The first English literature text is the exciting epic poem, Beowulf. It was written in Old English, so it is not readable by most of us in its original form.
Unlike the Homeric epics, Beowulf incorporates a Christian worldview. Wonderful translations of the text have been produced and it is hard to choose which one to study. I use the J. R. R. Tolkien version in our Underclassmen course because I like the “flow” of the story as he has translated it. But other translations are also excellent and each has its strong points. The narrator of the story is a “bard.” Traditionally, a bard had the daunting vocation of memorizing texts passed down from previous bards (which often contained historical content) and then presenting these in song to audiences throughout the land. Usually a bard had a small harp or lyre which he played as he told and sang the great epic tales.
Set around the year 500 A.D. but written a few centuries later, the story of Beowulf is by an unknown British author. It takes place in two Nordic countries, though: roughly, today’s Denmark and Sweden. Like early epic poetry Beowulf does not rely upon rhyme. Instead, alliteration, repetition, litotes (a form of understatement) and the kenning are devices which are incorporated in the meter of this fascinating work.
An interesting instance of a kenning in the text is the “whale-road,” which is a name for the ocean because the majestic whales follow specific routes as they travel seasonally. The word “road” is an expansive image which gives a sense of the rhythm of life in the sea, but it also implies that man, too, conducts himself here and depends upon the sea for his livelihood. The ocean is not just an unknown, vague arena, but rather, a defined space where creatures live their God-given lives. The description even implies that we humans carry on our own lives in a similar, patterned manner as that of the animals. There is a rhythm: a sense of dignified continuity established by God. The sea is a place of goodness and blessing, a rich part of the blessed tapestry of creation. As Psalm 107 says in verses 23-26, “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.”
I have only touched on a couple of aspects of this elemental and compelling story. Beowulf deserves its place in the annals of the heroic epic and its assignation as the first English literature text. This fascinating adventure and its intriguing hero, with his strengths and weaknesses, lays the foundation for English literature and gives insight into the Anglo-Saxon roots of the British cultural experience.
It’s odd for us to consider now, but until the 19th century the novel was considered by most to be a creation which was, at the very least, a waste of one’s time, and by many, an evil invention. The reasoning behind this aversion to fiction was that because the stories did not really occur, they were a form of “lying.” It is likely that this mindset arose from the attitudes of our more extreme Puritan forefathers; this view was most likely further confirmed by some of the rather scandalous early novels published pre-19th century.
Whatever the reason or reasons, it took the genius of the Victorian novelists to give the world the epiphany that a well crafted novel is truth with a capital “T.” Like the rich metaphorical literature of The Old Testament, the parables of Jesus, allegories such as Pilgrim’s Progress, and the symbolic nature of poetry, novels reveal truths to us about the world, human nature, and ultimately, ourselves, in fresh new ways which connect with the soul and spirit through “real” story. So thank you Charles Dickens, The Brontës, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Joseph Conrad, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and the many, many others who broke through the veil and brought us the gift of the novel.
The first novel, Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in Britain, was published in 1719 and next to the Bible is the most published book in history. It was inspired by the life of a Scottish man, Alexander Selkirk, an officer in the British navy who was shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific by his captain and survived there for about a year and a half before being rescued by pirates. (You can find a statue of him in Fife, Scotland.) He was incorrigible and probably did not have the redemptive experience which the fictional Robinson Crusoe has.
The novel is composed in the form of a journal wherein Crusoe recounts in detail how he survives and is converted to a holy Christian life through his reading of the copy of the Bible he has found in the shipwreck, and eventually meets his friend Friday. It seems to me that this revelatory tale of one man’s conversion to faith may be the template for the religious tradition which blossomed forth later on of the personal “testimony,” where church members (usually Protestant) stand up and confess the details of how they came to faith. As far as I know, this tradition is peculiarly British and American, which is why I ponder this possibility. The novel is also rife with allusions to biblical stories and topics, keeping continuity with the trajectory of previous English language works.
