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Dancing on the sea

Mike Hirst uses a favourite story based on an ancient Greek myth to inspire literacy and other activities for Year 5 pupils

Arion and the Dolphin By Vikram Seth. Illustrated by Jane Ray (Weidenfeld amp; Nicholson)

Vikram Seth is my favourite living author. In 1994, he wrote a libretto for an opera, Arion and the Dolphin, a retelling of an ancient Greek myth. He produced the same story as a picture book, with illustrations by Jane Ray, in which the narrative is interspersed by short sections of verse spoken by various characters in the story.


Arion is a musician in Corinth, a servant of the tyrant Periander.

Periander reluctantly allows Arion to sail to a singing competition in Sicily, where he wins a prize of gold with the help of a magic shell given to him by the ship's captain.

On the way home, Arion refuses to share his gold with the ship's crew, so they throw him overboard. About to drown, Arion is buoyed up by a dolphin, who befriends him and carries him to Corinth. Periander thinks that Arion has spent the gold and throws him in jail. The Corinthians kill the dolphin and the truth comes out only when the sailors return home too.

Yet Arion, heartbroken by the dolphin's death, asks for them to be pardoned, for "an end to the bitterness".

How to use this story


Arion ties in well with the Year 5 literacy strategy.

* The verse is "real poetry", with interesting rhyme schemes and metres.

Although first written for adults, its meaning is easily accessible to children because it is embedded in a story. l Use the poem to teach how English poetry works, each line with a certain number of beats or stresses.

(Lots of teachers shy away from this, but it's easy with the right poetry).

Children can work out how many beats they think each line should have, then mark where the stresses fall and identify the rhythmic patterns.

* Once you have scanned a verse, groups can try choral speaking, with everyone speaking to the same rhythm.

* Vikram Seth originally wrote the story for the stage. Children can convert the book back into a play, using the conventions of scriptwriting.

* Try writing your own poems to a set metre. Compose extra verses in which different characters in the story say how they are feeling.


This book is ideal if you are studying Ancient Greece.

* Trace Arion's journey on a map of the Mediterranean. Then add as many Greek cities as you can find. Many children end up thinking that Ancient Greece covered the same geographical area as modern Greece, but in fact the Greeks founded colonies as far away as Naples and Marseilles.

* The Ancient Greeks classified the stars of the night sky into different constellations - an important part of their legacy to future generations.

Arion's harp and his dolphin form two minor constellations. Find out about the stories behind some other constellations: Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Perseus and Orion.

* Ancient Athens is often described as the "cradle of democracy", yet Periander of Corinth was a tyrant. Sparta was ruled differently again. What were the various kinds of government in Ancient Greece?


Arion's story raises all kinds of moral issues. Many are left unresolved, with no clear rights and wrongs:

* Friendship, its pleasures and problems. Arion and the dolphin become friends but suffer when they are parted.

* Who was most selfish? Arion for refusing to share his gold, or the sailors for stealing it? Were the sailors justified?

* Death. How do we cope with the death of someone - or an animal - we love? Arion writes beautiful songs to commemorate his dead friend. What else can we do to cope with loss? (You really do need to know your class for this one.)

* How should humans treat animals? The people of Corinth make the dolphin do circus tricks, jumping through a hoop for rewards of fish.

And finally...

Work on Arion and the Dolphin could be converted into a great class assembly. Compose your own music to accompany a dramatised version of the story.

Mike Hirst is assistant headteacher at Saltdean primary school, Brighton This book is out of print. Try for second-hand copies

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