Beowulf: The First English Hero

Herot Hall

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a bard had the daunting vocation of memorizing texts passed down from previous bards (which often contained historical content) and then presenting these in song to audiences throughout the land.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.

What We Owe the Victorians

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.

Victorian browsing (video courtesy sandmanbooks.com)


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 9 Lives of Books

The Book Arch Today

The recent upsurge in recycling has inspired a creative new art form: book arches. My son-in-law crafted the first book arch at Sandman Books in Punta Gorda, FL (owned by my daughter Heidi and son-in-law Scott). The original version of his arch represented a Roman aqueduct. Soon after Scott completed the project, other bibliophiles followed suit, including those at The Last Bookstore in L.A., another iconic bookstore.

It took Scott a month of 9-10 hour days to create the sculpture, and I happened to be visiting during the first two weeks of the project. My youngest daughter Harmony and I spent hours bringing him cart-loads of books which had previously been destined for destruction. These rescued tomes were installed on a plywood frame, and using tools such as an air compressor and staple gun, my ingenious son-in-law pioneered a new artistic genre.

When Sandman Books expanded a couple of years ago Scott moved the arch, taking the opportunity to enhance the piece, including lighting it with a favorite old 16mm movie projector given to him by my father. Hanging nearby is Scott’s newest piece: a “book dragon” suspended from the ceiling with chains. These multi-media creations function as a popular backdrop for visitors’ selfies and special events such as author signings, engagement photos, weddings, story times, poetry readings, and history talks. 

Many artists today choose to work in mixed media, including 3-D mosaics made of antique china, crystal, jewelry, and other salvaged materials. Now added to the list: books!
 

Kitty-Wan Kenobi, the bookstore cat, surveying his world from on high.

The World’s Most Famous Diary: Robinson Crusoe, the First 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 Alexander_Selkirk_Statue smallershipwrecked 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 rob prayingtaken 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 sighting smallerinstances 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.

Works Cited:
http://www.britannica.com

The Real Winnie-the-Pooh

It would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t appreciate the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, but I do have a question for you: Which Winnie-the-Pooh do you know?

Pooh and Tigger confer

Do you know only the cute cartoon Pooh Bear whose facile, happy-go-lucky visage traverses the screen in classic Disney cartoons? If so, you may want to become familiar with the original Winnie-the-Pooh whose seemingly dense but truly thoughtful proclamations speak to the depths of a child’s heart. His friend Tigger is not the hyper, bouncy-flouncy character he is portrayed as in the films or Disney versions in their little children’s picture books. You can even see these contrasts through Milne’s drawings. For instance, Tigger’s visage and persona are not goofy: he is joyous, and there’s a difference. He may have silly aspects to him but like the others who inhabit the wood, he and his friends are sober-minded, genuine characters who express real questions and observations about their world. For instance, Eeyore is the personification of the side of us which thinks the worst; he reveals to children how others see pessimism, but he also “allows” them to feel this sad side of life. Children with a melancholy bent may find comfort in knowing Eeyore while at the same time recognizing that there is more to life than the discouragement he personifies. Christopher Robin’s living stuffed animals are only stuffed in the sense that they are full of the wonderment and curiosity of God’s children.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet discuss; Christopher Robin, Tigger, and others read.

The inhabitants of The Hundred Acre Wood reflect Milne’s trust in the insights of children and also, the puzzlement they express about the larger reality, for they do not yet know the infinitude and the limits and of the world. They don’t know what bees can do; they don’t know what balloons cannot do. They don’t know that they may get stuck in a knothole in a tree. Unlike many children today, they (and Christopher Robin) have occasion to do a lot of waiting. They wait by their homes: they wait, and wait, and wait. And while they wait, they have the opportunity to think and we, their friends, get to hear their cogitations and ponder along with them. We especially get to know Pooh’s thoughts about that which he considers or does not understand as he navigates his way through a world he doesn’t comprehend but believes in.

The tone and atmosphere of Milne’s books are in stark contrast to the Disney movies. The stories are placid and meditative. They are slow-moving and polite. They focus on the interior lives of children. When Christopher Robin first bumps down the stairs with Pooh, he opens our eyes and returns us all to a world of childlike wonder where the imagination is celebrated with bliss, freedom, and a sense of rightness. The real Winnie-the-Pooh belongs alongside The Tale of Peter Rabbit as one of the best children’s/adults’ stories of all time.

*You can find the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A. A. Milne in any good bookstore or online. There are several books of stories and a book of poems for younger children, also, entitled Now We are Six.

Redemptive Reading in Times of Seclusion

For the present, most of us have more “leisure time” than usual and this lifestyle might more truthfully be called “mandatory leisure time.” It might be tempting to watch more Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc., but an alternative is to set aside some time for reading great literature together. I like to read literature which is redemptive, myself. This doesn’t always mean that a book has a “happy ending,” but perhaps in our present homebound state it would be most uplifting to read books which conclude joyfully! Some good modern literature does not qualify but much 19th century literature does.

