Posts Tagged ‘Odyssey’

Many schools approach the Preliminary English Extension course in the same way: first, they select a “classic” text (anything from The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen or a play by Shakespeare); then they introduce students to the idea of “appropriation” or “adaptation” by exploring texts that are based on or inspired by the classic or core text.

For example, my old school used Homer’s Odyssey as the core text and then everything from Virgil’s Aeneid (essentially the first fanfiction) to Margaret Atwood’s feminist Penelopiad and the Cohen Brother’s delightful film, O Brother Where Art Thou? to explore how context and values influence a text.

In the final term of the course, the students are faced with the daunting Term 3 Project, in which they must select their own “classic” (pre-WWII) text and at least two appropriations, to study. They also have to journal their responses to the texts and create their own appropriation, reflecting selected values within a given context.

The first, and most difficult, step is choosing the core text. Here are some suggestions, followed by an deeper analysis of one pair of texts.

Fairytales, think Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella. They’re easily analysed (most are explicit about their core value in the moral at the end) and have been frequently appropriated.

Shakespeare plays, think The Taming of the Shrew or Romeo and Juliet. The analysis might be a little more difficult but there’s a fair amount of scholarly writing around them already.

Arthurian Legend, think the Marriage of Gawain and Dame Ragnelle or Tristan and Isolde. These are fun and the appropriations range from retellings for children to ribald parodies.

Greek or Roman Myth, think Icarus or Oedipus. These have strong messages and have inspired lots of clever retellings, from operas to comic books.

If you’re not familiar with any of these genres, another approach might be to take a text you already like (your favourite novel, comic book, or film) and then find out if it was inspired by a classic text.

I recently read The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. The post apocalyptic society of the novel requires each District to sacrifice two young people each year to the Hunger Games, a brutal ritual somewhere between the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome and a reality TV show.

The sending of two young people each year to be sacrificed in an arena struck a chord with me when I first picked up the novel but my growing sense of something familiar was overwhelmed by the constant allusions to Rome. The city that rules the Districts is called the Capitol. The heroine, Katniss has a team of stylists: Cinna, Flavia, Venia and Octavia, all named after prominent Romans.

But then, just as Katniss and Peeta were boarding the train for the Games, I remembered why the scene and the idea was so familiar: Theseus. In the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, each year the city state of Athens is required to send seven young men and seven young women to the island of Minos to be sacrificed to the Minotaur as punishment for the death of a Minoan prince years before. Similarly, in The Hunger Games, the Capitol uses the games to punish the Districts for their former rebellion.

The challenge when selecting texts for the project is not to be tied down by a text type or genre. A good second appropriation for a project which centred on the myth of Theseus and then branched onto The Hunger Games could be anything from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream–where Theseus is the Duke of Athens–to the video game God of War–where, according to my husband, Kratos rips off the Minotaur’s head and wears it as a jaunty hat. The texts themselves can be just about anything, it is the focus on the context and values that influenced the creation and reception of each text.


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This is a summary of the entertaining discussion which was presented to Preliminary Extension classes earlier this week. My personal favourite part was when a teacher (who shall remain nameless), postulated that every text is overtly political and a student (also nameless) replied: “that’s why I’m happier than you”. Many thanks to Rob and Will for sharing their thoughts and manifestos with us. Please feel free to respond.

1.‘The ‘Text, Culture, Values’ course is ‘simply a way for the Board of Studies, or indeed our beloved English Department, to instruct us about what meaning there is in the text, without either studying the text closely or accurately, or allowing us our own interpretations… In high school the meaning of a text is dictated by the institutions that determine the curriculum… [T]he downside is that, because you spend your essays arguing a position that the marker is already quite familiar with -because he was the one who dictated it to you – there is very little room for originality or need for precision in your argument.’

2.‘I believe that all works of art have an inherent value and meaning in and of themselves. This meaning is an absolute, invariable quality that does not alter according to context and audience. It is an eternal quality. Thus, a text has an integral value and significance in and of itself, fully realized and separated from any concerns of reader, as the author intended it.’

3.Every individual has the right to read or study the text and to form their own conclusions as to what the meaning of the text is – and, of course, everyone has the right to express their opinion on this issue. However, some of these opinions will be wrong. This is an area which is often subject to confusion; people think that everyone having the right to express their opinion is the same thing as all opinions being equal. All opinions are not equal; some opinions are wrong, some interpretations are wrong.

4.I believe that the purpose of art is to entertain. Not to deliver a message, not to express a point of view, not to provoke discussion, not to give voice to our society’s concerns. … The only valid purpose of a work literature, or indeed any art form, is to entertain its reader.

Will Haines

1.Literature is a way of thinking in and with language, mainly, though not always, about the human experience. It is not merely a code of communication, helping an artist to communicate his own feelings, but actually to create experience and give it to an audience, because in the very conception of experience within words its inherent quality is improved/given form/given meaning.

2.It is stupid, I am afraid, to claim that literature’s overwhelming purpose is to entertain, or to give a message, or to explain, or to make a comment. … Establishing the value/meaning/purpose of literature as being something outside itself is redundant and undermines the thing itself – it functions as a form of knowledge in its own right and on its own terms. Speaking about it in terms of its ‘use’… askes us to operate in a way that degrades it. Literature doesn’t (or shouldn’t) serve a utilitarian purpose – it is not itself motivated. Rather, it motivates those who create and respond to it by enabling them to think in a certain way.

3.The kind of meaning literature supplies transcends all immediate or ‘relevant’ ideologies, systems, methods, trends or issues. Such concerns eg racism, sexism, etc can be the subject without being the object. It is essentially epistemological in nature, meaning it deals with how we know things. It is interested in observing something we feel we know, and then explaining exactly what that thing is, and why we know it. Before you can know anything, you need first to identify and understand the faculties and cognitive abilities of the knower; these literature shows in operation. It is thus less about what there is in the world than it is about how we, as humans, understand what there is in the world.

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Storytelling is a socially acceptable form of lying in which the author (liar) and the reader collude in order to create a safe place for the story (or lie) to flourish. The reader, although aware of the tale’s fiction, willingly participates in its propagation, often retelling it to other willing marks. According to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, this retelling is inevitable:

For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system, it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.

Although, in truth, stories are lies, they are also – through the fact of the conspiracy which exists between authors and readers – important cultural artefacts that reveal a deeper truth about the nature of culture and how it is constructed.

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