A Bright Light

October 21, 2009 @ 1:53 pm | Filed under:

“You, child. What do you know of Greece?”

Betsy had not understood much of what had passed, but she remembered her nursery night-light burning in a little pan of grease and she said, “It is a bright light.”

Uncle Ambrose leaned back in his chair and stared at her and his jaw dropped. Then an expression of great tenderness came over his face and he said, “Child, you are right. A bright light. One of the brightest the world has known. But that you should know that, a child of your age. I am astonished. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.”

—from Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

One of our favorites. Beanie’s reading it now for the first delicious time. This scene popped into my head a couple of weeks ago when we were about to begin reading The Odyssey—a kind of family fun I heartily encourage everyone to try. The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf,  Idylls of the King, Macbeth, Plutarch’s Lives: heavy, hard, heady college stuff, right? Not necessarily. Honestly, I’ve had better success reading some of these Great Works with my children than I’ve had with certain Newbery-winning children’s novels. (Longtime readers will recall my laments about our inability to sustain Secret of the Andes or Red Sails to Capri as read-alouds.)

I wonder if one reason the Hard Stuff works well for us is that I feel no pressure to finish the whole thing, figuring that every little morsel of Homer or Shakespeare is a boost, a blessing, a bit of nourishment for mind or soul. You know how Flylady talks about every little bit of housework, even housework done clumsily, being a blessing for the home? I guess that’s my take on reading these literary classics with young children. Our best, deepest, most affecting discussions have been sparked by small passages from big works. Some weeks I may not read more than a score of lines from The Odyssey, a single paragraph from Plutarch’s Life of Pericles, but weeks, months, years later we’re still chewing on those big ideas.

From yesterday’s Pericles passage:

“For [Pericles] was never seen to walk in any street but that which led to the market-place and the council-hall, and he avoided invitations of friends to supper, and all friendly visits and intercourse whatever; in all the time he had to do with the public, which was not a little, he was never known to have gone to any of his friends to a supper, except that once when his near kinsman Euryptolemus married, he remained present till the ceremony of the drink-offering, and then immediately rose from the table and went his way. For these friendly meetings are very quick to defeat any assumed superiority, and in intimate familiarity an exterior of gravity is hard to maintain. Real excellence, indeed, is best recognized when most openly looked into; and in really good men, nothing which meets the eyes of external observers so truly deserves their admiration, as their daily common life does that of their nearer friends.”

Food for thought there for a great many meals.

Related post: The Scent of Water.

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16 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Melanie says:

    This is good for me to remember. I tend to be an all or nothing kind of person, to push on even when my little listener’s attention has wandered off.

  2. Emily Cook says:

    Beanie’s so lucky! I just read Linnets and Valerians myself for the first time and loved it so much I bought it for my friend. It was hard to find a new copy.

    Like Melanie, I need to be reminded that a little bit of good stuff is better than none at all – although every once in awhile it pays to stick it out. Almost gave up on Swallows and Amazons because we know nothing about sailing lingo.

  3. Melissa Wiley says:

    Oh, absolutely, sticking it out can pay big dividends! We foundered with Swallows & Amazons as a readaloud, too—three separate attempts in five years—but we are faring much better with Winter Holiday.

    But A&S made a very satisfying read-alone for several of us, separately.

    We spent about a year and a half reading The Iliad, bit by bit…the kids said it was one of their favorite family reads during that span. But when it lapsed over the summer, with half the book left to go, I decided it was time to let it lie. For now. They know how the story turns out and have read children’s versions. We started afresh with The Odyssey this fall, and Beanie says it’s her favorite thing we’re reading. Sometimes she and Rose follow along in different translations (we have it on the iPod Touch via the Classics app) and they like to compare phrasings. The Classics version is prose and very easy to follow, but the kids deemed the more difficult verse translation (Albert Cook) more interesting—e.g. “shamble-footed, crumple-horned cattle” instead of “cows.” 🙂

  4. Ellie says:

    I left a comment … but I think it was eaten ….

    I wrote something along the lines of observing that, in my experience, that which is considered academically “hard” or “college-level” is often, in a familial setting, quite manageable for children and teens.

    And, Linnets and Valerians is one of our absolute favorites: we reread it at least once a year.

  5. MelanieB says:

    Once upon a time back when I lived in Texas and had a long commute to work I found an unabridged copy of the Odyssey on audiobook at my local library. It was an amazing experience I so loved listening to it. Wish I could find that version so I could own it.

  6. Helen (MaryVitamin) says:

    One of your Classic posts Lissa!

  7. Kristen Laurence says:

    You belong at TAC, Lissa! How I wish you could just go for a single class, spend two hours parsing and pouring and arguing among classmates over a single paragraph of Plutarch or Homer. Heaven!

  8. Ellie says:

    I haven’t been able to comment here (they get eaten? Not sure), so am testing/trying again.

    Just wanted to say that Linnets and Valerians is one of our very favorite books, which gets reread at least once a year.

  9. Beth says:

    What a wonderful post. This has been a week when I find myself fretting way too much (and any fretting is way too much!) about what we’re not “getting done.” Your post reminds me of what’s important, and how even the little we do, when done well, is life and food for future years! Thank you, Melissa!

  10. Mary G. says:

    Lissa … one of the best things about teaching the kiddoes at home is that we know what they’ve heard and when they remember later, we realize just how much they got the first time round; and can reinforce that! It’s so organic and natural it’s hard to understand why some folks don’t like home-schooling!

  11. Dell says:

    I’ve been wanting a copy of Linnets and Valerians for my eldest (10), but had forgotten to search again lately. Thanks for the delightful reminder!