Volume II - 1994

Telling Tales in School: Using Myths in the ESL Classroom
by Jean McConochie

      Jean McConochie, professor of English and director of ESL courses at Pace University, New York, is a past president of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL). This paper incorporates suggestions from participants at TESOL's 28th Annual Convention, Baltimore, 1994, as well as invaluable contributions from David R. Werner, a long-distance colleague.

      In college and university ESL programs, many of our students are young or middle-aged adults who grew up in China or Russia or Haiti but will spend the rest of their lives in an English-speaking country. These students often feel stranded, for their previous life experience_and the ways it has shaped their being_seem to have no application or value. In this situation, myths can form a bridge to help students recognize the commonalties of human experience and existence that they thought had been lost in the mad rush of airports and the disorientation of temporary housing. This paper notes reasons for the power of myths, presents a series of interrelated myths, focusing on the Odyssey (which is itself an adaptation of many myths to fit a single hero), and suggests ways to use myths in a college ESL classroom.

An Experience of Commonality

      Myths provide an experience of commonality because they are a people's earliest imaginative expression of deep emotions. The terror of death, for example, is soothed by the myths of many cultures that promise a return from the dead. Among the best known is the Greek myth of Demeter, the goddess of the earth, who became distraught when her lovely daughter Persephone, was kidnapped by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, to be his bride. In her sorrow over her daughter's symbolic death, Demeter vowed that the earth would rest infertile until her daughter returned. Finally a compromise was reached. Now Persephone is released from the Underworld for eight months of each year, bringing spring with her, for on her return, Demeter joyfully allows the rebirth of the earth. This shorthand way of talking about common human experience accounts for the frequent use of mythological references in both literature and popular culture. In Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest, the hero, Jack Worthing, refers to his future mother-in-law, Lady Bracknell, as a Gorgon--the mythical woman whose look turned her beholders to stone. Though he doesn't "really know what a Gorgon is like," Jack is "quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one." And he concludes, "In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair."

      While today's college students won't recognize the mythological allusion without explanation, once it is explained they understand it immediately. That is, myths are important for our students not as artifacts of cultural literacy but because their treatment of universal themes provides a common frame of reference within the diversity of our classrooms, where the only obvious universal may be the need to learn English. This potential is illustrated almost weekly in the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, whose mission is "to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." While English is the convenient lingua franca of these deep space adventures, in one episode Captain Picard finds himself marooned on a barren planet with a hostile being of another race with whom he cannot find a common language. The two have nearly killed each other before Picard realizes that the basis of the other's language is metaphor, that the entire language is grounded in figures of speech. The captain then makes his breakthrough by telling a story from the Sumerian-Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh, a hero similar in many ways to the Greek Odysseus.

      That is, through mythology, we can explore other cultures and, like the crew of the Enterprise, discover elements that are common to all peoples, for myths touch what is primeval in all peoples. Moreover, myths affirm universal discoveries of what it means to be human.

The Quest

      Discovery is, in fact, the basis of a mythological form familiar to all cultures--the quest story. In a quest, a hero (typically, the protagonist is male, while females serve as guides or facilitators) is called to face many trials while searching for an object or experience that will allow him to return his own community on a higher level or plane. Myths in general, and quest stories in particular, touch on basic elements of human relationships: loyalty and betrayal, with the corollary ideas that human mistrust or curiosity often bring trouble; bravery and cowardice, with the corollary that cleverness can often overcome superior physical strength; and love and hate, with the corollary that transformations, human and otherwise, may come about when least expected, often because of love. We can invite our students to sample all of these ideas by joining one of the great heroes of myth, Odysseus, as he journeys home from the Trojan War. And as we do so, we may take sidelong glances at myths from other sources.

      Loyalty and betrayal, key elements in any life, are part of the root cause of the Trojan War, as the story is told by Homer in the Iliad. The war was fought over Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Before deciding among Helen's many suitors, her father had made all of them pledge to support whichever of the suitors became her husband. Her father then gave her in marriage to Menelaus, the King of Sparta. Not long after, Paris, a young prince of the nearby kingdom of Troy, came to visit. Betraying the trust and hospitality of Menelaus, Paris seduced Helen and took her back with him to Troy. This social and marital betrayal set off a ten-year war between the greatest heroes of Greece and Troy.

