The epic poem Beowulf and the Arthurian romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are enduring works which continue to enthrall us today with their stories of brave heroes who sometimes exhibit superhuman powers. What is the appeal and importance of these works–what makes it worth sorting out and sometimes slogging through the challenging diction of these classic tales, today?
In order to grasp the entire picture, we need to understand the context of Beowulf. The hero of this story (think “Viking”) is a figure who straddles the period between pagan and Christian somewhere around 500 A.D. and the tale is set in the Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark. The unknown author was British, possibly a monk, and probably wrote the work c. 900. Some scholars see the epic poem as a pagan story, based on the elements of the bloodlust and boasting incorporated in some scenes. Others see the poem as Christian, given the analogies made to biblical stories, and the incidents of humility which Beowulf and other characters attempt to exhibit in the midst of their tests and triumphs.
Because the story is “transitional” in time and nature, it presents the reader with an understanding of the cultural/religious changes which occurred in the west during this early medieval period. In Beowulf, the evil monster, Grendel, traces his lineage back to Cain, the first murderer, chronicled in the book of Genesis. And the dragon which our hero battles in the end may be more than just an outward evil, but perhaps also represents personal sins such as greed and envy.
In contrasting Beowulf to classical works such as The Odyssey, the shift in values becomes clear: while ancient heroes must seek kleos (glory), the heroes of medieval stories must strive towards the Christian virtues such as humility, chastity, and self-sacrifice. Since Beowulf straddles the two worlds, the story displays the contrasts and conflicts between the two cultures, and the ways in which Western culture was entering into the Christian ethic.
In the later medieval poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the Christian ethos is pushed further, as Gawain must learn that striving towards the virtues a knight has vowed to embody is not enough. As Gawain experiences powerful temptations and tests (magically induced by the evil Morgan le Fey), both he and the reader learn that while he may strive for perfection, he cannot accomplish this only through his own personal strength and will. Rather, the knight must rely on the power of God as he turns in to Him in humility after learning that he is in need of heavenly support, no matter how sincere his intentions.
These enduring tales of heroes and knights give insight into the culture, religion, and psyche which formed our literary tradition, and provide the background for how audiences even today long for icons to emulate. The yearning for the “super” character continues today, as anyone who goes to the movies knows. Everyone loves a hero!
~ Cindy C. Lange, MA
~Check out our courses where we teach these classic works and others at integritasacademy.com
While middle school might seem like a time of uncertainty and confusion for both student and parent, it is also a time of wonderful opportunity: students begin to realize that the world of facts is the precursor and foundation to the even more engaging universe of ideas, thought, and personal creativity. This is particularly true in the area of composition and literature, wherein is the opportunity to develop the ability to think logically, through reading great texts and writing about them.
Students do not need to wait until high school to begin to develop their analytical skills in writing, and in fact, after climbing that initial steep hill, they discover that what at first appeared to be a long, painful journey has turned out to be the preparation for entering an entirely new kingdom which they now have the keys to enter. Truth to tell, it’s the best time in life for them to part the curtain and enter into entire the adult world. They now can unlock the codes which open the doors to understanding the mature thought found in great literature. The ability to grasp the themes and deep riches of literature is also the ability to truly grasp history within the context of human nature. Dostoevsky knew this, and stated that it is through literature that the Russian people understand history. Perhaps this explains the love people have of historical fiction, or any great novels which thematically reflect the history of various incidents and people in history.
The book which has most influenced my own understanding of Dostoevsky’s assertion is Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. One of the unsung masterpieces of 20th century literature, this historically accurate book (not fiction) is the story of an influential American journalist’s journey from being a communist spy when he was Time Magazine’s religion editor to his gradual change of worldview during the 1950s and the “Mccarthy Era.” Witness had a profound influence on me when I was a young college student, and shaped my philosophy and future approach to life in immeasurable ways. I will forever be grateful to the college friend who handed that book to me when I was questioning my own belief system.
Perhaps you have a book which has meant a lot to you throughout the years; I personally find that revisiting my own experience with Witness is rejuvenating and encouraging, especially in times of discouragement or doubt. The ways in which literature can shape our consciences and define our lives are myriad because the relationship between words and the ways they express truths about our reality is profound and never-ending. There is no logic or understanding without a grasp of language and its handmaid, writing.
In my experience middle school students are ready for this philosophical and literary journey: in fact, though they may not know how to express their desires yet, they are yearning for it. When a parent/teacher/mentor guides the way, most students jump at the opportunity to begin the pilgrimage. Even if it means a steep climb at the beginning of the trip, the reward is worthwhile. Surrounding students with fine literature is a wise way to start them on the path to learning to write and the foundation for their developing the logic they need to help them fulfill their life callings.
