Thursday, May 9, 2013

Do I Have to Do Homework to Read Your Book?


How Much Do You Have to Know?

The question was posed, “Do you have to know Greek Myth to understand this book?”  No. 

But I hope reading it will spark your interest in discovering the richness of these ancient treasures whose influence is still felt today.  Want a modern Odyssey?  Try Finding Nemo. It’s all there.  The one eyed monster, the sirens, the underworld, the monster who tries to eat him, or if you want a more mature version, O Brother Where Art Thou?  

Both those stories stood without the working knowledge of one of their original sources, but the enjoyment of both films is enhanced by having a grasp of the original texts.  I’m going to have to go find the DVD in a minute just because they’re both such fun.

A bit of help if you want to have more familiar footing before reading The Book of Helen.

The Iliad (the older story) is more about how the Greeks made sense of their lives lacking belief that their souls did anything worth noting after death.  Immortality was something that could be earned, but it was hard fought (literally).  Honor and glory through battle was a means of immortality.  Hence the long lists of whom one has slain before battle commences. Recalling the names of the dead kept their memory alive, ergo if you were going to fight to the death, you told the other person you were trying to kill why you were worthy of remembering.  

Today, Startrek uses this concept as part of the background of Klingon culture.  This is why I am honorable. Now we fight.  Today is a good day to die because now you know my name and thus my name will be remembered.  Killing an honorable opponent enhanced your honor and kept theirs for entering into Stovokor.  

Ajax and Achilles would get this guy.

The other two means to immortality for the Greeks were children, and works –buildings, civilizations, art, and poetry.  The important thing was to have your name echoed, remembered.  Helen in my book longs for the same thing.  She wants a history of her story, that doesn’t just focus on what everyone already thinks they know.  

Also good for summer reading, Rick Ridoran’s Percy Jackson series tells you the plot line for the Iliad in his finale, (The Last Olympian) and there’s always Spark notes because iambic decameter grows old after about three pages. Having read the Iliad twice in college and twice since,  I recommend Fagles' translations of both epics, both present very readable prose for anyone wanting to read these two great works of Western civilization.  No need to slog through ten foot seems like a thousand pages poetry where your mind slides off the page when they start listing where all the ships came from. 
That's 1000 ships! 1000! Ah!Ha! Ha!

If you are more interested in the myths…i.e. the stories of the gods themselves, it depends upon your desire for intensity as to where to go.  Now I have “The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature” by Harvey which gives (this is before Wikipedia) overlays of every single god, goddess, muse, satyr, hero, heroine, named person, named object, site, shrine, concept in the world of Greek Myth that one can find.  It is a dazzling if overwhelming source of information, sort of like reading a dictionary.  On the other side is D’Aulaires, which gives the stories in formats perfect for kids. My third and fifth grader devoured this book. It’s been replaced twice in our library from overuse over the years by different children.  Admittedly, I must have checked it out myself at least six times during my grade school years, pouring over the pictures and stories, practically drooling to have found such a treasure trove of stuff.  Imagine my shock when I got to high school and got the grown up versions which were full of rape and violence.  It took me a while to adjust. 
One place I wouldn’t go to understand the Greek Myths, is to those films that tried to tell the Greek epic. They seemed to somehow always miss something crucial about the reality of these stories, the thing that made them timeless.  Clash of the Titans both in the 70’s and now, zzzzzzzzzzz.  Memo to tinsel town: There were no skeletal zombies in Greek Myth.  Not one. Zip. Zero. Nada. 

Dead is dead. You can summon shades to speak to you maybe or go down and hope you don’t get tricked into staying in the underworld but that’s it.  If you die, you become a shade.  A shade means no body.  Dead body means no soul.  That’s what the Greeks understood; it’s what they said in their myths. It’s why the name, the memory mattered so much. 

On to other films that do not quite convey the richness of the original materials. Troy the movie is faithful pretty and graspable but rather dull rendition and smushing together of the Iliad and beginning of the Odyssey. (Sorry Brad and Orlando, it just is).  
Admit it.  They just wanted you so you could recreate that sliding down the stairway on a shield while shooting a bow sequence that made you the coolest elf ever.  

The film gets Hector and in my opinion, Agamemnon, but everyone else, they just aren’t that interested and thus, it is not that interesting to watch. I won't even mention the very stupid Helen in that film. 

The Disney Percy Jackson film stunk, which goes to show even given an easy version of the story with modern settings, Hollywood can still mess it up.  Jason and the Argonauts?  Forgetaboutit! Hercules the movie (1984) and all other versions (aside from having a great song in the Disney version and a very cool Hades), do not get at the real struggle and drama of his myth, which was not his strength, but his succumbing to madness.  Most interpretations just gloss over that part, opting for the demi-god to be sort of a Greek version of Superman.  And we won’t even discuss the treatment of the muses as they have to cope with the stupid rendition of them as showgirls in Xanadu –which I admit, I saw….twice….and loved.  (I was a stupid teenager and had no clue).  
Because it's my blog...and I can.
But I apologize.

Greeks treated their heroes and gods as being like them, suffering, struggling, making stupid and inconsistent decisions and messing up and fighting often.  Somehow, the modern treatment of these very real creations gets run through a bleach cycle of thought, and thus the charm and realness of their tempers and actions gets stiffened.   One notable exception in the Hercules with real people series, Anthony Quinn as Zeus.  But that may be because it’s Anthony Quinn. 
You made a cool God of Thunder in an otherwise dull movie. 

And as for Helen herself, I have to thank Bettany Hughes.  Her book is invaluable.  It’s also incredibly interesting to trace the history of Helen in art, literature, and all of her various roles for various cultures.  Bettany digs into every version of Helen and the whys, the roles that a woman of that culture, in that rank required. It is very thorough. If you want to know how Helen walked into my brain and where I learned where I needed to go next to find out what happened next, this is the book that revealed where else to go.  

One last bit of music for you.  Because the Greek Gods and their world were designed to be able to explain/explore the harder realities we often don’t want to directly discus. It’s wonderful and resonates whenever it’s done right.  The one bit of Hercules the cartoon movie that shows 1) the animators having fun and 2) getting how to merge the psychology behind the character with the mayhem and magic of animation.  

Now, back to writing new book, The Book of Penelope. (Edited from prior statement) Back to editing.  Helen is 22 days from publishing and wants everything to be perfect, so she gets annoyed when I spend too much time doing anything not focused on her.  

1 comment:

Siggi in Downeast Maine said...

Thank you for referring me to this post. Very interesting read.

Peace be with you,

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