      Among those fighting on the Greek side in the Trojan War was Odysseus, King of Ithaca, who sailed for Troy, leaving behind his wife, Penelope, and their infant son, Telemachus. Penelope is a prototypical example of loyalty, for she remained true to her husband for the ten years of the war and then, even when he did not return, for yet another ten years. However, since Penelope was an attractive and wealthy woman, as the years passed there were many suitors for her hand. The suitors installed themselves in the palace of Odysseus, demanding more and more insistently that she choose among them. Finally, Penelope announced that she would make a choice when she had completed her filial duty of weaving a shroud for her husband's aged father. Every day the suitors saw Penelope weaving at her loom. Every night, however, she surreptitiously unraveled the work. When a disloyal housemaid betrayed the secret, the suitors became more importunate. What was the resolution? For the moment, it's enough to say that the loyalty of two elderly servants played a crucial role.

Myths of Betrayal

      What other myths provide examples of betrayal? For betrayal within a family, there is the Biblical story of Joseph, whose jealous brothers stole his coat of many colors (his "amazing Technicolor dreamcoat" in Andrew Lloyd Weber's phrase) and sold him into slavery. Betrayal between close friends is exemplified by the Sioux legend of Black Crow, who betrayed his lifelong friend Brave Eagle when they both fell in love with the same woman. Contemporary parallels are easily found in the day's news--betrayal of country in the current Aldrich Ames spy story--as well as our own and our students' lives.

      Illustrating another aspect of betrayal, several elements of the Odyssey illustrate harm resulting from mistrust and harmful curiosity. At the conclusion of the Trojan War, when Odysseus and his men set sail for home, they visited the kingdom of Aeolus, a mortal who had been given custody of all of the winds. As they were leaving, Aeolus made Odysseus a present of a leather sack, in which all of the storm winds were confined, together with many other gifts of food and wine and clothing. Odysseus divided the gifts fairly among his men, at the same time cautioning them that the sack must on no account be opened. But when their homeland was nearly in sight and Odysseus out of earshot, his brother-in-law said to the men, "Look at that sack. Why is Odysseus guarding it so closely? Surely it is filled with gold that he plans to keep for himself. But haven't we shared the dangers equally? Don't we deserve an equal share of all the rewards?" With that, they opened the sack, releasing winds that quickly blew them off course.

      You will recognize the similarity to that story to the story of Pandora's box, and students may well be able to provide other versions from other cultures. Both the historical record and contemporary life provide ample evidence of betrayal either for the sake of greed, as in the case of the sailors, or out of curiosity, as in Pandora's case.

      Since myths are transmitted through the oral tradition, the stories inevitably change with each telling, reflecting the characteristics of both teller and audience. For example, you have surely heard these stories of Odysseus told in other ways, and they will change slightly as you--or your students--retell them. After class discussion of loyalty and betrayal stories, students might be invited to exercise their imaginations by working in groups to create their own versions of the Aeolus episode, for example adapting it for a young audience, or setting it to another time or place, as the writers of Star Trek do not only with myths or directors frequently do with the plays of Shakespeare.

Bravery and Cowardice

      Just as loyalty and betrayal are contrasting qualities, so are bravery and cowardice. As we have said, during a quest, the hero repeated finds his bravery tested. (In modern quest stories, of course, it may be the heroine; Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is a prime example.) During the Trojan War, Odysseus's heroism was repeatedly tested in battle; on his ten-year voyage home, it was tested by perils not only by human but also super-human.

      Among the latter were literal man-eaters including the Cyclopes, Polyphemus. When Odysseus and his men come upon Polyphemus's cave on the island of these one-eyed giants, they hoped to be received as honored guests. But instead Polyphemus ate two of them for supper and another for breakfast. Then he drove his sheep out to pasture, blocking the cave's entrance with a giant boulder. The men were in despair, but Odysseus, exemplifying the power of cleverness when physical strength won't suffice, found a shaft of wood, sharpened one end, and hid it near the fire. When the Cyclopes returned and questioned Odysseus about his origins, our hero spun a long tale and announced that his name was "No Man." Polyphemus ate two more of the men, promising "No Man" that he could look forward to being eaten last. When the giant fell asleep, the men heated the end of the shaft to a glowing red, then plunged it into the single eye of the sleeping giant. Polyphemus roared with pain, and when his brothers called from outside the cave to ask what was wrong, he cried out "No Man is killing me."

      "If no one's there, then he's just having a bad dream," the brothers said to each other, and they went back to bed. Preparing for the certainty that the blind Polyphemus would search every animal leaving the cave in the morning, the wily Odysseus hit on the idea of binding the sheep together in threes, with one man clinging to the belly of each middle sheep, and himself burrowing deep within the wool of the single remaining sheep. The plan worked and they made their escape.


