Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ancient Greeks with Tom Holland, by the Lake

Landing stages at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, March 2014

As mentioned in my last, Words by the Water (a festival of Words and Ideas, staged by Ways with Words) (#WBTW14) finished today at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria.

The second speaker I chaired was Tom Holland. His new translation of the Histories of Herodotus came out in September last year, and he was talking about this on March 11th. 

Tom has a vivid sense of fun and is interested in a wide variety of subjects, from owls, to cricket, to fossils, to - oh, just about everything! And so was Herodotus. He tells us about flying snakes, sheep with tails so long and heavy they had to be supported by little trailers, methods of building pyramids, love matches, dismemberments, stonings, soldiers who lasso-ed their opponents to pull them onto their daggers, family feuds, the Egyptian version of what happened to Helen of Troy, and - after many fascinating travels and stories - finally the wars between the Persians and the Greeks. 

So listening to such things re-told by Tom gave the audience lots to laugh at and think about. Tom's translation, as I said in my introduction of him, is in an easy-to-read, colourful style (as are his other books). An example is:
Older translation:  “The Phoenicians took them on to their ship and sailed away for Egypt.”   
Tom's translation: “Into the hold went the captives, up came the anchor, and off sailed the ship to Egypt.”

Tom told us, upon questioning, that Herodotus is the longest Ancient Greek text surviving. It took him six years - translating a paragraph a day, every day (sometimes two pages, sometimes a couple of lines) - to complete. He was asked to do this by an editor at Penguin Classics who saw him presenting his own take on the Persian Wars in Persian Fire some years ago, at - of course - Words by the Water! 

I dip into Herodotus often. In The Boy with Two Heads, I use one of his stories. It is about Arion, who was saved from drowning by dolphins (my chapter 18). Herodotus himself appears for a second in chapter 45, sitting on a box under a tree in Olympia, reading his own histories from a scroll to the milling crowds that have come to witness the Olympic Games. Perhaps he sold copies of short extracts.

Herodotus underpins so much of what we know about Ancient Greece. Scholars think his writings must have been preserved because they are so interesting, conversational and, at times, funny. As he says himself, he can only be sure of what he has seen with his own eyes. As for what he has been told, all he can do is write it down. He cannot vouch for its truth.

That's all any of us can do, isn't it?

All photographs © Julia M Newsome.

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