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The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gil...
Neo-Assyrian "Flood Tablet"

Dear Readers,

After a number of fits and starts, my colleague, Barbara Hawkins and I have just completed a brand new study guide for any teacher/parent/student interested in studying this most seminal work of literature!  We have incorporated the Charlotte Mason approach to studying great works of literature and we believe you will find this guide a truly helpful tool in understanding and appreciating this epic.

Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest epic and established many of the literary motifs we’ve come to expect in great epic works.  The story of Gilgamesh took place nearly five thousand years ago, but only became familiar to the modern world in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Hearing tales of wondrous treasures to be found beneath the stark desert sands of ancient Mesopotamia, a young English traveler named Austen Henry Layard (pictured above left) began digging in 1844 near the town of Mosul, Iraq.  There he discovered the remnants of the library of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), a famous king from the Assyrian period.  Mixed among the twenty-five thousand tablets shipped back to the British Museum were the fragments of twelve tablets containing one of the most ancient masterpieces known to man.

However, since scholars had to learn how to decipher the cuneiform script inscribed on the tablets, Gilgamesh continued its obscure existence in the basement of the British Museum until 1872 when George Smith, a curator with a common name, made an uncommon discovery.  He found an account of a vast flood in ancient Mesopotamia with details that eerily echoed the Biblical narration of the Flood.  “On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning.  I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge” (Mitchell 4).  Smith’s translation, published in 1876, sparked a frenzy to discover and translate the rest of the epic.   Even though no complete version has ever been unearthed, the adventures of this ancient king, no matter how whimsically interpreted, continue to enthrall each and every reader.

The good news for those interested in studying this epic with their young students (3rd/4th grade up to 7/8th) is that the children’s author, Geraldine McCaughrean–winner of the Carnegie Medal,  has written a lyrical and complete edition for the intermediate student.  McCaughrean’s work makes this epic approachable by even the uninitiated.  For those working with older students, or for high school students interested in this period, David Ferry’s A New Rendering in English Verse, is the perfect choice.  The newly completed study guide includes a thorough introduction to the heroic quest, insight on literary components and motifs, vocabulary, writing prompts, comprehension and analytical questions and much more.  As Geraldine McCaughrean notes in her introduction to her children’s book:

I feel a personal affection for Gilgamesh the Hero.  I just love that story.  It epitomizes all the reasons I like myth: because myth predates the whole Children’s Book/Adult Book divide. The stories are about things that mattered to everyone, regardless of age. They’re about the big things –passion and death and terror and God and friendship and heroism…

You can access a downloadable format of our new guide here.  Enjoy your trip to Ancient Sumer!

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Epiphany 2011

Dear Readers,

As today is the Feast of Epiphany it is a suitable time to share some musings on the best children’s books on the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ child.  Garrison Keillor reminded me on today’s Writer’s Almanac that the word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “striking appearance”, and of course, nothing in all of human history is more striking than the incarnation. You can read the rest of Keillor’s insight here.

Astronomers have long pondered the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem and what kind of astronomical phenomenon could explain how a star could have led these seekers in the way it did.  Craig Chester, President of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, published about 20 years ago a fascinating article about astronomical conjunctions occurring at this time that might explain the wonder of this star.  Below is an excerpt of his fascinating study, but you can read the entire article here.

In 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. there was a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings.  In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah.  In September of 3 B.C., Jupiter also came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo.  Leo was the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the Lion of Judah.  The royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel [ . . . ] Finally in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky save the sun and moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their disks appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun.  This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi [ . . .] September 11, 3 B.C. is perhaps the most interesting date of aSong of the Camelsll.  Not only was Jupiter very close to Regulus in the first of their conjunctions, but the sun was in the constellation of Virgo (of obvious symbolism).”

There are so many ways in which the story of the Wise Men visiting the tiny child in Bethlehem is cause for wonder and awe.  Not remarkably, this awe has produced some really precious children’s books that can help explore that mystery with our children. A favorite of mine is the story written by Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933)  often entitled The Other Wise Man or The Fourth Wise Man. This story is based upon the fictional premise that there was another wise man who never made it to the nativity, precisely because he was acting the part of the Good Samaritan, and spent himself so completely ministering to those in need on his journey, that he missed his chance to actually meet the Christ child himself. The moral, as you can probably guess is Matt. 25:40.  There are a number of editions of this sweet tale, but I do like the illustrations done by Robert Barret in the edition above.

