A big thank you to Anne White for tackling the topic…that no one else wanted! Ha!
Anne White has homeschooled for almost two decades, but has just one seventh grader learning at home now. She is part of the AmblesideOnline Advisory, moderates the CMCanada email list, and helps lead a Christian homeschool group in southern Ontario. You can find Anne blogging at Archipelago, the official blog of the AO Advisory.
One Sunday many years ago, I went out for lunch after church with a couple of college-and-careers friends. Over the soo guy almond, they expressed concern for the state of my spiritual health. “For instance,” said one of them, “you should consider the books you’re reading. Like that one,” and he pointed to the copy of Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska sticking out of my bag. He went on to recommend a couple of more-spiritually-helpful books, the names of which I’ve completely forgotten. I was not as grateful as I might have been for the attempt to reform my reading tastes, but I did realize I’d get nowhere arguing the point. Anne Hébert won Canada’s top literary honor, the Governor-General’s Award, three times, for both fiction and poetry. Kamouraska is not a story for children, but it is not throwaway stuff either. But in my Christian friends’ eyes…fiction was fiction. Unedifying. Unspiritual. And that’s why that conversation comes to mind when I think about mythology.
Yes, it’s true, even if it puzzles us or makes us uncomfortable: Charlotte Mason recommended Greek, Roman, and Scandanavian mythology for even the youngest children. It was part of their “Tales” and, later, their “Reading” work; and it was a subject for their compositions, in both prose and verse. Bulfinch’s Age of Fable, Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece, Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, Annie Keary’s Heroes of Asgard, were staples of the PNEU curriculum.
But why? Why bother, since all those gods and goddesses are part of a past world with extinct beliefs? Or, why expose our children to questionable, possibly immoral stories, that may give them wrong ideas? There are plenty of weird beliefs in this world; why teach them what is un-Christian? What if they run off, like The Wind in the Willows‘ little Portly, into the arms of Pan? Why can’t we just skip it and avoid all the controversy?
A dictionary definition of mythology is “a body or collection of myths belonging to a people and addressing their origin, history, deities, ancestors, and heroes.” So: the stories of where a people came from, what they worshipped, what they believed about heroism. In Norms and Nobility, David V. Hicks writes that
myths, whether they sang of the exploits of demigods or of heroes, caught in their perpetual flames a unifying vision and standard of man, an Ideal Type striding between the poles of human strength and human frailty.
Not only do [myths] have a practical value, many of them illustrate the human condition or some aspect of wisdom in a way that deserves to be respected.
In other words, the doors that can potentially be opened by a well-considered exposure to mythology are as vital, as mind-feeding, as soul-stretching, as those of music, of Shakespeare, of sculpture, of natural history, and of the more “realistic” forms of literature. Yes, there is risk with any story that a child will take more than you wanted him to, or something different from what was intended. But there is also enormous potential for learning, for language, for a sense of nobility that goes beyond any well-intentioned stories we might create as substitutes. Hearing stories of past civilizations might also offer an antidote to pride in “us” and “now.” A millennial view of reality is not the best or the truest simply because it is the latest.
And of course there are the practical reasons for reading classical mythology — if a greater understanding of later literature and art can be called practical. Brandy has mentioned Milton’s allusions to Greek and Roman myths, and others have pointed out that the Book of Acts also has references to Greek religion. But here’s one you may not be aware of: what about the influence of Norse mythology on J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings? One of his favourite epic poems was the Icelandic Völsunga saga or the legend of Sigurd; so much so that he translated it into English himself. (The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in 2009.)
Charlotte Mason’s students also learned about Sigurd, but from a slightly-edited version of William Morris’s poetic retelling (Sigurd the Volsung, published by Longmans), which I have just started reading with my own daughter. So far we’re only up to the “sword in the stone” events at Princess Signy’s wedding feast to the King of the Goths, which makes us think of King Arthur — except that this sword is plunged into an oak tree by a mysterious old man who claims to be a servant of Odin, the “Allfather of the gods.” Signy’s brother, the last to try, pulls it out; but what he might have to do with it is assuredly not going to be easy or probably even pleasant, especially since the wedding has already been marked by barely-hidden resentments and insults between the Volsungs and the Goths. There is obviously trouble ahead. Can you tell I’m looking forward to exploring this one?
So this isn’t a matter of “I’m more open-minded than you, so there,” in making a case for the inclusion of myth and legend, presented in literary language and in age-appropriate ways. Rather, it’s an observation that Charlotte Mason, a faithful and thoughtful Christian, saw enough truth and beauty in these stories to make them part of her “generous curriculum.” And that writers from Milton to Tolkien and beyond, many of them also Christians, have borrowed, directly or indirectly, sometimes without realizing it, from mythology. And of course there are mythologies beyond those of Greece, Rome, and Scandanavia; there are legends of the native peoples of whatever country we find ourselves in, or of our own heritage. Sometimes these stories seem to foreshadow or parallel Christian belief; sometimes they contrast. In any case, one way to get to know people is to listen to their stories.
And if we teach these stories in Charlotte Mason’s style, we don’t turn them into pop quizzes, demanding that our students be expert on what god fathered whom, or that they be able to match up every Greek deity with its Roman equivalent. We don’t require them to construct model temples, or (God forbid) compose hymns to Isis. We don’t have the teacher write and print out a fill-in-the-blanks, draw-picture-here booklet for each student. (In that case, who did the real learning?) We only ask that they listen or read, narrate (in oral, written, or more creative format), and consider the ideas that present themselves, not only about religious beliefs, but about human nature, nobility, courage, and love.
It’s not always easy to explore subjects or stories that might not be “safe.” We might risk the disapproval of those around us. Like Signy’s brother, we might wonder just what kind of a sword we’ve pulled out, and what to do with it. But the adventure lies ahead, if we are willing to take it.
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