Speak, Child: The Illiad as the Infancy of Children’s Literature

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In his first chapter (“Speak, Child”) of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, Seth Lerer discusses the “infancy” of children’s literature. Such a study requires a review of children’s education, as that is the basis for children’s literature. Lerer discusses the classics (the “really old classics,” as I’ve dubbed them on this blog) that were the basis of education in the ancient world.

I took note of two elements within his discussion of the classics. First, children’s education was based on recitation and memorization. Also, children learned from extracts of The Illiad and The Odyssey, and later The Aeneid, works that even then were “adult” literature.

Memorization and Recitation

The first point caused me to ponder: Do children memorize in school today? What is the benefit of memorization?

Interestingly, Lerer argues that the study and memorization of the classics helped give children a voice. They began by memorizing Homer and progressed to writing their own recitations. Memorization, then, provided a way for them to find their own voice.

I remember memorizing some Robert Frost poems in eighth grade. Even now, any time I’m walking through a forest or driving down an autumn tree-lined road, I find myself thinking, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood….”

Likewise, in the past few days, I noticed others around me reciting instead of finding their own words: movie lines, commercials, and song lyrics. So even today we memorize and recite to find our own voice.

The Illiad as Children’s Literature

But children in ancient days weren’t quoting advertisements: they were memorizing Homer. The classic texts were what helped children learn to speak in an adult world. Lerer summarizes:

…what these texts taught were not simply moral maxims, but habits of control. Children could be masters in the house; yet children of the salves, too, could achieve beyond their birth to gain a path of honor through their merit. … nec generi, sed virtuti. [not according to birth, but according to merit] (page 34).

In other words, Homer helped kids see they could be anything when they grew up. I don’t know much about social class in antiquity, so I don’t know how accurate my generalization is. Nevertheless, it’s empowering to think that Homer could have that effect. But it’s also got me thinking: what literature might be appropriate for children?

Of course, children in ancient days didn’t have any other “children’s literature,” so to speak. Certainly, children’s literature today empowers children to speak, gives them a voice of power and mastery, and helps them recognize the opportunities they have in the future. But Lerer stresses that these works for adults were also the literature and the textbook that children relied upon.

Children were able to understand and take things away from otherwise adult texts. Note that they didn’t read the entire work (The Illiad, for example, is very violent), but they read extracts that were applicable to them. If we ask our children to read extracts from today’s adult texts, might they still resonate with them?

Relevant Today?

Reading Lerer’s overview of these classics as a part of childhood education prompted me to begin the Really Old Classics Challenge. I am not familiar with many of the classics he discussed, and I’d never have thought of them in terms of children’s literature. I’m curious.

When I read The Illiad, I imagine it will be a struggle. There are challenging concepts and language within them. I imagine they were challenging to adults in ancient days. And yet, portions of the works were applicable to children then, and they memorized portions for their learning.

I’m not an educator, and my only child is a year old. I’m not calling for the addition of The Illiad to the first-grade curriculum. I recognize that the language of The Illiad is rather complicated for anyone today: this is a different age with different myths and traditions.

That said, I’m sure that modern literature has similar extracts that may resonate with children. What modern literature for adults might have portions that resonate with children? And should we encourage our children to memorize literature? Does memorizing extracts empower children with a voice? I wonder: if we expect more of our children, will they rise to the occasion? Why not try them, and see?

After reading this chapter, I’ve added a few things to my “to read” list:

  • The Illiad by Homer
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • The Aeneid by Virgil
  • Confessions by St. Augustine
Reviewed on October 9, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • very interesting post.  I’m intrigued by the reasoning behind memorization.  My dad is in his 60s and can still quote a few things he learned in grade school.  My husband is in his 30s and can do the same.  I don’t recall ever having to memorize as part of my education.  This is definitely giving me something to think about.

    kiddo is 6 now … maybe I’ll encourage him to memorize sections of books that he enjoys at the moment.  As he gets used to it I may challenge him with portions of adult books …

  • This is something I think about as well from time to time, in a slightly different context. In Armenia, where I live, memorizing is still a big (the biggest) part of learning at school. While it does encourage children to learn their nation’s poetry and prose by heart (anyone here can recite at least some poems by heart, which I can’t and it makes me feel embarrassed from time to time), the stress on rote learning in this country is too much. Children (and students) here are not taught to form an opinion, to interpret or analyze facts, texts etc. They are just taught to repeat after the teacher, to the extent that at exams at university students just have to literally reproduce the lectures of the lecturer. This is obviously the bad result of putting too much emphasis on rote learning.

    However, the opposite is a discussion that flares up every now and then in my native Holland, where children don’t learn to memorize or quote anything anymore, with the result that they don’t learn some basic facts from for example history or literature anymore. This is the result of putting too much stress on analytical skills, I suppose.

    I actually think that asking children to memorize quote, passages or poems is not such a bad thing, not only because it familiarizes the child with literature in a somewhat different way, but also because it is in a more general way an exercise in using the brain, in learning to remember and memorize things.

  • Heather J., it’s interesting to think about: what do we want our kids reciting? Movies or something they read? I wonder what books for adults might be appropriate in this day and age. Let me know how the memorizing goes with your 6 year old. I think that sounds like a great age.

    Myrthe, that is so interesting to hear that memorization is a huge part of education there! Hearing your story makes me realize that it probably wasn’t always empowering in ancient days. I imagine their education was more rote, which, you are right, isn’t such a good thing. But yes, I think a balance would be nice, and I guess I don’t see that at all in USA education: I only memorized two poems in my 12 years of school. And others don’t memorize anything. Thanks for sharing.

  • I am in my 30s and the only thing I can remember memorizing for school, aside from the Pledge of Allegiance and multiplication tables, is Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky.”  While I’ve never began any deep, meaningful discussion with, “So, when Carrol wrote, ‘all mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe,’ do you think he meant the borogoves were *all* mimsy or just *sort of* mimsy?” it is fun to try to pull up all the pieces every once in a while!

    I think there has to be a healthy balance between rote memorization and analytical thinking.  Songs or poems can be great tools for helping kids learn about history or grammar by making it fun and easier to remember, but they need to be able to understand what they are learning as well.   

    Also, I do think memorization of a particularly inspirational piece of work, whether it’s a speech, a poem, a lyric, or anything else that speaks strongly to the reader/listener can provide a good springboard for creativity and/or analysis.  This has been a good thought process-I didn’t end up where I thought I would!  Thanks, Rebecca!      

  • Dreamybee, Oh, I loved Jabberwocky! I don’t think I learned it in school and I’m not an educator, but I think it has something to do with learning what nouns/verb/etc. are without realizing it. I don’t think memorization needs to be boring stuff! I think learning Jabberwocky in school would have made it fun to memorize.

    Yes, I’m enjoying the thought processes of these things! Thanks for your comment.

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