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The Iliad with a Six Year Old
The Boy and Achilles
I am homeschooling my six year old boy. The Texas school system leaves me in despair, and, as I am not wealthy and live in the Lone Star State, homeschooling appears to be a better option to me than is leaving him in the hands of the El Paso schools. I am fortunate to be in the state of Texas where homeschooling is an option that any parent can choose with a minimum of interference, and that I have the time, the inclination, and the knowledge to pursue it.
As part of his first grade year, he and I have discussed American colonial history. He likes Benjamin Franklin a lot. He was intrigued by Crispus Attucks, and together we investigated this rather shadowy figure, which brought us to discover the Praying Indians of Massachusetts and to discuss slavery in the world of the Founding Fathers. The irony of fighting for freedom while keeping many thousands of people enslaved did not escape him. Stark hypocrisy is not difficult for a child to detect. His solution was childish, but that is no knock on a six year old. After all, he did try and think of a solution. He would have forced the slave owners to live one week as the slave of their captives, and this, he thinks, would have taught them well the evils of what they were doing and they would have stopped doing it. Children have great faith in the virtue and reason of adults, so long as you have not embittered them by proving yourself malicious and unreasonable.
Anyway, having enough of colonial America for the time being, we moved on to the ancient world. The Stone Age was cool. He made a spear. He looked at the art and artifacts of Stone Age peoples. He learned about the ways in which we think the Native Americans reached this continent, and the various ways in which different tribes adjusted to their environment, and adjusted the environment to themselves. He was not interested in Ancient Egypt. Mummies are cool, but everything else in that culture was to him frightfully dull. We, therefore, did not spend much time in Egypt, covering some ancient African cultures and sites that are largely ignored in most early education but leaving the rest for a later time when he is more interested. When he is not interested in something I find it best to get the basic facts in, have him look at it, and then move on to other topics that do engage his interest. He will suffer through the dreadfully dull enough later.
After Ancient Egypt, we entered Ancient Greece, and this he likes. A lot. We started with Crete, introduced by King Midas and Theseus to the existence of this island merchant culture, its bull motifs, and its destruction. He loves the myths of ancient Greece, and so do I, so we are having fun at the moment. I found a children's version of the Iliad that is written for 10-12 year olds. He cannot read it himself, but he loved the story, immediately adopting a favorite character: Achilles.
My son has no patience for ambiguities, for the disturbing shades of greater and lesser virtue. He does not want to distribute guilt. He likes Achilles, and he hates Agamemnon. He thinks Paris is a waste, though Hector is good. He does not really see why anyone would fight over Helen, even if she is pretty. The story of the Judgment of Paris, of goddesses' fighting over who is the fairest of them all, seems to him a more reasonable explanation of the Trojan War than one kidnapped girl, who probably wanted to be taken away anyway. He is a good little Roman in that he does not admire Odysseus (Ulysses). The man is far too tricky, and his plan to involve Patrocles in the war in order to rouse Achilles is despicable.
I think my son understands Achilles far better than some of my college classmates did. They knew Achilles was a hero: the text tells you that, and the whole of the Iliad is about him and his wrath. They tried to make him modernly heroic, with a moralistic tone that does not suit the Greek hero. They tried to make Achilles a good man. My son does not care. The point is not that Achilles is a good man, but that he is a good killer of men, a good warrior. One of the reasons my son hates Agamemnon is that his pride and avarice force Achilles, for the sake of his own honor and pride, to become an anti-Achilles. Achilles is the great killer of men, and he ceases to kill, he ceases to fight, he sits and he waits for his mother's machinations to return his honor to him. It is a humiliation my son does not appreciate. After all, Agamemnon is the king, it is his war, and his brother's, and so it is Agamemnon's role to be the better man, the wiser man, and he is neither better nor wiser than Achilles.
I have chosen in presenting Greek myth to do so with a minimum of morals guided editing. I tell the stories as they have survived, sometimes exploring several versions so that he can decide which he likes best. If my son were more interested in sex this might be uncomfortable, as Greek myths are full of desire, lust, and the flight of mortals from the attentions of gods. Most of these mortals are unwilling women: Cassandra cursed to be a prophetess who is not believed by those she advises, though her words are true; Daphne turned into a tree; Leda seduced, or raped, by Zeus in the guise of a swan; Ariadne seduced and abandoned by Theseus. I am not ready to discuss these topics of power and sex with my son, and am thankful that he does not care about them at all. He is entranced by the magic of the myths, the heroes and their exploits, the drama apart from the webs of desire that inform them. He doesn't care that the gods are husbands to their sisters--after all, where else would they find goddess spouses except in their own families? He does not question that Hades the rapist is also depicted within the same myth as Hades the loving husband, sharing his wife with her mother for the greater good of the gods and in doing so releasing her for six months of the year from his kingdom in Erebus. He is not sure what rape is, nor why Hades did not just ask Persephone to go with him, but he accepts that part of the story to take in the rest of it.
I think that at his age, when I started reading Greek myths, I was much the same as he in what I ignored and what I enjoyed in the myths. The important thing, I think, is to gain a sense of the fundamental stories and figures of this legacy from the ancient world, not to parse every detail of them. The point of reading the myths for him now is to enjoy them. There is time enough, when he is older and can work from a base knowledge of the stories themselves, to wonder and work out what they might have meant, and what they mean to him.
My son's great discovery this year has been The Magic Tree House books. He loves them. I love that he reads them, not me, and that he wants to read them. I don't have to sit him down and force him to pick up the book. He just finished one on pirates, which led us into further reading on Jean Lafitte, Blackbeard, the Brethren of the Coast, Captain Kidd, and the famous female pirates, Ann Bonny and Mary Read. As a follow up, his bedtime reading for the next few weeks is Stevenson's Treasure Island, after which we will watch a recent BBC production of the novel. He has already watched all the Pirate of the Caribbean movies, one a night over four days, a little much for me, but he enjoyed it immensely. Now if I can just convince him that it is Captain Barbossa, not Barbarossa, those will have been a complete success.
My son and I are reading the same old, beaten-up hardback I read when I was a child, but not everyone has a legacy copy...