Another take on the visit of the Magi is entitled Song of the Camels: A Christmas Poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth and illustrated by Anna Vojtech.  Coatsworth was a prolific children’s author for over 50 years and is best known for her Newbery Medal winner of 1931, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. This tale in verse is told from the perspective of the camels that carried the magi to the Christ child. “Portents of glory and danger/ Our dark shadows lay/ At the feet of the babe in the manger/ And then drifted away.”  Anna Vojtech’s illustrations for The Song of Camels are filled with rich imagery of the Middle East and present another aspect of this marvelous story.

This is The Star by Joyce Dunbar and illustrated by Gary Blythe centers the action around the marvelous star that brings magi, shepherds, and angels in a confluence of wonder to a dark and humble stable. Blythe’s illustrations have an almost photographic realism to them that illumines the humanity of this night of all nights.

Finally, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry and illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger remains one of my most precious Christmas tales. Lizbeth Zwerger’s illustrations brilliantly illumine the pathos, simplicity, and sweetness of O. Henry’s story involving a poor but devoted couple desiring to bless their beloved with their very best gift. They sacrifice what is most precious to them in order to do so.  While its title would lead one to think it involves the magi, it doesn’t actually include them in the story, except to reflect upon the power of gifts given that require a deep measure of self-sacrifice.  O. Henry states, “The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.  They invented the art of giving Christmas presents.”  I won’t give more of the tale away, as you must read it to appreciate it fully!  May the wonder of the visiting Magi inspire all of us to live in their spirit in 2011.  Happy New Year dear friends.

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Androcles and the Lion–transmogrified . . .

Researching the early Middle Ages for an upcoming seminar, I came across this interesting tidbit which I thought you might enjoy.  It is a serendipitous connection with the ancient world of Aesop, in particular Androcles and the Lion, early Medieval history and the world of contemporary children’s books!  It is a fairly well-known and accepted fact that fables and fairy tales are adapted and transmogrified (don’t you love that word?) which means changed in appearance or form, sometimes in a bizarre way, by every culture that grows to know and love them. Aesop is told and retold by successive generations in a manner that reflects that generation’s worldview, beliefs, struggles, hopes, and dreams.

Aesop’s Tale of Androcles and the Lion involves a Greek slave who runs away from his master, comes upon a lion lamed by a thorn in his paw, removes the thorn and then the lion and Androcles live for a time in the den of the lion; here the lion brings Androcles fresh meat each day.  Later both the slave and the lion are captured and Androcles is sentenced to death in the amphitheater–where like may other unfortunates, he will die as sport of hungry lions.  But, in this case the lion happens to be Androcles’ friend, and despite his hunger he refuses to harm his friend, and rather fawns over him.  The astonished crowd demands the prisoner’s release and both Androcles and the lion are spared.  The moral of the story is that “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

After the dawn of Christianity, the tale was told in much the same way except that Androcles is now a Christian, rather than an escaped slave, and is condemned to die for his faith in the Roman coliseum.  The ending is quite the same, with the grateful lion refusing to devour his friend and both of them being spared.  Later the same tale is appropriated by the Catholic Church and in this case the kind thorn-remover is St. Jerome (327-420).  Now, St. Jerome is an important figure in the Church as he was the first to translate the Greek New Testament into Latin, and ultimately the entire Bible from Hebrew into Latin.  This version is the Latin Vulgate edition and is still used today.  He is famous also for being an eyewitness to the Visigoth sacking of Rome, where he lamented, “My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and sobs choke my speech.”  The painting at right is by Italian Renaissance artist, Niccolo Catalonia and is entitled, “St. Jerome in his Study.”  In the Jerome version of the lion tale, after the lion is helped by the saint, he remains at the monastery as a protector and pet and often even helps with household chores–the moral I suppose that “he who does not work shall not eat.”

Finally, that brings us the most contemporary edition of this tale–Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty. You may recognize Daugherty’s name as he is also author of The Landing of the Pilgrims, The Magna Charta, Poor Richard and Of Courage Undaunted–all excellent books.  But he is best known for his version of the Androcles tale. In every way this rendition is the most quintessentially American it could possibly be–involving a barefooted but benevolent American youngster who helps a lion that has escaped from a circus (where else?) and features the sort of kind-hearted, simple folks of small town life.  It is nostalgic to read, even if you’ve never lived in this type of rural setting, and is a rendition of which I think, even Aesop would have approved.  The moral of this story is “kindness remembered, or the power of gratitude.”

