When COVID-19 lockdown restrictions eased, the Granddaughters, at whom I had waved idiotically through windows, at last reappeared in our house – well, in the garden of the house at any rate. The mad Zoom sessions surrounded by old school books, new school books, quizzes, tasks – and, of course, ridiculously high expectations – were finally replaced by physical – well, proximal – contact. Parents now back at work, the old folk had to get involved again – epidemic or no epidemic. Our garden suddenly became a school – two oldies (my wife and I) and girls of 4 and 8. We even had an awning installed on the patio for those rainy days, once we realised the impracticality of squeezing children into a shed.
Of course (?), I play the role of Teaching Assistant to my superwoman wife – mother, grandmother, educator, already primed, prepped, and always calm. My lifelong motto of “why remain calm when you can become hysterical” somehow had to get written out of the script in the new classroom.
The school website did help (Maths, English, project work etc), though we were through that within the first hour, and then reliant on our planning and ingenuity. There was some marvellous improvisation, for example a science lesson involving setting fire to the lawn with the help of the sun and a magnifying glass. (We did explain about the Australian bush fires….) And at some point in the daily chaos there had to be a story. So I am sent off to the “library” (half a converted garage with shelves and cartons packed full of books) to find something suitable.
What could I find that would provide excitement, danger, fantasy, fear, joy and be suitable for educating two young children? Well, it was obvious. And no I didn’t turn to graphic novel reruns of Dickens or Hardy, but ran my eyes along my shelf of Classics and plucked out a small orange cloth covered hardback, which I had picked up from goodness knows where, goodness knows when, entitled The Odyssey of Homer. After all, young minds needed to be educated in the Classics and where best to start but with the grand daddy of them all – Homer.
Of course, we don’t really know if Homer ever existed, or if he did, that he actually wrote either The Iliad or The Odyssey which is all a bit tricky to explain to those under 10, let alone for me to muse upon. So let’s leave aside The Homeric Question. The point is that this wonderful story has survived millennia, because it is a darn good tale. And – dead language Classic or not – the supposed author of the tale has proved lasting and popular enough to provide a name for folk real and fictional – a bit like the poet himself.
So I grab this small volume – with its splendid publisher’s little lamp logo blind stamped on the front cover – and wander out into the garden where the girls “on their break” idly camp in a kiddy tent on the small lawn.
The book, edited by R. D. Wormwald and illustrated by J. C. Knight, was part of Longmans Green The Heritage of Literature Series and its little lamp was going to shine the light of knowledge on two little minds who – despite Walt Disney – hadn’t yet heard the tale of Odysseus’s epic voyage home from the Trojan War.
It is a well constructed rehash of the original text of The Odyssey which combines extracts from the translation by E. V. Rieu “with extracts from modern authors to form a continuous prose narrative of the adventures of Odysseus”. The ruminations of the gods get rather short shrift but this abridged retelling of the tale – first published in 1958 – moves chronologically, logically and swiftly – ideal for my purpose.
However, it cannot mask entirely the gory escapades of this terrible tale, and as I skip lightly through the Ciconians (unprovoked murder) and the Lotus Eaters (drugs), I realise what I am in for, and settle on the cyclops, Polyphemus, with his “one terrible eye, set in the middle of his forehead”. Children, I think, are well attuned to deal with a tale of grisly strife against giants, and with a bit of judicious summarising, not dwelling too much on the details of the giant’s eating habits, I recount how Polyphemus is blinded, Odysseus escapes with the aid of a few sheep and the story finishes with the page turner of the curse as our hero now becomes fated to a rather long journey home.
And so the happy ritual is established of a chapter a day over several weeks of home schooling. The four-year old dips in and out – the real hit for her being the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybdis. We spend a few scary (but adult led) moments looking at pictures of how other folk have conceived Scylla to be. A child’s imagination of “a dreadful monster with twelve feet and six exceedingly long necks, each ending in a grisly head with three rows of teeth” can, of course, be worse than most images available on the world wide web, but at least this is strictly in the realm of fantasy. (Though looking at the inquisitive face of the girls’ pet pug I sometimes wonder…) But Homer has clearly made an impression – even on the mind of a pre-school child. She still says to me, months later: “Granddad – tell me about the Sirens again”.
As we worked our way through the chapters, the eight-year old – now inspired to write more of her own tales – tells me that Homer is “cool”. Crikey! And it is not just the events of the stories she picks up on, but she readily begins to make comments and ask questions about the strange epic hero which Homer created. She is trying with child-like clarity to understand, not just the world that Odysseus inhabited, but also how he behaved in the trials and tribulations he encountered. She sees that he lies when he needs to. She sees how a stranger is often treated with kindness and respect when he arrives in a foreign land and how a bed is regularly made up for him. (Though we are still trying to work out why he always seems to sleep under the portico – but I suppose if he visited me, I’d probably tell him to sleep out the locked door under the porch.)
