Why might primary pupils study Homer's Iliad?
Children can gain an enormous amount from studying an epic and ancient text like The Iliad. It entertains and enriches, as does any good story, but it gives them something more than that. The same can be said of the Ramayana, of Biblical parables and of epic autochthonous tales from other cultures.
Partly it is about the tale itself – stories so rapturous that they have been passed down for centuries must have something about them. The Iliad opens up a space for children to talk and think about some of the existential questions that perplex humanity: can we evade our destiny, do we have free will, is beauty worth more than wisdom, what characterises a good leader, what ought one do for love?
Partly it is about the role of the text in society and culture. The Iliad is a tale with a long cultural shadow, and it has influence still on the kinds of idiomatic and figurative language which ‘guard’ culture. To know and understand phrases like ‘an Achilles heel’, and ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts’ (though this one is Virgil rather than Homer) is to be accessing a rich depth of comprehension in English that goes beyond the literal.
In ‘The Mystery Feast’, Ben Okri wrote about storytelling:
The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell. Ben Okri, The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling
In studying something like the Iliad, even with pupils who are meeting texts like this for the first time, we can guide pupils to think analytically and to write reflectively about this human imperfection.
In showing the children that the Iliad focuses on one part of the Siege of Troy – namely the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, and its fallout – we can query the nature of storytelling itself. When working within an oral storytelling tradition, the vitality of the tale comes not from the uniformity of the telling, but from the art of interpretation and reinterpretation.
The popularity of contemporary myth-inspired fiction attests to this. Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’ first piqued my interest in the Iliad, leading me to read the Homeric text, but also several other interpretations. Whilst Miller’s interpretation focuses upon the emotional and romantic relationship between Achilles and Patrocus, Pat Barker’s ‘The Silence of the Girls’ casts light on the brutality of Achilles and the Greeks, and the silencing and mistreatment of Briseis not only by the characters, but by storytellers.
We are experiencing another resurgence of interest in these tales. Circe, also by Madeline Miller, tells of the mysterious daughter of Helios, and is a current international bestseller. Stephen Fry’s ‘Mythos’ has been incredibly popular, as has Mary Beard’s non-fiction writing on Classics, such as ‘SPQR’ (about Ancient Rome) and ‘Confronting the Classics’.
Exploring interpretation is a fascinating process for children, introducing them to the sometimes unfamiliar idea that not only is there no ‘correct’ way to read a text, but sometimes there is no ‘one’ correct version of a story either. This is true of other folk tales derived from oral storytelling cultures, beautifully, cleverly and widely told and retold, like tales of Anansi and of Mulla Nasruddin.
In so doing, we can be learning the story at three levels.
Firstly, we are learning it as a story with a complex interweaving of plots, rich language and narrative arcs; we can question where the story begins, as it is certainly long before the Iliad does.
Then we are learning it as a cultural item – something that has been passed down and changed, something still changing – where Achilles is conflicted and sensitive with his gay lover, where Achilles is a brutal egotistical barbarian, where Achilles is the latest carnation of the white American Brad Pitt.
Finally, we can look at it as a catalyst for reflecting on the ethical, social and psychological questions that characterise the human condition.
When asked whether he, like Paris, would have given Eris’s ‘Apple of Discord’ to Aphrodite, one Year 6 pupil looked quizzically into the middle distance to ponder his response. You could seem from his head movements that he was weighing up the merits of Power, Wisdom and Beauty. He decided, wonderfully, that he would have just kept it for himself, and that whilst it would have looked bad on him and his ego, it would have prevented the war because the Goddesses would have been equally unhappy.
Why might primary pupils study Homer’s Iliad?
Knowing the story and engaging with its ideas is bringing pupils into contact with cultural and philosophical questions that probe at the heart of what it means to be human. There is nothing more or less human about a 9 year old than a 29, 49, 69 or 89 year old, and the contributions that the children can make are not just ‘preparations’ for real learning when they are older; in the here and now, they are capable of deep thought, deep reflection and deep conversation.
The Iliad – Homer The Iliad – Gillian Cross and Neil Packer
The Iliad – Marcia Williams
The Iliad – Gareth Hinds
The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker
The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
Circe – Madeleine Miller
Mythos – Stephen Fry
The Classics Confronted – Mary Beard
Myth, Ritual, Memory and Exchange: Essays in Greek Literature and Culture – John Gould