I know how Homer remembered thousands of lines of epic poetry: he was a child.
Because my young daughters love both Greek mythology and comic books, I brought home Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel The Odyssey. With Hinds’s adaptive narrative, I thought I’d chosen well.
But five-year-old Maia knew otherwise: “The song isn’t right, Momma. This book says, ‘Sing to me of the Man, Muse, the man of troubles.’ But really, it’s ‘Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.’”
It took me a moment to respond. Before I could speak to the challenges of translating poetry, I had to wonder how many months it’d been since she’d leafed through Robert Fagles’s The Odyssey. And I had to wonder at how she’d not only remembered the line, but also appreciated the poetry enough to find fault in another translation.
So it’s Homer via Fagles at our house. What’s more, I’m convinced that our great storytellers and keepers are children.
Too many generations of patriarchy and too much emphasis on the accrual of wealth have devalued mothers and children and, in doing so, gotten our cultural imagination all mixed up. It isn’t an old, blind man who captures and perpetuates the human spirit. Literally and literarily, human expression is a child.
It’s children who live stories. At a party last weekend, a friend bent down to ask my three-year-old Eve, who was leaning against a chair, alone and gazing sadly off into the distance, what was wrong. Eve sighed, “Elsa says I can’t marry Hans.” Whether or not they are in any given moment playing Disney’s Frozen, my daughters are living the drama.
Before Elsa and Anna, Maia and Eve daily reenacted the Greek mythological heroine Atalanta’s race with Melanion, running through the house chanting, “At – a lan – ta! At -a – lan ta!” This was no game. They were running for life, love, and glory. As we read C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, they began stashing provisions for their journey to the ends of the earth. I’d find plastic daggers under their mattresses, and felt fruits beneath their pillows. Because as we read each chapter, they were traveling father and farther from home.
That line between fiction and reality we think we know so well isn’t a boundary for children. If anything, reality – things like having to brush your teeth at the end of one chapter and before the next – is just an occasional interruption.
If children live through stories, stories live though children too. There just aren’t enough adults eager breathe the life into books. Even those of us who choose chapters over sleep, reminisce about favorite books like we might old friends, and mourn the last pages of a great read as if something very real in our own life were ending – even book lovers can’t sustain stories like children. The responsibilities of adulthood make literary experience a pleasant interruption rather than a place to live.
But children evidence the time and energy and eagerness to live out literature. Without adults interrupting them, children play stories with a particular endurance. They play until they fall asleep, where they continue in dreams. The Odyssey takes about 12 hours to read aloud. How else could Homer have sung the entirety of The Odyssey, unless he were a child living and dreaming it?
Sure, there’s Shakespeare. If a single bard, like the blind bard, existed. Surely some old white men with long white beards have left us some memorable stories and ideas.
But not unlike winds and seas have stripped Greek statues of their color, the western world has whitewashed Homer’s glory. We picture him much grayer than he really was. Homer was a child – brilliant, insightful, and reveling in her song.