We are not alone – an American radio dramatisation of Odyssey

The bank holiday dramatisation of the Odyssey was not unique, apparently. In 1981 American public radio presented an eight and a half hour version, and it has now (2004) been issued, probably on CD, but certainly for download from Audible.com. (not free like the BBC's Listen on Demand)

Details and free audio sample here.

The publishers write:

When this groundbreaking serialized dramatization premiered on 320 U.S. radio stations, critics were unanimous in their praise, calling it “a feast for the ears” and “a magnificent blend of scholarship and showmanship.” It won numerous honors including the George Foster Peabody Award and the Pulitzer Prize for broadcasting. Never before or since has such an ambitious undertaking been attempted in public radio, and it was accomplished, not by a major network, but by a small nonprofit independent producer in Chicago. That was in 1981. It has been sitting on the shelf ever since.

Now, 22 years after its first airing, Blackstone is pleased to rescue this outstanding production from undeserved obscurity. These recordings have been mastered from unaltered air-checks of the original broadcasts. Here is all the drama, poetry, and excitement of Homer brought to life by skilled actors. For the fullest appreciation and understanding, each of the eight episodes is accompanied by a brief documentary illuminating a key aspect of ancient culture or Homeric art.

I have listened to the sample, and find that it is virtually a dramatic reading of a translation of Homer, so, much nearer the original than the BBC's. The download costs $39.87, and I doubt if any teacher would want the whole of it – a teacher would prefer just the set books for the current year – so perhaps this news is not very useful. Have a listen for yourself, though. I don't believe American accents would even be noticed by young folk, used as we all are to US TV and film imports.

Take (desktop) cover – Alexander is coming!

Oliver Stone's film is to be released in the USA on November 5th, when we in the UK will be intent on fireworks of another kind. The trailer can be found here, and doesn't inspire me – it looks just like the trailer for any other epic, with horsemen riding through dustclouds, the hero shouting a rallying speech to a huge army that could not possibly hear his un-miked voice, and a brief clinch to show the love interest. But I'm intrigued by a promised interactive desk-top that is promised but not yet released. There's a map that updates automatically every week, and interactive features – well, read for yourself:

Here's the news item (thanks to Explorator again for the link):

In conjunction with the highly anticipated release of Oliver Stone's action-adventure drama “Alexander,” starring Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great alongside Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer and Anthony Hopkins, Warner Bros. Pictures is unveiling a unique interactive desktop application that charts Alexander's epic journey across the known world.

In what was one of the greatest military campaigns in history, Alexander's conquests shaped the world as we know it today. Fans can explore his path to immortality in great detail by downloading a special application from the official “Alexander” movie website, http://www.alexanderthemovie.com, which then appears as their computer's desktop wallpaper. Interactive features tell the story of Alexander's conquests against a backdrop of social, historical, and military information.

When fans download the application, the illustration of an ancient map appears on the user's desktop, charting the route of Alexander's unstoppable army as it marches from battle to battle, transforming the static desktop into a fully animated, interactive and connected experience.

Clicking on various “hot spots” reveals more detail about particularly important battles, people and events, launching a photo or storyboard. The application also features trailers, story information and streaming video from the film, as well as displaying local movie showtimes once “Alexander” is released on November 5, 2004.

The application automatically updates itself on a weekly basis, gradually revealing the army's trajectory from the years 338 BC to 325 BC in ten installments, charted on the interactive timeline at the bottom of the screen. From the timeline, the user can follow the Macedonian army each week to a new, historically significant battleground, where fans can learn interesting details and background about the life and times of the world's most notorious conqueror.

Latin as a force in history

One Sunday treat of mine is receiving 'Explorator' by e-mail. I set aside a few minutes (which often extend to half an hour or more) to browse the list of links with helpful summaries, follow up those that look interesting to a Classicist, and perhaps recommend the best here on through the ARLT monthly Newsletter. Thanks, David Meadows! (To subscribe to Explorator, send a blank email message to: mailto:Explorator-subscribe@yahoogroups.com)

Yesterday's Explorator sent me to a long article about what David Meadows as “Roman law and its spinoffs (potential essay crib).” You can find the article here. I pick out of the article this wide-ranging summary of the importance of Latin, which teachers might find useful to pass on to their “Why are we learning Latin anyway?” questioners.

