Thursday, July 09, 2015

The Minions' Journey

Kevin the Hero
Yesterday at Seaton House School I gave a short version of my Hero’s Journeys speech to 11-year-old girls and their families. As I spoke, I wondered if the steps of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth template applied to Minions, the movie. 

Here’s how you could do it:

1. The Hero’s World. 
The Minions have lots of worlds: underwater, onto the shore, the Age of Dinosaurs and Napoleon’s Army... until they are stuck in the Ice Cave. That is their World. At first they have fun: eating snow cones and building ice houses. But the Hero can’t stay in the world forever, so sometimes there is a whiff of death: the sense that if you stay somewhere any longer, you might as well be dead.

2. The Call to Adventure. 
Sometimes the call is a phone call, letter, or knock on the door. But it can also be that “whiff of death”. Joy has gone out of their lives as they play football with no enthusiasm; without a boss they have no purpose.

3. The Refusal of the Call
Most heros go on a quest to discover more about themselves. But the Minions know their calling. They are meant to be faithful sidekicks. One of the qualities of a side-kick is that they are easy-going and like to have fun. They don’t have to take responsibility. “But one minion had a PLAN. His name was Kevin.” Kevin’s plan is to leave the cave in search of a boss. He asks others to come with him. Bob is the only other Minion who really wants to go but Stuart gets persuaded. 

4. The Mentor
There really isn’t a Mentor in this story. And that means no talisman. It’s a fun step but this movie shows it’s not absolutely essential. 

5. Crossing the Threshold
There are several Crossings of the Threshold in the Minions movie. The first major one is where Kevin and his sidekicks leave the ice cave. They cross snow, polar bears, rivers and finally an ocean before they arrive in the World of Adventure: New York in 1968.

The Nelson family are evil allies
6. Allies, Opponents, Tests and Training
The Minions are taken to Orlando by the Nelsons, a family of crooks. They cross another fun threshold to Break On Through by The Doors. They meet Scarlett Overkill the baddest villain around and complete some tests to become her henchmen. Back in London, they undergo more tests and training and are assigned a quest: to steal the Crown Jewels la crowna

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
As the hero trains and prepares to Grasp the Prize, he often descends to the underworld or goes up to a high place. Kevin, Bob and Stuart infiltrate the Tower of London, ascend to a tower, descend via a kind of gauntlet and chase the Queen. When Bob pulls a Sword from a Stone he becomes King Bob, gets the crown, adoring subjects and free run of Buckingham Palace. But when the minions realise that they have upset Scarlett, they offer to give her back the crown. They don't want power, they want a boss. 

[These middle steps are often repeated, increasing in intensity and stakes, like heats before a big race.]
8. Supreme ordeal - Visit to death
For the Hero, this moment is often the one when he must be prepared to sacrifice himself. The Minions are happy to give la crowna to Scarlet, but she is a villain and has not forgiven them. She sends them to the dungeon with orders that they are to be tortured. They escape but Scarlet captures Bob and Stuart and threatens to kill them. Kevin must come to the rescue of “les buddies”. When he sees Scarlets bomb dropping onto his friends he cant bear the thought of them being hurt, so he swallows it! Thanks to our Hero’s willingness to sacrifice himself, Kevin saves the day... (and doesn’t die!)

9. The Reward 
Having vanquished Scarlet Overkill and her sidekick, the Minions return the Crown Jewels to the Queen and each get a reward. 

10. The Cycle Begins Again 
During the reward ceremony the Queen’s crown goes missing again. It is Scarlet again, but this time she is vanquished by a boy with a freeze ray. Kevin, Stuart and Bob, now joined by the other Minions, have found a new Boss and he is DESPICABLE! 

P.S. If you go to see Minions stay right to the very end of the credits! 

P.P.S. The images on this blog are from The Minions Junior Novel

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Your Hero's Journeys

[This is the talk I gave at Speech Day for the prize giving ceremony at Princess Helena College on Saturday 27 June 2015. Because I wrote the speech as notes on index cards, it is not verbatim.]

Ladies and gentlemen, girls. It is a huge honour to be here on this very special day of your Prize Giving Ceremony. It is also a bit daunting to be asked to give inspirational advice in fifteen or twenty minutes. So when I started to write this talk a few days ago I posted a thread on my Facebook page. I asked my Facebook friends a question: If you could go back in time and give your teenaged self ONE BIT OF ADVICE what would it be?

My writer friend Robert Muchamore said:
5 11 24 30 31 36 will win you 200 million pounds in the first ever euro millions...

My writer friend Sarah Naughton said: Don’t go on Jim’ll Fix It

My writer friend Anthony McGowan’s advice to his teenage self was: You should have snogged Carmel Byrne when you had the chance.

But most of my friends essentially said Find out who you are and be true to that, or Follow your dreams!