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Einstein, Edith, and Euripides

I promised I would continue to address the importance of classical literature at the high school level for those doing ancient studies and in particular how these could be added into a current study using the Ancient History Through Literature Study Guide. While The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton is currently used in the above study, another treasure we found recently was the author’s work on ancient Rome in The Roman Way.  In validating for a high school student the importance of classical knowledge I appreciate Albert Einstein’s perspective. His notions of the modern tendency to cultural myopia—seeing the world only through the narrow constraints of our own contemporary lens—seem particularly apropos at this juncture:

Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the
prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium. Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist’s snobbishness.

A contemporary author who has made the classical works more accessible to this generation is Edith Hamilton.  Both her The Greek Way and The Roman Way can act as primers for those of us not well-versed in the ancient classics.  In The Greek Way Hamilton introduces students to the great minds of ancient Greece, shot through with a clear Judeo-Christian perspective. Lavish seminal quotations portray the ancient’s continual pursuit of truth and beauty, exposing the young scholar to an appreciation for the birth of philosophy—the love of wisdom. For Hamilton, an understanding of the Greek way is essential to true education. She shows deftly how ancient Greece established the Western foundations of art, literature, architecture, sculpture, drama, tragedy, comedy, philosophy, and science, and overarching all is the relentless and intractable pursuit of truth. As Hamilton notes, these Athenians, “being free from masters they used their freedom to think. For the first time in the world the mind was free, free as it hardly is today.” We moderns would do well to sit with Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Their wisdom can inform and enlighten our understanding of God and the transcendent truth to which we ascribe as Christians in a postmodern world.

In The Roman Way, students will have the opportunity to see how Greek philosophy carried over to Rome and enabled Rome for a time to establish an empire built upon republican principles of law and civil order. Reading the letters of Cicero is instructive in light of the apathy and indifference that allowed Rome’s noble system of government to fall victim to usurpation and abuse of power. The poetry of Horace, his love of simplicity and gentle virtue, the love poems of Cattallus, and the war diaries of Caesar all form the foundations of modern history and literature. While this cursory overview is hardly reflective of the riches to be mined in studying this period, those that are fortunate enough to discover the treasures here will likely form a lifetime curiosity that will lead them into still greater discoveries.  A high school student (and his or her home schooling parent!) given the opportunity to sit with the greatest minds of all time will have an amazing lens through which to understand, judge, and discern, the universal issues of life, politics, and the human heart.

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Ancient History for High School

Since a number of you have read my article in this summer’s edition of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, “Crossing the Educational Rubicon: Charlotte Mason through High School” some questions have been posed to me since the article has variations from my Ancient History Through Literature Study Guide.  So I will clarify some things here as well as give you some things to be looking for as the upcoming school year unfolds.

First of all, the Ancient History Study Guide will stand quite well on its own, and there is no need to supplement or enhance unless you chose to do so.  Since my experience in teaching these various subject areas is always evolving and since the world of book publishing is continually changing, I often discover new jewels that can be added to a particular historical period that either weren’t available when I wrote the guide or I just didn’t have the knowledge or confidence to attempt them. Such is the case regarding the ancient period, as in the last few years countless titles have come out for young people on the various topics related to the classical world of ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Also, I recently had the privilege of working with a wonderful and experienced teacher team-teaching this period to a class of high school girls!  That aroused a whole new level of research, interest, and delight in discovering the treasures of the ancients.  One work that was particularly meaningful was the Epic of Gilgamesh by Geraldine McCaughrean. McCaughrean–a British author, has been awarded the Whitbread Prize on the three occasions, as well as the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award.  As a contemporary children’s author you cannot attain a much higher level of honor and recognition for a body of work. So I recommend her highly and in the case of the Epic of Gilgamesh, she offers a wonderful way to introduce this historical work to your student in her book, Gilgamesh the Hero.

In the world of epic literature, Gilgamesh stands as the very first, and as a literary work offers a valuable way to introduce and learn the stages of the heroic quest (also referred to as the Hero’s Journey), a series of events that every heroic figure must go through to apotheosis or catharsis.  Once you’ve learned the hero’s quest you will never look at literature in the same way.  Indeed, analyzing heroic figures from the Bible takes on a richer and deeper meaning as well.  See my previous blog posting entitled “What is the Heroic Quest? under Ancient History.  So for those introducing this for the first time I recommend McCaughrean’s book or those teaching high school level can opt for a recent translation by David Ferry. Do preview before delving into this with your student.  Now, the exciting part is that in 3-4 weeks we will be offering a downloadable ebook with study notes for this epic which will make this approachable and user friendly.  So watch the blog for announcements.  We will also be working on notes for the Stanley Lombardo translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey and making those available in the fall as well.  I will continue to post more on this topic in the coming days related to teaching this at the high school level and using the works of Edith Hamilton and Stanley Lombardo for those teaching at the high school level.