Lessons on Heroicism, Religion, and Manliness in Kingsley’s Retelling of Greek Myths

Inside and Outside Titles
Figure 1: Cover and Title Page

© 2013, Sarah Lane

Kingsley, Charles. The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales for My Children. Illus. W. Russell Flint. Plymouth: The Medici Society Ltd., 1912. Print.

The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales for My Children by Charles Kingsley was first published in 1855 at Christmas (Alderson 81). The version found at the Children’s Literature Archive was published in 1912, in Great Britain, by the Medici Society who subsequently reprinted it many times throughout the early 20th century. The Medici Society, founded in 1908, originally published works of art for the general public. Eventually, the company began publishing different items including children’s books (“A Short History of Medici”). The nine illustrations featured in this edition of The Heroes are prints of water-colour drawings by W. Russell Flint. Flint, a Scottish born painter, began his work as a medical illustrator and later shifted his focus towards illustrating story books, including this one (“About Sir William Russell Flint”). It is possible that the Medici Society, being interested in publishing artwork, published Kingsley’s The Heroes mainly for the sake of showcasing Flint’s illustrations. Although, arguably, both the illustrations and the text can be considered works of art. Bound with a simple green cover embossed with an image that also appears on its inside title page, this edition of Kingsley’s Heroes is simple in design (see figure 1). Yet, the quality of both Kingsley’s text and Flint’s illustrations make it a beautiful piece of work.

Theseus and the Minotaur
Figure 2: Theseus Slays the Minotaur
[Theseus] caught him by the horns, and forced his head back, and drove his keen sword through his throat
In 1855, when Kingsley wrote The Heroes, England was fighting against the Russians in the Crimean War (“Crimean War”). War is a time when young men, theoretically, go off to fight a common enemy for the benefit of the greater good. This is similar to what the heroes experience in Kingsley’s text. Theseus, for example, ventures out across the country, defeating evil monsters, to reclaim the land for himself and his people (see figure 2). Many of the soldiers who fight in real life wars, as well as the young heroes of the Greek myths, begin their journeys as boys but are matured by their experience and come home as men. Through his reiteration of these Greek myths, Kingsley is showing young boys, for whom the threat of war is very real and the possibility of one day becoming a soldier very likely, that men, particularly warriors, can be heroes. For this reason, it is understandable that Kingsley’s book has continued to be published long after his death. War, unfortunately, plagues the world quite frequently. Whether it be on a grand scale such as the world wars, or on a smaller civil war scale, many young men, and now women, have to do as the Greek heroes did and go out and fight for what they believe is right. In 1912, when this edition of The Heroes was published, England was not at war (though WWI would begin only two years later), but their military was still developing and preparing young soldiers for conflict (“The Army Manoeuvres of 1912”). Therefore, this edition of The Heroes still served a similar purpose as Kingsley’s original version, in that it taught children about heroism and how to be a soldier for the Lord.

Cheiron Prays for the Safety of the Argonauts
Figure 3: Cheiron Prays for the Argonauts
He went up to a cliff, and prayed for them, that they might come home safe and well

It may at first seem surprising that a devout Christian, such as Kingsley (Fasick 106), would choose to write about the Greeks. However, despite the fact that they worshiped different deities, many Christians in Kingsley’s Victorian society were very interested in comparing the similarities between ancient Greek and modern Christian religions (Louis 331). Some of the parallels, such as ideas regarding heaven, hell and sin, make themselves known in The Heroes. These Greek tales gave Kingsley an opportunity to teach his children valuable, religious lessons, while at the same time entertain them with the fantastical elements often found in Greek myths. His children could learn to serve the Lord as the Greeks served their Gods – selflessly and actively. Yet, Kingsley also made sure that his children knew that the Greeks, unlike the Christians, fell from God’s grace. When the Greek heroes pleased their Gods, with prayer and good deeds, the Gods helped them in return (see figure 3). However, when they grew too proud or displeased the Gods, as Theseus did, they were punished. In both 1855 and 1912, when religion was being debated constantly and facing some serious changes, this book and the lessons within it would have been valuable to Christians wanting to instil their own values on their children (“Volume E”; “Volume F”). This text also allowed Kingsley, specifically, to explore his interest in a more unique branch of Christianity.

Christian manliness or, as it was later called, Muscular Christianity, was a branch of Christianity, which Kingsley advocated, that favoured a balance between strength, manliness, and piety (Fasick 106). Kingsley did not like the idea of men being inactive. He wanted them to go out in the world and do God’s work, or do things that would please the Lord (Norman 31). In The Heroes, Perseus, Jason, and Theseus are bold, strong, and courageous, but they are also extremely devout and show a softer side as well. This is the type of man that he wanted his son, and all young boys, to try to become. Through these stories Kingsley was able to give them role models to try to live up to, role models that he shaped into ideal images of Christian manliness.

Beyond the aforementioned reasons, Kingsley’s Heroes has one final appeal that would have been valuable for the books audience in both 1855 and 1912. The Heroes, like many children’s stories, seems as though it is meant to be read aloud and enjoyed by the whole family. Family meant a great deal to Kingsley and that is apparent in this text (Fasick 107). Throughout the stories, he addresses his children; he engages with them. Such a writing style provides a great opportunity for parents to bond with their own children. The limited number of illustrations also allows children and adults alike to use their imaginations to picture the events that occur within the story. Combining stories that are meant to be told, not just read, with minimal illustrations that left much to the imagination, this book would have been a great gift to share with family. In Kingsley’s time, he probably read the book to his children. Whereas, in 1912, when this edition was published, schooling had become compulsory and more and more children were learning how to read on their own (“Volume F: The 20th Century and After”). Yet, despite the fact that the reader, the audience, and the presentation may have changed, at its core, this text remains the same. It remains a beautiful collection of stories that anyone can enjoy.


Works Cited

“A Short History of Medici.” The Medici Society Limited. The Medici Society, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2013

“About Sir William Russell Flint.” Sir William Russell Flint Prints. Sir William Russell Flint Prints, 2013.     Web. 26 Mar. 2013.

Alderson, Brian. “Heroic Reading.” Children’s Literature in Education 26.1 (1995): 73-82. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

“The Army Manoeuvres of 1912.” Cambridge County Council. Cambridgeshire County Council, 12 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2013

“Crimean War.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2013

Fasick, Laura. “The Failure of Fatherhood: Maleness and Its Discontents in Charles Kingsley.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 18.3 (1993): 106-111. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

Louis, Margot. K. “Gods and Mysteries: The Revival of Paganism and the Remaking of Mythography Through the Nineteenth Century.” Victorian Studies 47.3 (2005): 329-361, Web. 26 Mar. 2013.

Norman, Vance. “Kingsley’s Christian Manliness.” Theology 78 (1975): 30-38, Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

“Volume E: The Victorian Age.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition: W. W. Norton StudySpace. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.

“Volume F: The 20th Century and After.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition: W. W. Norton StudySpace. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.

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