I think my advice to my teenaged self would be: Go for it and enjoy the ride!

In my life I have had many passions, but the most abiding is my love of stories, especially books, TV and movies. At this cycle of my life, I am a storyteller so I’m going to share some wisdom gleaned from writing my books and from Going to the Movies.

About 50 years ago, a famous anthropologist named Joseph Campbell made a study of world mythologies and discovered that they all have stories about a Hero who goes on a journey, and the steps of that Journey are essentially the same. He called his ground-breaking book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The reason the story beats are so powerful and compelling is that they are the steps we take in our own lives, over and over, big and small.

1. Hero’s Ordinary World
The first step of the Hero’s Journey is when we find the hero in their ordinary world. Think of Luke Skywalker from the 1977 film Star Wars, watching a double sunset on the desert planet of Tatooine, dreaming of fighting the evil Empire. Or think of Katniss from The Hunger Games, supporting her little sister and dysfunctional mother in District 12. My journey to becoming a writer started about 20 years ago, in 1995. I was living in London, on my second marriage, with a son from my first. I was teaching Latin and art at a small primary school after having done a degree in Classics from Cambridge.

2. Herald - The Call to Adventure
In Star Wars, Luke’s ‘call to adventure’ is a holographic message from Princess Leia.
For Katniss, it is the moment when her younger sister is called to participate in deadly games from which only one teen will emerge victorious. Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her younger sister’s place.

Sometimes in our ‘ordinary lives’ the Call to Adventure is something the screenwriter Blake Snyder calls the Whiff of Death. It is the moment when we realise we are stagnating. I loved teaching but it was exhausting. I remember thinking, I can’t keep this up forever. An idea popped into my head, You’ve always toyed with the idea of being a writer. Maybe now is the time to try!

3. Refusal of the Call
In many (but not all) mythic journeys, the hero often gets ‘cold feet’ at this point as she is called out of her comfort zone. In Star Wars, Luke protests that he has too much homework and has to help Uncle Owen on the farm. Katniss didn’t hesitate because she acted on impulse. In our own lives we often hesitate because we doubt if we have what it takes to achieve our dreams.

4. The Mentor
Step four of the Hero’s Journey is the Mentor. This is someone who encourages the hero to ‘go for it!’ The Mentor is often a wizard, teacher or librarian who can give the hero the knowledge they need. Obi Wan is a good mentor. At the beginning of The Hunger Games, Haymitch is a bad one; he tells Katniss and Peeta ‘You’re going to die.’ He becomes a better mentor over the course of the story and near the end he can tell Katniss You can do this, and mean it. 

My mentors were my parents. They were five thousand miles away, but their belief in me gave me the confidence I needed to embark on a career as a writer in my 30s. Your new Headmistress, Mrs Sue W-W, has just told us how she was hugely encouraged when her coach had told her You can’t do better than a personal best.

When I asked my Facebook friends to post advice, I got several very moving replies. Marcus White, who directed some episodes of the Roman Mysteries TV series based on my books, wrote this: “I was an outsider as a teenager for lots of reasons. I felt confused and lacked confidence. I did have a secret ambition, however, to work in Television. When I eventually found the courage to confide in family or friends I was told that this was just a pipe dream. And that people like me could never achieve this. I was lucky that I had a much older friend, my godmother, to talk to and share my dreams. Advice - you need a champion in your life.”

At that stage of Marcus’s life his family and friends were opponents, but he found a Mentor in his godmother.

One fun thing about the mentor is that they often give the hero a Talisman. This is a physical object designed to help and encourage the hero. The talisman is often magic and sometimes glows, like Luke’s lightsaber, Dorothy’s ruby slippers or Frodo’s ring, (the most famous talisman in 20th century literature.) But the Talisman is not always magic. Think of Katniss’s mockingjay pin. 

The Talisman often looks back as well as ahead. Katniss’s pin reminds her of her home in District 12, but it will become a good luck charm and later a symbol of a whole freedom movement. Luke’s lightsaber belonged to his father and is the weapon of the Jedi Knight. Paddington’s hat belonged to his Uncle Pastuzo, and before that to the Explorer, who once told Paddington’s family If ever you come to London you will be assured a warm welcome. That hat will save Paddington's life at one point and lead him to his ultimate destiny.

My Talisman was a battered paperback copy of The Last of the Wine, the book that had changed my life by sparking my lifelong study of Classics. It would also be an inspiration for my first book. 

