields and trees will not teach me anything, but men do.’ The study of mythology, as I shall show, is based squarely on tree-lore and season observation of life in the fields.—page 9-11.

Chapter Two
(Traditional Literature & Transcendent Realities) 
Chapter One
("Cupid and Psyche" by Lucius Apuleius) 
Course Outline
Focus Questions 1
(to accompany "Cupid and Psyche" by Apuleius)
Focus Questions 2
(to accompany "Cupid and Psyche" by Apuleius)