Questions about our courses? Check our website, integritasacademy.com, or email us at Cindy@integritasacademy.com.
In several of our high school
courses we read about ghosts in short stories and plays, and students sometimes
ask me why we do this. When I return the favor and ask them what they
think, we often have some interesting discussions about the soul, spirituality,
Truly, literary ghosts are extremely important if we understand their
First, the ghosts we know are often really–ourselves. Great literature
reveals the human condition; it shows us how to rise above our weaknesses,
mistakes, and sins, and what happens when we don’t. Ghosts tell us
about ourselves and the things that haunt us, especiallyour own failings. They reflect
what we are thinking, deep down, underneath self-delusions, guilt, and hidden
self-knowledge. For instance, when we read Macbeth, we understand that
ghosts can be the creations of our own minds: they may be forbidden
desires, desires which dominate us so fully that against our own
consciences, we believe in them and obey them. If we give in to them, we
become ghosts ourselves: shells of our former selves who cower in
fright as we hide from the results of our own selfish, evil actions.
Often, ghosts are about place and space. Virginia Woolf’s story, “A Haunted House,” expresses how connected we are to the places in which we’ve lived and loved. Here the new owners of a house find mysterious ghosts whose residual experiences inspire the them to continue the love which the original couple has, it seems, extended to them through time in this cherished home which still emanates the deep, abiding commitment of its previous owners. As we grow older we learn how important our homes and communities have been to us, and they become part of the warp and woof of our own spirits–so much so that sometimes, we find it hard to consciously assimilate the depth and breadth of our past experiences.
Finally, ghosts reveal the spiritual nature of our existence and our connection to immortality: life which extends beyond the present. When Hamlet is presented with the ghost of his father, he is not sure if the ghost is a demonic deception, or his dead father, directing him from the beyond. Even those of us with strong religious beliefs can’t conceive exactly of what lies beyond, or how those who have died view us. While Christians are instructed not to attempt to hold seances with the dead, this doesn’t abrogate the question: what, exactly, is the relationship of those of us on earth to those who have died? And what is it like for them, in their new state? Hamlet wrestles with how he should relate to what he thinks may be his father’s spirit, and in so doing reveals the internal conflicts we all experience when we confront personal tragedies, and how we might have been responsible for them, or may be able to repair them afterwards.
Ghosts may bring forth our regrets: sorrows which challenge us to either wallow in self-pity and anguish, or to accept reality, in the recognition that it is only in embracing our situation and our own failings that we find healing, peace, and maturation. Or, perhaps ghosts will bring comfort to us: the memories of times with loved ones now gone, the times with children now grown. Whatever our personal ghosts are, reading and writing about them is a way forward to understanding ourselves, the world we live in, and the God who created us.
Continuing my summer thoughts in the spirit of “Beach Reading,” I have a confession to make. I am a great lover of the mystery story, the traditional thriller, and yes, even the noir genre. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in defense of the idea that reading about murder is a justifiable activity, even from a religious point of view. I’ll save comments about her thoughts for another time, but simply confess to you that I not only love a well written mystery, but think that they often qualify as legitimate literature.
There was a “Golden Age” of the mystery from about 1920 to 1950. During this era, British authors perfected the genre. They delighted in presenting highly puzzling plots which played “fair” and gave all of the clues a reader would need to solve the mystery, if he or she were paying close attention.
In recent years, while there have been some well-written mysteries, many (most?) are dumbed down and rather prosaic, so it’s best if a person can become acquainted with the “Golden Age” mysteries first. Here are some authors from the Golden Age who literary-minded teenagers may enjoy:
Dorothy L. Sayers;
John Dickson Carr; Agatha Christie (of course); Margery Allingham; Ngaio
Marsh; Edmund Crispin; Josephine Tey; Michael Innes; Patricia
Wentworth; G K Chesterton (The Father Brown mysteries)
Reading a good mystery is a lovely way for a book lover to take a break from more serious literature, while still enjoying great writing. My personal favorites are Ngaio March, Josephine Tey, G. K. Chesterton (his Father Brown character), and Michael Innes. And let’s not forget the original detective story writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
To start the summer, I’m sharing some favorite books and authors with you. You might like to try them sometime– maybe even this summer. When homeschooling our five children, I always looked forward to summer when I could explore “new to me” books in a leisurely manner.
