Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Crete (or, Theseus meets Hunger Games)

I am putting my money where my mouth is: after brainstorming about the Hunger Games-based storytelling performance, today I got a chance to put theory into practice. Twice.

First, the ETSU Tale Tellers were invited to an elementary school near Johnson City to tell Greek myths (and other fun things) for grades 6-8. We decided this is the age group that is probably reading the books day and night, and watching the movie as well - in other words, the perfect audience to test Theseus. I went last in the 45-minute show. Middle school is storytellers' least favorite age group; they are cooler than the high schoolers and more immature than the little ones; the most reaction one gets from them is an eye roll and the occasional yawn (even if then, when they are leaving the gym, you can hear them saying "that was AWESOME!", making sure the teacher does not hear).

Theseus needed a little bit of careful trimming around the edges: I only had 15 minutes left, so I had to cut right to the chase (for reference, I kind of liked working with this version). I told them how Theseus grew up not knowing who his father was, and then about the sword under the stone; I told them how he arrived to Athens (skipping the whole mess with the bandits - that is a whole spearate story) just in time to see the Cretan messenger arrive. This is where things really got Hunger Games-y; the messenger reminded everyone of the war that cost them so many lives, and that started because of Athens' fault; then he talked about the peace that was paid for with tributes. At this point my telling was a mix of original myth and Mary Renault's The King Must Die; names were pulled, and Theseus stepped forward to volunteer for tribute. This is the key sentence that first sends ripples through the crowd of kids. It was all rock and roll from there.
I spent precious minutes on describing Crete (that was the archaeologist in me) - all its colors, its strange dresses and hairstyles, and the crowd gathering to see the tributes. For the setting, I merged the palace of Knossos with the Labyrinth, with the open courtyard and the balconies in the middle. Archaeologists and historians argue that the myth of Theseus is based on the Cretan ceremony of bull-leaping, which probably had spectators, so I merged that idea with the Labyrinth, and had Theseus fight the Minotaur in the open courtyard, after wandering around in the maze of the palace's lower levels.

I was surprised at this, but the tale seemed absolutely new to most of the students. As for the fight, I went with the version where the Minotaur cannot be killed by weapons, so Theseus ends up strangling him. I cut the story short once he got away and sailed for Naxos; there was no more time to explain the rest, and I thought it better to end the tale with a victory, rather then... well, the rest.
I really enjoyed this telling! And the kids paid attention, which in this case equals fangirls screaming.

Since I was still on a post-storytelling high, I took the tale with me to 5th grade for my usual afternoon storytelling session in the University School library. In their case, I knew for a fact that they all loved the books. The second time around, the story felt... just as awesome as the first. There were much more reactions from 5th grade (perfect age for storytelling) - their jaws literally dropped when they started recognizing motifs from the books. They were excited, murmuring among themselves about the story (I usually let them comment on it, I know they are paying attention and making sense of what they are hearing). The moment of awesomeness came when Theseus killed the Minotaur - a loud gasp, and then silence, and then some of the kids started raising their hands in the Hunger Games sign of respect... and I felt like a rock star.

This story is a keeper, Hunger Games or no Hunger Games. Greek mythology still has it.


  1. Thanks for an interesting A-Z post & I love Greek mythology. From the little I've read about the Hunger Games, it reminds me of a film called Battle Royale where in the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary Battle Royale act.

  2. "And the kids paid attention, which in this case equals fangirls screaming." That pretty much says it all.

  3. Mythology is SO cool--what a neat story. Love this topic for the A-Z Challenge!