I have read your books, and I have discovered that many of you believe that people are products of their environment. How can you believe such things, and yet deny altogether the influence of the past? Nature may give us robust health or leave us scarred, but her traces upon us are minor things compared to the imprint of all those who came before us…
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with we who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Homer: On Story-Telling
I am a story-teller. That is my calling and my mission. I am the memory of the past, the preserver of wisdom. I stitch together with my words the heroic deeds of those who came before. I dwell together with you in this Age of Iron, but in my tales I live again in the Age of Gold.
It is with great sorrow and melancholy that I see how many of you have thrown off the tales of your forefathers. You distance yourselves from the wisdom of age and experience and look to your young for the energy to move forward. You dismiss the very folk tales you should cherish with a flick of your hand. “Old wives’ tales,” you call them, forgetting that elderly women are one of the great repositories of the human story.
I sing in my Iliad of the great exploits of Achilles, but Achilles would never have achieved such glory had he not been raised on the myths and legends of Perseus, Jason, Theseus, and Hercules. He was great because they were great before him, and because a story-teller like myself preserved their greatness in a song.
Who is more foolish than the one who cuts himself off from the very stories that fashioned his nation, his culture, and his family? As young and rash and hot-headed as he was, Achilles never despised the heroes of old. Rather, he shaped his life and his dreams around the tales of their heroism.
This is no small matter. Men cannot know where they are going if they do not know where they have come from. No one exists in a vacuum. No one springs full-grown out of the head of Zeus.
I have read your books, and I have discovered that many of you believe that people are products of their environment. How can you believe such things, and yet deny altogether the influence of the past? Nature may give us robust health or leave us scarred, but her traces upon us are minor things compared to the imprint of all those who came before us.
As mortals we love stories, for we are all part of a story. To pretend that we are not, to act as if we are independent islands cut off from the coast is to live a lie. It is to abandon, not only reason and good sense, but that all-important gratitude that links us back to the choices and sacrifices of our ancestors.
My warriors could not forget these things for each bore with him the name of his father. Neither Agamemnon nor Achilles nor Diomedes could forget that he was the son of Atreus, Peleus, and Tydeus; nor that his father before him was himself the son of a father whose reputation he was duty-bound to uphold.
At the core of the tales I spin are genealogies, lists of names that connect one generation to the next in an unbroken line. I know that readers of your day are often bored by such details, but the stories cannot exist apart from the details.
Tell your son a story today and then tell him the same story tomorrow. But the second time you tell it, change one of the details. I assure you that your son will not accept the change. He will stop you dead in your tracks and demand that you tell him which detail is the correct one. Were their five apples or only three? Did the princess have golden hair or was she dark? Did the hero meet a fox or a beaver?
If you tell him that it doesn’t matter, he will set you straight. Because it does matter! I know that many of you are bored by the repetition in my epics, but ask your children about that as well. They will tell you that they love to hear the same old patterns told again and again in the same way.
It’s a sad and strange thing. You try to learn from your young people what you should be learning from your elderly, and from the elderly what the young are best equipped to teach: not in words or proverbs, but through their innocent acceptance of the wonder and mystery of life.
So gather together your family, young and old, and sit beside the fire. Nobody is too young or too old to hear a story. Stories speak a universal language that enthralls the highest king and the lowest scullery maid alike. No one is so proud or so humble that he cannot see himself in the heroes of old.
Will you be passionate and headstrong like my Achilles, or calm and balanced like my Diomedes? Will you survive by your wits, like my Odysseus, or by sheer stubborn strength, like my Ajax? Will you try to lord it over others, like my Agamemnon, or be a friend and companion, like my Patroclus? Will you hold yourself to the highest duties and obligations, like my Hector, or put your own pleasures before the good of others, like my Paris?
In stories, all the types stand before you: as models to imitate or cautions to avoid. Usually a little bit of both. You cannot hear such stories and shrug them off as having nothing to do with you. They are insistent and persistent and will not let you rest until you place yourself in the tale and see that you too are a character.
Pay attention again to those stories your age has scorned. Let them point you backward to your origins and ahead to your destiny. Do not attempt to rip yourself out of the narrative stream. If you do, you will be left stranded in a world without purpose or hope or joy. You will be alone, without beginning or end, without ancestors or progeny to give your life shape and meaning.
Listen again to the poets as they sing the tales of Achilles and Odysseus. If you do, you just may discover your own tale along the way.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is of Homer as a blind bard is by Jean-Baptiste August Leloir, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.