Friday, January 30, 2015

Gilgamesh and Beowulf

Just being old doesn't guarantee you a place in the canon. There are plenty of ancient texts -- the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the I Ching, or the Rig Veda, which are unlikely to appear in a list of "great" literature, though they are undoubtedly of great value.

The element missing from ancient texts such as these is narrative -- and without narrative it's hard for us to think of something as literature. The human desire for stories is at least as old as civilization itself, but early writing systems were used, at first, primarily for prayers and sacred texts -- and writing itself was often reserved to a priestly caste; the word hieroglyphics means 'priestly symbols.'

And yet, even when these ancient texts were the only written ones, oral tradition was filled with stories, stories that passed from mouth to ear to mouth through generations, without ever having been written down. Sometimes, at just the point when the oral tradition was fading, some scribe decided to write them down, and it's to these accidents of survival that we owe many of the world's earliest narrative texts, among them the Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf.

Gilgamesh is by far the older, dating to around 2000 B.C., which makes Beowulf, composed probably in the period from 500-600 A.D. and written down in the ninth century, quite 'young' by comparison. The idea of its being an 'epic' is a modern one; it might be better described as a cycle of legends; in the ancient clay tablets on which these legends survive, each has its own textual history. Which makes the adaptation in Kick's book, by Kevin and Kent Dixon, and which treats only one portion of the overall cycle, true to its sources (they have, in fact, tackled the entire epic in their own publications, organized by the 'tablets' on which it was recorded). Indeed, Gilgamesh has been adapted many more times, and in more media, than one might at first suspect.

Beowulf, unlike its epic forebear, exists in only one manuscript, which has survived both the nibbling of rats at its edges, and a fire which destroyed or damaged much of the Cotton collection of which it was a part. It encapsulates the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons, in which loyalty, bravery, and the generous giving of gold by warlords are the greatest good. Composed in pre-Christian times, it has had a veneer of Christian belief added to its text, but in the end, preserves what we might see as the fatalistic worldview of the Saxons: man's fate is foredoomed, his struggles here in life difficult, and his eventual destination unknown.The adaptation by Gareth Hinds treats only of one -- albeit pivotal -- episode in the tale: Beowulf's combat with the monster Grendel; compare it with a translation of the original here.

Do the Dixons discover something new in Gilgamesh? Does Hinds, with his wordless version, capture the essence of Beowulf's battle? That, dear readers, is up to you: write your comments below.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Of Can(n)ons and Curricula

The word "canon," as Robert Scholes notes, comes from the ancient Greek word κανών, denoted a hollow reed used as a measuring stick -- and thus contains both the notion of measurement as well as that of discipline ('spare the rod and spoil the child'). When, following the importation of gunpowder into Europe in the later medieval period, large guns were made that hurled missiles into the air, they became cannons, from the same root but a different route.

Literary canons, too, can be weapons in a war, a war of claims and counterclaims about which books are good -- or bad -- for students to read. Back in the Victorian era when public schooling was first established, there were a number of "set texts" -- texts that would be studied in order for students to be examined on them later -- which formed in a sense the first English canon. Among these, excerpts from the Bible were the most common, along with the inexpensive pamphlets produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Under later Victorian "reforms," spearheaded by the poet Matthew Arnold, a dab of imaginative literature was added: Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Milton's Paradise Lost, and the Tales of Maria Edgeworth (of Castle Rackrent fame). Arnold referred to these as the "mighty engine of literature in the education of the working classes" -- while at the same time lamenting the fact that much of its energy was wasted on merely getting pupils ready to read a newspaper. Arnold believed that great literature, even more than the Bible, had a 'civilzing' influence, and he was a hearty preacher of its gospel.

To these narrative works were later added a few selections of verse, which were to be memorized. The poetry of Felicia Hemans, particularly "Casabianca" (better known by its first line as "The boy stood on the burning deck"), along with her "The Homes of England," led the list, along with a selections from Shakespeare, Bacon, Pope, Byron, and Lamb (one can look over the entire list in Walter Low's 1876 compilation A Classified Catalogue of Educational Works). And yet, by the end of the century, literary works were once again disparaged in favor of more practical and "useful" books -- a trend which -- as with many Victorian educations notions (such as docking teachers's pay if their students did poorly on standardized tests) are being revived all over again today.

The effort to establish a single common canon of literature, however, never fully took hold at the elementary level; its time came at last with the boom in college attendance in the United States following WWII and the original GI Bill. The WW Norton company brought out its first Norton Anthology of English Literature in 1962, under the editorship of M.H. Abrams (who, amazingly, is still its 'editor emeritus' at the age of 102). You can, if you like, look over the original tables of contents for Volume I and Volume II, and (for comparison) those same volumes in the Ninth Edition used today. You may note that the 1962 edition has only one woman writer -- Katherine Mansfield -- among its 3000+ pages, while the ninth edition has 45; the first edition also had no writers of color, while the ninth has eight.

So who chooses what's in a canon? What falls out, and what comes in, and why? We should ask these questions as we approach Russ Kick's Graphic Canon, where the choices are entirely his. He has not been limited, of course, to British literature as is the Norton; the whole world is his oyster. Still, no choice is without its political dimensions, and there's no reason not to look at that aspect of his selections.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Welcome to English 122

Welcome to our Spring 2015 section of English 122, 'Literature and the Canon.'

Of course, you probably have one question: what exactly is a canon? The word goes back to the ancient history of the Catholic church, where it signified conformity to a rule or principle; Church law is known as "canon law." This sense was extended when, in the fourth century, councils met to determine which books would be considered authentic when it came to the Bible. We're not generally aware of it, but there were many candidates; in addition to the four 'canonical' Gospels, there were others -- the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and even a Gospel of Judas. The Apocalypse of St. John, now in every Bible, was one of a great many competing Apocalypses. Those others were rejected, although texts of many of them survive to this day.

Fast forward to the later half of the nineteenth century, when educators such as Matthew Arnold sought to devise a proper curriculum for national schools. They looked at books in terms of the excellence of the writing, their having stood the 'test of time,' and their value in inculcating proper British values. It's no surprise, then, that Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton came out on top, nor that the works of women and minorities were neglected. The list began at once to evolve, and many names that were once familiar on school lists -- John Greenleaf Whittier, Felicia Hemans, James MacPherson, and even Carl Sandburg -- eventually vanished. New names came in their place: Margaret Cavendish, Olaudah Equiano, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Rhys. In the United States, the WW Norton company issued its first Anthology of English Literature in 1962; this book has been through nine editions since then, each subtracting and adding different texts to the core of "generally accepted" ones.

So, unlike the Church's canon, the secular literary canon evolves, changes, alters over time -- and that's as it should be. This semester, we'll be using a rather different form of this canon: Russ Kick's three-volume Graphic Canon. Kick's selections generally follow those of the anthologies and lit. courses of today, though there are a few surprises. And, in its turn, by translating these canonical texts into graphical ones, it is a collection of adaptations, an interpretative canon, one which makes judgements and invites them, and one which embraces a diverse range of styles. It's my hope that, among them, each of you will find provoking texts, provoking images, that will spur thought and discussion as we went our way through the classics from Gilgamesh to Jonathan Franzen.