I am selective about modern/contemporary literature, but I have a few authors I think are keepers. They are in no particular order, since I can’t decide which ones I like best. First on my list is Marilyn Robinson. I do not recommend starting with her earlier book, Housekeeping, but rather, go to her trilogy, starting with the Pultizer Prize winner, Gilead. Robinson has a strong grasp of the deeply Christian nature of our culture, and celebrates the family of a pastor in these brilliant novels.
Second on my list is Fred Chappell and his Kirkman tetralogy, beginning with I Am One of You Forever. His books also focus on family and contain a spiritual ethos, but they have a comic side to them that makes me laugh out loud when I reread them. He was poet laureate of North Carolina from 1997-2002, and has also won many awards for his work.
Finally, I recommend Ron Hansen’s book, Atticus, which is a prodigal son story (also a mystery) full of warmth and hope. In addition to receiving many book awards, two of Hansen’s novels have been made into movies. Hansen is a professor in my home territory at Santa Clara University, where I received my teaching degree.
I’m happy to be able to recommend the books of these three living authors to you, and perhaps you will dip into one or more of them while dipping your toes in the water, or vacationing in some mountain idyll. All three of these authors know how to “dig in” and find the “stories” that make you appreciate and rejoice in life and faith.
I hope you all have a blessed summer with family and friends, no matter where you are or what you are doing.
Scenario: You’ve written the bulk of your essay, and you feel like you’re done. And I mean –DONE! You glare in desperation at the paper or computer screen, which seems to be floating in air before your unbelieving eyes in a taunting mirage, and you wonder why essays must have conclusion paragraphs, when you’ve said everything already. You know you’re supposed to write something more, but–what? Even students who have learned how to write solid introduction and “body” paragraphs can fall into despair when it comes to developing a conclusion paragraph.
Students are often taught in their early years to summarize the introduction paragraph and restate the thesis for their conclusion paragraphs–and–that’s it. Check in the box. This formulaic way of approaching an essay limits students’ understanding of the power they themselves have in developing their final paragraphs. It’s especially negative because it trains very young students to shut off their thought processes, which otherwise probably would have led them to some interesting new conclusions, based on what they have discovered during the very process of writing their essays. So even if students have done some good analysis in their middle (body) paragraphs, they are at sea when it comes to drawing their thoughts together into a galvanizing proclamation full of punch and power.
It’s important to remember that when you write, you are developing your thinking/logic processes (Write to think!); therefore, limiting students to regurgitating or rephrasing the points of the essay is not only boring for the reader: it actually trains the students not to think, not to make the kinds of connections which will grow them into independent thinkers and wise citizens.
I’ve said this before: Writing is structured but it’s not formulaic. Yes, students must learn the framework of building a paper, but no, they should not be taught to follow restrictive steps which do not involve the process of applying what they’ve learned. They must have the freedom to draw their own conclusions about the written “discussion” they have just engaged in with the reader. They are learning to think; they are learning to participate in the cultural engagement which Mortimer Adler first called “The Great Conversation.” When students are taught the regimen of walking step-by-step through conclusion paragraphs by simply “plugging in” a recap of their introductory paragraph with an added flourish, they are really being told that the body paragraphs of their essays are merely “proofs” for an equation that they have been asked to solve merely for the sake of the facts. Instead, they should be lead into learning to assimilate concepts and interpretations in ways which cause them to develop their own theories and hypotheses about what they have read and written.
What is the alternative? A better question might be, What are the alternatives? When comes to writing, the world is your oyster. But for now, let’s investigate a few ideas which will help students to create essays which command attention through piquing the reader’s thought processes and imagination. So, here are some suggestions as to how to approach writing conclusion paragraphs:
Some instructors tell students to “rephrase” the thesis statement in their final paragraph, but this serves no purpose except to weary the reader. Instead, students must rethink their thesis statements in light of the analysis they have provided in the essay, and use their new thoughts to pull the “parts” of their essay together to say something new and significant. In one way, it’s simple: What is the point of all that you have written here? What new idea are you communicating to your audience? If you do not have a new idea, then you really have nothing to say.
This does not mean that students who write essays in school should be expected to know all previous ideas ever concluded about a topic. Instructors understand that students may discover new ideas when they write which are, in truth, only “new” to them. This doesn’t matter, because the point of an essay is that it is an exercise in growing the students’ thought/writing processes. Much relies on the teacher here, who must assess whether the particular student is reaching, stretching beyond his or her previous ability, and gaining new understanding. While emphasizing the message of the thesis statement, students should draw conclusions which extend well past the basics of what they have written about. As the saying goes, “The sum is greater than the parts.”
