British Studies Web Pages
Myths, Legends, Fantasy...
Crossing the Rubicon
Three wishes, the three little pigs or the three bears, seven league boots or seven dwarfs, twelve strokes of a clock or twelve dancing princesses - the magic of numbers. In fairy tales and myths numbers have a special significance. The text below contains some idioms based on numbers as well as vocabulary that derives from ancient history, famous myths, legends and fairy tales. If you want to know the meaning of the underlined idiomatic phrases, place the mouse on the purple dot that follows.
15th Jan. Thursday
The die is cast. Today my class IIIc decided that the best way to raise some funds for our annual school trip in June would be putting on a play. They want to stage a performance with ‘a universal message’, something that will be both entertaining and educative and that will give them a chance ‘to make an important statement about humankind’. It was suggested that universal truths are best reflected in folk and fairy tales, legends and myths so a good solution might be a modern adaptation of a well-known story. The students who want to perform will choose by tomorrow, the story which they consider the most suitable and write a one-paragraph justification of their choice. Factors to consider are: 1) the message to mankind that the story delivers, 2) the feasibility of a theatre production (taking into account all the limitations of the cast, paraphernalia and the setting). I only hope they won’t change their minds at the eleventh hour.
16th Jan. Friday evening
I’m reading my students’ suggestions one by one trying to guess the authors.
I strongly believe that the best story for our play is Cinderella. It teaches us that female beauty and true feminine charm are the most important values in life and that the ultimate aim of any girl should be to find a good husband. Looking at it from a practical point of view, I think there should be few problems. The most important prop will obviously be glass slippers. As it happens, my Dad brought me a pair of very smart dancing shoes from Paris so I think I’ll be perfect for the role. Besides, I’ve been going to salsa lessons since September.
In today’s materialistic world of greed and envy the best thing we can do is to open people’s eyes to the futility and shallowness of luxurious lifestyles. The myth of Midas touch best illustrates that riches can’t bring happiness. And since Wojtek has such big ears, we wouldn’t have to change much in his appearance for the role of king Midas.
I would like to vote for The Twelve Labours of Hercules. Physical strength and prowess are absolutely the most vital elements of the lives of real men. It’s simply essential that young people pay more attention to the size and shape of their muscles. Otherwise we’ll become a generation of computer nerds and couch potatoes. So my message to the human race is this: show me your biceps and I’ll tell you who you are. As for the feasibility of our production, I foresee no difficulties. I’ve been going to the gym and practising body-building regularly for the last two years and I’m ready to show the impressive definition of my muscles. I don’t quite remember what tasks Hercules had to perform but I’m positive I can manage.
I think we should choose an English legend and perform it in English. This will give us a chance to work on our pronunciation and spend more time with our wonderful English teacher. Only students with good accents should be allowed to act. For me, the most universal message is the story of Lady Godiva. My Granny always tells me that the life of a woman is one big series of sacrifices and the legend proves this. Men are incapable of such profound feelings of compassion and magnanimity. Granny says that only women can lead a life of unselfish devotion and service. My Grandpa didn’t understand it though and escaped from home with a trapeze artist. As for possible technical problems, instead of a real horse we could use my brother’s rocking-horse. And if the director objects to a top-less show, I could wear a very smart, tight-fitting leotard, only slightly transparent.
My suggestion is a modern adaptation of the myth The Judgement of Paris. Nowadays all kinds of humiliating beauty contests are organized by ruthless sex maniacs who treat women as brainless dolls or objects of desire. It’s time to reverse the roles. We can put on a performance in which ‘Paris’ will be the name of a famous fashion house that organizes casting for male models. A panel of ‘Paris’ judges will assess some male bodies on the catwalk. It’s high time people realized that the contemporary obsession with physical attractiveness is a dangerous path to follow and is ultimately a blind alley. It’s also important to show men how harmful and cruel it is to treat women as bodies not people. Personally, I’d like to see all my male colleagues stripped to their Y-fronts (boxer shorts not allowed!). They will look a sight. With one exception whose name I don’t want to mention.
My Dad says that what the world most needs today is a latter-day Robin Hood or Janosik. So I think we need to issue a warning to all these fat, rich pigs jetsetting to the Caribbean when others go to bed hungry. My message to the world would be: we need social justice and we’ll get it, by fair means or foul! Contemporary Robin Hood should be presented as a charismatic union leader and his Merry Men will be the rank-and-file members. My Dad’s got quite a big collection of banners, flags and suitable portraits and it will solve the problems of props. I don’t know who can play the leading role, though. It must be somebody with a moustache. Maybe our PE teacher will agree.
I believe that what we should do is to expose the falsity and deceit of the myths that surround us. It’s naive and stupid to look for eternal truths in mythology or fairy tales. Poetic justice? Virtue rewarded and punishment for the evil? What a sham! It’s enough to look closely at the political scene. Therefore I suggest using a famous myth that will subvert some contemporary myths. ‘All mothers love their children.’ What about Medea who killed her sons? ‘All wives love their husbands.’ So what about the Danaids who murdered their husbands on their wedding nights? ‘Women are a weaker sex.’ And what about the Amazons? Let’s prepare a production of a story of fearless women – the Amazons, the Danaids and Medeas of the 21st century. I know, of course, that our Headmaster will not allow explicit violence on stage. What we can do is use a huge screen for a computer game so that all the slaying, killing, beheading and poisoning will happen in virtual reality.