      As they rowed away from the island, however, Odysseus could not resist taunting Polyphemus by calling out his true name, reminding us of the very human need to let someone know when we have successfully tricked them. (You may remember a similar scene in The Sting.) As a result, Polyphemus prayed to his father, Poseidon, the god of the sea, to destroy his enemy Odysseus. Thus Odysseus and his men became involved in a sort of tug-of-war between the gods, with Poseidon vowing that they would never see their homeland again and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who loved Odysseus for his cleverness, intervening on his behalf.

Tricksters in Your Class?

      His cleverness places Odysseus firmly in the tradition of the trickster. In West African mythology, this role is played by Ananse the Spider. In American folklore, the trickster is Brer Rabbit. In Native American legends, as transposed to modern times by Louise Erdrich in Love Medicine and other books, the trickster is personified by Gerry Nanapush, who even breaks out of the maximum security prison in Joliet, Illinois. Discussing this character trait again provides an opportunity for students to contribute stories, of either fictional tricksters or real ones. With luck, you might even find that someone in your class takes pride in playing such a role.

      Returning to the perils of the Odyssey, among the figurative man-eaters whom the mariners encounter are the Sirens, sea goddesses whose seductive voices lure sailors to their death on the rocks. Odysseus shows both bravery and cleverness in devising a way to sail past the Sirens. Telling his men of the danger posed by the Sirens, Odysseus ordered the men to stop their ears with wax, then tie him tightly to the mast of the ship; if he signaled them to release him, they were to redouble the ropes. This time the sailors did as they were told, and Odysseus became the first--and last--man to hear the Sirens' song and live. And what was their lure? As for the temptation of Eve in the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Faust in German legend, the sirens' song was an offer of infinite wisdom. (Faust, as you remember, was also seduced by the Devil's offer to produce Helen of Troy.)

      Probably the greatest test of Odysseus's bravery came when he visited Hades, the kingdom of the dead ruled over by "the dread Persephone" as she was known there. (Here we have the figurative death and rebirth of the hero, common in quest stories.) Odysseus had been sent to Hades to find out from the spirit of Tiresias--the same blind prophet who appears in legend of Oedipus--what he must do to reach home. After questioning Tiresias, Odysseus also spoke with his mother, who had died of grief over his long absence, and with comrades killed in the Trojan War. But he left before talking with all whom he wanted to see, fearing that Persephone might decide to send out the Gorgon, whose glance would, of course, have turned him to stone.

      In all of these encounters, Odysseus's men exemplified the cowardice that most of us would feel in the face of grave danger, wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth, and exclaiming, "We're all gonna die!" In The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion serves as our stand-in for these fears, while Dorothy--who, like Odysseus, wants more than anything to return home--exemplifies bravery. Yet another test, and another betrayal, came when Odysseus's ship had once again almost reached Ithaca. As they approached the island of the sun god, Apollo, Odysseus reminded his men of Tiresias's warning--that harming any of the Sun God's animals would prove fatal to them. (The warning and reminder provide easily recognizable examples of dramatic foreshadowing.) In light of that danger, Odysseus urged his men to keep on course for Ithaca. But again his brother-in-law took the opposite side and led the men in insisting on a rest. Soon after they landed, however, the winds died and the mariners found themselves trapped on the island. After a few weeks, their supplies ran low and the men grew hungry. Although Odysseus repeatedly warned his men not to harm any of the Sun God's sheep or cattle, one day when he went off alone to pray for guidance, the men, inevitably, seized the opportunity to slaughter and roast one of Apollo's beautiful curly-horned rams. The god was furious, and though he finally allowed Odysseus and his men to leave the island, on the final lap of the voyage all but Odysseus were washed overboard and drowned. That punishment exemplifies the effects of hatred, which, as many myths show us, drives both gods and human to acts of violence.

Encounters with Love

      As for love, in the course of Odysseus's wanderings, he was tempted by love in encounters with three women. The first was the literally captivating nymph Calypso, who offered him immortality if only he would stay with her. Immortality was also offered by the beautiful witch Circe. She normally turned every man who approached her home into a beast, but Circe was herself transformed by her love for Odysseus, the first man able to resist her charm. The third woman was the teenage princess Nausica„, who hoped that Odysseus would become her husband. All three, in other words, offered to "transform" him in either physical or civil state, as a gift of love. But Odysseus resisted all of three, finally convincing each to show her love by releasing him to pursue his goal of returning to his homeland and his wife Penelope.

