Supermen of Yesteryear
During my school visits I encourage students to imagine living thousands of years ago, and I ask the question, “Do you think children long ago had super heroes?”
This usually draws a blank from the assembly. So I mention the myths. Every ancient culture had myths and heroes to go with them. Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Mayan and Greek, just to name a few. The Greek heroes are perhaps most familiar to American children: Hercules, Perseus, and Jason. Now comes the glimmer of recognition, the eureka! moment, because these timeless stories have been made popular again by authors like Rick Riordan. They are every bit as exciting, and probably more interesting than the parade of Marvel characters kids see in movie theaters and on their home screens.
To be frank, I find most of these movies dull and repetitive. More attention is paid to the special effects than to the characters and one comes away feeling hammered by their bombast and fuzzy about the hero.
Oh yeah, you say? What’s so special about the Greek myths? First, these tales have lasted the test of time, passed down at the fireside for thousands of years. Second, their characters are vivid and their adventures compel them to change—a fundamental law of a good story.
Hot-headed Hercules, the strongest man in Thebes, takes on the twelve labors to do penance for murdering his own family; shrewd Odysseus takes his sweet time returning home from war, then has to win over his wife; and Perseus, naively sets off to slay Medusa and bring her head to his step-father as a wedding gift, but discovers that the man is his mother’s captor. These are stories of sly cunning, wordplay, stealth and daring. Often these heroes are in crises of their own making and they have extraordinary psychological depth.
I think there’s a third, critical benefit for kids reading the Greek myths. They convey a sense of story; that is, an awareness of what constitutes a satisfying ending. This is a very hard thing to explain—especially to young minds in abstract terms. You know it when you read it. And you can only know it by reading good stories. An effective tale is not merely a series of events, but a series of conflicts that progress to a moment of resolution, which might be ironic, empowering, or a simple affirmation.
I will probably tinker with that definition for years, but the point is obvious if you read the story of how Theseus navigated the labyrinth and conquered the Minotaur. Edith Hamilton’s version in Mythology is a short, ironic tale of a cunning hero who is changed tragically by his quest.