Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Homer”

The Epicness of Poetry part two


Today we look at Homer.

This one:

Not this one:

Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, but you knew that.

These are both considered epic poems and boy, oh boy are they epic in the sense of BIG.  They are big in size (The Iliad is nearly 16,000 lines and The Odyssey is about 12,000), big on adventure, and have big heroes as well.  These two poems have also made a big impact on literature, culture, and on Hollywood.

Quick rundown:
The Iliad is mainly about Achilles and his fighting in the Trojan War (yes, think Brad Pitt in Troy), while The Odyssey is mainly about Odysseus and his adventures trying to get home from the Trojan War.

Cover of "Troy - The Director's Cut [Blu-...

Cover of Troy – The Director’s Cut [Blu-ray]

Why should you care about these really, really old poems (besides them being so incredibly epic)?  I’ll let the PhD expert analysis people at Shmoop explain all that:

The Iliad
You want large scale clashing armies? You’ve come to the right place. Even matched duels or obviously unmatched duels? Check out the long one-on-one combat descriptions, or that crazy nonsense between Paris and Menelaus. Spy thriller? Odysseus’s nighttime raid totally fits the bill. Nail-biting special ops missions? The Trojan Horse ruse has your name written all over it. Swords-and-sorcerers magic adventure? Try anything with the gods busting in on the action, like, say, that whole Laocoon fiasco. Snakes—yikes. In short, anything exciting you’ve ever seen or heard or read started right here.But that’s not all. Not only does the Iliad put the act into action, but it puts the philosophy in there, too. This isn’t just a reductive Good Guys versus Bad Guys bit of disposable nothing. Instead, what’s behind all that fighting is a whole lot of thinking about what the fighting means.
The Odyssey
Do you like stories full of adventure, danger, and suspense? How about stories set in fantastic worlds full of strange creatures like Cyclopses, witches, sirens, and gods? If so, then you’re in luck, because Homer’s Odyssey is Western literature’s original adventure story, and its first foray into the fantasy genre. If you need any proof of how much Homer’s poem defined this genre, just consider the fact that we now use the word “odyssey” simply to mean adventure.

Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey are old, or classic, epic poems.  We now move on to contemporary, or considerably younger epic poems.

Next Post: Lost in Paradise is not the same thing as Paradise Lost

A Little Lost in Translation: Part One–“It’s Greek to me”


March may be madness for basketball fans, but here in the English courts I am knee-deep in teaching the nuances of Homer and Hamlet and Caesar (oh, my).  Freshmen get to sail the seas with the wandering Odysseus, while sophomores figure out if they would have followed Brutus or Antony after those stirring funeral speeches, and the seniors decide the course of tragic hero Hamlet.  No matter how I teach it:  lively YouTube clips, polished PowerPoints, thought-provoking pair share activities, or No Fear Shakespeare helps, something gets a little lost in translation.

For instance, working with freshmen is tricky.  Most are on the cusp of maturity, and often senselessly slip into giggling fits of pubescent behavior at the mere mention of certain subjects.  Especially when they drift into PG-13. I’ve always wondered how to best approach the subject of Odysseus’ habit of dallying with those goddesses.  I mean, honestly, Penelope is keeping the home fires burning and keeping true to her man while raising their son, crushing the olives, and staving off lascivious suitors while Odysseus keeps company with the likes of Circe and Calypso.  Willing prisoner, my foot.  The guy couldn’t figure a way off the island for seven years?  We read about him crying during the day facing the sea, his heart breaking for Ithaca and Penelope, and we stir up a little bit of compassion.  At night?

A couple of years ago I asked my across-the-hall coworker how he explained the nighttime adventures of our lonely Greek epic hero.  Scrabble.  Excuse me?  He told me he would explain to his ninth graders that during the day Odysseus pined for Penelope, but at night he couldn’t resist playing Scrabble with Calypso.  Circe is another story.

So I borrowed the Scrabble euphemism and it worked well until two years ago.  A big backfire ensued.  A sweet girl who must have been preoccupied when I first began the lecture, brightened up when I mentioned Scrabble.  Popping up from her head-down reverie she exclaimed, “Scrabble?  I love Scrabble!  I’d play Scrabble every night if possible.”  Yup, pandemonium in the classroom.  It took about ten minutes to quell the masses of giggling hysteria, plus I had to smooth over the collateral damage to my naive student of the moment.

You think I would have learned my lesson.

This year once again I’m teaching freshmen and once again we cruise up to Calypso and her night time activities.  This year Yahtzee became the fill-in-the blank.  Oh, did they run with that.  I told them it didn’t qualify for an in-text citation reference in their unit essay.  I know they will sneak it in anyway.

Homerian values of men just gotta be men and women staying true make for decent discussion in terms of  how roles of heroes have changed over time and what values are esteemed in society. However,  our current textbook has sliced and diced The Odyssey’s twenty-two books into a pale, anemic handful of adventures, and even those are abridged to anorexic shadows.  Trying to make a cohesive unit out of hobbled material is definitely challenging.  It all works out though–we read a bit then watch a bit of the 1997 movie (a remake, please?) and I explain and translate the dissected textbook offerings  into everyday vernacular.  Even though it sounds a little erratic, by the time my little freshies are done with their three weeks with Odysseus they have the foundations of epic heroness down so when they get to senior English and face Beowulf there is something to dredge up and refer to.

Truthfully, The Odyssey is not my most favored unit; I’m not much into mythology, the whole gods/goddesses messing around with humans is irritating, to say the least. Nevertheless, the unit is a curriculum requirement, which means I do my best to make it enjoyable for my students.  They learn how to create a reader’s journal while duly noting epic hero characteristics and through the process discover how ancient literature can still transfer a thrill, but most of all they appreciate how it’s all about doing the right thing and that there is no place like home.  You did know Dorothy is an epic hero,  didn’t you?

Next stop: “The play’s the thing”– trying to get my seniors to groove on Hamlet

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