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Reinvigorating the story in powerful heroic myths

Noël Grisanti

Greek scholar illuminates contemporary realities with close readings of “The Iliad.” 

March 9, 2018
Caroline Alexander at Exeter

Although Caroline Alexander is a scholar of the Greek world, the first word that comes to mind when you meet her is a Latin one: dignitas.

The word goes much deeper than its English derivative, dignity, although she possesses plenty of that. It also serves to sum up one’s accomplishments, both literal and literary. Ms. Alexander has a store of such accomplishments. She is the author of seven books, including a translation of “The Iliad.” Yet she maintains a humble, unassuming presence that brings to mind the old adage that “still waters run deep.”

After Alexander’s weeklong visit — during which she gave four lunch seminars on “The Iliad” and a public lecture on her book, “The Endurance,” about the trials and triumphs of Ernest Shackleton – I sat down with Alexis Lee ‘18 and  Janeva Dimen ’19 to discuss their impressions.

Noël Grisanti: What do you find most memorable from Caroline Alexander’s lunchtime seminars?

Alexis Lee: When she read the part with Hector talking to his wife, and Astyanax (his baby) was afraid of him because he had the helmet on and he took it off and hugged the baby. … I thought for the first time, wow this is a literary book, this is a story. It was completely different hearing her talk about it, especially with how intimately she engaged with the literature. Before that, the only context in which I had read “The Iliad” was in preparation for Certamen [a Latin quiz bowl-style competition], learning who killed who in what book.

I thought for the first time, wow this is a literary book, this is a story." — Alexis Lee

Janeva Dimen: I had the same experience. As a myth specialist for Certamen, the only context in which I knew “The Iliad” was through Certamen studying. I was struck by her talking about why Homer was original, why he was revolutionary for his time. I had never thought about Homer as super different. I had always compared authors like Cicero and Caesar and Virgil to Homer, rather than taking Homer in his own context and realizing how novel he was.

NG: As Ms. Alexander pointed out, Homer essentially started the Western canon, so it’s hard to compare him to anything prior. I was fascinated by how she put the text in historical context and, through studying the meter and so forth, was able to determine what might have come from Mycenaean culture and what was added in, and how it was a spin on a folklore tradition. I never thought you could claim Homer was a deviation from anything because we don’t have the texts which he was deviating from, but the way she used the historical context let her make that argument.

Janeva, you had dinner with her several times. What struck you in those interactions?

JD: How much she knows is just so impressive. Her passion for what she does is so clear by how she talks and what she talks about. Also, how she connects classics to history and to politics. She takes Classics out of the classroom setting and applies it to real-world issues.

She has a serious grasp on what heroic myth is." — Alexis Lee

NG: Did either of you see her Shackleton talk? She comes to the lunch seminars and is incredibly well-versed as a scholar of “The Iliad” and then she presents on Shackleton, a completely different subject. She has so much breadth of knowledge.

JD: And depth.

NG: So true. And those are only two of her major works. She has written whole books on subjects that are neither Shackleton nor “The Iliad.” 

I wanted to keep listening and I wanted her to keep talking. — Janeva Dimen

AL: She has a serious grasp on what heroic myth is. A lot of what she talked about was connected to either heroics or war. It would be impossible for any of us to say what define wars. It’s more than armed conflict, there are so many emotions and so many accompanying phenomena, but if I had to pick somebody who is seriously qualified to reflect on those questions, it would be her. She can bridge “The Iliad” — from 750 BCE — to the Battle of Gallipoli. That she can find the connection and bring them up seamlessly in her seminars speaks to how much she studied.

NG: Her style at the seminars was different from a Harkness classroom. How did you find that?

JD: Something that struck me when I first walked into the room was that she was sitting at the table with us. Many visiting lecturers stand at the front with a presentation at the board. She sat at the table with her book. And still she was able to talk through that whole 50-minute period seamlessly, as Alexis said. I never felt excluded from the lecture; I actually felt very involved. I wanted to keep listening and I wanted her to keep talking.

Before we could continue our conversation, the bell rang, sending Alexis and Janeva off to Greek 421. A fitting end to our discussion, perhaps, as they are just two of the Exeter students for whom Ms. Alexander serves as a role model by demonstrating that one need not be confined to the time and space of the ancient world alone. Studying Classics in the modern age is not a form of temporal escapism but rather an opportunity to view our own world through the lens of the past.

Noël Grisanti is a classical languages instructor.

Editor’s note: With support of the Behr Fund, the Classical Languages Department invites at least two classical scholars to campus every year for a combination of classroom visits, seminars, assembly talks and public evening lectures. The residencies provide students, employees and the wider community with access to college-level research in the fields of philology, linguistics, papyrology, history and archaeology. This year’s scholars included Caroline Alexander and Joshua Katz.


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