Somedays it takes forever to read even a short little tale. Somedays: the best days.
Like this morning. I was going to read the girls the first part of the Romulus and Remus story—just Part II of Chapter 1 of Famous Men of Rome. They asked, as they sometimes do, if I would tell it instead of read it. In general I prefer for them to hear stories in polished prose, not my off-the-cuff improvised versions, but I do understand the appeal of the “told” story, and I try to keep a little store of tales on the tip of my tongue in order to oblige their requests.
(Truth be told, I used to be much better about this—about keeping my brain supplied with tales to tell. As more children came along I got so busy and my mind grew cluttered and I wasn’t remembering folk and fairy tales in all the rich detail they deserve. I mean, just because I can write stories doesn’t mean they come tripping effortlessly off my tongue at a moment’s notice. The delete key, the long musing stare out the window, these are my bosom friends.
Then one day, with a brutal little twist of the knife, one of my daughters sighingly lamented that her mother never told stories like Martha’s mum did. As in: Martha Morse, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother, about whom I have written several novels. My Martha, being regaled by stories I made up, stories told to her by a mother every bit as much a figment of my imagination as her tale about the water fairy of Loch Caraid. Oh, the guilt! Those who can’t do, write about? This is definitely my motto when it comes to, say, cooking (Martha grows up to be a fabulous if prone-to-mishap cook) and spinning and making clothes. But to stretch it to story-telling seemed too ridiculous a bit of irony, so I have taken steps to redeem myself from this deplorable deficit, and now I can supply a yarn in the grand oral tradition upon request. Moral of the story: Do not invent fictional characters who are nicer mothers than you; or if you do, don’t let your own children read the books.)
But I digress. Which is, of course, the theme of this post. So anyway, I’m telling the story of Romulus and Remus, but I get barely two sentences into it when I’m interrupted by one of those gasps which are my Absolute Favorite Part of homeschooling. I’ve just described the ousting of King Numitor from the throne by his ‘surper brother, Amulius.
“Hey, that’s just like As You Like It!” cries Jane. “Wasn’t it the Duke’s younger brother who usurped the throne there too?”
“Or like in Prince Caspian,” says Rose. “Except the usurper wasn’t his brother, it was his uncle, I think.”
“Usurp, usurp, usurp!” chirps Beanie, just because. “Hey, Absolom usurped too!” (Sigh, I miss her surp.)
We pull ourselves back to the tale at hand. I get to the part where Numitor’s daughter is forced to become a priestess of Vesta, a Vestal Virgin, under oath not to marry for thirty years. One of her duties is to tend the Sacred Fire which must be kept burning on the altar of Vesta, lest dire consequences befall the city of Alba.
This time the gasp of recognition is Rose’s, but Jane hijacks her connection.
“That’s like the sacred fire in the story of the Maccabees! You know, the story about how Hannukah got started?”
We abandon poor Sylvia for a brief retelling of the Hannukah story (and a diaper change). Then I return to my tale, but I get barely a sentence farther before Mars comes down from his lofty palace and spies young Silvia, falling instantly in love. This cues a chorus of “Like Danae and Zeus” from my three young Greek myth fans. They’re getting into the game now, beginning to seek out connections instead of tumbling into them.
And there are so many, many connections to be found. I like to keep lists of them. Here’s what I can remember of the girls’ interjections this morning:
“Hey, Sylvia, that’s like “sil-va, sil-vae” in Jane’s Latin! It means forest.” (Says Bean, who is a great fan of the chant CD that goes with Jane’s Latin for Children book.) “Mommy, is it bad that Sylvia broke her vowel?”
(Launching a discussion, once the laughter subsides, about whether it is right or wrong to break a vow made under duress.)
When Sylvia’s twin babies are put into a basket and tossed into the Tiber, this naturally sparks a mention of Moses. Also Perseus, who is of course still on their minds from the Danae reference above. Also a story from the Arabian Nights, “The Bird Who Speaks,” in which certain babies are tossed into a river by a wicked auntie and subsequently rescued by a nice old couple.
The twins’ adoption by the she-wolf reminds Rose of Mowgli. Jane thinks the story is similar to Snow White, because the person directed by the evil ruler to kill the innocent child or children—a huntsman in Snow White, a herdsman in the Roman tale—doesn’t follow orders exactly, and the victims are saved from death.
Somehow this all makes Beanie think of Hercules—because “the joke was on the king” (she means Amulius) “just like the joke was on the giant” (she means Atlas). It’s a stretch, but I’m intrigued by the connection. And a moment later, when I tell of rightful king Numitor living in obscurity as a farmer, Rose says it reminds her of Britain’s King Alfred hiding out from the Saxons in a shepherd’s hut: “You know, the time he burned the cakes.”
It’s not that they’re geniuses, you know; most of these references are stories they’ve listened to on CD. A couple of years ago we had the immense good fortune to come into possession of the entire collection of Jim Weiss story CDs. (Of course we’re now missing some titles, for he has released several enticing new story collections in the past two years.) Of the stories mentioned above, about half of them entered my girls’ store of knowledge via Jim Weiss. (Which is why I link to him so often.)
Sometimes the road from A to B involves detours through a couple thousand years of oral tradition. Those are the trips I like best.
Call Me Al
Nonfiction Author Kelly Milner Halls
Brave Writer ARROW, Prairie Thief Edition, On Sale Today
Book Quotes We Use a Lot
Cybils YA Fiction Nominee Suggestions