Death by Horace . . . the tear-stained school stories of Frederic W. Farrar

In which we take a short turn through the school stories of Frederic W. Farrar (1831-1903), clergyman, botanist, educator, to see how a little Latin can be a very dangerous thing . . .

Portrait of Frederic William Farrar (

In my other life as a Victorianist, I became fascinated by the work of Frederic W. Farrar (1931-1903) . Farrar was an educator, a scholar, a writer, and a clergyman, who taught for some years, and along the way became a Chaplain to Queen Victoria.

Eric, or: Little by Littlea cautionary tale of school life

But he may have been best known to everyday Victorians as the author of Eric, or Little by Little (1858), a keenly-felt cautionary tale of injustice and miseducation at a private school on the Isle of Man.  Eric, became one of the best selling children’s books of the mid-nineteenth century, and whose reputation lingered long into the twentieth

The British education system was in flux at the time Farrar wrote Eric.  Public schools (where traditionally the upper-middle classes, gentry and aristocracy sent their suns) were joined by an outcropping of private schools, built to cater to the sons of the expanding middle class. The education in all of these schools could be patchy: cheating, bullying, corporal punishment, all were rife. From 1861 to 1864, the Clarendon Commission was established to look into the situation (the reports are a fascinating insight into nineteenth-century education).   Nineteenth-century school stories are full of tales of woe, often connected to the Latin classroom. Latin was the subject most people had to study, whether they liked it or not, whether they had aptitude for it or not, and many did not.

Cribbing and Cheating

If you wanted to cheat at your Latin, you could buy a ‘crib,’ which was a facing-page translation, from which you could crib, or steal the meaning of your text. School stories often make mention of boys caught cribbing. Some of them are bad boys, who are characterologically inclined to cheating. Some of them are good boys, constitutionally unable to deal with the approach to learning Latin, who resort to contraband to get by.
Farrar is both disapproving of and sympathetic to these boys. Obviously cheating is wrong. But he also believes that the system was creating the need to cheat.

A reformed cribber: Harry East in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857)
A reformed cribber: Harry East in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)

The eponymous Eric doesn’t need to cheat: he’s bright enough to manage his translations on his own. But a misunderstanding with a hot-tempered teacher means that he is suspected of cheating, and his own hot temper, pride, and misplaced (in Farrar’s view) loyalty to his fellow students, mean that he doesn’t point to the real culprit. Things go from bad to worse for Eric, who ends up running away, taking work on a boat, and dying from overwork and ill treatment. A cautionary tale indeed, and a fascinating book.



Peeking at exams in Julian Home: a Tale of College Life.

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Kennedy Reading the Examination Questions, illustrated by Stanley Berkley

Farrar followed Eric with Julian Home: a Tale of College Life (1860).  Here, an honourable boy, Julian, the type of scholarly student one dreams of teaching, or of being, copes with the snob factor in his life as a scholarship student at ‘Camford,’ a thinly described Oxbridge university. His friend Kennedy, brilliant but nervy, lacks Julian’s manly stamina, and gets caught up in cheating.  He reads the exam questions that his tutor has left lying on his desk, and is then blackmailed by another student who has witnessed him.  The anxiety and guilt lead him to the brink of suicide, before the ghost of his dead mother knocks the gun out of his hand.  Melodramatic, perhaps, but reflective of the real stresses of education, where there was often much at stake.


That heathenish language . . . the death of Dubbs in St Winifred’s or, The World of School

St Winifred, or the World of School (1861) is my favourite of the three. Here, we meet Walter Evson, an intelligent boy who has been home schooled, and has a wide range of knowledge of the natural world that his school life at St Winifred’s does not foster. He becomes resentful at the stringencies of rote-learning, and, clashing with his teacher, commits the unforgiveable sin of burning the manuscript of this teacher’s scholarly book.

St Winifred's, or: The World of School
St Winifred’s, or: The World of School (1902 edition: London: A&C Black).

Through Walter, Farrar shows the perils of a one-size fits all education: Walter, an intelligent student is cramped by the education on offer. His friend, Johnny Daubenay, aka ‘Dubbs,’ is not so lucky. Dubbs does not have the ability to memorize his Latin, and ends up hopelessly behind, with each day’s failed homework mounting up and causing disaster for the morrow.

Following a walk up a nearby mountain, during which the boys are caught in a sudden storm, Dubbs catches a fever. And as he lies on his sickbed, he deliriously tries to memorize his Horace.


the poor boy fancied himself sitting under the gas-lamp in the passage as he had so often done, and trying to master one of his repetition lessons, repeating the lines fast to himself as he used to do—

“Hac arte Pollux et vagus Hercules,

Enisus—enisus arces—enisus arces attigit igneas,

Quos inter Augustus—

“How does it go on?—[i]

Dubbs’s nurse tries in vain to make him stop ‘a-repeating that there heathenish Latin.’ But Dubbs lies there, ‘still humming fragments of Horace lines, sometimes with eager concentration, and then with pauses at parts where his memory failed, at which he would grow distressed and anxious’.   (250).  Eventually Dubbs dies, a tragic casualty of a flawed education system that has fatally weakened his constitution, and turned his mind.

