Marathon Bardic Reading

by James J. Helm
Oberlin College

This is a report on the 'Fourth Annual All-Night Candle-lit Marathon Bardic Reading' held at Oberlin College in January, 1996.

First, a bit of history. During the course of a lecture on the Iliad in the fall of 1992 I mentioned the fact that someone had conjectured that the entire Iliad could be read through in 24 hours. After class a student came up and said, 'Let's do it!' 'Do what?', I asked. 'Read the Iliad straight through.' I was a bit taken aback at such a wacky idea, but the student (a composition major at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music) persisted, and finally wrung from me a grudging agreement to help out. We scheduled an organizational meeting, at which it was decided to hold the reading during our Winter Term in January, when schedules are a bit freer for unusual projects such as this, and arrangements were made not only for readers and texts, but also for candles, a slide show, music, toga/bed-sheets, grapes and baklava! The location was to be the 'Dionysus', our student disco with bacchanalian artwork on the walls, and participants were to bring blankets and sleeping bags to carry them through the night.

The reading began at 2:00 PM of a Sunday afternoon. About thirty people had gathered, including students -- both Classics majors and others (some of whom I had never seen before), faculty, and a few intrepid townsfolk. We began with a few lines in Greek and then continued for the rest of the event in English, using a variety of translations at the discretion of the reader: Lattimore, Fitzgerald, the new Fagles, Christopher Logue's Patrocleia -- even Chapman was available. Readers had signed up for a book apiece, and we continued with that format right through Book 24. A reporter from the local newspaper was present and dutifully listened through the end of Book 2, when she fled. Nevertheless, a sympathetic article appeared the next morning, complete with a large photograph of the event.

About 6 PM we took a break and sent out for pizza, noting that since pizza was first mentioned in the Aeneid, it was the appropriate food for epic thought. Several students had gathered the day before at my home to make baklava, others brought cookies they had made, and the supply held out rather well, despite voracious appetites. The slides, which had been fairly hastily and randomly selected, provided some interesting diversion, particularly when the students who had chosen them inadvertantly included a stack of nudes they had culled from the slide library while looking for subjects classical. Candlelight made it a bit difficult to read but we managed, and learned to provide better lighting for future occasions. The reading lasted until 8:00 AM, with people coming and going throughout the night. There were perhaps a dozen of us who held out for the entire time, though I must confess to having dozed off a couple of times in my chair. All told, about 50 people were involved in one way or another during the reading, maybe 20 as readers (some did more than one book). We provided readers with fancy certificates of their achievement, including the number of the book which they read.

The Associated Press picked up the news from our local paper, and the next day their wire was quoted on the Classics list as an event of some importance. Other classicists sent congratulations or inquired about the mechanics of doing such a thing, and since then there have been a number of similar projects across the country. (I heard about another such emulation just yesterday).

For me, the surprise was that (other than the fact that at age 54 I could still make it through an all-nighter!) far from being just a crazy way of stimulating interest in the Classics, such a complete reading made possible all sorts of connections in the text which I had never noticed. I read the Iliad through regularly, as I teach our 'Myth and Hero in Greek Epic' course every other year or so. But we go through the Iliad and the Odyssey at a fairly leisurely pace -- two books twice a week for class discussion, with a third meeting for lecture. Such a close reading is wonderful and permits savoring many details in the text, but the fact that I had seldom read books more than a few hundred lines apart meant that I never heard countless echoes that become apparent when you experience the whole all at once. Resonances emerged that I had never noticed before, and an old familiar text took on new meaning just by being heard as a whole. Thus began our annual readings.

The second year we moved along naturally to the Odyssey, which is, of course, shorter than the Iliad, so we finished up by 5:00 AM, much to the relief of us old-timers. We thought the Aeneid was the obvious sequel, but it is so much shorter than the Greek epics that we also included excerpts from Ovid's Metamorphoses, interspersed between the books of the epic. Somehow today's students don't seem to resonate so well with this work, and it was the least successful reading, with the smallest number of people involved (maybe 20, all told). Last fall I suggested that we turn to drama this January, but the students outvoted me and we returned to the Iliad. By now we were old hands at the process and felt less obliged to plan out every detail. We brought the various translations to the reading and had the sign-up sheet available right there for people to choose the passages they wanted to read. This time we divided each book into two (the longest ones into three), with the content of each passage briefly summarized, and thus let students pick their favorite passages and provided a bit more variety to the readings. We added an easel with the number of the book currently being read, so those who entered late would know where we were. Some members of the audience followed along in their own texts, a few eye-balled the Greek, but most listened more or less attentively to the reader alone. The turn-out this year was perhaps as many as 60, though by now the reporters thought it old hat and ignored us. Only two hardy souls stayed through from beginning to end: myself and Walker Lewis, the student who got us started on the enterprise -- now a senior and beginning to wonder what he would do next year when he was no longer involved in the project.

Histrionics occasionally got out of hand, and I was appalled that a few of the students took such delight in the gorier aspects of the Homeric text. To be sure, Iliad 21 came in the middle of the night when we were all getting a bit punchy, but I wasn't quite prepared for the raucous audience participation even then. But on the whole the reading was quite good. It makes quite a bit of difference who does the reading, as you might expect. Some folks read in a monotone, stumbling over words and particularly proper names. Some demonstrated a delightful side of their personality which had never before emerged. A few theater majors showed up and gave expression to their wonderful voices. One woman, a Russian by birth, had a different ear for English than the rest of us, and insisted on reading her book in Chapman's version. For her, all English was foreign and she didn't realize how difficult it was for the rest of us to tune in to the archaic language. 'Homer was archaic to the Classical Greeks, so what's the big deal?' This year we hid the Chapman. The local Catholic priest joined in the Aeneid reading, with a deep, sonorous voice and a genuine feel for the material, and we were sorry that he couldn't stay longer and read another book.

It's not yet clear how many more years I'll be able to last through the night, but by now this bardic reading has become a staple of our classics program. The oral approach brings the works to life in a unique way and transforms the way we respond to them. For a whole day we are transported back to the ancient world and experience something at least vaguely akin to what was experienced by those who gathered in the megaron of the palace to hear 'the wondrous deeds of people of long ago'. And as old Priam makes his way across the Trojan plain to the tent of Achilleus, we are once again reminded that the end is near in more ways than one, and that moments of compassion are rare and admirable even amidst the horrors of war.

James J. Helm