A conclusion paragraph should include new insights, drawn from the material you have been writing about. This takes thought, and is one more reason why a strong essay will involve several drafts, over a period of days, perhaps longer. A final paragraph expresses the topic in a fresh, expanded way, causing the reader to draw original conclusions. It should cause the reader to take pause, to take notice. Finally, completing an essay with an emotional appeal (pathos, in classical terminology) compels the reader to think beyond previous assumptions–to see the topic in a more complex, multi-layered light. In short, an inspiring conclusion challenges the compelling him to rethink or modify his worldview.
The interplay between writing and thinking cannot be completely codified, but it’s there and it’s important. The reason this connection can’t be put into a formula is because each person is created as a unique individual, and comes with his or her own cultural and textual knowledge. Therefore, each of us can “see” and put together truths and new insights in our own particular way. A good teacher recognizes the freedom of thought a student must have in order to write well, and understands that a peaceful, accepting atmosphere, time, and contemplation are the requisite conditions students need for their thoughts to percolate to the point where they can be gathered together, synthesized, and woven into narrative which draws subtlety and significance from the topic at hand.
What is the point of an essay if it isn’t to enrich the understanding of the audience? What is the point of an education if it isn’t to learn to think, and live, to the potential to which you are called? While there may be times when students just have to write an essay to “put a check in the box,” shouldn’t we teachers help them to move beyond doing the minimum, so that they have the opportunity to become excited about writing, and thinking, and learning, and growing? Let’s Write to Think!
What does constitute a great piece of fiction? In our Literature & Composition: Year 1 class, we are reading the bittersweet classic by Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name. The story is about a young Anglican pastor, Mark Brian, who is sent to a rural native community in British Columbia, and concerns his spiritual and internal growth as he learns to love this land and people, unaware that he himself will soon die. Each year when I reread it, I choke up, no matter how much I’ve prepared myself beforehand for the moving conclusion. The book has such power because it speaks truths with beauty and simplicity; the author’s restrained diction causes the reader to genuinely feel the unspoken, deep emotions which the characters express, often through what they do not say as they face their trials and joys. The straightforward yet imagistic style of the book also goes along with the setting and flavor of the native culture, since the people there, in addition to living without most of the material comforts of modern life, are without guile. I Heard the Owl Call My Name also speaks to what is best in us, pointing our souls towards the spiritual values which lie deep within through its symbolic language, borrowed from the natural world.
The novel uses foreshadowing and contrasts between two disparate cultures in organic ways which function as a tapestry, weaving together plot development, theme, and tone to connect the reader emotionally with the characters and their culture. From the first page wherein we a learn that the young pastor is unaware that he is dying, until the closing chapters in which the earthly and spiritual pilgrimages of Mark come to a fitting and moving conclusion, the reader accompanies Mark on his journey towards Love.
The perfect novel is a vessel which contains a unity of subject, thought, and spirit. The perfect novel inspires and rejuvenates our souls, calling us towards the transcendent. The perfect novel leaves us with the sense that we are more complete than we were before we read it; we are more than the sum of our parts; we more keenly know and feel our connections to humanity and to our spiritual roots.
The previous article in this series discussed how to choose evidences for an essay. You must have solid “facts” or examples from your texts in order to begin to interpret a text, and your choices must be based on what you’ve decided to write your essay about, specifically. That’s the most challenging part of finding your evidences.
Learning how to write analysis and interpretation means learning how to think independently. The most difficult thing – the key skill — in learning to interpret and understand texts is to learn how to dig into the specific diction of that work. This article addresses how to interpret literary texts.
Before analyzing a work, first find the most important theme, and it’s essential to know that a theme is more than an idea and cannot be described in just one word. Rather, a theme, as the “message” of the text, is a phrase which expresses a deep meaning of this message. For instance, in The Fellowship of the Ring, a powerful theme is that true love means being willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others, even to the point of death. For an example of how to analyze a poem, see my article on Robert Frost’s poem, “Frost Thoughts: Poetry with a Punch.”
Interpreting and writing about a short poem is the best way to learn how to analyze a work, both because a student can focus on a specific, focused amount of text, and because the diction of a poem is concentrated and powerful. Studying poetry is the most helpful technique for learning about the various types of literary terms/devices have (metaphor, alliteration, etc.), the real focus should be on recognizing this figurative language and then explicating how it informs the text. It’s a skill which is gained through careful, aware reading and practice. And unlike what many believe about the art of analyzing literature, it’s a rich experience to learn the “secrets” of understanding literature: it is the key to unlocking the mysteries of writing which enlighten us, fulfill us, and help us grow and learn.
