The Odyssey at the Story Museum

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The Story Museum, in its own words, “exists to celebrate children’s stories and to share enjoyable ways for young people to learn through stories as they grow”. So where better a place for Michael Rosen (yes, he is the one who wrote ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’) to talk to two writers on the legacy of Homer’s Odyssey. As part of their ‘1001 Series’, authors, curators, professors and other such worthy story experts choose the stories they believe should be part of their collection. Professor Oliver Taplin, (author, academic and once fellow and tutor at Magdalen) and Geraldine McCaughrean (author of mainly children’s books – Orchard Book of Greek Myths, anyone?) were interviewed on why an ancient epic poem consisting of 24 books and written in 700BC continues to inspire artists today.

It seemed a little incongruous to me to have acclaimed academics and authors discussing such a hallowed part of the canon in a children’s museum, and I was struck by the mixed audience; there were little children sitting cross-legged in the front row surrounded by plenty of people who could have been their grandparents. In fact, the gap was easily bridged, as grown-up talk about identification and the character of the hero was interspersed with questions thrown out to the children: ‘tell the story of the Odyssey in one line!’ went down a treat among the impressively well-versed mini-Classicists in the front row.

Because really, what is it about the Odyssey that allows it to hold a special position, to be seen as a founding text of European culture? As was pointed out by Geraldine McCaughrean, a modern reader is unlikely to have much of an affinity with the ancient code of honour to which Odysseus is bound. It’s full of ludicrous things, like a giant with one eye that lives in a cave and talks to sheep, and witch-goddesses that turn Odysseus’s men into pigs. Professor Taplin made the point that modern heroes tend to be assertive and active, go-getting fighters – poor Odysseus just wants to get home. He’s a survivor, putty in the hands of the gods, a tennis ball. Where’s the sex appeal in that? We could be reading 50 Shades. However, the conclusion was reached that the enduring allure of the Odyssey lies in the intrigue of the subplots; the hundreds of minor characters and potential stories build up a patchwork of narratives; fertile ground for anyone’s imagination.

I came away with a taste of the awe the guest writers had for the Odyssey. Professor Taplin’s amazement at the oral tradition, people being able to remember hours of stories before writing was invented, was contagious. He talked of the urge to preserve, as it was only in 500BC when writing techniques became sufficiently advanced for hundreds of thousands of copies to be written out. It is testament to human imagination that young and old still feel a draw towards stories, and all credit to the Story Museum for gathering them up and celebrating them.

 

PHOTO/michaelrosen.co.uk, Aaron Matthews

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