Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

Lesson Seven: Analyzing Stories

Thursday, May 05, 2011

This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler

An ancient Egyptian tale, “Rhodopis and Her gilded Sandals,” is the oldest version of the Cinderella story. Jack’s assignment was to read the Egyptian version in Volume 7 of My Book House and to compare it to other tellings of the story.

In the Egyptian story, “Rhodopis” (Greek for “rosy cheeked”) is a beautiful young woman bathing in a river. One of her dainty slippers is picked up by a “royal eagle” and dropped in the lonely king’s lap. The king has all the maidens of the realm try on the slipper, to no avail. Then a grateful subject, a man whom the king has set free from the burden of unjust taxes, leads the king to the river where Rhodopis bathes. Her little foot fits the slipper, she produces the other one, and then she and the king get married and live happily ever after.

Jack mentioned some of the differences in the characters: there was no fairy godmother, no ugly sisters, and “Cinderella” herself was not a servant. There was no ball or pumpkin carriage either. Jack also mentioned there was no “moral” in the Egyptian story as in one of the tellings he had read where Cinderella forgave her step sisters and everybody lived happily ever after together. The moral in this story was that the king reaped the rewards of being a good and just king.

The next assignment was the Greek myth, “Phaeton.” Here an interesting thing happened. On his own, Jack offered a nicely systematic analysis. I asked for a “synopsis” of the story, a brief description of the plot. I asked him if he knew what “plot” meant. “It means what’s happening in the story,” he said. Then he added: “The plot is the spinal chord of the story. The characters are the ad-ons, like arms and legs.”

The main character in this story is Phaeton, the “non-listening kid” who boasts to his teasing school fellows that he is the son of Apollo. The other kids don’t believe him and to prove it he decides to ask his father to allow him to ride his chariot of the sun. His mother Clymene warns him not to do it and Apollo says that is not a safe thing to do for a youth. But Phaeton persists and Apollo yields. In the end Zeus has to come to the rescue when Phaeton, unable to control the powerful and unruly horses drawing the chariot, nearly destroys the whole earth with the fires of the sun. Zeus zaps Phaeton to death and saves the world.

Jack described Clymene as the “kind mother” character and Apollo as “the kind father who can’t stop his kid.” Then he took his analysis a step further: “The characters are the arms and legs of the story, and other details, like the horses in this story, are like the muscles that keep the body together.” Very nice, I thought.

The next story he was assigned to read was a Welsh folk tale, “The Youth Who Wanted Some Fun.” I asked what this story was about and Jack said that he did not quite understand this story, neither plot, nor characters, nor details. “I only remember one of the pictures but not sure what that showed either.” I had a strong suspicion that he had not read the story. But since there had been too much time between the time I assigned the story and when we had this lesson, and also since he did such a good job analyzing the other stories, I let him get away with it!

I introduced the concept of “analytical tools” and said that the three aspects of the story that he had called “plot, character and details – spinal chord, arms/legs and muscles” were like “tools” that could be used to analyze any story or movie. To demonstrate how these tools can be applied to any story I suggested we look at the book we are reading together, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.

I asked Jack to give me a synopsis of the book. “I’d like to finish the book before telling you that.” I realized that I had said that a synopsis is a brief description of the plot. We hadn’t finished the book so technically he couldn’t give me the plot – OK, fair! So I asked him to tell me what the story is about. He said he didn’t understand me. I asked him to tell me what Halo Reach was about (the computer game he is very interested in playing right now). He gave me a quick summary of what the “characters” are in Halo Reach and what they’re trying to do but would not do the same thing for The Prince and the Pauper.

After I gave him an example of what I mean as a synopsis of the novel – a beggar boy and the crown prince exchanging places and the adventures they run into – he said, yeah,  yeah, yeah, gave me a similar synopsis, and walked away.

This lesson was an interesting example to me of how intelligence and boredom work together. Jack is obviously reading and absorbing stories in a very intelligent way. But then he gets bored with too much of what he thinks is the same thing. Perhaps the Welsh story was one too many folk tales for his taste at this point (we’ve been reading many of those!). And he definitely doesn’t like to demonstrate something that is too obvious to him, a synopsis being one. Stating the obvious, in an oversimplified manner, does indeed seem boring!



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