In this article I discuss how specificity and detail are your answers to solving the “mystery” of writing. The example I use is that of an academic essay, but specificity applies to all writing genres.
The Sherlock Holmes analogy springs to life again as we talk about the heart of your writing. If you are Holmes investigating 1) You look for evidences and develop a theory about how the crime was committed; 2) You use a theory and look for evidences. Solving a mystery is both analytic and synthetic (inductive and deductive).
When you write, your topic/subject is your mystery. Your topic must be specific, just as Holmes solves particular riddles. He doesn’t think about mysteries in general; in fact, when he has no particular mystery to solve, he falls into deep depression and resorts to taking cocaine!
Instructors often say, “Don’t be too specific, and don’t be too vague,” but most people should focus on the last part of that advice, as the challenge of writing is usually to clarify your point, not broaden it. So let’s say you want to write an academic essay about Frodo, based on The Fellowship of the Ring. You’ve decided that the theme you focus on is that of his self-sacrifice, so you write a thesis which asserts that the Shire is saved because Frodo is willing to take on the sacrificial quest of destroying the ring. Great–you’ve solved one aspect of the mystery! Now what?
You need to find “clues” from the text–evidences–which support your claim. For instance, Frodo accepts the dangerous assignment when Gandolf asks him to do it. Second, he continues the quest even when the Black Riders attempt to stop him and turn him into a wraith. And you continue on, finding other times when Frodo continues the journey. You can even go into times when he almost gives in to the power of the Ring, as these are also ways in which he would have given up the quest. (If you are writing an academic essay, be sure to use brief quotes from the text as your “evidences.”)
How do you determine whether an evidence/clue is an important one or not? Sherlock often runs across “red herrings” in his investigations: evidences which seem relevant to the crime, but are not. While it’s easier to determine what textual evidences which relate to your topic than it is for Sherlock to sort his clues out, it can sometimes be challenging to decide which are important.
Choosing the best textual evidences takes judgment and effort. First, find all of the examples you think are important. Then review them and choose only the ones you think are the strongest: do they push your thesis forward? Do they cause the reader to make deeper connections between your point and the text? How do your evidences help the reader to “see” the point you are making? Always loop back to your thesis and reassess as you flip back and forth between thinking about how powerfully your evidences develop your thesis and rereading the thesis. As with detective work, your strongest evidences will lead you to the strongest results!
With point #4 I investigate the pros and cons of outlining, as determiners of personality types!
There are two kinds of people: those who outline, and those who don’t. That’s how I see the world, anyway, based on my decades of experience in teaching
students of all ages how to write. Most writing programs do require students to learn how to outline, and it’s a necessary skill. But not all students write well by starting with an outline. Here’s why–how can I know beforehand what the details of my paper will be? If you think about it, you don’t know when you begin to write what you are specifically going to write about, so how can you outline information you haven’t thought out yet?
The idea of an outline is that you will lay out a map, or blueprint, for your essay. This makes perfect sense, but writing isn’t like that. If we could neatly write an outline, in order, the minute we wanted to write a paper, we would hardly need to write the essay at all because the order and development of the concepts would be obvious! However, some people do work best with outlines because they find that having all of their “ducks in a row” before they begin to write actual sentences is most helpful.
Others of us work backwards and find that we need to write down our ideas in a somewhat random manner and then put them in order, once we consider how they relate to each other. We find it much easier to “see” their relationships before they are listed in a formal manner.
You are probably familiar with an alternative method which has been developed, called by various names: the “cluster,” “spider diagramming,” “bubble,”
“mind map,” or “brainstorming” method. This is a helpful approach for people who are intimidated by outlining or whose thought processes don’t work well for outlining, especially when first learning to write. Another method of helping students develop the frameworks for their essays is to simply have them write their ideas down using phrases, either on paper or typed on the computer, leaving a space or line between ideas. Then they can number them, circle them, etc., with arrows going from one to another – whatever works for them, in order to get the ideas ordered. From there they can make an outline fairly easily.
The Jane Schaffer method of teaching writing, which is the method I use, is a wonderful way to bring in outlining through the side door. It gives students a “place to hang their hats” without constraining them to develop complex outlines, yet they really are outlining their essays organically. The difference is that as they develop their essays they think conceptually about categories, integrating their content logically as they progress. You can find my article about the Schaffer method at https://writetothink.blog/the-writing-process/.
As I say to my students: Writing is structured, but it’s not formulaic. It’s analytical, but it’s also synthetic. It’s the development of logical thought, not just the explication of it. Write to think!