Whenever you read this, it’s probably safe to say that the latest Bond movie will be in planning. Meaning that it will soon be playing in cinemas around the globe. On every continent, popcorn will languish forgotten, as Bond steps into view, admires his gleaming Aston Martin, confident of his special weapons, before racing to a super-villain’s lair, to fight evil and save lives.
James Bond is a classic hero. More accurately speaking, he’s a classics hero. Classics? Did I hear a groan? A sneeze at the thought of all that dust wafting down from countless crumbling statues? I thought so! Because, unfortunately, mention of the classics still tends to conjure up public school classrooms and students wrestling with dead languages to better understand epics such as Homer’s ‘Iliad’. Isn’t it all Greek, Latin and mouldering texts? Worse still, elitist, dusty and irrelevant?
In a word: no.
Rest assured, had popcorn been about in Ancient Greece, it would have lain equally neglected as listeners craned forward to hear the tale of Perseus, admiring his winged horse, Pegasus, confident of his special weapons (Gorgon’s head, helmet of invisibility, sword and shield), before racing to a villainous sea-monster’s lair, to… well, you get the picture.
Bond, like countless other figures in literature and film before him, owes his heroic character, quest and personality to a set of ancestors laid down centuries before. And whilst it’s true that he exists for popular entertainment, rather than someone whose behaviour informed a civilisation’s thinking, he’s still a useful link to the past.
I’ll leave it to historians, far better qualified than I, to make the case for learning Latin and Greek, to extol the continuing importance of antiquity’s ideas in modern politics, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, drama, language, rhetoric and architecture, and yes, to lament the fact that classics still remains the preserve of public school education. Instead, I’d like to champion the classics as a way into all children’s wider understanding of the Ancient Greeks and beyond.
I didn’t benefit from a classics education. Having attended a sprawling comprehensive in the late seventies, it was only when I became a teacher, tasked with inspiring a class of eight-year olds about Ancient Greece – a civilisation far away in place and time from our Northamptonshire classroom – that I discovered the importance of the Greek heroes with their glittering treasure chest of myths, and more pertinently, how those stories captivated children, whetting their appetites to learn more about the world of the past.
Sparking a child’s interest in the beauty of the Parthenon’s pediments, or encouraging them to think about the differences between Athenians and Spartans isn’t particularly easy. Not, that is, until you tell them about the goddess to whom the Parthenon was dedicated, a smart but temperamental woman, with a knack for turning boastful women into spiders. Or explain how Theseus, who saved his people by slaying the bull-headed Minotaur in the maze, became the pin-up boy of Athens, whilst Herakles, the strongest man on Earth, came to inspire the militaristic lifestyle of the Spartans. You see, once the myths, the lifeblood of the classics, are mixed into the National Curriculum’s requirements of historical study, imaginations ignite and curiosity crackles.
According to the historian Edith Hall the Ancient Greeks possessed “an enquiring cast of mind underpinned by a wonderful shared set of stories and poems and a restlessness that made them more likely to sail away and found a new city-state than tolerate starvation or oppression in a mainland metropolis”. They were an inquisitive and imaginative people, bolstered by mythical heroes whose adventures remain brimful with clues about those ancient listeners. And ask us questions, too. What, for instance, does it really mean to be a hero? Relentlessly brave, capable and strong? Like Perseus? Like Bond? Or, can you be an underdog, vain, stubborn and ridiculed, yet still be truly heroic? My children’s comedy-adventures, ‘Fleeced!’ and ‘Rampage!’ both grew out of this idea, my personal response to the myths.
Obviously as an author, I’m predisposed to memorable characters, adventures and tales well told, but even so, I believe that it is in the stories that civilizations tell us more about themselves than in the shards of pot and ruins they leave behind. The Greek myths with their ancient themes of courage, loyalty, friendship, jealousy, vanity, justice and betrayal resonate down through the years and their heroes open our eyes to the civilisations that gave birth to them.
Luckily for us, the heroes are on Ancient Greece’s Secret Service. And, just like Bond, they remain hugely entertaining.