Our Prince of Ilium


Upon hearing a certain masculine name, there appears a crude division between people that allows our family to draw some small, smirking conclusions.

”Aw, was he conceived in Paris?” comes the sidling and astonishingly intimate question from Group A. This group is made up of generally well-meaning people who have not been much exposed to classical themes. Group A will sometimes pursue the question by bringing up the surname Hilton. On these occasions my hand involuntarily closes around an invisible cudgel and it is a struggle to keep smiling. Members of Group B, on the other hand, tend to ask, “If you have another son, will you call him Hector?” which, while clumsy, at least shows that they are acquainted with the ancient tragedy of–

“Troy!” Molly shouts from the back of the car, as we pass a bus bearing a giant movie poster on its side.

“That’s about Paris, Paris!” she tells her brother excitedly.

“I know,” says he carelessly, as if it is a commonplace that someone makes a major motion picture about his swashbuckling namesake.

I watch the burnished, bulked-up figure of Brad Pitt recede in the rearview mirror and reflect that with him playing Achilles, there’s no chance that the Trojan side will get a sympathetic portrayal. Still, the movie increases the chances that vast numbers of Group A’s will move into Group B, which is, I have to say, convenient.

On NPR the other day I heard a piece about how Hollywood pulls out togas and sandals at crucial points in American civic life; crucial for left-wingers, anyway–which I suppose is the same thing as saying “Hollywood”–but still bears mentioning. Anyway, Spartacus got a mention as representing a clever subversive strike at McCarthyism. In the film’s climactic scene, men who are being pressed to reveal whom amongst them is their Thracian leader all cry, one after the other, “I am Spartacus!” The scene is echoed in comic literature by the rebellious schoolboys in Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall,in which Paul Pennyfeather tries to maintain order in a boarding-school classroom while the boys all shout, “No, sir, I am Tangent.”

I have gone off my own tangent, for the point is you do not have to wait for Hollywood’s cue to hear classical echoes in everyday life. You do not have to search much beyond your own doorstep, in fact, to locate the filmy skein that connects today’s household with the historically remote Greeks and Romans.

Personally, I am often reminded of the similarity between the mythological torment of Sisyphus, who was eternally doomed to push a great boulder up a hill, right to the crest, before the thing rolled back down, and he had to start all over again, and that of housewives. In the manner of Sisyphus, we will have just finished wrapping birthday presents, or folding the laundry, or taking the cellophane off supermarket roses, when some distraction arises–the ring of the phone, a knock on the door–and by the time we return, wrapping paper is strewn across the floor, wrinkled laundry is festooning the furniture, and so many rose petals have been separated from their stems that the place looks like a Rajastani bridal chamber. Invariably, one or more small faces beam out from the mess. “Don’t ever do that again,” we say, Jupiter-with-thunderbolt-style. Of course they promise they won’t, but, like Sisyphus’s boulder, they must.

Other parallels abound. Harpies are not just shrieking, clawing creatures from ancient myths; you can find them in every carpool line. Bacchantes roam the decks and back lawns of a million suburban houses, shooing their children away with one hand while knocking back gins-and-tonic with the other. And whereas Hercules had the task of mucking out the Augean stables once, your average housewife digs through the grisly sediment in the corners of childrens’ rooms every fortnight. Unlike Hercules she doesn’t have the luxury of diverting a river to do her dirty work, and furthermore, for all the Augeanness of those mythological stables, I feel sure they did not contain mummified citrus fruits.

Now it happens that tree nymphs are literally crawling out of the ground around us. It is hot as Hades, and as alert Swamp readers know, Washingtonians are bracing for a plague of–

“Cicadas! I found my first cicada!” Molly sings out, five minutes after we arrive at the park we go to twice a week for children’s tennis lessons. “Look, a nymph exoskeleton!” she yells, pointing at the base of a tree.

“Yuck,” Violet and Phoebe chorus, squatting down to inspect the waxy-looking husk.

“That’s the skeleton?” Paris asks dubiously, prodding it with a stick.

According to news accounts, countless millions of nymphs have begun crawling out of their underground pods in the last week. As with the one we find, they grab on to something, let rip, and then, having emerged in cicada form, with tender wings, make their way into the trees. In a week or so, the air will be full of them.

“Exo,” Molly explains, “Like a shell.”

“Like ex-terior–” I begin.

“Cool! Aw, imagine if we had shells,” Paris enthuses, “Like lobsters–”

“–ex patriate, or ex propriation–”

There’s a shout from the courts, and Paris races off to play tennis. For the next 45 minutes, the girls and I footle about in the kiddie park, playing tag, and hide-and-seek, and find-the-cicada. At length, I unpack sandwiches and chocolate milk for them, deputize Molly, and stroll over to watch the last few minutes of the lesson.

As I arrive, Paris is practicing his serve.

“Not so hard, Bam-Bam,” the instructor calls out, as the ball sails high over the fence and into the playground.

“What do you mean, Bam-Bam?”

“Bam-bam,” the man repeats with a shrug, his voice trailing away. “Gee, I guess nobody watches The Flintstones anymore.”

Other children are serving neatly over the nets, or into the nets, and balls are bouncing obediently within opposite service lines, when–

Thwap! Another ball soars into over the fence.

“That boy is like Hercules,” I hear a father remark approvingly to the people standing with him.

“Actually,” I call, casting the die, “His name is Paris.”

“Oh, after the hero,” he says, nodding.

“Well, yes,” I reply, “And thank you.”

See what I mean? The movie opens this weekend, and it’s already working.


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