Latin is a language, dead as dead can be . . .

Farrar’s works were known for their ‘lachrymose’ qualities. They are a sub-genre of Evangelical Victorian novels for young readers, part of a tradition in which writers preached the good word; they are also novels of ideas: in this case ideas about the education system: about how Latin should be taught, to whom it should be taught, and about what happens when it goes horribly wrong.

— Elizabeth Hale

[i] Frederic W. Farrar, St Winifred’s or the World of School. London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1920. 250.


“You needed a goddess?” . . . Mercy, Overwatch, and Classical Reception


You needed a healer?


Erica Wright is an undergraduate student at the University of Newcastle, Australia, majoring in Ancient History and English. She is passionate about studying myth and fairytale, classical reception, and ancient magic.  Here, we’re thrilled to share a classical discovery she has made in the Overwatch videogame. A shorter version of this essay recently appeared in the Our Mythical Childhood blog — Elizabeth Hale

Overwatch is a young adult science fiction multiplayer first person shooter (FPS) videogame developed by the American game developing company Blizzard Entertainment.

Set in a futuristic post-war post-crisis era, on maps based on many global locations such as Australia, China and England, players of Overwatch are formed into two teams of six. Players compete to control an objective, which could mean controlling an area, or escorting a “payload” to the other end of the map. There are currently 25 playable characters, or “heroes”, for players to choose, some of which have basis in myth where others are purely science-fiction based. There are four categories of heroes: offence, defence, tank and support.

Since its release in 2016, Overwatch has grown in popularity all over the world, including Australia. In addition to casual players, there are also competitive players in videogame tournaments (Esports) with professional and sponsored teams.

In 2017 Overwatch embarks on an Antipodean Odyssey with the Overwatch World Cup in Sydney. It’s timely, therefore, to consider the impact of the Classical and mythical references embedded in one of Overwatch’s most popular heroes: Mercy.

Mercy — Winged Healer

Original Mercy
Like all well-dressed heroes, Mercy has many outfits, or ‘skins.’ Here we see her in her original, or ‘default’ skin

Mercy is a hero in the “support” (or “healer”) category. According to her background story, her “real name” is Angela Ziegler, a Swiss field medic/first responder. Her role is to support other players/heroes on her team by healing them after they have taken damage from the enemy team, or by giving them a damage boost while they fight.

Mercy wears a “Valkyrie suit” that allows her to fly to teammates in her line of sight and heal them with her Caduceus Staff. She can also “Resurrect” her teammates every thirty seconds if they die. Her “Ultimate” ability is called “Valkyrie”, which enhances her abilities for a short period of time.

In her physical and characterological elements, Mercy references the angel from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Valkyrie from Norse mythology. But she also embodies aspects of the Greek god Hermes through her playstyle, “skins” (visual appearances) and “sprays” (small icons players can spray on surfaces).

Mercy as 'Winged Victory'
In the Summer Games of Overwatch, Mercy changes outfits. Here we see her as ‘Winged Victory,’ complete with winged sandals

Mercy’s “Winged Victory” “skin” has been added as part of the “Summer Games” event (the Overwatch version of the Olympic Games). This “skin” shows Mercy wearing ancient Greek garb, a laurel wreath, and a pair of winged sandals. It seems appropriate that Mercy is shown with Hermes’ sandals, considering she is the most mobile hero in the support “class”, and arguably one of the most mobile heroes in the game.

Mercy’s “real name”, ‘Angela’ derives from the Greek word ‘aggelos’ (ἅγγελος), meaning ‘messenger of the gods’, which further connects her to Hermes. She also holds the “Caduceus staff”, which is a direct reference to Hermes’ staff. Outside of Overwatch, the symbol of the Caduceus staff is often confused with the Rod of Asclepius, although the latter is also appropriate here in view of Mercy’s role as medic and healer. These connections to Hermes are fitting considering Hermes’ association with healing in the ancient Greek world.


Classical Reception in Post-Apocalyptic Gaming

Classical Reception in post-apocalyptic gaming contexts demonstrates the longevity of archetypal mythology via the significance of mythological themes in youth culture.

This raises some interesting questions:

  • Do the presence and popularity of such themes provide mythical hope in unstable economic and political environments?
  • Are video games such as Overwatch, which connects youth from different parts of the world, and allows players immersion in myth-infused fantasies, a cultural response to current regional and global challenges?

Perhaps these classical and mythical elements, which are universal, can set a foundation for young people to come together to solve problems, both in game and then into wider society.

— Erica Wright