Robinson Crusoe shifted the trajectory for how a myriad of great authors would write. It affected the future of our cultural understanding of what it means to be an individual, and stands in line with the great Western works which have taken us from classical times when individuals and their stories were viewed primarily as a part of the group, a cog in the wheel of their culture, to a time when each person as seen as “a world in himself” to be investigated, understood, and affirmed.
While it is true that the story is rather long-winded, given the fact that Defoe was inventing an entirely “novel” genre of literature the book is astounding. The first person narrative by Robinson himself gives a personal tone to the story which works well in concert with the major theme of the work, which is that of Crusoe’s slow repentance from a corrupt life to that of a holy and prayerful Christian. The tale imagines what it would be like to be stranded with no distractions and nothing except a few items, completely alone with only oneself and God.
The highly personal nature of this first novel and its deep dive into the state of the protagonist’s soul set the stage for novels to follow: they would be stories about individuals, but these would reach beyond the particular characters, expanding the meaning of their experiences to exemplify instances of the universal themes of life and morality as worked out in the lives of people and the society surrounding them. Defoe’s choice of the “journal” as his vehicle for telling the tale also set the stage for what became known as the epistolary novel, which would consist of a series of either letters or journal entries, commonly interspersed with narration by the letter writer, or possibly, by another narrator who is telling that person’s story.
The possibilities are endless: a narrator might “discover” the letters of a person from another era in an old attic, or might by chance find the diary of a person whose story otherwise would not have been known, or known as it truly happened. A recent renaissance of the epistolary novel has included elements such as time travel, parallel worlds, and other innovative tropes. Thanks to the ingenious mind of Daniel Defoe the novel lives on, always new, rebirthed and reimagined by countless writers who entertain and inspire us with their innovative characters and stories.
In the homeschooling arena there are two distinct camps: those who believe in highly structured education (often labeled “classical”) and the “unschoolers” who push against the strictures of what seems to them to be a soul-crushing pedagogy. Both have their points but there’s a third way. Since children’s souls and minds are meant to be just as unified as those of adults, it’s up to us to give them instruction which fulfills their emotional well-being while simultaneously guiding them into how to learn and love to learn.
We all know that stuffing children’s minds full of facts is not the way to feed their souls. Rather, our constant commitment is to focus on how to help them enjoy learning so that they naturally and gently fold the facts they learn into the wider, larger scheme of their lives and environments. It’s not an easy job to pass on a love of learning, but as I contemplate starting another school year I remind myself that all children have a natural love of life and a curiosity about the wonders of the rich world surrounding them. There is much truth to the quote that learning is “caught, not taught”; as adults we are motivated by inspiration, and it’s the same for our students.
Learning in peace is the third way. Especially when it comes to the literary canon, the adage “quality, not quantity” is applicable. The point of the humanities is to learn how to generalize truths and incorporate them in our lives and society. This is particularly true with literature. Truly reading and appreciating literature is a spiritual experience wherein students ponder and enjoy the characters, plots, and themes they encounter. Whenever possible they should have time to read in leisure rather than rush frantically through a mass of texts. As they grow older students will learn how to take in and integrate more knowledge while retaining the sense of peace and appreciation engendered in them when they were younger. They will become educated in the deepest and most genuine sense for they will be equipped to seek the virtuous “pursuit of happiness” the founding fathers of the United States understood to be the highest calling and fulfillment of the human experience.
Choosing the “best” novels is a nigh to impossible task, but at the top of my list is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The book both exemplifies and defies the genres of the Romantic Era and Gothic mystery; Brontë skillfully uses them as tropes to explore her complex, frustrating, challenging, lovable protagonist. The book is beloved by professors and “lay” readers alike because Jane’s inner life is so real that she not only lives in the pages of the book but with each subsequent reading she seems to grow and speak in a new way to the reader.
Brontë does a deep dive into so many themes through Jane’s persona that it’s impossible to explore them all in just one or two readings; topics such as the roles of women, freedom of the will, the consequences of arbitrary class distinctions and the challenges of living out moral values are presented with subtlety and believability.
