Courage Book Review – the Black Ships

Yesterday Lisa talked about internal vs. external locus of control.  Today I want to talk about extreme-external locus of control!  I want to talk about Helen of the Fair Cheeks and the death of Achilles.  Yes, the Trojan War.
Offering the Trojan War (and its backstories) to kids 11 years old and up is a fascinating and dramatic way to explore the concept of personal responsibility.  The gods are the ultimate puppeteers here:  Thetis dips Achilles into the River Styx to make him invulnerable; Aphrodite sends Paris to go fall in love with (already married) Helen; Apollo sends disease to the Greeks to punish Agamemnon for kidnapping Chriseis;  Athena, Zeus, Hera — these gods can’t mind their own business for a moment!  They send dreams, they appear in disguise as trusted friends giving counsel, they produce obscuring clouds of mist at crucial moments of battle.  The mortals themselves accept this meddling as natural, if often inconvenient – like weather.
What is so fascinating about all this, aside from the great story-telling of it, is that consciousness itself may have been quite different at the time of these events.  People may not have recognized that their  thoughts, emotions and feelings arose within themselves.  (For a review of the difference between emotions and feelings, please revisit “What is Emotional Courage.”) Ascribing  insight, anger, jealousy or passionate love to an external force may have been all the Ancients could do.  And yet we see glimmers of personal responsibility and internal locus of control shining through chinks in the armor.  Behold the 11 year old child!


Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of 'The Iliad'Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of ‘The Iliad’  is amazing.   The epic is rendered into dramatic and lyrical prose that retains much of the flavor and imagery of the poetry.  “Through it all, Diomedes of the Loud War Cry, with his battle drunkenness upon him, went raging up and down the plain, leaving dead men behind him as a flooded river leaves the torn-off limbs of trees.”  “Hector shook his head, and the high horsehair crest of his helmet tossed sideways on the wind along the battlements… He reached out to take his little son in his arms, but the babe shrank back, scared by the great bronze helmet.”  “They thronged about Penthesilea, who shone among her maidens like the moon among stars, tossing up spears in greeting, throwing flowers beneath her horse’s hooves, kissing her feet.”  
The IliadAnother version, The Iliad, retold by Ian Strachan, lacks the lyricism of Sutcliff’s. The compression of events falls somewhat flat as a result.  In this version, Odysseus conceives of the wooden horse, it is built and the ships depart in just three sentences.  Sutcliff’s description of this same pivotal episode is rich with detail.  However, Strachan’s version adds explanatory information to help  modern readers visualize scenes that may simply be too unfamiliar, such as this description of the Greek ships: “Built on huge oak keels, at the waterline each ship had a massive bronze barb jutting from its bows, for ramming and sinking enemy warships.  Eyes were painted high on their prows, intended to ward off evil spirits and help the boats find their way safely to their destinations.” 
Between these two versions there are subtler differences, which speak to the external/internal locus of control discussion.  Here is Sutcliff on the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon: “Then Achilles, who had grown to care for Briseis, would have drawn his sword to fight for her.  But gray-eyed Athene, who was for the Greeks because Aphrodite was for Paris and the Trojans, put it into his mind that no man might fight the High King.”  That is external locus of control. This is Strachan on the same event:  “Achilles was so furious his hand strayed toward the silver hilt of his sword.  Should he kill Agamemnon now or curb his anger?”  That is internal locus of control.  Then we have the origin of the wooden horse.   Here is Sutcliff:  “Then Athene planted in Odysseus’ mind the seed of an idea: one of the cunning ideas for which he was famous.  And he stood up and unfolded it to the listening Greeks.”  External.   Here is Strachan: “Finally, Odysseus came up with an idea that he believed might get the Greeks inside Troy’s unyielding walls.” Internal.  Sutcliff’s retelling thus strikes closer to the original external locus of control, while Strachan’s offers a more modern internal locus of control.  (FYI, the highlights are all added for clarity.)

In my opinion, Strachan is trying to have his cake and eat it too.  He wants to give Achilles and Odysseus credit for positive actions (controlling anger, concocting a genius plan) while still pinning the blame for the whole mess on the gods.  Achilles’ grief needs the consolation of his mother, sea goddess Thetis, and the gods are still to blame when things go against the mortals.  Zeus gets angry, Poseidon butts in, Iris sends messages, Apollo shows up —  You can’t have it both ways!  (Have you ever said that to an 11-year old?  I have!)  Either the gods are in control  of us or they aren’t.  Share both books with your kids if you can, but if you can use only one, use the Sutcliff book.  Ask your child whether she is as willing to take blame as credit.   Talk about the meddling of the gods.  You might be surprised by where the conversation takes you. 

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