Adventures in Pagan Fiction: Donna Jo Napoli’s “The Great God Pan”

The cover of Napoli's short novel "The Great God Pan."

The cover of Napoli’s short novel “The Great God Pan.”

A few weeks ago, Jason Mankey created a lovely post tracing the “literary cult of Pan” that ended with his reading the evocative passage on Pan in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).  This lovely piece got me thinking about all the times I’ve encountered Pan in prose and poetry–a not infrequent encounter given that the writers I study are usually caught up somewhere in Pan’s cult.  Eventually I found myself dwelling on a young adult novel published just as I was entering college:  Donna Jo Napoli’s The Great God Pan (2003).

For those of you who are unaware, Napoli is an esteemed linguist who began publishing young adult novels in 1993 with The Magic Circle, a beautiful re-telling of Hansel and Gretel that is rich and textured…and makes plenty of medieval magic.  These re-tellings have largely become Napoli’s bread and butter in young adult literature, and she makes great use of fairy tale, myth, and history in creating them.  Often, she brings together aspects of different stories or myths to create a new perspective on an old tale.

Such is her treatment of Pan, where Napoli marries his myths with those of Iphigenia, the illegitimate daughter of Helen of Troy.  Napoli introduces the reader to Pan as a perfectly content nature deity, half-god, half-goat, who can change himself into any creature other than fully god/man or fully goat.  He is dedicated to his father, Hermes, and wary of Aphrodite, who cursed him to his liminal state following the death of her child with Hermes, Hermaphrodite.  Aphrodite causes him to meet with Iphigenia, and Pan falls in love with her, for she responds to him in a way that forces him to question all his known reality–love, truth, family…even his own god-hood.  Ultimately, in a twisting together of Plutarch and Pseudo-Apollodorus, Pan goes beyond himself and transforms fully into a goat to take the place of Iphigenia, who was to be sacrificed so that her adoptive father Agamemnon could get the winds to sail into Troy for the war.  And so the great god Pan allows himself to be killed for love.

As with all of Napoli’s young adult texts, she excels in tracing a deep internal struggle for the main character and the maturation required to make impossible choices.  There’s a texture, a grittiness in her work that is hard to find.  It can even be alienating–despite being in Pan’s first person narrative, there’s a strong distance held between him and the reader.  But her prose is beautiful and her stories poignant.  The Great God Pan is not a perfect work…but it is one I come back to as a mature reader and can find something new and wonderful in it with every re-reading.

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