Early British Literature

Description

subject is British literature assignment instruction: Who is a hero according to Campbell’s definition? Beowulf for sure. But what about Gawain and any character from Shakespeare? Why has the classic notion of hero changed? Why, especially in a novel, is it difficult to attribute the classic qualities of a hero to any one character? In thinking of the “hero” you want to consider the notion of character – that’s philosophical as well as psychological. There are two handouts on character analysis. You should also look at the handout called Group Questions in the General Handouts module – there are useful cultural theories in there that could generate ideas for writing. Your first assignment will be a reading of the epic Beowulf, the Romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. While plot devices are important to grasp, you might want to spend more time focusing on character needs, motives, and desires. You will notice a big difference in the characterization of people across all three works, and much of this has something to do with literary trends and development. For example, if you were to write about the consciousness of Beowulf, you’d be hard pressed. However, you could certainly write about the consciousness of Portia, from the play, more easily. The first writing assignment will compare/contrast three characters from these works. You could focus on one character more than the others, but demonstrate that you have a good understanding of the meaning and significance of the works. Essay should * COMPARE/CONTRAST. 3 characters from “Beowulf”, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, and” the Merchant of Venice “. Develop a theme based controlling idea (thesis). Do not list traits (do not summarize plots) – find a thematic idea that brings together (forms the basis of a cp./ct. for) 3 different characters. Use Norton Introductions for backgrounds – but only to elucidate your controlling idea: do not summarize background texts. Demonstrate knowledge of literary devices. You may focus on one character, but demonstrate that you have read and have full understanding of all three texts by pulling in two other characters for the comparison and contrast

Some notes about Beowulf, inspired in part by the Introduction to his translation of the poem, by Seamus Heaney (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000), but coming from other sources as well. (Quotations come from Heaney’s Introduction.)

 

Modern readers have no points-of-reference with B., as they might with the Iliad.

 

Oral tradition: spoken to an aristocratic (even clerical) and therefore courtly audience.

 

You might want to consider the role of women in the poem. (They are called peace-weavers at one point.) This is a masculine world, but the women in the poem do not appear to be mere objects. Consider, e.g., Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, who graces the banquet given by the king upon B.’s arrival. Queen Hygd (Hygelac’s queen) as generous (the antithesis of the legendary wicked queen Modthryth who’d kill her own kinsmen). At the end of the poem, during B.’s funeral, note how the poet mentions an unidentified Geat woman who sings out in grief (not merely for the death of B. but for the anticipation of a tragic future without him).

 

The poem seems segmented, with the main narrative interrupted by 2 interludes. One interlude comes between lines 883-914 and the other between lines 1070-1158. This is where the court poet speaks: first he praises B. by telling a story about Sigemund defeating a dragon (which parallels B’s battle for the Danes and foreshadows B.’s fatal dream-like encounter on his home turf against a dragon). The second so-called digression deals with fighting between Danes and Frisians: a society that is bound by honor in bloody deeds to avenge kin (either by exacting revenge with death or getting wergild, payment). This too has bearing on the main thrust of the poem: cycle of strife. You might want to consider how, near the end of the poem (l.2430 et seq.) B. recalls how his uncle king Hrethel raised him, and how one of the king’s sons accidentally killed the other – the king’s lament since no one could avenge the death.

 

Post-modern critics see the digressions in the poem as illustrating the very discontinuities (and therefore lack of balance) such a warrior society would experience. In fact, the end of the poem does not seem to exhibit any closure but opens the poet and reader to anxiety (concerning the loss of B. and the future of the Geats).

 

Other post-modernists point out how the poem is not entirely narrative, but consists of many different genres, such as sermons, elegies, and panegyrics. (Consider the lyric Hrothgar says to B., beginning around line 1758, dealing with the fragility of life.) You might also want to consider the role of Unferth, the joker of Hrothgar who tries to belittle B. (though he is rebuked by B.).

 

Deals with 3 nations: Swedes, Geats, Danes (though Swedes on the sidelines). Danes: here the physical threat comes from within, i.e., from the marshes where Grendel lives. Yet the Danes, who have recently defeated the Heathobards, can expect retaliation from without. The Geats: in the end they are left without a ruler, a very somber ending. The Swedes: they are most likely (among others) going to attack the Geat lands since B. is dead and there is no ruler.

 

The Swedes, although they play no direct part in the poem, have a “history and destiny” that is clearly on the borderlands of the narrative: in some ways, then, they are part of the conflicts as presented. Near the end of the poem (c. 2464) B. renders accounts of wars between the Geats and Swedes.

