Heroic effort

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Homer's Iliad is an epic story that offers pupils a way of absorbing rich, figurative language 'intravenously'. Diana Hinds reports on a new version that rekindles the art of storytelling

Imagine a mountain so tall no man or woman has ever seen its summit.

Imagine the home of the mighty gods and goddesses. Imagine Mount Olympus.

On top of Mount Olympus there was a throne. Upon the throne would sit father god Zeus, the cloud-compeller, whose temple is the sky. From that throne Zeus could see everything."

So begins War with Troy: the Story of Achilles, a new retelling of the Iliad, and already the storyteller has this class of nine and 10-year-olds hooked. The word "imagine", repeated with soft intensity, penetrates these listeners' minds and sets spools of images running. The children sit cross-legged on the floor, eyes fixed on the storyteller, mouths sometimes dropping open, and barely a fidget: they listen for a whole hour.

"It seemed long, but the story just whizzed by," says Sinead.

"It was better than excellent," says Ismail. "I like the way Zeus is commanding everyone what to do."

"It was like I was in the story," says Naema.

Like many Year 5s, these children from Argyle Primary School in central London (who have been invited to the British Museum for the launch of the War with Troy resource), have never heard Homer's 3,000-year-old epic story. They have met with a smattering of Ancient Greek history, most know the names of Zeus, Athene and Aphrodite, some have heard of Troy, but no one knows what an oracle is or what prophecy means. Until today, they have not had the chance to engage with these gods and goddesses as epic protagonists, to feel on their pulses the changing fortunes of the Greeks and the Trojans in a bloody 10-year war, or immerse themselves in the story's seething currents of love, honour, loyalty, revenge.

Homer's Iliad was the first European epic to be written down after being told orally for centuries. These Year 5 children, as they encounter the heroes of Troy, are returned to that oral tradition. As Philip Pullman, commenting on War with Troy, puts it: "The art of storytelling is something that connects us in a profound way with our earliest ancestors. It is one of the most important, most humane, most liberating and most democratic things that human beings can do, and it should have a central place in every classroom."

Few classrooms have the benefit of professional storytellers. But thanks to the Cambridge School Classics Project, this new retelling of the Iliad is available on three CDs, designed for classroom use and aimed at Years 5 and 6. When Argyle Primary School children say goodbye to their storytellers - Daniel Morden, who speaks for the Greeks, and Hugh Lupton, for the Trojans - they will take their voices back to school with them, for the remaining nine episodes.

One of the advantages of a live storyteller is that he or she can break off to talk to the audience, recap the story, or ask for reactions, which helps keep listeners involved: Hugh Lupton draws the children into an animated discussion as to which of three goddess - Hera (wife of Zeus), Athene (goddess of war and wisdom) or Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty) - should be awarded the golden apple dropped by Eris, goddess of arguing.

"I'd give it to Athene so I'd be wise, and then if the others were angry, I'd be wise and know what to do about it," suggests one girl.

The CD allows for discussion by suggesting, in the teacher's notes, suitable points at which the teacher can press the pause button, and thus become a kind of third voice in the story-telling.

Daniel Morden and Hugh Lupton, who have more than 30 years' storytelling experience between them, read as many versions and translations of the Iliad as they could before beginning to improvise their own account. They honed this down to four hours, and produced a transcript (which comes with the CDs). "But we found if we read from the text, the story lost momentum," says Daniel Morden. "We had to throw the text away and this gives the recording a sense of live performance."

After extensive trialling in primary schools, the finished CD has a strong oral feel to it, steeped in the rhythms of spoken English. The sentences are short, and shot through with an Anglo-Saxon punchiness ("At last they came to the seashore, where the waves suck and drag"). At times, the combination of the storyteller's voice and the physical directness of the language gives the story a compelling visceral quality. In the horrifying scene of Hector's murder, for instance, you cannot but feel the savagery of Achilles' boot coming down upon his enemy: "But Achilles spat in his faceI And he put his foot on Hector's face and he tore out the dripping barbed spear." But Homer's poetic imagination also receives its due, and many of his extended similes - often drawn from a pastoral world - are faithfully incorporated: as, when the people of Troy watch the Greeks in their camp, "like flies around the cowsheds in the spring, when the pails are creamy-white with milk, busy about their business".

"It's a bit like jazz," says Hugh Lupton. "There's the central melody - in this case, the Homeric epic - and each player creates their own variation on that line of narrative."

Grant Bage, co-director of War with Troy and a former primary teacher, believes the project will provide schools with much-needed opportunities for "extended speaking and listening", as well as a chance for children to get involved in a long narrative, rather than a succession of extracts.

"This is the age of the epic, but, because of the constraints of the timetable, it's not the age of the epic in schools. Children of this age are really interested in extended narrative. The Iliad offers them a crossroads between reality and fiction, and they like the internal consistency of it."

Research on War with Troy with schools in Norfolk, and Barking and Dagenham found that although a majority of children said they quite enjoyed reading stories in books, a far greater number had enjoyed listening to the Iliad on CD.

"Children like listening, because listening is easier," says Grant Bage.

"It gets you to construct pictures in your mind of what's being said."

Bob Lister, classics lecturer at Cambridge University and co-director of War with Troy, argues that listening to the Iliad is a way of letting its rich, figurative language in "intravenously", without your brain having to decode the words. "It's almost like soap opera - strong characters, strong emotions, things which children can discuss - and many of them feel more comfortable if they haven't had to read it first," he says.

Some children, having heard the Iliad, will want a copy that they can pick up and read. The transcript of War with Troy does not make satisfying reading, and so these children will have to choose a classic retellin g, such as Roger Lancelyn Green or Rosemary Sutcliff, until such time as Cambridge School Classics Project comes up with an alternative.

Bob Lister, meanwhile, is confident that oral exposure to the language of the Iliad will have "some carry-over" into children's writing (the teachers' notes include ideas for written work). It will also help flesh out what can often be, in primary schools, a rather cursory look at classical history, and it will give children an enormously valuable set of cultural reference points.

And it might, Bob Lister hopes, even give them a taste for studying classics later on: "If they have heard and enjoyed this, it might be something they want to come back to later. To my eyes, it's a sowing of seeds."

Details about the Iliad project Tel: 01953 681150 or 07980 286206 www.cambridgescp.comWar with Troy: the story of Achilles is available as a three CD set which comes with a Teacher's Guide (pound;45 + VAT) from the Cambridge School Classics Project Tel: 01223 361 458Email: office@CambridgeSCP.comOrder forms: www.CambridgeSCP.com publicationspd_home.html

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