Sunday, October 30, 2011

Helaine L. Smith's "Homer and the Homeric Hymns"


My dear friend and colleague Helaine has just published a wonderful textbook for teaching Homer or studying him on one's own. Homer and the Homeric Hymns provides substantial selections, freshly translated, from The Iliad, The Odyssey and eight Homeric Hymns. These passages, focusing in turns on the different gods, are accompanied by thoughtful commentary on Homer's art, with detailed footnotes on background, literary terms and vocabulary. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion, and suggestions for analytic and creative writing exercises. There are even sample essays to aid training in composition. Indices of mythological and literary terms enable easy cross-referencing.

Helaine is a master teacher. She has taught English for over thirty-five years, and this book is really a treasury of those years of experience. As a colleague, she is always generous in sharing ideas and resources. When I taught sixth-grade English for the first time, her guidance meant the world to me. In the mythology unit, I used with great success the passages and exercises from what would become her book. Particularly affecting and memorable to the students was our discussion of Hephaistos. When Zeus and Hera quarrel at a feast in The Iliad, Hephaistos not only tries to persuade, with proper deference, his mother to reconcile with Zeus, but he also moves around to serve the other gods wine, knowing that his limp will draw their laughter and so defuse the tense atmosphere. Helaine's discussion of the incident alerts the reader (or teacher) to Homer's psychological subtlety as well as his imaginative power.

If the material in the book is not beyond a class of bright sixth-graders, it is certainly suitable for high school and college composition classes. The advantage of using this book is that the student becomes familiar with some of the foundational stories of Western literature and culture, besides developing reading and writing skills. Homer and the Homeric Hymns does not assume any prior knowledge of the epic poet. The introduction places Homer usefully in his historical context. This book encourages, instead, an informed appreciation of Homer's vitality to the Western imagination.

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