 

Feuds and conflicts: consider how Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru has been pledged as a peace offering to Ingeld of the Heathobards. B. tells Hygelac (much later) that this will end only in bloodshed (stirring up ancient strife). Yet after Hygleac’s death, B. is the one who settles a feud when Heardred, the son, is implicated in Swedish conflicts and killed (and so B. inherits the kingship).

 

The lord’s hall as a literal and figurative refuge for the warriors: where they can eat, drink, tell/hear war stories; where old warriors mingle with young, where they young hear of and fantasize about heroic glory; where they can boast (and get away with it); bonds among the men are formed. These halls (Heorot and Hygelac’s) represent the values of this warrior society. Note that gifts are often exchanged.

 

Note how genealogy is important to the prestige/recognition of the warriors and heroes. (In a figurative sense this is important, seen when B. tells Hrothgar about his exploits – to verify his heroism.)

 

There is also the Christian value system represented in the poem, apparently from the perspective of the poet (an Englishman looking into a distant past of forebears preceding their movement to Briton). Heaney says there is (in this way) a certain “detachment” of the poet from some pagan elements (such as idol worshipping – the Danes look to heathen gods for help). While there might be some regret on the part of the poet (in terms of the pagan past), there is nevertheless and admiration of their nobility.

 

Beowulf himself has three struggles (Heaney’s word is agons): Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Note that in his encounter with Grendel, B. refuses to use a weapon; when he fights Grendel’s mother, he resorts, in part, to using his hands (before finding a mighty sword, the blade of which melts). A sword fails B., too, in his encounter with the dragon at the end.

 

The 3 struggles take place in 3 archetypal places: “the barricaded night-house, the infested underwater current, and the reptile-haunted rocks of a wilderness.”

 

Often in the poem we see the word fate: consider in this poem fate in the context of the “code of loyalty and bravery.” Warriors are bound to seek glory, whether for clan, or king, or nation.

 

At the end of the poem, when B. encounters the dragon, this sense of fate is strong. Whereas Grendel and his mother seem appropriate matches to the young B., where the hero can exhibit his strength, this is not quite so with the much older B. meeting the dragon. Grendel and his mother are lively, alive, and quite physical; the dragon has been immured in his mound for ages (surrounded by gold): the dream-like power of the dragon seems inevitable for B. Compared with Grendel, the dragon is much more other-worldly. While Grendel and his mother impinge on B. from the outside (literally and figuratively – consider how he did not necessarily have to go to Heorot), the dragon, however, is not only part of B.’ homeland but also seems to be waiting for him.

 

Heaney says that B. “must measure” himself against the dragon in ways that he does not have to with Grendel: the dragon is some kind of shadowy knowledge for B. Consider how, in his fight with the dragon, B.’s thanes desert him – but for Wiglaf (who admonishes the cowards) Wiglaf and B. destroy the dragon, but upon B.’s. demise, Wiglaf foresees renewed wars with Swedes and others, a tragic outcome (figured not only by death of B. but by cravenly thanes). Apparently, the Swedes, most likely, will avenge the death of Ongentheow (l. 2922), killed by two Geat thanes of Hygelac.

Joseph Campbell.  The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  1949.  Princeton: PUP, 1968.

 

 

The Adventure of the Hero: Call, Departure/Separation, Initiation, Return.

 

The hero survives a test; more at C.G. Jung in the emphasis on meaning in life because of the inevitability of death.  “The hero is the man of self-achieved submission” (16).

 

“[…] the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside […]” (17).

 

“The hero […] is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms” (20).

 

“The passage of the mythological hero may be over-ground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.  This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster […]” (29).

 

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (30).

 

The hero does not necessarily bring back enlightenment “[…] but only the way to Enlightenment” (fn, 33).  Raises questions of hero’s re-integration locally, universally; the hero returns as …?  The hero returns with …?

 

“The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world” (40).

 

The hero’s call “[…] signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown” (58).

 

“The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades” (82).

 

For the hero, “[…] instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again” (91).

 

“The hero is the one who comes to know” (116).

 

“Where the usual hero would face a test, the elect encounters no delaying obstacle and makes no mistake” (173).

 

Concerning the return, “[…] the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom […] back into the kingdom of humanity […]” (193).

 

“The hero adventures out of the land we know into darkness; there he accomplishes his adventure, or again is simply lost to us, imprisoned, or in danger; and his return is described as a coming back out of that yonder zone.  Nevertheless—and here is a great key to the understanding of myth and symbol—the two kingdoms are actually one.  The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know.  And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero.  The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness” (217).

 

Dilemma of returning hero.  “Why re-enter such a world?  Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss” (218).

 

“The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become, because he is” (243).  The hero emerges to face a known test; “[…] the champion not of things become but of things becoming […]” (337).

 

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