On Greek and the Death of Hector
Simons, Karen, Queen's Quarterly
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 soakers and losing socks, and picking wild blackberries. The classical world could not have been farther from my universe.
Then one day I came home from school to find a big, odd-looking book on the dining room table. It was called D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. The cover showed a young man with very spiky hair driving an orange chariot through the sky. Intrigued, I opened the book. I saw the Sky looking down lovingly at the Earth, and the Earth gazing back up at him. The stars in his eyes and hair and cloak were reflected in the lakes that were her eyes. I saw a young, curly-bearded man grasping bolts of lightning in his hands. I perused the text for clues and discovered, to my astonishment, that these were gods!--Helios, Gaea, Uranus, Zeus. I looked some more and saw Hades carrying Persephone off in his chariot, down into the underworld through a hole in the earth. A few pigs tumbled in after them. Flowers fell from Persephone's hands as she raised them heavenward.
I saw Prometheus bringing fire to wretched mortals, and Pandora, his sister-in-law, carrying an open jar. Ugly creatures named Old Age and Gossip and Lies and Deceit were escaping from it on nasty little wings. I saw poor Orpheus losing his Eurydice to the shadowlands, and then, on the next page, singing and playing his lyre and weeping. All the animals of forest and meadow were gathering around him, shedding big tears. And I saw Helen combing her hair while Troy burned.
AFTER that book, the reading started: books of mythology, parts of the Odyssey in translation, Ben-Hur, The Robe. …