5. Crossing the Threshold
In life, as in any Hero’s Journey, the Mentor can only go so far. After a certain point, the hero is on her own. That point often comes when the hero Crosses a Threshold. In movies, Crossing the Threshold is one of the most visually exciting moments. Think of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Luke leaving Mos Eisley. Neo melting into a mirror. We can even visit the first big threshold Harry Potter crosses at platform 9 3/4s at King's Cross Station. In her address to us a few minutes ago, Sue W-W talked about the moment she first crossed the threshold of Princess Helena College… 

Paddington has to leave darkest Peru and go on the lifeboat across a great ocean… ALL BY HIMSELF. The best movies have several crossings of the threshold. There are at least a dozen in Paddington, including the moment when he actually steps over the threshold of the Brown’s house. The camera shows us his little paws as he hesitates for a moment, standing outside in the rain, before stepping over. A Chinese philosopher famously said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.’ Sometimes just one step takes you over the threshold. Think of the moment when Katniss steps onto the train.

Your hero will often encounter Threshold Guardians at this point. They are there to make sure you are equipped and worthy of the journey. Threshold guardians are the people who interview you for your university place, gatekeepers, We all know threshold guardians from security at airports, because crossing a border is like crossing a threshold. You leave one world for another.

6. Allies, Opponents, Tests and Training
The hero must learn the rules of the new world and how it operates. And she must prepare herself for a Test or Battle. For this reason, the Opponent is often one of the most important people our hero will meet in the new world. We learn much better after a struggle. Sometimes, our opponents are internal ones, like self-doubt. There is often a Training sequence which is usually shown by a Montage with upbeat music, because it is often long and tedious, and storytellers have to condense it for storytelling purposes. IN YOUR LIVES THERE ARE NO MONTAGES. You have to practice your sport, learn your declensions, master your art. 

My allies were script doctor John Truby who recorded a story structure course on twelve cassette tapes and gave me a structure on which I could build plot. Other teachers and allies, though I never met them, were Joseph Campbell who said ‘Follow your Bliss’ and Christopher Vogler, a screenwriter who made Campbell's dry book accessible. I had to learn other aspects of the craft of writing, including how to touch type. 

The tests and training part of a story it is a slog, but is very important in preparing the hero for the ultimate test or battle.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave - The Battle
There have been many tests and battles but there is often a big battle that comes before a breakthrough. The hero often descends into the underworld, a maze or a cave to fight the ultimate opponent. Or they may go to the top of a building or a mountaintop. There is often a DRAT, a Desperate Race Against Time or a Ticking Clock. Anyone who has sat an exam can identify with that. I’d been learning the techniques of writing for five years but my sister gave me a good idea and I knew I had to get it on paper in the last two weeks of the summer holiday.

8. Supreme Ordeal or Visit to Death
There comes a moment after all the work, training, sweat and tears when you have to leave your desire on the altar. You have to be willing to give it up. You have wanted nothing else for days, weeks, months, years… But you must also hold your dreams lightly, trusting that God or the Universe knows what’s best. Luke Skywalker pushes away the electronic controls to use The Force for his one chance at blowing away the Death Star. If he fails, he dies. Katniss and Peeta are prepared to eat poisonous berries which will kill them. As a Christian, I offered up my first book and desire to be a published author to God, praying that His ‘will be done’

9. The Reward
Sometimes the hero gets exactly what she dreamed of.  Luke destroys the Death Star. Katniss wins the Hunger Games, and saves her friend Peeta. Paddington finds a home. I got a publishing deal. 

But sometimes the answer is NO. Sometimes the hero doesn’t get the prize but she gets something more valuable: knowledge. I once had a student who later wanted to read Classics at Oxford. He was rejected twice but is now a member of a famous pop band. Not only is he rich and famous, but more importantly he has enriched the world by blessing others through his creativity. Where would he be if Oxford had accepted him? Sometimes APPARENT DEFEAT is the best possible outcome.

10. The cycle begins again.
The hero has got her desire. In a movie she grasps the prize, she rides into the sunset or kisses her lover. In real life we are never satisfied and we want something else. 

By the way, although we are always the hero of our own story sometimes we are not always called to be a leader. Sometimes was are called to be someone else’s ally, teacher, mentor or even opponent. I think I am being called to be a Mentor. Think how powerful Malala has been in her journey as an opponent. 

The prizes I am about to give out are like Talismans given to you by your Mentors.

Take them with you into the new world you’re about to enter. (I’m not going to call it the Real World because you’re already in the real world.) The world you’re about to enter is just one of many you will enter throughout your lives.

These prizes look back at your past achievements but they hint at the untapped possibilities for you in the future. Most of all they will remind you that here at Princess Helena College you have friends, teachers, allies and mentors who believe in you and LOVE you. They – and I – wish you joy and fulfilment on your Hero's Journeys.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Story Cakes

Stories are like cakes.

They nourish, comfort and console us. They delight us with their flavour, colour and texture. We eat up the words with the mouths of our eyes. Some stories give us a sugar rush. Others have an aftertaste that lingers. Some are dry, others moist. Some are light, others dense. But we always come back for more. 

