|Posted by John Suttles on January 14, 2014 at 10:45 PM|
Often our skepticism is based not on fact, but on something rather flimsy such as personal taste or unfamiliarity with the proposed option. Such is the case with much of modern education and its skeptical adherents. “The classics are of no value to modern children, and certainly not to Christian children,” they say. “Time can be better spent on something else.” It is without argument that time will be spent on something else; but the value accrued from that “something else” may be negligible. Classics are not the recently-published paper-back “tritisms.” A true classic has stood the test of time and generations of readers, captivating imaginations and teaching lofty lessons of character. So it is from a proponent’s perspective for studying the classics, that I am grateful to be able to share a portion from a classic.
Many teachers, including this one, are indebted to Rosemary Sutcliff for bringing the adventures of the Trojan War to younger children not yet capable of reading Homer’s classics in the more difficult text. Even our young children are wise enough to understand the frailty of human nature and the futility of hoping in gods whose characters have all the same flaws as humans. Yet, these same children are enriched by the personification of honor, value, respect, loyalty, and integrity in the Greek and Trojan heroes. They see also the consequences of pride, arrogance, insolence, and dishonesty in the villain Paris and even in the gods themselves.
We have been reading aloud Miss Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy; and with rapture, we reached the awesome battle when Hector the Trojan hero and his mighty army pushed through the Greek defenses and nearly reached their black ships anchored on the shore below the great city of Troy. Heroes, in these days of classics, were god-like men whose strength and courage knew no bounds. Their troops rallied behind them, trusting not only in their bravery but in their military genius as well. Hector, was the hero of the heroes.
Two days before this formidable battle-day, Hector had been called out in single combat with the Greek hero Ajax. Their strength being evenly matched, the combat remained breath-taking, but without notable incident until they were reduced to short blades. Ajax’s blade gashed Hector’s neck, and Hector retaliated with a spear-jab on the shield of Ajax. His spear-point bent on the boss of the shield, and Hector tossed it aside. Catching a huge stone from the ground, he flung it at Ajax. Ajax caught up a larger stone and “hurled it with all his strength against Hector, smashing the shield in on him, taking the strength from his knees and flinging him over onto his back. Hector’s world darkened and swam, but he scrambled, gasping, to his feet, his hand going for his sword. Ajax’s sword was also out, and in a moment more they would have been close locked, blade to blade, but heralds from both armies came running and thrust their staves between them and bade them cease, for both had proved themselves worthy champions, and the night was coming on.” (1)
The day following was a truce day. Both heroes had only the one day to recuperate and make ready for the next battle. We know from the story, that their days and nights were spent in planning strategies and reconnoitering the enemy. At first light on that fateful battle day, the two war-hosts clashed on the plain below Troy, the Trojans pushing the Greeks down to the sea. Mid-day had passed, and Hector rallied his men, rushing ahead of them into the midst of the Greeks. It was in the rushing of this engagement that the Greek Diomedes struck a hard blow on the helmet of Hector, sending Hector crashing to the ground. But listen to what happened next. “His warriors closed about him with their shields, and in a few heartbeats of time he was up, the light coming back into his eyes. He sprang into his chariot, and…headed away for the left-wing of the Greek war-host.” (2)
Then the Greek hero Diomedes was struck by a Trojan arrow that pierced his foot and pinned it to the ground. But when Odysseus, his battle comrade, had pulled the arrow from his foot, he covered Diomedes with his great shield until Diomedes could climb into his chariot and be driven back to the ships.
Zeus, the greatest of the Olympian gods, had helped the Trojans reach the middle of the Greek camp but then turned his thoughts elsewhere. Taking advantage of his inattention, his brother Poseidon, god of the sea, realized the desperate situation with the Greeks. He harnessed his chariot horses and came driving ashore attended by huge sea monsters to energize the Greeks. In this surge by the Greeks, Ajax and Hector are once again face-to-face. Ajax caught up a great stone used to chock a ship and holding it aloft, heaved it with all his strength down on Hector, “catching him over the shield arm and below the helmet strap, so that he dropped like a bull under the ax of sacrifice, with all his armor clanging upon him.” (3) What now of the fate of Hector? Let us read on.