Everything that we mentioned, however, could not contribute to forming the European culture without a formidable tool for penetration: Latin, for centuries the Empire's lingua franca. The Latin language carried out a vital function, allowing Roman policies, laws and public works to be understood and accepted by populations having different origins, languages and cultures.

With the collapse of the Empire, this linguistic unity was also broken. However, Latin gave rise to Italian dialects (one of which, the Florentinian dialect, would subsequently give rise to Italian) and other Neolatin (or Romance) languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian, etc.

Upon reflection, of course, these languages did not stop in Europe, because France, Spain and Portugal brought them wherever they created their colonial empires. Claiming that Latin – under the guise of French, Spanish and Portuguese – has conquered the world from Canada to Mexico, from Latin America to Africa to Indochina, is not unjustified.

Latin never died. Europe continued to study it even after writing and speaking its various national tongues for awhile. In the 16th century, speaking and writing “like Cicero” was compulsory for any educated person, not just for the clergy; as late as the 19th century, university lectures were given in Latin. Thanks to Latin, much more studied than the national languages, the latter would eventually acquire their common syntactic and lexical traits that make them so surprisingly similar to one another. The Catholic Church still uses Latin in its official documents.

Despite the spread of English, which seems to be intent on silencing any other tongue, Latin is so vital that it is being used for some modern mass publications. Since at least 20 years ago it is being used for some of the most famous cartoon characters, enjoying a constant, solid success. In Latin one can read about the Americans Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (Michael Musculus and Donaldus Anas), Snoopy and Woodstock (Snupius and Veudestocus); the wrathful Gaul Asterix (the name did not change, as it was Latin to begin with); the British Winnie the Pooh (Winnie ille Pooh). These are just examples of a growing production, possibly the most unusual aspect of Rome's legacy to Europe.

Has Charles Clarke had a Classical conversion experience?

The Observer had this today, 29th August:

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has called for traditional school standards to be protected through a renewed focus on grammar, spelling and algebra.

'We do need to be eternally vigilant that, at all levels, standards are constantly maintained or raised, and that extends to “traditional” standards, such as grammar, spelling and algebra, just as much as any other,' he writes.

The Education Secretary, who was furious at the recent decision by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance exam board (AQA) to drop Greek and Latin from its syllabus, also uses his article to take a clear sideswipe at the decision.

'We do need to nurture “traditional” areas of study like the classical civilisations and their languages, rather than letting them fade away,' writes Clarke, who was angered by the AQA's failure to consult before dropping the subjects and their refusal to reinstate the exams.

Read Charles Clarke's piece here.

Thinking back to the furore over Charles Clarke's statements on Latin and Greek a year ago, we may be thankful for this seeming change of heart. He did back-track fairly rapidly last year in face of the storm of protest, and it looks as though his original remark, to the effect that he wouldn't mind if Classics disappeared from our schools, did not represent his considered views. I hope not, anyhow.

The question of AQA's infamous decision to drop Latin and Greek exams remains, and I have read that Archaeology has been even worse served, because AQA offers the only GCSE in that subject, and is dropping it.

Can it be right that private companies should effectively be able to dictate educational policy? As long as GCSE and A levels are the only officially recognised academic qualifications in this country, and as long as the examining boards are free to decide which subjects they will and will not examine, it is they rather than the government who are dictating the limits of the curriculum. This cannot be right. The government body appointed to supervise the boards says it can do nothing. I call for a change in the law. It is as if the police forces of the country were given power to decide which laws they chose to enforce. One police authority might decide: “It is too expensive to arrest rapists, so we shall concentrate on other criminals and let rapists go unpunished.”