Like the EAT ME cake from Alice in Wonderland, stories can transform us. They take us to other places and times. They put us inside the heads of other people or even creatures. They teach us empathy. This is how they feed us and help us grow. 

If stories are like cakes, writers are like cooks. 

Some writer-cooks plan their project in meticulous detail. We start with a recipe and carefully measured ingredients: one good opening sentence, one problem, one strong desire, one fascinating foe, one plan, one faithful friend (or pet), a handful of other allies (to taste), one big battle near the end and one Lesson Learned. Sometimes – but not always – we add a mentor, a talisman and a journey. We salt it with humour and we frost it with sensory details. 

Other writer-cooks create by pure instinct. They waltz into the kitchen of their imagination, throw some ideas in a mental bowl, stir them up and bake them in the oven of inspiration. And voilà! They have created a masterpiece, seemingly without effort. 

In Daunt Books Children's Short Story Competition (a collection of the sixteen winning short stories from their 2015 competition) you will find some delicious stories baked by cooks aged four to fourteen years. 

Piper, eight, has created slice of double layer cake with lavender frosting and a flavour of Japan.

Fourteen-year-old Alexandra combines rose petals, orange juice, purple paint and glitter into a deliciously evil concoction.

Joey – only five! – has baked a comforting marmalade scone: warm and fluffy, and perfect for tea. 

Caterina’s creation incorporates familiar elements – ‘a spoonful of sugar’, a picnic lunch and sour mash for a War Horse – to make something unique.

Layla, aged eight, wrote my personal favourite, a fairy cake of a fairy tale with equal parts lemony-tart wit and honey-sweet wisdom.

Twelve-year-old Ruby May’s cake has thoughtful layers of white, black and red, with a bittersweet aftertaste.

Chloe, six, has concocted a story that features dangerous cakes and meringues, but ends happily with the baking of cupcakes: one medium and one tiny.

Ten-year-old Sam has crafted a salted caramel brownie so clever it makes you laugh.

Marie, nine, gives us story about a Sherpa as chilly as the Kendal Mint Cakes that climbers often munch.

I see Will’s story as a surreal upside-down version of Baked Alaska, with a moose rather than mousse.

Maia’s confection has twin sponges separated by a buttercream layer of fantasy with candied fruit jewels on top; read it: you’ll see what I mean.

Two of my favourite elements in stories are Journeys and Surprising Heroes, so you can bet I gobbled up Charlie’s scrumptious offering, frosted to look like a five pound note.

Douglas, eight, wrote a wartime Battenberg that was thoughtful and satisfying.

Our youngest cook, Riley, aged just four, baked a charming cupcake of a story with rice-paper animals running around the outside: fish, ostrich, kangaroo, cat and a little bear.

Eliza’s slice of Christmas fruitcake includes seasonal ingredients, but combined in a tasty new way.

To round off our feast of tales, Hannah’s offering seems as straightforward as shortbread until a haunting secret twist is revealed.

Caroline with some of the winners May 2015
photo by Laura McVeigh
You’re going to relish all these stories and I have a feeling they’ll inspire you to bake some of your own. Bon appétit!Caroline Lawrence, London, May 2015. 

[This is my foreword to the volume of winning entries for the Daunt Short Story Competition of 2015. The book is available in branches of Daunt Books or you can order them by phone or email. For details of how to enter the 2016 competition, go HERE.]

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Roman Egypt Quiz!

Caroline and fans at the Petrie 18 Feb 2015
I have just returned from the fabulous Petrie Museum in London, where I was doing a family event about Roman Egypt. The museum put on a Treasure Trail (and everybody got a signed book) but I made a more challenging quiz which I handed out at the end. One of the things I wanted to emphasise was that the Romans thought of Egypt as upside down (from our modern perspective). So here is my ROMAN EGYPT QUIZ, along with the answers (right at the bottom). Bona fortuna! Good luck! 

In Roman times, people though of Egypt as being upside down. In other words you went UP the Nile to go to Nubia, which is in the south! Also, the wind usually blew from north to south and the current flowed from south to north. Those tricky facts (and my map) will help you answer some – but not all – of the following multiple choice questions. But be careful... thinking about upside down Egypt too much might do your head in!