      When Odysseus finally reached home, the goddess Athena--who had helped him throughout the voyage and who provides an example of admiring, rather than sexual love--gave him the appearance of an old beggar, another transformation. Thus disguised, Odysseus made his way to the palace. There Penelope graciously received him with the honor due any guest, no matter how humble, while the suitors confirmed their lack of worthiness by mocking him. Odysseus's opportunity to express his hatred for the suitors came when Penelope, prompted by Athena, announced that she would at last choose a new husband. Her choice, she said, would be the man who could most easily string the bow left by her late husband and then shoot an arrow through twelve rings. While the suitors tried, their own weapons were unobtrusively removed by Odysseus's son, to whom the returned king had revealed his secret, and the doors to the hall were quietly locked from the outside by a loyal servant, whom Odysseus had also taken into his confidence. When all of the suitors had tried and failed, the women left the hall and the remaining door was quietly barred. Then the disguised Odysseus, to the mocking laughter of the suitors, insisted on his turn with the bow. He strung it, shot an arrow through the twelve rings, and proceeded, with the help of his son, to slaughter the greedy suitors.

      Athena then transformed Odysseus into his old self, though making him, Homer tells us, even taller and handsomer than before. After the hall had been restored to its normal condition, Odysseus summoned Penelope. Seeing a man who appeared to be her husband, she was bewildered, fearing a trick. When Telemachus impatiently assured her that this man was indeed his father and her husband, she replied, "I have no strength to move. If this is in truth Odysseus, then we two have ways of knowing each other." Odysseus smiled and dismissed Telemachus, saying, "We will find each other out presently." And then, Homer tells us, there was rejoicing in the great house, for Odysseus was home at last and every heart was glad.

Using Myths in the Classroom

      There we have a sampling of myths that have inspired countless novels, stories, and poems. There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to present myths. To recapitulate those already suggested, together with a few other ideas: (1) a teacher may want to retell a myth, (2) invite students to tell similar myths from their own cultural tradition, (3) ask students to write--or dramatize--their own versions of a myth, and (4) tell the beginning of a myth, inviting students to create their own conclusions. A teacher can also (5) ask students to read both prose versions of myths from various cultures as well as modern versions of the myths in prose or poetry, and (6) help students to become aware of the classical origins of plots in contemporary fiction, films, or television programs. Finally, (7) a teacher can invite students to talk and write about parallels of mythic character or plot in their own lives, for the power of myths, as we have seen, lies in providing metaphors for the human experience. To suggest one way that might be translated into an actual course, here is a hypothetical six-unit lesson plan for using the Odyssey as the basis of a writing course:

Unit 1 -
      Define a myth and discuss the characteristics of a mythical hero. Give the background of the Trojan War. Show how hero and quest characteristics are evident in Lotus Eaters and Cyclops episodes of the Odyssey (Book IX). Discussion and writing: "Translate" one of these episodes by creating/dramatizing your own version.

Unit 2 -
      Read the Aeolus, Laistrygon, and Circe episodes (Book X), as well as similar myths from other cultures. Discussion and writing: What themes do these stories have in common?

Unit 3 -
      Read the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and cattle of Apollo episodes (Book XII), as well as similar myths from other cultures. Discussion and writing: Using the library, find and retell a myth from your own or another culture that is similar to one you in this course.

Unit 4 -
      Read modern versions of a myth read in this course, e.g. Eudora Welty's "Circe" or Danny Santiago's "The Somebody." Discussion and writing: How is the modern version like and unlike the original?

Unit 5 -
      See film version of The Wizard of Oz or another quest story. Discussion and writing: How does this film illustrate the elements of a quest story?

Unit 6 -
      Read part or all of Odysseus's homecoming and dispatching of the suitors (Books XVII-XXIV) and Tennyson's poem "Ulysses". Discussion and writing: Describe a peril, or series of perils, in your own life (or the life of someone you know) that may be seen as parallel to one or more of those faced by Odysseus.

      What mythological references or parallels have you noticed in your reading lately? What additional ways have you found to use myths in your teaching? How might you incorporate myths in the classes you are planning now for your fortunate students?

Some Sources for Myths

Erdoes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Native American legends (166 of them) presented in highly readable form by two noted scholars.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown, 1942. The major Greek myths, beautifully told.

Lawrence, T.E., translator. The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. (Original copyright 1932.) A vigorous prose translation. (Richard Lattimore's is the most highly respected modern [1965] verse translation.)

Leeming, David Adams. Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. Accessibly presented myths from many cultures, grouped by theme.

Levine-Keating, Helane, and Walter Levy. Lives Through Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1992. A fine source of myths from varied cultures and contemporary parallels in poetry and prose. (Includes Welty's "Circe" and related poems.)

McConochie, Jean. Twentieth Century American Short Stories, rev. ed., Vol. 2. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1995. Includes Santiago's "The Somebody," with a discussion question referring to the Odyssey.

Stillman, Peter R. Introduction to Myth, 2nd ed. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook, 1985. (Orig. publ. 1977, Hayden Book Co.) Myths and their literary counterparts.

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