How better to learn Latin than through a series of Lego-based adventures? Anthony Gibbins, Latin Master at Sydney Grammar, is taking the internet by storm with his terrific Legonium site, which provides simple story-based approaches to Latin, and featuring the adventures of different lego characters. It’s a superb example of the kinds of creative work that classics teachers are doing to communicate the delights of Latin to new generations.
I was curious about how he came to have such a great idea, and admiring of the dedication and creativity that goes into maintaining it. Anthony also has a very lively Twitter feed at @tutubuslatinus and so I’m thrilled that he was able to take the time to answer a few questions. It looks like there’s many more fascinating episodes ahead, so Latin-learners have some great things ahead of them.
Where did your ideas come from? Why Lego?
The scope of Legonium has grown over time, and will hopefully continue to grow. The first aspect of Legonium was the fabulae.
I enjoy writing stories in Latin, but have always wanted these stories to be illustrated. An early example is the Gilbo series that can be found at the Tar Heel Reader website. A few years ago I was reflecting on the many wonderful novellas that were then being published in Latin and feeling that I was missing out. I began to think once more about how I could illustrate a story book.
I had recently began collecting Lego kits. I started with Star Wars, then crossed to the Modular Series, the large detailed buildings that make up Legonium. It suddenly occurred to me that I could very easily create detailed illustrations by setting up and photographing scenes with these Lego sets. The idea was born from there. I set up a website and began posting daily blogs, which I promoted with Twitter. I had only a rough idea where the story was going, and as I bought new buildings the story continued to develop.
Totally by chance, one of the characters, Claudia, had been identified as having an interest in ancient history early in the story.
It occurred to me that perhaps she could visit Pompeii. I contacted the Nicholson Museum, (which houses an elaborate Lego reproduction of Pompeii) and they were very enthusiastic about the model being used for such a project. So that is how Claudia managed to get to Pompeii in episode 7 of series 1. It later occurred to me that it would be a good place to finish the first story too. Fortunately, the museum allowed me to return, and the climactic final showdown was set in the ancient city as well.
I am now working on the second series of the fabulae, which is more of a love story. It is proving to be a much slower process, but I have 3 episodes completed (http://www.legonium.com/tertia-decima/) and an entire 12 ‘episode’ series planned out. It is really just a matter of me writing and photographing the stories. Perhaps in the next holidays…
Roll on the holidays! Why did you use modern Lego, rather than ancient? Did this shape your storytelling?
Legonium itself – the buildings available in the Modular series – dictated that the stories be set is something like the modern world – you may notice that no one has a mobile phone. I was happy with this restriction, as I have spent quite a lot of time in Latin immersion environments, and this gave me an opportunity to write stories about the types of things I was discussing in my conversations; tall buildings, busses, aeroplanes, suitcases et cetera. However, on Twitter I do take the opportunity to engage with the ancient world. I regularly post announcements of Roman festivals and religious holidays (http://www.legonium.com/ianuarius/) . There are also posts of quotes from ancient authors, illustrated of course with Lego. Much of this can now be found on the website.
Do you use Legonium in your own classroom?
I do use it in my own classroom, but not as much as some other teachers I have heard of. But when there is time, I might read through parts of stories with Year 9, 10 and 11 classes. I am currently working on a grammar reference series, beginning with the uses of the cases. I can certainly see myself using this with classes once it is complete.
What made you use the Harry Potter figures and stories?
I worked very very hard to be able to read Harrius Potter. It is not simple Latin, and there was a lot on unfamiliar vocabulary within. But now that I can pick it up (the first book at least) and read any given page, I am glad that I put in the work. I decided that a series of Tweets on Harrius Potter would allow other people to read it a little bit faster than I could (http://www.legonium.com/harrius-150/). I also secretly hoped that it might catch the attention of J.K. Rowling, although that did not happen. Harry Potter gave a lot of my earliest students a genuine curiosity for Latin, and I think the subject owes a great deal to their author. When I got to the end of the first chapter, there was little enthusiasm from the Twitter audience to continue, so I decided to hang it up there. I could always go back to it at some time – I would probably skip a few chapters and sink my teeth into something towards the end.
Maybe J. K. Rowling is a secret fan! How concerned are you with ‘accuracy’ (i.e. fidelity to ancient Roman culture, fidelity to smaller nuances of language)?
I am very concerned with accuracy. I do make occasional mistakes but I make every effort not to. If I don’t know how to say something, I will try to find out – I figure that’s a hole in my knowledge that I can fill. I have a good selection of books to help me, as well as a an extremely knowledgeable and generous department at the school where I teach. If I can’t figure it out, I won’t guess at it. I just think of something else to say. I don’t want to be responsible for spreading bad Latin. I do, however, still make mistakes. The Latin community is very gentle in their corrections, and I appreciate it that people are looking out for errors.
The one exception I make is for issues of gender. The word poeta – for example – is a masculine noun. But I have no qualms using it to describe a woman, and pairing it with a feminine adjective. I do get a little pushback on that, but not a lot.
What other projects are you working on that you’re willing to share with us?
I’m currently working on two other projects. I am building a Roman villa out of Lego, which I will upload to Lego Ideas. Lego Ideas is a great platform, which allows Lego fans to propose Lego kits. If the Roman villa can gain ‘support’ from 10,000 people, Lego will consider producing it as a kit. Supporters only have to click on a button on the ideas website and answer three questions, but they do have to have a Lego web-account.
The second project is a card game called Bellum Sacrum. This is a battle-royal between two teams of Roman gods and goddesses. The game is working very well and we are currently working on card layout. I hope to have it ready to playtest more broadly soon.
–Anthony Gibbins in conversation with Liz Hale