© Copyright Roman Mysteries Ltd.
1. In Roman Egypt, during the first century AD, most people spoke: 
a Roman
b Latin
c Greek
d Egyptian

2. The mouth of the Nile resembled 
a the Latin capital letter V
b the Greek capital letter delta (a triangle)
c the hieroglyphic for an eye
d the Latin capital letter O

3. As you travelled upriver in Roman times, the country on the left was known as
a Scotland
b Arabia
c Libya
d Nubia

4. When you see a picture or model of an Egyptian ship with the sail up, it is probably travelling
a upriver
b downriver
c to Rome
d to Alexandria

5. When you see a picture or model of an Egyptian ship with the sail down, it is probably travelling
a upriver
b downriver
c to Rome
d to Nubia

6. In the early Roman Empire (first century AD) the greatest city in Egypt was
a Cairo
b Crocodilopolis
c Aswan (Syene)
d Alexandria 

7. A cataract is a place where the river changes level. How many cataracts would a Roman have found travelling from Alexandria to Nubia? 
a 7
b 70
c 700
d only one, but it marked the border of Egypt and Nubia.

8. In ancient times, the great Pyramids of Giza were covered with 
a dazzling gold leaf
b thin sheets of white limestone
c sticky pitch to discourage climbing
d colourful paintings of the pharaohs

9. In Egyptian wall paintings, which three things show that a figure is meant to be a child?
a wearing nappy, dummy in mouth, no hair
b wearing kilt, open mouth, short hair
c wearing nothing, finger at mouth, one lock of hair over ear
c wearing amulet, sticking out tongue, no hair

10. Which hieroglyph was considered very bad luck:
a the crocodile king
b the anubis dog
c the ankh
d the seth animal

11. Cleopatra VII (the one who liked Caesar and Mark Antony) was not actually Egyptian by background. Her ethnic background was mainly
a Arabian
b Roman
c Greek
d American

12. Speaking of Mark Antony, his actual Roman name was:
a Marcus Antonius
b Marcus Antonius Postumus
c Marcus Antonius Superbus
d Marcus Antonius Ptolomeus

If this post has whetted your appetite for more, check out The Scribes from Alexandria, my Roman Mystery set in 1st century AD Egypt. It's available in paperback, Kindle and abridged audiobook. You might also enjoy my blog posts called Ugly Cleopatra and one called Upside Down Egypt

Answers to Roman Egypt Quiz: 1c; 2b; 3b; 4a; 5b; 6d; 7d; 8b; 9c; 10d; 11c; 12a

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why Study Latin?

Why Study Latin*

Parents often ask me why their children are studying Latin in this day and age.  It's a good question.

Latin is a dead language.  That means no one speaks it any more. So why on earth is it still taught?
Just because of a huge weight of tradition?  Because Daddy and Grandaddy both learned Latin? Because of its intellectual prestige? Because once it was the lingua franca of educated Europeans? 

These reasons aren't relevant anymore, but there are some real benefits to be had from learning Latin, for adults and children alike.

At the beginning of term I usually give the parents of my Latin pupils a piece of paper listing some of the reasons for learning this 'dead language':

1.  Learning Latin increases mental ability. In a recent study in America, children at a primary school were divided into two random groups. One group did a small amount of Latin per week, the other didn't. At the end of a term, the children who did Latin were doing consistently better at ALL subjects than the children who didn't do Latin. It has long been maintained that Latin helps develop logic and language skills. In fact, every few years a flurry of articles are published stating that a new study has shown the benefits of learning Latin. 

2.  Learning Latin teaches grammar and syntax. When I was at the University of London studying German with other post-graduates, it soon became evident that about half the class had no idea what grammatical terms like definite article, case and conjunction meant.  The teacher had to stop and ask how many of us wanted to review these basic grammatical terms before we started the course properly.  These were all adults with at least one University degree behind them, going on for an MA or  MSc, yet several of them raised their hands.  What did those particular students have in common?  They HADN'T studied Latin.  Those of us who had studied Latin didn't need to review grammatical terms.  

3.  Learning Latin helps us learn English itself.  One of my ten-year-old pupils was in the hospital with an eye problem.  He noticed the word lachrymal on one of his forms.
'Does that have anything to do with tears?' he asked the staff nurse.
'Why, yes, it's the department that deals with tear duct problems. How did you know that?' she asked.
'I study Latin,' he replied. 

Over 60% of all English words are derived from Latin (or Greek).  

4.  Learning Latin helps us learn the so called Romance Languages. A Romance language isn't one you speak with a guitar in your hand and a rose between your teeth; it's a language which developed from the language spread by Roman soldiers and colonists: Latin! Romance languages include Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. Compare the Romance words for 'friend':

Latin: amicus
Italian: amico
Spanish: amigo
French: ami

and some non-Romance words for 'friend':

Hebrew: haver
Russian: dryg
Japanese: tomodachi
Swedish: vaen

It is particularly relevant, now that the UK is part of Europe, to familiarise ourselves with the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Roman colonists.  

5.  Learning Latin helps you learn other 'dead languages'.  What are some other dead languages? Biblical Hebrew and Greek, if you want to be a Bible scholar. Ugaritic, Akkadian or Egyptian Hieroglyphics, if you want to become an archaeologist like Indiana Jones.  