Odysseus made a strong finish

The much-heralded BBC Radio 4 version of the Odyssey had me in its grip this afternoon, the third and last episode. From Odysseus' landing on Ithaca to his long, long night in bed with Penelope the adaptation didn't put a foot wrong, emotionally.
Naturally there were omissions. We met only one outdoor servant, Eumaeus, and no goatherd Melanthius, for instance; and a major omission was of book 24. I welcomed that omission.
Satisfying explanations of people's actions were given or implied. One could 'see' Odysseus changing in appearance from hero to wrinkled old man, and back. Argos recognised his master most touchingly. Eurycleia's recognition of her master was excellently managed.
The two earlier episodes did not pack the same punch, but had their fine moments. Circe was well played, and the episode was, I think rumbustuous is the word. I wasn't quite convinced by the island of the dead. The Phaeacean court provided an interesting variety of reactions to Odysseus' narrative, some of them the dramatiser's invention, unless my memory fails me. Nausicaa reacts strongly to the fact that Odysseus stayed on with Circe after the initial confrontation. Un-homeric but convincing and fun to listen to.
If you missed the broadcast you can buy the CD, but you can also listen to the whole three episodes on the BBC web site for, I imagine, the next seven days. The site is here.

Well at least AQA has given some Latin joy this year.

South Warwickshire Article

From IC Coventry.

A-mazing twins get top grades

Aug 27 2004

IT WAS a double GCSE celebration for identical twins from Warwickshire who clocked up a staggering 22 A* grades between them.

Delighted Peter and Edward Jackson, 16, studied exactly the same 12 subjects at Kenilworth School, and although the twins may be very similar in looks – they ended up with slightly different results. Edward achieved A* in every single one of his subjects while Peter came away with 10 A* and two As.

They also received letters of commendation from examination board AQA for gaining one of the top five highest marks in the country for German. Edward had a second one for his Latin results.

Just a few more Latin candidates will get similar commendation from AQA before the board abandons them all to Latin-less night.

American favourite Latin course gets a new look.

A remarkably silly article from an American newspaper complained that the publishers of Wheelock's Latin Course have updated it. Apparently this course, which seems to be the preferred book in American schools, has cast off the forbidding, crowded, pictureless look of the Third Edition which I possess, and now looks a bit more like a modern textbook. I saw the article on this site, but the news has been taken up by other papers, and has even reached The Guardian.

Today’s Wheelock looks totally different from the original, densely packed tome Professor Frederic Wheelock sketched out a half-century ago. There are photographs, maps and eye-pleasing layouts. Exercises reflect the latest pedagogical theory. Readings feature fewer battlefield dispatches and more emphasis on women and everyday life. There is even a dirty poem by Catullus.

Wheelock’s also has a Web site, e-mail discussion groups and, soon, online audio recordings.

“The times, they are a-changing,” says Richard LaFleur, the University of Georgia classicist who took over the editorship of the series in the mid-1990s, following Wheelock’s 1987 death. “We want to keep up with the changes.”

But why the complaint? It's the cost. Apparently there have been Senate hearings about the soaring cost of school textbooks. The writer says that some subjects change, so there's a reason for new editions of textbooks:

Latin, however, hasn’t changed for 2,000 years. And where publishers see essential updates, critics of high textbook prices often wonder if new editions aren’t just a ploy to raise prices.

The Guardian's article is a great deal more balanced and sympathetic.

According to the silly article, the average price per new textbook was more than $100. It's ironic that the writer should choose to complain particularly about Wheelock, when a glance at the Amazon site shows the price of Wheelock as follows:

list price: $20.95
our price: $14.67

An Odyssey to catch

Simon Armitage
The pictures are better on radio.

The eminent Classicist Mary Beard has just been on Radio 4 telling us about this weekend's 3-part version of The Odyssey.

  • First of all she was enthusiastic about how the adaptation by poet Simon Armitage trusts Homer in the order that events are told – he sticks to Homer's structure better than any other adapter, apparently, and (of course) it works.
  • Then she was keen on the characterisation.
  • And she found that this version has real excitement – Euryclea washing Odysseus' feet and so recognising him was the episode she picked out.
  • Finally Mary Beard commended Simon Armitage on his treatment of the gods. He doesn't leave them out, as the Troy film does. This being radio, he doesn't have the problem of visually presenting Zeus on a mountain-top; the disembodied voice coming through the radio speakers is so much more effective. A god on screen is inevitably ludicrous; a god in one's imagination can be awe-inspiring. The pictures are better on radio.

After this commendation, I'm going to try to listen this on BBC Radio 4 Saturday 2.30 to 4 and 9 to 10.30 p.m., and Sunday 3-4 p.m. If you can't listen to the broadcasts, you can buy the CD from 6th September. But radio is cheaper!

