Jumping the Language Hurdles in the Classics, by Lynne

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia, ca. 1790-93 by Jean-Baptiste Wicar

“Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.”  
– opening stanza of the Aeneid by Virgil

My college experience was truly eye-opening for me. I was exposed to all types of things that I’d never even considered. One of those things was the classic literature of the Western canon.

Some of the first things I had to read in my freshman humanities class were The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. I really wish I had enjoyed these stories more, but my diet of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books did not adequately prepare me for the level of reading that these epic stories required. I was lost and very confused much of the time. I was not even familiar with the story line, so I hardly participated in class discussions at all. By the time we got to The Canterbury Tales and King Lear, I felt a little more comfortable with the strange language of the past. With a little practice, I was able to comprehend the stories and the unwritten messages of these everlasting works.

When I decided to head down the classical path with my kids, I thought about my experience with the classics quite a bit. I’m going to share something with you that may get me banned from certain Classical Ed circles. Shhh. Don’t tell them. Okay?

I read children’s versions of these stories to my kids.

There. I admitted it. I know some people consider this to be cheating somehow. They say that children are perfectly capable of handling the actual texts. And that may very well be true for many children. Heck, it’s even true for my children, for the most part. However, here’s my thinking behind my reading of the children’s versions:

My boys are in middle school now. We’re currently reading Aeneas: Virgil’s Epic Retold for Younger Readers. It is written at about a fifth-grade level but doesn’t seem to be dumbed down in any way. We are enjoying the heck out of this story. (I get a tad annoyed when my younger son leads us down a mythology rabbit trail because it’s taking us much longer to get through the book than I planned. It is very hard to say, “Hey! No! You cannot tell us about Menelaus right now because, gosh darn it, Aeneas was just getting to the part about how the Trojans could have possibly thought it was a good idea to roll this giant horse into the city!”)

Anyway, we’re enjoying the story immensely – just as we have enjoyed The Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and other classic books. By reading the children’s version, we set the scene and develop the characters in our minds. We understand what is happening because the story is being told in familiar language. Our brains aren’t busy deciphering the odd language and long sentence structure. So many times in my adult life, I have thought to myself that if I had at least been familiar with the elements of these classic tales, it would have made the reading of them in college so much easier.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s bad to read more developed, more complicated language with your young children. In fact, I think it’s an excellent thing and should be done frequently. That is how their ability will grow. But, when I really want my kids to understand the message in a book, I read the more simple version.

I started reading my boys stories set to verse at a very young age. The library is full of these miniature children’s epics. I think these kinds of books are a wonderful preparation for the epic poems they will be asked to read later in life. I fully intend to have my children revisit several of these classics in their original form in high school. My hope is that their background knowledge of the stories and the surrounding history will make their experience with the original classics much less taxing than mine. They will be able to decipher the more complicated language and come away with deeper lessons than they learned during their first foray into the classics. I’ll write another article in about 5 years and let you know how my plan worked.

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