6.  In fact, learning Latin helps you learn almost any other language, because to learn Latin you must learn HOW to learn a language.  You learn to analyse words and sentences; you learn how to memorise vocabulary; you learn to put aside preconceived ideas (based on English) of how a language should work.  

7.  For this reason, anyone who wants to be a novelist, travel writer, pilot, journalist, diplomat, missionary or international business person – in other words, someone who will need to learn other languages – would benefit from learning Latin.  

8.  Anyone who wants to become a doctor, nurse, physiotherapist or vet would benefit from knowing Latin because the parts of the body are still referred to by their Latin terms.  The word valve means 'a folding door' in Latin, the atrium in the heart is a 'hall' or 'chamber', and it's easy to picture the structure of certain bone cells when you know the word trabeculae means lattice-work.   

9.  Anyone who wants to become a gardener, botanist or zoologist would benefit from Latin.  Most flora and fauna are known by their Latin names.  In fact the words 'flora' and 'fauna' are both Latin.

10.  Finally, Latin is fun.  Learning the language is like solving a giant puzzle.  Anyone who likes crosswords, codes or cryptograms will derive great pleasure from making sense of it.  Latin literature tells of myths and battles, love stories and philosophies, comedies and tragedies, poetry and prose. Latin history is full of fascinating men and women: Caesar, Cleopatra, Hannibal, Cicero, Nero, Hadrian, Spartacus, Marcus Aurelius, St Augustine, St Jerome and many more.  

I think this last reason is the most important for the children, and just to make sure they are convinced of this point, I start off each new school year with a Latin banquet.  We spend one or two lessons discussing what food the ancient Romans or Pompeiians would have eaten. Once we have eliminated chocolate, bananas, potatoes and tomatoes, I get each student to volunteer to bring a 'Roman' food. 

On the day, we spread out a large sheet or rug to catch all the crumbs and spread cushions to recline on. We put our food on plates in the middle. For greater authenticity you could wear tunics and garlands, and have a couple of children volunteer to be slaves. We serve well-watered red and white 'wine' - grape juice in jugs - as our beverage. Then we all recline on our left side, leaving the right hand free. No forks are allowed; they were unknown in Roman times. So we eat with spoons and our fingers.  

Our Roman Banquet menu could look like this: 

Gustatio (Starters)
hard boiled eggs with salt
black olives
almonds or pistachio nuts

Mensa Prima (Main Course)
smoked fish
cold roast chicken
warm pitta bread and hummus

Mensa Secunda (Dessert)
pistachio halva

During the banquet we each take turns reciting a poem or telling a story. Play some of Synaulia's ancient Roman music to help set the mood.
For end of term parties I screen a Roman movie. My personal all-time favourite and the film I believe most accurately portrays ancient Rome is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

'Oh, Mother,' grumbled my teenage son the other day, 'You really shouldn't throw Latin banquets and show films; you'll give those poor kids the idea that Latin is fun.'

*This is a slightly updated version of an article I wrote way back in 1997, when I was still teaching Latin to primary school aged kids in London. Feel free to use it; I only ask that you give me credit.  1997 © Caroline Lawrence

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Saturnalia Quiz!

Saturnalia storyteller at Fishbourne Roman Palace 2014
Would it surprise you to learn that many of the customs we observe at Christmas go back to Roman times and have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus? Here is a quiz for you to test your knowledge of the Roman SATURNALIA and its influence on modern Christmas.

1. During the Roman Empire, some celebrated the birth of which famous person on 25 December?
a) Julius Caesar
b) Mithras, the Persian god of light
c) Jesus Christ
d) Asterix

Saturnalia revelry from Roman Mysteries TV series
2. Three days before 25 December, what event occurs?
a) Summer Solstice
b) Summer Equinox
c) Winter Solstice
d) Winter Equinox

3. Many scholars believe Jesus was actually born in:
a) late December, of course!
b) late September/early October
c) mid January
d) Philadelphia

4. The Romans celebrated a mid-winter festival called the Saturnalia. It was named after:
a) The planet Saturn
b) The god Saturn
c) Saturday
d) Satyrs

5. In the first century AD, how many days did the Romans set aside to celebrate the Saturnalia?
a) one
b) five
c) twelve
d) thirty
e) none

6. The Romans gave gifts on the Saturnalia. Which of the following did they NOT give?
a) chocolate
b) silver objects
c) preserved fruit
d) small clay or wooden figures

scene from the Roman Mysteries TV series
5. The jokes in Christmas crackers might well go back to the Roman practice of
a) hiring comic actors to deliver gifts 
b) writing a two-line epigram to accompany a Saturnalia gift
c) Roman singing telegrams (in dactylic pentameter)
d) memorizing and reciting lines from Virgil's Aeneid as a Saturnalia party trick

