The Great God Pan, by Donna Jo Napoli

Donna Jo Napoli is a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, try and she writes children’s books. Over the last few years, clinic she’s been retelling fairy tales and myths in a group of short novels for middle-grade or YA readers, treat including retellings of Beauty and the Beast (Beast), Rapunzel (Zel), and the legend of the Sirens (Sirena). I read Beast quite a few years ago, and can’t remember it all that well, but I picked up a copy of The Great God Pan only a few weeks ago and read it in one sitting.

The novel is very short — only 146 pages — and a smallish hardback, closer to the size of a trade paperback. Despite this, I’d say it’s intended for YA readers, considering the subject matter. Pan is, after all, a god of revelry, and that does include drinking and frolicking with wood nymphs. This novel is an attempt, she says in the afterword, to fill in some gaps in the Pan and Iphigenia myths.

Pan is the nature god, son of Hermes and Dryope, a nymph. He is half goat and half man, as I’m sure many readers know, and therefore sort of between the two worlds. He is sort of a pet of the gods on Olympus, and not quite nature-y enough not to care. He meets Iphigenia, a Greek princess, who is the daughter of Helen of Trojan fame and Theseus, but raised by Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who is Helen’s sister. Iphigenia and Pan get along quite well, and he develops a tendre for her. Time passes; he sees her again a few times, but then Agamemnon is ordered to sacrifice his daughter to the gods for offending them, and Pan must come up with a plan to save her. He must also make peace with the Olympian gods, regarding his status as godling or perhaps pet.

None of this, I’m certain, is new to students of Greek mythology; the story is fleshed out somewhat from the original Greek tellings, but mostly with Pan’s musings on his life and his state in the world. It is told in first-person present tense; our narrator is Pan himself. He is an interesting character, but we spend nearly a hundred and fifty pages in his head. There is little time to develop the personalities of many other characters, including Iphigenia herself. Even Hermes and Apollo seem awfully flat, but I’m not sure I should expect so much more from what is really a meditation in one god’s head.

The setting, in trees and by brooks, is lovingly described; Napoli writes lyrically and poetically, but sometimes it bothers me. I don’t appreciate authors who set out to write a novel that’s half poetry as much as I suppose I should, and while I finished it enthusiastically and appreciated her skill, it didn’t move me emotionally nearly as much as Shannon Hale’s lyrical fairy-tale retellings. The style, it seemed to me, got in the way of the story.

The length versus the subject matter I thought would be a problem, but it isn’t. Napoli glosses over the sex and alcohol consumption, but she doesn’t hide it. I don’t think younger readers would be interested in the book because of the style of writing, not because of the subject matter. Older readers would have to enjoy the style to appreciate the book as much as perhaps they should. I didn’t, but I think it’s mostly a matter of personal preferences. For Napoli’s sheer technical ability, I’ll give the book 4.5/5 stars, but my enjoyment was a bit lower than that.

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