On a night much like any other night of the last few years, I was lying in bed beside my six year old son and he said, “can I have a talking story?”
A talking story is his way of distinguishing between the stories we read in the light of day and the stories I tell him when it’s lights out, and the dark is all around, and it’s just him and me and the silence. Reading stories are stories with pictures, ultra-modern, featuring Captain Underpants, Minecraft, or Pokemon. But when it’s lights out and it's talking story time, strangely, it’s the ancient stories he wants.
I started by telling him the oldest story I knew, which was Gilgamesh. He laughed at Enkidu’s antics, and he was sad when Gilgamesh was sad. I remembered it badly, but he still enjoyed it.
In fact, he fell in love with ancient stories.
So I reached for the memories of the myths I learned in the course of my undergrad in Classics and for the last two years, I have been telling him all the ancient stories I can remember.
I told him the story of Perseus and Medusa (he was annoyed that Perseus came out swinging and didn’t even try to talk to the lady) and then, when I later told him the story of the Mirror Knight, he interrupted, annoyed, “I know this one. You told it to me a long time ago.” I hadn’t realized they were essentially the same: one ancient, one medieval. He noticed. He was listening, and closely.
I told him about Odysseus’ wild journey, and a very abridged version of The Anabasis that I thought he would enjoy, and of Achilles, and Hector, and poor, doomed Cassandra. I told him the story of Twelve Labours of Hercules - a full blown twelve-night extravaganza which saw me scanning Wikipedia to jog my memory while the boy was brushing his teeth. At the end of night twelve, he lay quietly in the dark. “What did you think of the story?” I asked. He didn’t answer. He was crying.
There seems to be a movement afoot in the wild. Stories, including ancient, Classical stories, are being shaped and reshaped. I’ve enjoyed watching the transformation.
I like versions of the story where Persephone is actually a goth girl with an overbearing mom and a goth boyfriend whose place she can crash at. I like Athena protecting Medusa from unwanted sexual advances by granting her power over deadly snakes, which she wears in her hair.
The biggest criticism I've seen of these re-tellings is that they’re not true to the original. But for those of us who studied the classics and considered our sources, that criticism is so much fluff and nonsense. No one knows what the originals were like. The versions we have are one, or two, or a composite made of fragments of many. It’s like catching a fish and declaring that all the myriad fish unseen in the teeming ocean must look just like this one. We know that’s nonsense. After all, evolution acts dramatically on organisms. And on stories.
In a talk delivered to the Long Now Foundation, Neil Gaiman described encountering a version of Gilgamesh still being told in the wild. In that talk he posits that stories are the longest lived organisms on earth. J. J. Tehrani seems to agree. Tehrani’s paper, The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood, beautifully maps story variations as if they were the evolutionary relationships of related organisms. And even if it’s not exactly the case that stories are really alive, they do mutate, transform. And they die.
Who knows the story of the Golden Ass? Nobody who hasn’t read it for a class, that’s who. Who knows the story of the 300 Spartans? A vast number of people around the world. It doesn’t matter if the story that lives in the popular imagination isn’t the same as the original, or that it’s problematic in its current telling; it was all that and more in the original too.
What is interesting to me is that the story survives.
The Golden Ass has effectively died, but the story of the 300 Spartans transformed and continues to transform, bubbling to the surface of the cauldron of culture every now and again, each time a little different. The Golden Ass has sunk to the bottom. I can’t guess why, if I could I would be a bestselling author of fiction and a literary theorist of renown. I’m neither of those things, but I am a writer who tells stories to my kid. I know that stories that transform survive. We are making, unmaking, and remaking them with every movie remake, every tumblr post, and at every bedtime.
My kid’s experience of the ancient stories is not at all what mine was twenty years ago. I met these stories in my undergraduate, sandwiched between biology class and women’s studies class and doing double shifts at a coffee shop. Learning these stories explained metaphor and allusion that floated in the zeitgeist but wasn’t really ever explained. But for my son? To heck with zeitgeist. At six years old, he is preoccupied with fairness, kindness, and Pokemon. His experience of the stories is profoundly different. And yet he loves them. And, interestingly to me, a writer whose stock in trade is narrative, he interprets them in wildly different ways than I did, and do.
Take for example the story of Athena and Arachne. That story was delivered to me in class one morning, and it was made clear that through this story we knew the Greeks did not truck with mucking around with gods, and felt you would get what you deserved if you tried to go against them. When I told it to my son, I told it how I learned it, but my son received it differently. To him, Hera has given Arachne a gift: She is free from human shortcomings, she is immortal, she will do what she loves forever until the sun winks out. For a child looking toward a future that features grey-carpeted offices, international wars, and inflation, Hera’s curse is transformed into the most profound of gifts: a life of doing only what one loves.
He said, “Oh, Athena is so nice,” which has never been the way I received her in this story. I’ve been thinking about that, and about running across Gilgamesh, alive and in the wild, a little different from the texts that survive, but still resembling its ancestor, still holding the same shape of the story, the same sense of longing and loss, the racy bits, the funny bits, the parts that make you cry.
I was thinking about the western obsession with textual fidelity, and the slow unraveling of that in Canada as Canadians come to respect Indigenous knowledge, all of it essential and none of it textual. And I was thinking of Tehrani, and how he mapped the changes of a single story that seems, at first glance, to be of no consequence because it lives in the domain of children, but these changes mark the story out as ancient, a real survivor among survivors, a Joshua tree of a story. And I was thinking of evolution, and how stories survive.
So when my kid told me he thought Athena was not only nice, but he hoped someone would do that to him, but with Lego, I said, “I never thought about it that way.” I gave him a kiss and tucked him into bed. I didn't want to interrupt a moment of story evolution. Let it live with him that way. Not Athena's curse, but a gift of the gods.
Sometimes I think about him at his 90th birthday party, surrounded by all his loved ones and holding a great-grandkid of six on his knee. Maybe he’ll be telling them a story. Maybe about the gift Athena gave to Arachne, a story he heard from his mother. The story isn’t wrong, it isn’t right. It just is. Alive.