“Instantly his companions sprang close about him, and while some guarded their rear and flanks, others bore him off out of the fighting.” The Greeks rallied, thinking Hector to be dead, and pushed the Trojans back to the plain. Meanwhile, Zeus realized that the Trojans were in trouble and that Hector lay beside the river spitting up black blood. Zeus could not undo the work of his brother Poseidon, so he dispatched his own son Apollo, the sun-god, to go to Hector and breathe life and battle power into him “such as he had never known before.” So in obedience to his father, Apollo swooped down to “where Hector lay, with his companions dashing cold water over him, and breathed fresh life and the strength of his own godhood into him. And Hector rose and called for his armor and turned back to the battle.”
It was here that the story time ended for the day; but what a lesson I could teach from this battle. Yet, the most poignant aspects belonged to me. How many battle wounds have brought the blood and taken me to my knees with my head swimming. These were the times when the herald came and drove a stave in the ground for the truce. I had fought well, but now it was time to rest. Those heralds are marked all through the pages of my Bible, times and trials, suspended by the herald sent from the King. I thought again of Hector engaged in battle, already wounded from the day before, receiving a fierce blow from the enemy that sent him to his knees. Surely this was the mortal wound—the one that removed him from the battle, rallied his enemies, and brought the black blood of death. Is not this the testimony of many Christians, already wounded, yet struck by the enemy’s blow that reels them to the ground? But it was the faithfulness of Hector’s friends, guarding him, carrying him to safety, laying him by the water of life where the son of Zeus came in his light and breathed life into Hector’s fading body. And so, it has been the family of God that has cared for these wounded Christians, “partakers of the sufferings” yet “also helping together by prayer for us…” (II Corinthians 1:7, 11).
In reading this classic to the children, it has not just been lessons of bravery and character that have presented themselves. The recollection of many Scripture parallels have come forward, and thoughts of the battle with the enemy of this world loomed large in my mind. As Hector’s rallying cry must have pierced the air on that Trojan plain, so the Apostle Paul’s sounded in my ears, “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might” (Ephesians 6:10). I was reminded again that only the whole armor of God will make me able to stand. And I must be strengthened by the promises of God’s Word to be able, as battle-weary Hector was strengthened to do, to rise up, pick up my sword and turn back to the battle. And in the battle, I must be faithful to close about my brothers and sisters in the Lord with my own shield of faith to cover them while they are carried to safety. These are the lessons I most want to bring to the children’s minds.
Of course, these lessons can be taught to children without incorporating the classics. And of course, even with the incorporation of the classics, the Bible is not only precedent but the Perfect Rule. The classics reveal the growing up of Western Civilization, the gods of the nations and the God of the Bible, wrapped in the beauty of our language and delivered through the medium of storytelling. This is the rich heritage of our children.
I am so thankful that my God is not the Zeus-god whose attention can be diverted! And when I read how poor Hector suffered because of Zeus’ distraction, I am brought to worship when I contemplate yet again how that the true God is never distracted. His own Son, the Light of the world, came in His covenantal love from the Father to breathe life when I lay dying in my sin. He washed me clean by the water of His Word. He is my strong tower where I can find safety and rest. His armor girds me for the battle, and the fellowship and prayers of His saints guard my sides and carry me to safety when I fall. Certainly, I am engaged in a fierce battle with the enemy; but, hallelujah, the enemy is already defeated.
Is it possible that all of this could come to mind just reading about a battle of long, long ago? Yes! What rich lessons can be pressed upon the minds of our children when classic stories can bring these lessons to life!
Dr. Teresa Suttles
1 Rosemary Sutcliff, Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of The Illiad, (New York: Laurel-Leaf, Random House, Inc., 1993), 42.
2 Ibid., 59.
3 Ibid., 65-66.