The Great God Pan by Donna Jo Napoli

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As long time readers of this site will know, I have always been interested in myths and epic stories.  I also enjoy young adult fiction; particularly those with a fantasy element.  So a book that combines the two should be right up my alley. 

With this in mind, when I stumbled upon The Great God Pan by Donna Jo Napoli it seemed like a natural for me.  A quick read that combined my interest in myth with the target audience of young adults.

It turned out to be an enjoyable read, but a little on the bland side. 

To give you an idea of what it is about – other than the obvious subject of the title – here is the synopsis from the School Library Journal:

Meet Pan: half-god/half-goat, full of life, frolicking in the woods with maenads, playing his pipes, and creating pan-ic. In Napoli’s version of the story, he meets Iphigenia by chance and falls in love with her. Innocence disappears, and the curse placed upon him at birth-that he will never be loved-seems destined to come true, for his life revolves around finding her again. And he does find her, just as she is about to be sacrificed by her own father. Pan devises a trick to save Iphigenia’s life at the expense of his own, his love for the woman outweighing his lust for life. Napoli has written a fine story-it is fast paced, the characters and setting are well realized, and it even has intrigue and randy scenes of woodland romps tailored for teens. However, scholars of Greek mythology will find a strange dichotomy in this story: many bits of the known tales of both Pan and Iphigenia are here, but there is also a fabricated story that connects the two characters. Napoli has included many details from ancient texts, providing needed background for mythology novices. However, she has also created a story that fills in the “gaps” in each tale, rewriting myth for modern readers. Purists may find fault with this, but teens who enjoyed books such as Caroline Cooney’s Goddess of Yesterday (Delacorte, 2002) will simply find a good story.

Publishers Weekly is a little more critical: 

As in her Sirena, Napoli populates this ambitious novel with classical literary figures, chief among them Pan, the half-goat, half-god associated with nature. While Napoli’s Pan physically conforms to classical type, psychologically he is very much a contemporary creation. Here he is said to fall in love with Iphigenia (readers who don’t know that Iphigenia is to be sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, at the start of the Trojan War may not appreciate the tension in the plot). Love makes Pan painfully vulnerable in a mortal, not godlike way: he broods over his hybrid state, worries about being taken seriously and suffers from alienation. All of these conditions might make this Pan a mirror for adolescent readers, but, unfortunately, Pan seems indistinct from the other characters here. The voices sound alike, whether god, nymph, maenad or human is speaking. Interestingly, Napoli follows a variant of the Iphigenia legend, in which Iphigenia, unbeknownst to Agamemnon, is in fact the daughter of Theseus and Helen. This change transforms the shadow of her anticipated sacrifice, from something inspiring pity and terror to a doomed and brutal act of violence. Accordingly, when Napoli deviates from the seemingly inevitable ending and spares Iphegenia, she moves the story from the realm of tragedy into that of romance. The novel may be more pleasing to young readers than its classical models, but it is also a dilution of them.

I think perhaps this illustrates the limits of YA fiction for adults.  The book does a good job of imagining the world of myth where gods and mortals interact.  It also explores some of the interesting emotions and conflicting loyalties involved.  But it never achieves the depth required to make the story more interesting.  It seems an almost lighthearted story despite the underlying themes of love and death.

It might be a good introduction to myth for young readers intimidated by more serious approaches, but in the end it is a little too light to pack much a punch. 

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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