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a bard had the daunting vocation of memorizing texts passed down from previous bards (which often contained historical content) and then presenting these in song to audiences throughout the land.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.
I’m sure you are aware of the classic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. What you may not yet know is that recently this important book has been banned in quite a few schools and school districts because, like Huckleberry Finn, it contains characters who use an extremely offensive racial epithet. But that’s not what this article is about: I want to talk about other aspects of the book that parents of younger students may not know about which make it inappropriate for younger students to study, no matter what your views on the banning of books.
Some home school programs, including online, require early middle school students to read this book: I know because I was required to teach it at this grade level. Over those years I developed the strong opinion that this book should not be taught until at the very youngest, the 9th grade. People think of the book as having the theme of the evils of racism, and while this is true, the plot revolves around the case of Tom Robinson, an African-American falsely accused of raping a white girl, and also includes a scene of an attempted lynching. While there are no directly graphic descriptions in the book (according to today’s standards), implications in the text about these incidents, especially during the courtroom scene, naturally pique students’ interest, causing them to want to know “more” about the repugnant details alluded to.
It’s possible that you’ve never read the book (somehow I got all the way through receiving a master’s degree without having done so), or perhaps if you did read it a long time ago, you don’t recall the details. It’s an important book–one of the most read American novels both here and throughout the world. Its nuanced yet honest consideration of the troubled history of the American South leaves the reader with a sense that there is hope that injustices of this society can be overcome through the goodness and the moral strength of brave individuals: As Atticus Finch says, “You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It is, in the end, an affirming and redemptive novel, a gem of the American canon, but it should be assigned to younger students with a judicious eye.
I plan to write an another article about Harper Lee’s brilliant appropriation in the novel of the southern mockingbird as her symbol for innocents who suffer injustices. If you haven’t read the novel recently, you might be enriched by doing so. You gain something new every reading.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus is a monster of a story. It incorporates the mores and tropes of the Romantic era in literature while pointing prophetically to the ethical scientific dilemmas of our own time. This much most of us know: In pride and a desire for importance, Dr. Frankenstein creates a nameless creature known only as “The Monster” out of the body parts of corpses, and through a vague sort of electrical process he animates the monster.
But unlike most 20th century movie portrayals, the original story is not a primitive horror film appealing to our base instinct of fear, but rather, a visionary and prophetic tale which imagines a horrificscenario in which man’s attempts to gain the powers of God result in the creation of a misshapen creature who retains the sensibilities and soul of a human being. Since all those he encounters find his visage viscerally repellent, The Monster cannot find happiness and satisfaction for the longings of his all-too-human soul. He aches for human companionship, including a wife and family, but those he meets reject him in both fear and disgust before he can reveal his compassionate, loving spirit to them.
So the story is both a psychological insight into a person who is rejected by society – an outsider – and a monolithic statement about the devastation which occurs when man tries to play God. As the plot progresses we trace The Monster through his agonies: he attempts many times to connect with others, but eventually the continuous rejection he experiences fosters a pain in his heart so great that his bitterness turns him towards hatred and a revenge so all-encompassing that The Monster becomes a murderer. He then seeks reparation from his creator for the very act of his creation, murdering Frankenstein’s best friend, his fiancé, and his brother when Frankenstein will not cooperate with his demand to create a wife/companion for him.
While Shelley did not foresee the specifics, she did accurately imagine the philosophies of the 20th and now 21st centuries, as many scientists now coldly glorify eugenics, create and destroy test tube babies, offer parents the choice of destroying unborn children because of their gender or perceived handicaps, and develop new life from harvested fetal cells. In short, she foresaw the philosophy of Hegel’s “Superman,” borne out first in the
Hitlerian Third Reich and in the policies of many “civilized” nations today. The fact that the full title of the first edition of her novel is Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus reveals the depth of her understanding of the ultimate consequences in a society which was already rejecting the spiritual and sacred meanings of what it means to be human. She did, indeed, predict the future.
The ancient desire for power – the power to be like the creator, and the ways in which it would be played out in our world today through misuse of the discoveries of the Enlightenment – is so mightily and uncannily portrayed in Frankenstein that it’s almost unbelievable. Shelley truly saw what would happen if we were to choose to believe that the material world is the seat of our being, replacing the beauty of the soul and the true sense of the creator’s natural order with a mythical “perfection” which cannot be attained in this world.
*Recommended: Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 movie, “Frankenstein,” which is faithful to the original story.
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.
A Land Remembered is a uniquely American epic—set in Florida, but reminiscent of the best of the Western histories and sagas. It reflects and retells the settling of Florida, incorporating stouthearted characters who survive swamp, jungle, hurricanes, and wild animals, to conquer the humid and often unfriendly Florida territory. The story also has themes redolent of the tales of Wild West: the arguments between those who want to fence the land and the earlier settlers who want the land left free and open; the fiercely independent spirits of those who dared to settle and conquer this hazardous, uncivilized land.
The tale covers 3 generations, beginning with Tobias MacIvey, the bold pioneer who first enters the Southern wilds, and continuing with his son Zech and then grandson Solomon. Each man represents (and furthers) a specific era in the development of Florida. Tobias, the patriarch, is the one most in tune with nature, as with his wife and baby he attempts to survive in the free, open lands while battling the elements. His attitude towards the Native Americans is one of friendly coexistence, and as his son Zech grows up, he inherits this attitude, and falls in love with a young Seminole woman—instead of choosing between her and the white woman he marries, he loves them both, thus symbolizing the tenuous “marriage” of the two cultures, and the influence of each upon the other.
The story also exhibits the ways in which this uncultured land, like the west, equalizes the races, as African-American ranch hand, “Frog” becomes part of the warp and woof of the MacIvey family. This primitive land, untouched by “culture,” providentially allows for all peoples to meet on a level plane, and they build the future together, rather than as master and servant. Florida is a new kind of “south.”
The grandson, Sol, chooses not to live on the land, but instead becomes a real estate developer, thus introducing us to the “new” Florida we know today: a land of entrepreneurs and people who, for the most part, do not live in the agrarian and ranching culture of those white people who previously populated the land. The story begins with a flashback as Sol, aged and dying, chooses to return to the cabin of his forefathers, leaving behind the life of luxury he has led, regretful that he has not kept the values of his father and grandfather. A Land Remembered is a profoundly “American” piece of literature in every way, genuine in its telling. It pulls powerfully at the spirits of those of us who love the pioneer character, with all of its bravery, faults, and independence of mind: the spirit which created America.⸸
“All I’m trying to tell you is to be strong. Don’t ever let nothing get you down. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to love, or to grieve when the thing you love is gone. Just don’t let it throw you, no matter how much it hurts.” ― Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered
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!