If you haven’t read many works of the masterful Charles Dickens other than, perhaps, A Christmas Carol or A Tale of Two Cities – they are treasures awaiting you! You will find that his other novels are page turners filled with memorable characters who beckon you into their worlds. His works were originally set up to be read by chapter, out loud. I have found that A Tale of Two Cities is much less accessible for young people than his other novels, and while I appreciate the allegory of A Christmas Carol, it is not in the category of his best works.

Dickens and other authors of his era wrote weekly “chapters” and submitted them in a “serial” way to the magazines, periodicals, and newspapers of the day. People read these novels aloud the way we watch television today – their stories brought much delight and were a mainstay of households in both Britain and America. Families would gather together in the evenings to hear the latest “chapter” of the book together, laughing or crying at the exploits and complications in the lives of their favorite characters. In our present situation it might make for an enriching alternative to binge-watching your favorite tv show, or at least – be a pleasant addition to it. 

The Truth of Fiction

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 Great Grey Owl 2and 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.

©Cindy Lange, MA
integritasacademy.com

Are You Classically Bound?

How to Transmit Classical Education Today

As I began my own live online school, many thoughts came to mind. My involvement in the resurgence of classical education over recent decades has taught me much, both about education and about human nature. And over the past eight years, I was privileged to have been an instructor in two popular online schools, and what a rich education that has been!

Primarily, a cynicism I had developed about American families through my previous teaching experiences–in particular regarding religious and (fellow) homeschoolers, has been replaced by a sense of hope about the future of America and her upcoming generations. Through the hundreds of students and parents I have “met” through teaching live online, I have discovered that there is a deep hunger for genuine learning, framed specifically by the historical Judaeo-Christian tradition which affirms that there IS such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”– that while many in our society wander in the wilderness seeking without finding, truth is, so to speak, in their backyard, if they care to dig it up. back yard truth

Teachers who want to communicate truth have a heavy burden, for several reasons. First, many of us have had to go back and learn what it means to hold a classical worldview before we can teach it, for we were born at the beginning of our present dark age. Second, although there have been some significant books written about how to re-appropriate the classical canon, we still need to suss this out for ourselves: How do we transmit what it means to be classically educated in this society? As with apophatic theology, which is the defining of God by what he is not,  genuine learning might best be described, firstly, by what it is not: it is not a checklist of books, and it is not a codification of learning “methods,” and it is not the memorization of facts.

The Classical World, Marketing & the American Educational Disposition

More apophatic statements: Classical learning is not about grades, or competition in the marketplace: rather, it is a path to enlightenment. Students develop the ability to think for themselves; they grapple with difficult moral dilemmas; they strive for the good and the beautiful; they seek virtue as they engage in, as Mortimer Adler framed it, “the great conversation.”

Another apophatic assertion: if you are listening to videos as a replacement for humanities courses, you are not engaging in that conversation, because just covering the “facts” of the western canon doesn’t teach you how to think; videos have their place, judiciously used, in the classroom, but recorded courses cannot duplicate the experience of interacting, debating, questioning, and growing that occurs among students. The “great conversation” cannot be conducted without live people who engage within the Socratic environment. If you are attempting to become an independent thinker, Apophatic 1recordings of this sort will not help, no matter how many so-called “classical” schools market them as a learning tool. What they really are is a way for greedy school owners to make a lot of money without having to pay to engage real teachers in classrooms in real time, with human students, while dealing with all of the attendant problems that come with negotiating with embodied people, not “virtual” life.  Schools which provide such videos in place of genuine learning should, at the very least, delete the word “classical” from their marketing and their vocabulary. Let us strive, on our classical journey, to be honest with ourselves and be sure that we do not take shortcuts which are, in fact, wanderings in the educational wilderness.

So students (and teachers, and parents) must first learn how to distinguish the good and the beautiful from the deceitful salesmanship of our present American society, because a classical education is about finding the good and the beautiful, and learning how to love them. This is difficult, and it takes a kind of disciplined effort which is often interrupted (sometimes necessarily) by the distraction of test scores and college requirements, and significantly but unnecessarily, by the slick marketing of some schools which present themselves as classical but all too often are really just repackaged versions of the bureaucratic public school system which has developed in this country; a system which provides false formulaic answers to the nagging question which rightly besets all of those called to the vocation of teaching: How do I pass on to others what it means to think for oneself? And this will be the foremost question for upcoming devotees of genuine classical learning: how to distinguish between and among schools which use the word “classical” as an appeal to gain certain clientele, and those which rightly and truly practice the classical way: that of teaching students to think for themselves in the light of Truth.  (May 2017)

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Cindy C. Lange, MA
http://www.integritasacademy.com

Integritas Book Original