I am going to address big questions in this posting – about what I ‘am’ in disciplinary terms and about where the activities I am designing for autistic children sit in disciplinary terms. I have been asked questions that in some way relate to these questions over the years. At job interviews in the 1990s and early 2000s, for instance, a question I used to anticipate was this: ‘are you a Classicist or an Ancient Historian?.’ And, on one occasion, when I told a colleague that I was going to teach a module on historiography for first year History students, she responded ‘but you’re not on the History Team.’ Why I am saying this now is because I was asked something about the activities that I didn’t give an adequate answer to at the time. This was in a meeting with an autism expert in Education who asked whether the activities are envisaged as Classics ones or Education ones. I answered by going back to the origins of the project – so, perhaps I gave a classicists’ answer, one which took refuge in the apparent authority of origins?
I told my colleague about how it began for me at a meeting with a Special Needs teacher at a secondary school who told me that she had experienced autistic children enjoying classical myth. I then began to wonder whether, with my academic interests in myth, there was something I could contribute.
As I am writing this now, I am thinking that this was a good enough answer after all?
What I am trying to do is to use my experience in researching classical myth, especially mythological characters to design activities using classical myth – activities which try to engage and ‘speak’ to autistic children. I am not seeking to educate the children about classics as a primary goal, although inevitably the activities will involve some degree of learning about myth – and this is hopefully not a bad thing. As I have reflected previously in this blog, experiences with classical myth can make a difference to people, and not because there is something somehow edifying or worthy about classics or classical myth. I am aware that classics is linked with elitism, and that a knowledge of classics is seen as appropriate as a mark of a ‘good’ education. And I am aware that the figure of Hercules has loomed large in such an education.
But there is also that ‘other’ way to encounter classical myth, and Hercules: via such adaptations as The Legendary Journeys and the Disney film and, recently, such inventive works as Camp Hercules, where ancient myth comes into contact with the life of a young boy who solves Hercules’ labours in contemporary America – or, in time travel fictions such as Helping Hercules, where a girl is transported into classical myth, solves problems of Hercules and others and ends up changed though her experiences.
I have recently read an article by Lisa Maurice which is highly relevant here – in the latest edition of the Historical Fictions Journal. Lisa surveys books for children which foreground Hercules published in the UK and the US between 1970 and 2018. One recurrent theme she identifies in works published before 2003 is the following – the works tend towards an ‘elitist’ view of myth, classics and Hercules. In these books, myth is used as something worthy for children to learn about. This includes books that came out in response to Legendary Journeys and the Disney film. There is a disjunction, here, as Lisa shows, between the inventiveness of the TV series and the film and the books, which are characterised by didactic elements.
But, in the years since 2003, spurred on in part by the Percy Jackson phenomena, there has been a turn to more inventive uses of Hercules. These works often engage with classical myth, though without being confined to the ancient evidence as some kind of ‘master narrative.’ It is here that Camp Hercules comes in – where ancient myth and the present are ‘remixed’ the result being the potential for issues to be dealt with, including bullying, popularly, courage and depression. There is space, too, in such receptions for female characters, Susan for example, who helps Hercules but as the hero more than the helper.
Back in the 90s, I used to watch Hercules – and the spin-off Xena – on Channel 5 in the UK. I liked the mix between known mythological characters and inventiveness in how myth was used. This mixing is characteristically postmodern, but this is hardly solely a postmodern thing – Euripides, for instance, was ever subverting and twisting and likely inventing myth. So was Aeschylus before that, and Sappho, and so, likely was Homer – the problem here being the lack of any earlier sources to enable an investigation of how the poet is playing with stories, characters, motifs and so forth.
So – here is what I am doing. I am drawing on classical myth as a space for exploring and learning about such things as dealing with others, getting to know how individuals ‘tick’ and dealing with feelings and emotions, the opportunity to go into another world – a world that remixes ancient and modern and bits in between,
Is this a Classics project or an Education project? Yes.