I try to explain that – like many heroes – Odysseus is not necessarily a great role model, nor indeed (and that’s for sure) the best moral compass. “That wasn’t very nice”, I am told as Odysseus’s actions leave us rather aghast. And I turn later to my fuller version of the Odyssey to see what it says about his early unprovoked assault on the Cicones.
“I sacked their city and slew the people. And from the city we took their wives and much substance, and divided them amongst us…”
The abridged version attempts to sanitise the murderous attack of Odysseus and his gang by explaining that “because for ten years their minds had been filled with thoughts of war and strife, it did not seem to them an evil thing”. Well, that’s all right then… We are at least trying to get to grips with the moral yardstick here. But I begin to wonder how on earth I am going to summarise for children the endgame in Ithaca when the suitors of Odysseus’s wife Penelope and the maids get their truly gruesome and merciless comeuppance.
I suppose much has been written on the leadership qualities of Odysseus, but the tale gives us some fascinating insights into the relations and tensions between him and his band of men – notably his conflict with the rather rebellious Eurylochus who at one point “made Odysseus so angry that he thought of drawing his sword and cutting off Eurolychus’ head”. (Cue: “That’s not very nice, Granddad.”) I start thinking of how Odysseus might benefit from some training in transactional analysis and a presentation on Franklin Ernst’s OK Corral. Some training in delegation and communications might not go amiss either. Sailing away from Aeolia, Odysseus seems to neglect telling his jealous men what bag of tricks Aeolius has given him, arousing their curiosity and then falling asleep because he couldn’t seem to trust any of them to look after the boat while he took a break. When he falls asleep with their destination in sight, they have a look and out of the bag pop the winds that ruin everything. Similar calamities follow Odysseus’s inclination to snooze on Thrinacia, when the recalcitrant Eurylochus slaughters and roasts the cattle of Helios. Cue: more disaster.
Sometimes it seems that Odysseus is so irritated by his gang that he is content to let them expose themselves to danger while he takes care of himself. So in Telepylus, sensing some trouble which he fails to convey to his troops, he lets them moor their boats in the harbour, subsequently providing a ready target and a tasty snack for the local giants who promptly destroy the boats, spear the men like fishes and devour them. More people-eating which I gloss over for the girls. The sly Odysseus, of course, had cunningly moored his own boat away from the harbour by one of the headlands and escaped their fate. Surely no good now being “sorely grieved” over the loss of his companions. I don’t think this was a case of hindsight.
Between bouts of home schooling I dig further for enlightenment into my fuller version of The Odyssey. A small American-published paperback book bought in the 1970s, which has moved house with me at least half a dozen times and which now inelegantly falls apart as I turn the pages. A “reading copy”, as they say. This turns out to use the famous 19th century translation of classicist Samuel Henry Butcher and the classically trained eminent man of letters, Andrew Lang, who – I am happy to note – describe Odysseus as a “crafty adventurer”, “foolhardy” and “cunning”.
Despite my A-level Latin, I am rather uncoached in these Ancient Greek matters, but glad to see from cursory wikipedean-style research that Odysseus’s slyness indeed earned him the epithet “cunning” and while the ancient Greeks might have admired his cunning and deceit, the Romans, with their notion of honour, apparently saw him more as a cruel, villainous falsifier. This makes me wonder more how the real folk of these times lived their lives. I skimmed over the gods in my home schooling, but they were clearly A list characters. I suppose the motto was – keep the gods on side, watch your back and make sure you’ve got your weapon handy. And suddenly I am transported now from home schooling to the latest video download that my dear wife watches most nights – The Vikings. Although a thousand years later, these maritime warriors with their brutality and treachery, their gods and tribes, bring home to me what Odysseus and his band of men must have been like. Perhaps that is, at the heart of things, really the way it still is. It is an alarming train of thought.
At least, with the girls and home schooling, there were some wonderful lighter moments, most notably the youthful hysteria that ensued upon finding a king of giants (the Laestrygonians) called Antiphates. The “knock knock” jokes still persist. (Knock, knock. “Who’s there?” “Anti.” “Anti who?” “Antiphates” – cue fits of giggles and variations on the theme.) And the phrase “heavy with wine” and a knowing nod has become a type of secret code between Granddad and Granddaughters. We all mourned for Elpenor, who fell off the roof drunk and broke his neck. A salutary warning for young and old.
And so, as if by the magic of the gods, it is the last day of home-schooling and I am at the point where Odysseus has arrived at his house in Ithaca to deal with the suitors and the maids. I have resolved to be economical with the truth and hope for no detailed questioning. As it turns out, I am saved by the bell, as the Granddaughters announce that since this is the last day of term, there will be no proper schooling. So Odysseus is for the moment shelved. All day is playtime and the slaughter of the suitors, the execution of the maids and the dismemberment of the goatherd are thankfully tales untold, not even paraphrased.