The most universal myth in my opinion is the myth of Sisyphus. It proves without doubt that hard work is useless. Strenuous effort gives you nothing but pain and suffering. Personally, I have experienced it many times as the results of my biology tests may testify. However, it would be really difficult to find an idiot who would agree to publicly push a heavy rock up the hill. Therefore, for practical reasons, I suggest that we show Cinderella. There are so many candidates suitable for the roles of the ugly sisters that casting will be no problem.
Cinderella again, so we’re back to square one. How are we going to find a compromise? We’ll certainly need a modern day Solomon’s verdict. I went to bed with a feeling that whatever the class decide to choose, it’ll be a Herculean task to prepare a performance.
17th Jan. Saturday morning
I was violently torn from my forty winks at 7.30 by a commotion in the kitchen - the clatter of cups, running water, the kettle whistling. Who could it be? In my kitchen, so early in the morning and on a free day too? Spouse was still sound asleep, which precluded a prospect of a nice cup of tea served in bed. And anyway this was not my birthday. Neither did we quarrel last night. Expecting any deferential treatment was a utopian idea. I dragged myself out of bed to check.. It was Julka. Dressed up to the nines and using my best china, she was making breakfast for two. Seeing a puzzled look on my face and visibly flushed, she said, ‘Radek’s coming at nine and we’re going to work on a quiz. Two heads are better than one.’ ‘Who’s Radek?’ ‘A friend’, she turned back and continued making some elaborate sandwiches. It was still barely 7.40. Ten to one he’s somebody special if my daughter decides to spend over an hour preparing snacks for him.
At nine sharp a doorbell raised Spouse from his slumbers. Julka ran to the door trying to block the view. In vain. The figure that stood in the doorway was no Tom Thumb. He was at least 199 cm tall and had a five o’clock shadow. Some friend, I thought. The guy must be 20 or over! He can’t be Julka’s school friend! Radek mumbled, or rather bellowed, some form of greeting and disappeared into Julka’s room promptly closing the door. The tray with dozens and dozens of sandwiches and my precious tea service had already vanished from the kitchen. The shoes left by Radek in the hall looked like seven league boots.
When the three of us (Spouse, Maciek and myself) were eating our humble fare (all the tasty morsels had mysteriously evaporated from the fridge), Spouse started devising ways of luring Radek out of Julka’s room. He tried to make Maciek his accomplice. ‘Take them some more tea so that they’ll have to use the toilet.’ ‘I’m not going in there. Two’s company, three’s a crowd’, Maciek said. Brotherly loyalty? So far he seemed not to care two hoots about Julka’s boyfriends, why change? I sighed and started pondering over the possibility of cooking a lunch for five people without having to run to the shops for more provisions. How many potatoes will I have to peel for Julka’s prince charming? That seemed a sixty-four-thousand-dollar-question.
17th Jan. early afternoon
It was probably the tantalizing smell of roasting chicken that did the trick. As if by magic, Radek appeared in the kitchen with the tray full of dirty dishes and volunteered to do the washing-up. Fearing for my best china and imagining him at sixes and sevens in my tiny kitchen I didn’t let him. Instead, I asked him to stay for lunch and he agreed. The bowl of mashed potatoes which I’d placed on the table was of Olympian proportions and so was his appetite. Julka was on cloud nine, Maciek was very quiet and Spouse, ignoring my meaningful looks, tried to turn his police investigation questions to some sort of small talk. ‘What do you do?’, ‘How long have you known Julia?’ ‘What are your plans for the future?’ But Radek evidently believed that two can play at that game. ‘Which football team do you support?’ ‘Who’s your favourite film director?’ ‘What do you think of the latest film in Lord of the Rings trilogy?’ Fortunately, Maciek came to the rescue. Although offering an olive branch isn’t in his nature, he defused the situation by changing the topic. ‘What quiz were you writing?’ ‘On classical mythology. Do you want to hear the questions?’ ‘Sure, I may even know the answers.’ Julka brought the questions. Radek was reading them and Maciek was answering.
‘It’s a very interesting quiz’, said Maciek, whose score was 14 out of 15, and gave Radek a five. ‘Julia was my Muse’, Radek smiled looking boldly at Spouse, who suddenly almost choked on a biscuit. I kept silent pondering over my students’ suggestions from the day before. What a relief nobody thought of the various incarnations of Zeus – Zeus and Leda, Zeus and Europa, Zeus and Danae. His many disguises, whether a shower of gold, a bull or a swan served one purpose only. What good manners my pupils showed steering clear from the subject. And how kind of them not to suggest a show with a vulture feeding on the liver of a living creature. My students are obviously sensitive and knowledgeable people. Proving the superiority of the Amazons over Hercules or looking for social justice with no help from a fairy godmother is not going to be easy but I’m sure we’ll cut the Gordian knot. Tomorrow is the day of crossing the Rubicon. And as for Radek, my sixth sense is telling me he’s not going to be a nine days’ wonder.
|Produced in Poland by British Council © 2004. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.|