P.S. Wickedly, I can't resist quoting this from Simon Armitage's article in Radio Times. Classics teachers will spot the error at once:

… Our appetite for fantasy stories has never been stronger. The Odyssey was one of the first. Even before Hollywood gave it a multi-million dollar makeover, most of us had heard of the wooden horse of Homer's other great work, the Iliad, in which a number of Greek heroes successfully wage war on Troy. …

Alas, Quite Adamant

So the Academic Quality Axe has fallen. This is from today's Times:

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) examination board, which has decided to withdraw Greek and Latin from 2006, has rejected a last-minute appeal from Stephen Twigg, the Schools Minister. Courses which begin next month will be the last to be examined by the board.

Mr Twigg said that state schools pupils would be disadvantaged by the decision and accused the board of failing to consult teachers adequately.

“No case for reconsidering,” intoned Mike Cresswell.”Very low demand … no longer sustain the losses.” But he Insisted that the Always Quick to Alienate was still an educational charity “whose only purpose is to contribute to education” Interesting way it has of showing it. By the way, it's dropping GCSE archaeology and Russian too.


What is to happen to the successors of the more than 5,000 students who took Latin and Greek with the Academically Quite Appalling board last year? That's about 500 GCSE Greek candidates and about 3.000 who sat Latin, along with the A level candidates.

Can the OCR board adjust its syllabuses to allow for candidates from state schools to have a fair bite of the cherry? The big exam reorganisation, I seem to recall, banned any board from offering more than one syllabus in any one subject; now that ACR has a monopoly thrust upon it, can this ban not be eased? It was not, surely, designed for cases like this. If OCR would find such an exercise too expensive, is there any way that classical bodies could, legally and practically, sponsor an alternative syllabus? If a second syllabus is impossible, can the existing OCR syllabus be modified in any way to allow for two distinct types of entry? There will still be two Classical Civilisation exams offered. Could OCR change its Classical Civilisation syllabus to include a Latin or alternative Greek section?

The Classics world in the UK needs to gather a working party at once to meet this new attack from the barbarians. I am sure that the Classical Association, the Joint Association of Classics Teachers, the Association for Latin Teaching, the Hellenic Society and the Roman Society would be only too ready to join in an urgent consultation. May I suggest that the Classics Coordinating Committee in the person of Dr Peter Jones would be a most acceptable rallying-point?

What price the super-essay?

From The Times, 19th August:

STUDENTS will have to produce a lengthy dissertation in addition to their A levels under plans to break the logjam of applicants to top universities, The Times has learnt.

The work would be given a separate grade and made available to admissions tutors online to help them to distinguish the most able candidates.

A 4,000-word extended essay is a central element of plans being drawn up by Mike Tomlinson, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, for a diploma to replace A levels. He is due to present his final report to Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, next month.

It seems that this will all take 10 years to bring about, but there are voices urging that the essay be brought in at once to help universities discriminate between a cluster of A grade candidates. Did I use the word 'discriminate'? Oh I do apologise. Discrimination is bad, isn't it? Or does it just mean being able to distinguish one person or thing from another?

Anyhow, what about this super-essay? 4,000 words – that's about 8 pages of typed A4. Not very long. Yes, bring it in! I shall enjoy writing one for my granddaughter in seven years' time. No, I don't mean that. But how easy it would be to cheat. Course-work is a nightmare as it is. As a fairly conscientious teacher I was often not quite sure whether the help I was giving was within the rules or not. So what about all the ambitious parents?

When I took a university entrance exam, there were lots of essays to be written, under exam conditions. And there was a general essay paper – three hours long, perhaps – with a list of subjects to choose from, all unrelated to Classics. I chose 'The Victorian Age', I remember, and as I knew very little about it, I approached it from the toys and books I had inherited from my grandmother's childhood, and the impressions I picked up from them. There was no way of cheating in that paper.

I was once told that in imperial times China chose its mandarins by means of an extended essay. Again, it wasn't written at leisure with reference books, friends and parents to consult, but the candidate was shut away with writing materials for a long time, even several days, and had to write out of his own brain.

Now that's the kind of super-essay that could well sort the women from the girls.