Now weeks later, epidemic or no epidemic, the schools have resumed, the lamp of the heritage of literature has been extinguished and my battered, crumbling paperback of The Odyssey has begun to disappear under piles of other books. I wonder if I should pull out my copy of The Iliad, in readiness for another lockdown.
Or perhaps I should eschew Andrew Lang’s classical scholarship and find one of his many Fairy Books, for, of course, Lang was a man of many talents, not the least of which was annoying his fellow writer, novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy.
Hardy took a lot of stick from critics and felt every blow. He was particularly irritated by Lang’s review of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the New Review, even to the extent that he spent time in the British Museum hunting up a book of which Lang had claimed Tess to be a plagiarism. “Why should one’s club acquaintance bring such charges?” Hardy later mused in disbelief, going on to discern behind the phrase “Tessimism” some “smart journalism” in “the fine Roman hand of A. Lang”.
Lang, who had contrasted Hardy with his revered Homer, even took the brunt of Hardy’s indignation in the much quoted preface to the first one-volume edition of Tess, where Lang is portrayed ironically by Hardy as “this great critic” – “a gentleman who turned Christian for half-an-hour”.
Lang was surprisingly contrite, writing twice to Hardy with self-reproach, expressing regret: “I did not mean to be unfair, – my tastes are antiquated… I am an erratic block of a primitive age”. Moreover, Lang tells Hardy, in a further attempt at pacification, that his friend Mr Butcher – presumably his co-translator of The Odyssey – had praised the book. Typically, Hardy’s hostility to Lang – biographer Millgate tells us – “never abated”.
So I start off with home-schooling – or should it be “Homer-schooling” – and end back up with Hardy via Lang. One of life’s little ironies. I am governed by the rule of “one thing follows another”. Connections abound. The threads are endless. And I notice with fascination, as I hunt up Lang in Hardy’s own account of his life, Hardy’s description of an encounter in August 1897 in a Salisbury hotel – where they were both guests – with “Colonel T. W. Higginson of the United States…” “An amiable well-read man whom I was glad to meet. He fought in the Civil War. Went with him to hunt up the spot of the execution of the Duke of Buckingham, whose spirit is said to haunt King’s House still.”
Another connection leaps out at me. Golly! Emily Dickinson!
Wentworth Higginson, of course, has an enormous, iconic, presence in American literary history, for it was to none other that in April 1862 – when Hardy himself was struggling as a young writer – that another hesitant young writer – Emily Dickinson – sent her poems for comment, asking whether her verses “breathed”. By God, did they breathe!
Higginson’s part in the life and poetry of of Emily Dickinson is well documented. This meeting with Hardy took place around ten years after Dickinson’s death and after Higginson had played his part in the first publication of her verse. I am left wondering – did they, could they, have discussed her poetry? So I move from Homer to Lang to Hardy to Dickinson and through Dickinson I am back home to Homer again.
The cunning Odysseus makes the stricken, blinded cyclops, Polyphemus, the butt of a now famous cruel ironic pun, telling the giant that his name is “No-man” – Mr Nobody. Consequently when the wounded Polyphemus is calling for help proclaiming he is being slain by “Nobody”, his neighbours ignore him, telling him, well, if there is nobody there then he must be sick and needs to pray to the gods.
Odysseus escapes and taunts him with his joke, informing Polyphemus finally that the name of the man who blinded him is Odysseus – “waster of cities”, Odysseus, who elsewhere proclaims how his “fame reaches unto heaven”. Definitely “Somebody” then, a real “Somebody”. Not a “Nobody” at all.
And I find myself putting down my Odyssey, quitting its preening self-conscious brutality and leaving the last word to Emily Dickinson who herself mused much on fame and celebrity, but came to the conclusion:
I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you - Nobody - Too? Then there's a pair of us. Don't tell! they'd advertise, you know! How dreary - to be - Somebody! How public - like a Frog - To tell one's name - the livelong June - To an admiring Bog.
10th October 2020
The few books that piled up during this blog were:
The Odyssey of Homer, edited by R. D. Wormwald, Illustrated by J. C. Knight, published by Longmans Green and Co 1958
The Odyssey of Homer, Translation and Introduction by S. H. Butcher and Andrew Lang, published by Airmont Publishing Company, Inc., New York 1965
Andrew Lang’s correspondence with Thomas Hardy is taken from: Angelique Richardson and Angear, Helen, editors. Hardy’s Correspondents, Phase One, 2019. University of Exeter, hardycorrespondents.exeter.ac.uk
Thomas Hardy A Biography Revisited, by Michael Millgate, published by Oxford University Press 2004
The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, by Thomas Hardy, edited by Michael Millgate, Macmillan 1985
Tess of the D’Urbevilles, by Thomas Hardy, James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Co., London 1992
Emily Dickinson – The Complete Poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, published by Faber and Faber 1975
White Heat, The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2008