The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science
By Marc Aronson with Adrienne Mayor
Illustrated by Chris Muller
On shelves April 8th.
I remember back in 2007 when the American Museum of Natural History in NYC premiered a show called “Mythic Creatures”. It made a fair amount of press and with good reason. It’s not every day you see full-scale models of mythical creatures presented in a serious museum setting. The show got some nice write-ups but though I listened to the explanations of why it was going on, I didn’t quite catch the whole point. To me it just sort of sounded like a cheap ploy to lure more patrons into the museum’s exhibits. A bit of the old P.T Barnum, albeit with a classier imprimatur. Years passed and I forgot about the show right up until the publication of The Griffin and the Dinosaur. As I read the book, memories of the show came back to me, as did my complete and utter misunderstanding of what it had been trying to accomplish. Fortunately, I am happy to report that once in a while in this life a gal gets a second chance. With Marc Aronson and Adrienne Mayor’s hard work, now I have a book before me that clarifies the true connection between the prehistoric and the mythical. Focused through a single woman’s obsessive search, this book comes off as both a riveting historical mystery as well as a wonderful example of how a person’s passions might take them places they never imagined they might travel. The future isn’t written in stone but it might just be written in bones.
It was kind of a goofy idea. The sort of thing a person might consider off-handedly then forget about five minutes later. But for Adrienne Mayor, the idea stuck. It was simple too. You see, after doing lots of research at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Ms. Mayor noticed a strange pattern. Reading texts by ancient Greeks she noticed that when they discussed creatures like griffins they always sounded like they knew about these animals firsthand. Is it possible that these creatures were conjured up after the Greeks found some ancient bones of one kind of another? Not a natural born scholar, Adrienne always considered herself more of an artist than anything else. Still, this question about the griffin’s origins intrigued her. What she could not have expected was how her search would take her from Greece to Samos to The Museum of the Rockies to distant China. Infinitely interesting, illustrated with multiple photographs, sketches, ancient images and contemporary illustrations, Mayor not only shows where our ancestors got their seemingly goofy ideas, but gives these people a form of credit and respect that is certainly their due.
Every Marc Aronson book is different. Generalizing is not something you can really do when you discuss him as an author. I have found in the past that some of his books ran a bit on the long and lengthy side, but beyond that there aren’t any real connecting threads between one project and another. Yet if I found Mr. Aronson to be a bit more loquacious at times than he needed to be, no such objection could possibly be leveled at The Griffin and the Dinosaur. Coming in at a svelte 48 pages, a number normally associated with slightly longer picture books, Aronson wastes no time getting to the meat of the matter. Turn to the first page and there’s Adrienne, age six. Four pages later she’s studying in Athens while her fiancé works on his ancient Greek fortress research. Aronson cuts to the chase, helped in large part by his interviews with Adrienne. The result is a well-rounded portrait of a single woman going against the odds to prove something both interesting and odd. It’s research presented to kids as adventure in a format they’re going to actually WANT to read. How rare is that?
I know that one reviewer of this book was dismayed by an interpretation of Marc Aronson’s message here that says that people who closely observe the world around them are just as good as professional scholars in the field. For the record, I do not happen to agree that that is what Aronson is saying. I think it far more likely that Aronson is displaying the need for balance. You can sit behind dusty tomes all day long with your professional degree hanging up upon a wall, but if you don’t go out and try new ideas and speak to new people and even do a bit of exploring (of one kind or another) then you cannot be surprised when a woman like Ms. Mayor goes about making a fabulous, hitherto unknown (or unproved) discovery. By the same token, the person who observes the world around them closely but never picks up a book or does even rudimentary research is going to completely miss the potential connections out there that could justify their work. Mayor exhibited both a willingness to learn and a sharp-eyed curiosity that was willing to question. In an era when so much research is beholden to outside interests, it does the heart good to read a book about a woman who set out to discover what many might have considered impossible to prove.
The extra details turn out to be just as enchanting. The entire history of the Scythians and how they might have been an inspiration for some of the Amazon women tales out there is captivating. Even more so their gold, as well as the discovery of Megalopolis. And then there’s that amazing look at mammoth skulls and how they might have inspired the stories of the Cyclops. It all got me to thinking about the role of myths in the world and their beginnings. Maybe a kid will read this book and begin to wonder what the roots of other great myths might be. Will they start poring over Hindi and Norse myths, looking for clues to the past? Or will they simply get a better sense of one of the big themes of the book: that ancient people had reasons for making up the stories that they did. For me, that was a moral well worth taking away from the story. We have a tendency to look down our nose at our ancient ancestors, but as this book shows, these people had their reasons for thinking the way that they did. We should never be so egotistical as to believe that we are the first people to find the bones of long extinct creatures and to make up reasons for their existence.
As for the art, for the most part it’s okay but artist Chris Muller gets off to a shaky start. His presence in the book makes a lot of sense. I could completely understand the need to ratchet up the kid-friendly elements of the story, of course. If you name your book The Griffin and the Dinosaur then you better bloody well have a couple griffins in there (to say nothing of the dinosaurs). In fact, when Muller is working on the mythical, he is at his best. The cover, for example, is striking, as are his images of an Amazon fighting a griffin or a sleeping griffin protecting its nest. Where it all breaks down is when he has to deal with reality. The publication page says that the paintings were made with “traditional media – pencil and watercolors – and digital painting.” Traditional media is fine with me, but the digital painting proves to be occasionally painful. For example, a preliminary image of young Adrienne dowsing above the skeleton of a dinosaur is baffling partly because I couldn’t find any mentions of dowsing in the text and partly because the CGI cloud cover contrasts horribly with the drawn Adrienne. It feels like a cheap image in an otherwise classy book. Happily, it is the only moment when I felt that way. Other images in the book border or plunge right into the fantastical, and that’s appropriate for the moments they tend to illustrate.
This is the Possession by A.S. Byatt of children’s literature. An honest-to-goodness historical mystery complete with an early hypothesis, a likable heroine, multiple dead ends, and at the end? GOLD! Literally. It succeeds at doing many things at once, but never runs too long or bores the reader with its findings. Mayor is a likable and ultimately unintimidating subject for kids to follow. For those children obsessed with myths and legends, this might be the ideal way to transition them gently from the world of the fantastical into one of research and exploration. For Percy Jackson lovers everywhere.
On shelves April 8th.
Source: Final copy sent from publicist for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Dragons and Monsters by Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda
- Secrets from the Rocks: Dinosaur Hunting with Roy Chapman Andrews by Albert Marrin
- Myths and Monsters: Secrets Revealed by Katie Edwards
Professional Reviews: Kirkus
- The American Museum of Natural History offers their own summary of the griffin/dinosaur connection.
- And here’s a New York Times article from 2000 discussing the matter as well.