Despite their magnificent story, Achilles and Hector are awkward and sometimes silly in English, "plying their limbs" and whatnot. When you really get the Greek, you get past all that. You don't have to try to find English words for something we would never say. As a classics student, I saw the Greek shape of Greek words on the page, and they opened onto Achilles and Hector in motion. There was Hector lying on the ground with a spear in his throat, breathing his last utterance to the savage Achilles--Achilles standing over him in cruel and bitter triumph, no pity heaving in his shaggy breast. English translates the Greek; the Greek translates me.
WE'VE already drawing to a close: the age of the revivified, computer-glossy sword-and-sandal film. Gladiator brought in the millennium. After that, we had Troy, Alexander, HBO's Rome, and the visually super-cool 300. There were books, too--Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, for example, and British Barry Unsworth's The Songs of the Kings. A first-year university student today could easily choose to major in classics, but not many do. A myth course, sure. A history or civilization course, why not? Maybe even first-year Latin for fun. But a whole degree? We all know ancient stuff is useless, and university, these days, is expensive.
In the late 1980s, things were different. We were still using dot matrix printers; email hadn't been invented yet; hardly anybody walked around with wires coming out of their ears; tuition was cheaper; quite a few students were dabbling, and no one in Hollywood (that I can remember) was doing much with the ancient world. But then, as now, only a tiny number of us were signing up for classics.
Why did we? Why did I? And why, after the torture began, did I stay?
I first heard the call when I was about seven years old. We were living in Richmond, BC. My father--a displaced Manitoba Mennonite farmer--was making a living by selling baked goods from a delivery van. My mother--a German refugee from Soviet labour camps in Poland--was working gruelling shifts with other immigrants and exiles in the flight kitchens of the now defunct CP Air. I spent most of my free time at the dike with a friend (kids had more freedom back then), scampering over piles of driftwood at low tide, getting …