6. Which ONE of the following Christmas customs did NOT orignate in the Saturnalia:
a) feasting
b) drinking
c) putting up lights
d) putting up greenery
e) Santa and his reindeer
f) giving gifts
g) taking time off work

fresco from Pompeii: men playing dice
7. In first century Rome, which usually illegal practice was permitted only during the Saturnalia?
a) murder
b) theft
c) witchcraft
d) gambling
e) pantomime
f) chainsaw juggling

8. The paper crown in our Christmas cracker reminds us of the Roman custom of:
a) choosing a 'King' of the Saturnalia
b) Caesar legalizing festivities
c) the Etruscan king Tarquin
d) It has nothing to do with any Roman custom

in my Saturnalia cap
9.  Santa's red conical hat might well be traced back to hats worn during Saturnalia by:
a) Trojans
b) Greeks
c) Persians
d) Smurfs
e) freedmen

10. During Saturnalia, Romans festooned their houses with many green plants, but probably NOT:
a) mistletoe
b) pine boughs
c) wreaths
d) garlands
e) seaweed

11. Here are some more Christmas customs which might go back to the Saturnalia. Which one is bogus?
a) mulled wine
b) Christmas stockings
c) singing songs
d) pantomime

12. Which of the following foods was certainly NOT part of the Saturnalia feast?
a) roast pork
b) honey-glazed ham
c) turkey and mashed potato
d) roast goose

Answers at the bottom. 
(You might want to read my piece about Saturnalia before you try this quiz.)
Nubia and Jonathan make music in the Roman Mysteries TV series

The Answers
1. During the Roman Empire, some celebrated the birth of which famous person on 25 December?
b) Mithras, the Persian god of light

2. Three days before 25 December, what event occurs?

c) Winter Solstice

3. Many scholars believe Jesus was actually born in:

b) late September/early October

4. The Romans celebrated a mid-winter festival called the Saturnalia. It was named after:

b) The god Saturn

5. In the first century AD how many days did the Romans set aside to celebrate the Saturnalia?

b) five

6. The Romans gave gifts on the Saturnalia. Which of the following did they NOT give?

a) chocolate

5. The mottoes and riddles in Christmas crackers might well go back to the Roman practice of

b) writing a two-line epigram to accompany a Saturnalia gift

6. Which ONE of the following Christmas customs did NOT orignate in the Saturnalia:

e) Santa and his reindeer

7. In first century Rome, which illegal practice was permitted during the Saturnalia?

d) gambling

8. The paper crown in our Christmas cracker reminds us of the Roman custom of:

a) choosing a 'King' of the Saturnalia

9.  Santa's red conical hat might well be traced back to hats worn during Saturnalia by:

e) freedmen

10. During Saturnalia, Romans festooned their houses with many green plants, but probably NOT:

e) seaweed

11. Here are some more Christmas customs which might go back to the Saturnalia. Which one is bogus?

b) Christmas stockings

12. Which of the following foods was certainly NOT part of the Saturnalia feast?

c) turkey and mashed potato

Monday, September 29, 2014

Real Fake Antiques!

photo by David Emery (see comments below!)
When we visited Ephesus a few years ago, the stallholders had made a fine art of self-deprecatingly hawking their wares. One of their cheerful shouts as tourists passed was "Real Fake Antiques!" or "Genuine Fake Watches!" The good news is you don't have to go to Ephesus to find a brilliant replica Greek and Roman antiques. 

Opposite the British Museum, on the corner of Great Russell Street and Bury Place, is a fabulous shop called It’s All Greek where you can purchase replicas of objects from ancient Greece. Artefacts inspire my writing so I often go to press my nose against the window, admiring the treasures within: busts, statues, helmets, jewellery, figurines and crateloads of pottery. There is even a replica of a kylix – a kind of cup with a very shallow bowl – that featured in my book, The Pirates of Pompeii.

Last Friday I was showing some sixth-form fans around the Roman section of the British Museum when one of them asked if you could actually drink from a kylix. I took them to It’s All Greek to find out. An offer of free mulled wine – sadly not in a kylix – got us chatting to the owner, a Classicist and ex-teacher. Elinor Wynne Lloyd showed us something I had never seen on those occassions I had merely pressed my nose against the window: a room full of treasures downstairs. Whipping out my notebook, I commenced an impromptu interview, asking her questions I thought other History Girls might ask, including what it’s like to drink from a kylix and which historical novels are her favourites. 

downstairs treasure trove at It's All Greek near the British Museum

Me: You used to teach Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation at Queen's Gate School in London. After that you ran a teaching business called Locus Classicus. What was that?

