Title of the work
Country of the First Edition
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David Elliott, Bull, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 185 pp.
davidelliottbooks.com (accessed: September 24, 2018)
2017 - Kirkus Best Teen Books
2017 - Booklist Editor's Choice
2017 - Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
2017 - New York Public Library Best Book for Teens
2017 - Junior Library Guild Selection
2017 - Cybils Award, Poetry Finalist
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Author of the Entry:
Miriam Riverlea, University of New England, email@example.com
Peer-reviewer of the Entry:
Elizabeth Hale, University of New England, firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniel Nkemleke, ENS, University of Yaounde1, email@example.com
, b. 1947
David Elliott was born into a workingclass family in a small farming town in Ohio. He began writing stories as a teenager, although his first submission to The New Yorker was returned to him torn in half. He aspired to be an opera singer, and studied classical singing at a conservatory. He has had a number of unusual jobs, including being a pop singer in Mexico, washing cucumbers in Greece, and making popsicle sticks in Israel. He also taught English in Libya, and lectured in creative writing and literary studies at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.
He is the author of a number of picture books, including This Orq (2014), about a cave boy and his wooly mammoth, and Baabwaa and Wooliam (2017), a love story about two sheep. He has also written chapter books for juvenile readers, including the Evangeline Mudd series (2004) and Jeremy Cabbage (2008), and currently has several books in production. The verse novel Bull (2017) is a radical departure from his lighthearted, humorous work for younger readers, but reflects another aspect of his enduring interest in wordplay. Elliott has a wife, Barbara, and a son, Eli. He lives in Warner, New Hampshire.
Bio prepared by Miriam Riverlea, University of New England, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bull is a unique retelling of the Cretan mythic cycle in the form of a verse novel. The story is related through monologues by Poseidon, Minos, Pasiphae, Asterion, Ariadne, Daedalus and Theseus. Poseidon takes control of the narrative, relating how Minos prays to the gods for a sign to justify his right to rule. The god obliges by sending a beautiful milk-white bull out of the ocean. But when Minos conceals the creature within his herds and sacrifices an inferior animal in its place, he incurs Poseidon’s wrath. After considering a range of hideous punishments for the king, the god instead chooses to target him through his wife, causing her to desire the beautiful bull. Pasiphae enlists the engineer Daedalus, and though he is disgusted, he builds her a wooden cow that will enable her to copulate with the creature.
The baby is born, a hybrid human with the head of a bull. Pasiphae calls him Asterion, "Ruler of the Stars," and loves her baby, but the fractured way that she speaks of him marks the beginning of her descent into madness. The text follows Asterion through childhood, from a three-year-old making up nursery rhymes, to a nine-year-old bullied by his peers, and finally as a teenager pondering existential questions. Meanwhile, Minos and Pasiphae have been having other children, including a favoured son called Androgeos, and Ariadne, a beautiful daughter. Androgeos sails to Athens to compete in a games contest and is killed when a javelin accidentally strikes him. Poseidon takes credit for the death, which devastates Minos. He charges Daedalus with the task of building the labyrinth, and imprisons Asterion, now aged seventeen, within the maze, and commands Athens to send an annual tribute of seven young men and seven young women to Crete as a reprisal for the loss of his beloved son.
Ariadne despises her father and his kingdom and had been planning to flee Crete with Asterion on the ship that took Androgeos to Athens. With this escape route closed to her, she blackmails Daedalus into crafting a tiny hole in the labyrinth through which she can communicate her plans with her brother. Her assurances that she will help him allay his descent into madness, depression and violence. After threatening to reveal Daedalus’ own escape plan once more, she obtains from the engineer the simple solution to navigating the maze – a piece of string. But when the Athenians arrive, everything changes. Ariadne falls in love with Theseus, and though he promises to help her rescue her brother, all the while intending to slay the monster in the maze. Realising he is forsaken, Asterion’s transformation into the Minotaur is complete, moments before he is slaughtered. The text concludes with Poseidon’s reflections on the sorry saga, including confessions that he didn’t actually have the power to kill Androgeos or make Ariadne fall in love with Theseus, as he had claimed. Longing for the sea, he returns to his watery kingdom.
In an epilogue Elliott writes that ‘[w]hen a story is still going strong after two thousand years, it must be telling us something important about ourselves, maybe even something we need to hear.’ (p.179) He highlights his fidelity to the traditional version of the Minotaur myth, and comments on his decision to follow the variant in which the Athenian tribute is an annual rather than seven yearly event. He also justifies his invention of the scenario in which Ariadne discovers that Daedalus has built wings and is preparing to flee Crete, and blackmails him into cutting a tiny hole in the labyrinth through which she can communicate with her brother.
The text interrogates the notion of monstrousness through giving Asterion an opportunity to speak for himself. Elliott refers to him as ‘a boy, unlike most of us, whose deformities lay on the outside, visible for all to see.’ (p. 181) Through the representation of Asterion’s childhood and the love that his mother and sister have for him, Elliott renders him a sympathetic figure who meets a tragic end. When confined to the labyrinth, his monologues appear on coloured paper that gradually shifts from white, through shades of grey, to black. His final speech, ‘HELL is the freezing / scorn for who you are / that transforms a faultless boy / to Minotaur’ (p. 167-169), signifies that the change from boy to beast is complete, yet the words are still delivered in articulate verse form.
Each player in the story speaks in a different poetic form that reflects their character. Asterion uses an Italian form, similar to the sonnet, called the ottava rima, which Elliott feels highlights the nobility of his suffering, while Minos speaks his kingly decrees in split couplets. The text features a number of experimental textual and visual elements. Like Nadia Wheatley’s ‘Melting Point’, Elliott uses concrete poetry to depict the emotional state of his characters. Pasiphae’s words, in ‘roughly syllabic lines’ (p. 186), become increasingly senseless until they are scattered randomly across the page.
Bull is a unique and contemporary retelling of the Minotaur myth, which successfully recontextualises the traditional narrative within the form of the verse novel.
Baker, Deirdre F. "Elliott, David: Bull." The Horn Book Guide 28, no. 2 (2017): 126.
Interview, theconcordinsider.com (accessed: September 24, 2018).
The Myth of the Minotaur? That’s BULL, momreadit.wordpress.com (accessed: September 24, 2018).