If you think about it the plot of Jane Eyre is similar to that of an epic story, both externally and internally. From her bitter and angry response to the abuses she endures as an orphan to her metamorphosis into a woman of strength of will and deep principles, Jane’s journey takes the reader on a wild emotional ride. At first blush it might appear that the plot is a rather picaresque story as Jane moves from place to place encountering various people and experiences. But it is not: it is a plot unified by the development of Jane’s soul as she learns from her forbearing friends to replace her hardened heart with one overflowing with forgiveness and mercy. By the time she meets Rochester Jane’s fundamental Christian character is established, but her ethics are tried by the surprising moral choice with which she is presented. Like the “Crossing the Threshold” stage of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Cycle, she must emerge from the Valley of Death before finding her true and spiritual heroic status.
After the author has developed the superior character of Jane, presenting it in terms of Christian goodness and morality, Brontë brings in her antithesis, St. John Rivers. (It is not a coincidence that we discover he is a cousin, for he is her alter ego in many ways.) His zeal for religion is real but self-serving, and he himself says he is “ambitious.” It seems odd for a person who is consumed by ambition to want to dedicate his life to missionary work, but Brontë is bringing home the point that true religion must come from a humble servant’s heart. A life dedicated to others is not enough if it does not flow from a loving spirit, and contrarily, a soul which is can serve others anywhere.
The novel also follows both external and internal mysteries. Brontë uses these plot angles to spur the reader on, but the deeper significance of them is to highlight Jane’s spiritual development as she encounters the challenges of life. She could have responded to Rochester’s deceit with bitterness as she did when she had been wronged when younger, but instead she sees his plight and forgives him. She successfully crosses the great moral threshold of her life when she freely both loves and leaves him.
Jane’s desire for freedom – including the freedom to choose right – is prominent in the story. The motif of birds in cages and in flight comes to the fore when Jane says, “I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will.” Jane’s strength of will comes from her belief that she has the ability to choose her moral destiny and she will not, under any circumstances, relinquish that right.
~Check out our courses where we teach the classics of literature in unity with composition atintegritasacademy.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.
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.
In Lit and Comp Year 2 we investigate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and you can cut the symbolism with a knife! The scarlet letter Hester Prynne must wear (symbolizing her adultery); a simple rose bush; a child named Pearl; a freak meteor whose path makes the shape of an “A” which shoots through the sky at a climactic moment–these are just some of the enduring symbols which have entered annals of literature through this quintessentially American classic.
What are the results in the lives of those who live in a community–in this case, Puritan-era Boston–which emphasizes justice over mercy, punishment over compassion? What happens to individuals in a society which insists on its members revealing and repenting of their sins in public? Hawthorne invokes innovative symbolism in the spirit of the Romantic literary genre to delve into these questions.
Because an ancestor had been a judge at the Salem Witch
Trials, Hawthorne was ambivalent about his own Puritan heritage, and the novel
is his letter to the world expressing his angst. In fact, Hawthorne was so
shamed by the association that he added a “w” to the family name. His
internal conflicts come to life in The Scarlet Letter, as he delves into
the question of whether man’s law necessarily represents God’s law, and exactly
what the nature of God’s law is, through the lives of the inhabitants of
mid-17th century Boston.
In addition to telling a gripping tale, the book is prescient in that it reflects important conflicts and paradoxes yet to come in the American experience, especially the roles of women in society. However, the main theme revolves around the question of freedom of the will. Hawthorne places three adults in a situation where they each have the opportunity to choose their own futures freely, when they otherwise would not have had that option.
The “New World” functions seamlessly as the backdrop for the idea that there is a myriad possibilities, lives, and futures available to us. The three each choose very differently, and the reader can see their inner lives as they live out their choices–how their characters evolve or devolve. In short, the novel presents a psychological and sociological experiment: what are the dangers, benefits, and limits of the expression of the individual’s will? Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of our early American authors, but he qualifies as a forerunner to the psycho-therapist, too, based on content of The Scarlet Letter. If you have never read it, you may want to give it whirl!
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!
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.