Elinor: After sixteen years or so in mainstream teaching, I decided it would be fun to teach a greater variety of ages and needs, so I set up Locus Classicus in a dedicated room at home. I taught Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation to individuals and small groups. One day it could be a twelve–year old who had moved school and needed to catch up with a year's Latin, the next it would be a revision class for a small group of A level Class Civ students…

Elinor Wynne Lloyd in her shop It's All Greek

I also went out and about, teaching in a small specialist London school for children with special needs. They loved Latin, and I used to take in the occasional Greek pot, bronze figurine, owl or oil lamp collected on trips to Greece over the years. Just having these things to handle, draw and talk about made a huge difference to lessons. It meant we could do a bit of work on mythology and Greek and Latin roots in our languages. 

Me: Do you miss anything about teaching?

Elinor: There are many things I miss but perhaps the most lasting memory is of taking trips to Greece. It was an amazing experience for me to see the girls' reactions to the places and works of art that they had studied at school. Gasping in disbelief after climbing the steps on the Acropolis to look up and see the Parthenon for the first time; traipsing up to the stadium in Delphi, eyes on the ground, then to turn round and see that incredible view over the site and the theatre and right down in the distance to the sea; awestruck silence at seeing a full size bronze statue…. Each time, I relived my own reactions on that formative first trip to Greece when I was 12 years old and of the passion that grew from those experiences.

Girls from Queen's Gate form a Q and G in the theatre of Epidauros in 1997

Me: In what ways do you feel you are still a teacher?

Elinor: It’s All Greek is more than just commerce. Next to each artefact nestles a little ‘information card’. If a customer wants to know more, we are thrilled to oblige! My triad of staff at the moment consists of a former pupil, a Classics graduate and a third-year Classics student!

Me: Handling replica artefacts can give insight into what it would have been like to use the original ones. Can you share anything that has particularly struck you?

large bronze tripod
Elinor: Some twenty years ago now, I wandered into a shop in Delphi, where I saw a glorious bronze tripod. At that stage I was teaching about Delphi, Apollo, the Pythia, the oracle, the tripod and the laurel. My modern Greek was rudimentary at best, but the shop owner and I struck up a conversation and together we carried the tripod outside into his little courtyard. The coals were lit, the bay leaves snipped and the ouzo was poured. I remembered then that in the Odyssey, royal storerooms were full of tripods which were exchanged as tokens of hospitality between guest and host. Here was I, in the centre of the world, watching the scented fumes rise towards Parnassus. Twenty years on, by design and coincidence, we stock that tripod at It's All Greek!

Me: Have you ever sipped wine from a kylix? What was it like?

Elinor: A potter I met in Olympia some years back was a maker of functional vases. On one occasion he handed me a shiny black replica kylix with a band of decoration around the rim and a small circle in the tondo, within which was a gorgoneion with protruding tongue. Within moments, the open bottle of Santorini Assyrtiko was being gently poured into the kylix (enough to obscure the gorgoneion) and proffered. I closed my eyes and took a sip: a little one. I knew there was an art to drinking from a kylix, a skill acquired by the Greek upper classes, so I concentrated intently on balancing the cup so as not to tip and dribble. I opened my eyes to a grin of delight from my observer. Dignity had been maintained but, what's more, during that split second, I had been there amidst the chatter and the hilarity and the imminent kottabos... [a dinner-party drinking game played by flicking the dregs of wine in the bottom of one's cup at various targets.]

Greeks playing kottabos, from a replica red-figure rhyton

Me: Do you read historical fiction? If so, can you share some of your favourite books?

Elinor: I remember my parents doing a bit of their own nurturing of my new-found passion for Greece when we returned from that first trip. They made sure that I had Mary Renault's The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea after going to Crete and Santorini for the first time.

Me: Snap! My parents gave me Mary Renault's book The Last of the Wine when I was eighteen! It sparked my interest in Classics and determined the whole course of my life. (I have blogged about it here). We've got to go now, but I have one last question: What is your current favourite piece in the shop?

Elinor: It's so hard to choose! When people ask where is my favourite place in Greece, I suffer from the same problem. If I'm in Delphi, it's Delphi, Olympia, Olympia and so forth. The silent Kerameikos with its rustling turtles is a favourite.

terracotta turtle and other artefacts
At the shop, there is similar fluctuation: the light one morning may strike a Cycladic figurine in such a way as to take my breath away. At dusk, the brooding shadows of a replica bronze helmet makes me stand to attention. A cheeky terracotta turtle – a replica of a child's toy – makes me smile. The cast of characters is alive, each with its own story to tell.

Caroline Lawrence with replica "Eye Kylix" at It's All Greek
Me: Thanks, Elinor! History Girls and other readers of this blog might like to know they can browse and order your treasures online as well as at the shop: It's All Greek

Caroline Lawrence writes history-mystery books for children set in Ancient Rome and the Wild West. Her motivation is the same as Elinor's: to bring history alive! This post was first published at The History Girls blog.