Monday, June 18, 2012

The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum

Children, I think, should be raised to read fearlessly. I mean that they should never feel that any book is above their level. Perhaps they may be told that a book has some things in it that they should not be dealing with at their age, but they should never be encouraged to think that a book is too dull, or too hard, or too clever for them.

The first key to raising children who think like this is simply not to tell them that, for example, Shakespeare is too difficult to read. Keep this a deadly secret, even if it is (momentarily) true.  (Actually, given the kind of humour Shakespeare liked, it might be better to read him sooner rather than later, while they don't understand half the jokes).

The second key can be to provide them with children's versions of great literature. This does not help if they see the children's book as a substitute for the great literature--but it can form an excellent introduction to the story. Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare--to continue to the Shakespeare theme--was a great help when I wanted to read the real thing.

The Children's Homer containing The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy was my introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey--two of the oldest stories on Earth. Paris of Troy has abducted Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. When Troy refuses to return Helen to the Greeks, they invade under the leadership of Agammemnon, king of Mycenae, with a great force of heroes including the boisterous Ajax, the wily Odysseus, and the greatest hero of them all, Achilles. Led by Hector, Paris's brother, the city of Troy holds out against the Greeks, and even the gods take sides. After ten years, Odysseus finally hits upon a plan that might work--but even after the war is over, it takes him ten more years to get home, ten years of adventure, mishap, and monsters. Here you will read about the Trojan Horse, the isles of Calypso and of Circe, the lotus-fruit, the Cyclops, the heel of Achilles, the face that launched a thousand ships, the wisdom of Mentor, and the terrible Scylla and Charybdis.

Padraic Colum's wonderful retelling is lucid, clear, and beautiful. Unlike Homer's originals, this version explains much of the backstory to the main myths, and sets the Tale of Troy--the Iliad--within the framing device of Telemachus's search for his father: Menelaus recounts the story. This is a straight retelling of the original Iliad and Odyssey, omitting or glossing over many of the child-unfriendly bits in the original (just how many, I was surprised to discover when I read it).

We have the edition illustrated by Willy Pogany, and the pictures are well worth comment. They are exquisitely simple black line drawings in the Greek style--simple, elegant, and effective, and complementing the book perfectly. They are also somewhat Greek in worldview: male characters are often depicted partially or entirely nude, with idealised bodies. I say "somewhat" Greek in worldview, because in stark contrast to original Greek art, Pogany's nudes are always carefully posed or draped.

Overall, I highly recommend this version of Homer's stories. Our culture is full of references to them; even today, in our illiterate society, it is still possible to tell someone he or she has been working like a Trojan, or to allude to the siren song of something irresistible, or to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as between a rock and a hard place. And even computer viruses know about the Trojan Horse. It is good to know what these things mean, and so I recommend The Children's Homer to you.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

A Pogany illustration under the cut:

Calypso! You made me some pants?

5 comments:

Lucy P said...

Thank you for the recommendation. I'll download shortly. I read 3 translations of the Iliad last year, and one Odyssey (Richmond Lattimore the best, by miles) and the full text is certainly too graphically violent for children. I'm looking forward to seeing what Colum makes of Olympus.

Kim Marsh said...

No comment on the book but my immediate reaction on viewing the illustration was Aubrey Beardsley!

Suzannah said...

Three versions of the Iliad in a year! Well done; not sure if I could have managed that. I have indeed heard that Richmond Lattimore is the best; I've read his Odyssey and preferred it miles beyond prose translations (Prose translations of poetry! Don't get me started!). Yes, the Iliad is full of people getting split from the nave to the chaps. Plenty of splintered bones and teeth and blood. Colum does not retell some of the fruitier episodes of Olympus, I assure you ;).

Lucy P said...

Read this over the weekend. It's a good clear rendering of the basic story: he rather softens the unlikeable aspects of the character of Odysseus, but that's no bad thing. But if this was really written for children....I can't imagine today's children with their miniscule attention spans managing it, I'm afraid!

Suzannah said...

Thanks for the feedback! Love hearing when I've talked people into reading a book I recommend.

Children today do have short attention spans, yet I believe that with proper discipline and careful upbringing (no TV, plenty of reading aloud, and absolutely no TV) a child will have no trouble handling a book like this by the age of 10 or 11.

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