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Second Assignment: Beowulf

One of the things that makes The Odyssey so important to read is the epic poetry format. This format is at the root of every good story ever told. Good writers, filmmakers, and storytellers know this format and use elements of it again and again. This brings us to our second assignment — Beowulf.

I’ve selected Beowulf for a variety of reasons. First of all a new film was released based on this story and although this is a lovely story I am skeptical in how it will translate to film. Secondly, it is widely considered one of the best epic poems ever written. You will recognize the same elements in Beowulf that you saw in the Odyssey.

While the Odyssey is set in Greece and deals with the ancient greeks and their traditions Beowulf is set in Denmark and is a story of the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf is a legendary hero – like Odysseus – and fights three great enemies; Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon. Like other fantastic heroes Beowulf is not of great physical strength – but he is smart and wisely uses the physical abilities he possesses.

You can buy a copy of Beowulf at any used bookstore and I would recommend buying a companion book -either Spark notes or Cliff notes. Why do I suggest this? Frankly, this is a difficult story to follow – much more difficult than the Odyssey. (The complexity of this story is the very reason why I DON’T think it will translate well to film). Once again, we are dealing with a story based in oral traditions – it was not physically written down until much later. As a result you are going to find a lot of repetition, many references to places and people that the orator assumes you know. A great example of this is in the bible – you know all of those “begets” well, it’s the same kind of pattern. So, be aware that as you read there may be large sections that seem repetitious, and that is because they are.

For those who are familiar with Beowulf but would like to read another great Medieval epic I would suggest “Song of Roland”. Honestly, I prefer Song of Roland to Beowulf. It is a bit easier to follow and is a great battle between the French Christians, led by Charlemagne and the Spanish Muslims (referred to as pagans in the story). It is the story about a wonderfully fallible hero who thinks he can do it all – his pride is the source of his downfall.

Both of these stories have either subtle or blatant references to Christianity – references that seem forced in a way. That is because many times they were. Since most of these stories were written down after the spread of Christianity, and since the only people who really knew how to read or write were Catholic priests they very kindly added Christian references.

The historical background of Beowulf is patchy at best. More than likely there was a person like Beowulf that existed but whether the battles unfolded like they did is questionable. This is very typical of medieval stories. Most of them have a kernel of truth but have been highly embellished as they have gone through the process of being retold orally again, and again.

This is a VERY high-level introduction but there it is. Enjoy your holiday and read Beowulf. I think next we may take on some of my favorite interpretations of hell.

First Assignment – The Odyssey

editor’s note: If you are a student writing a paper for school I am NOT a valid resource. Do not try to cite me. I am just another teacher with some VERY general ideas about “The Odyssey”. I would recommend you try the library. Do NOT try Wikipedia since it is truly more unreliable and inaccurate than me.

The first book we will be reading is “The Odyssey” by Homer. I would recommend reading a prose edition of this book instead of the original lyrical version. This will make it easier to understand. If you don’t already own a copy you can purchase a cheap paperback edition at almost any bookstore (used or new).

Homer didn’t actually write “the Odyssey” it was a story told in oral tradition but it is widely attributed to Homer. “The Odyssey” is the sequel to Homer’s “Iliad”. The story tells an adventurous tale of our hero Odysseus and his 15 year journey back home to Ithaca after winning the Trojan War.

Homer is considered the inventor of the Epic Poetry format. This format of writing has had an enduring influence on almost every narrative that has ever been written since the 8th century BC. There have been many modern day “epics” that have been written including “The Matrix”, “the Wizard of Oz”, “Lord of the Rings” and others. You will see that once you familiarize yourself with the elements of an epic poem you will see it in a variety of films and books.

The epic poetry format consists of the following elements:

  • Invocation: the poem usually begins with an invocation for the assistance of the muses and by asking an epic question which begins the story
  • In Media Res: the story starts in the middle of the action with preceding events being narrated later in the story
  • The hero: There is usually an extraordinary man with amazing qualities. Frequently he was born of common parents but rises to greatness
  • Hell: the hero will accomplish many notable deeds and will almost always make a trip to the underworld
  • Deux ex Machina: the God Machine. There is always some form of divine intervention
  • Epithet: a final statement or speech that summarizes the meaning of the story.

As you begin your reading journey I’m going to give you some things to think about.

  • What kind of leader was Odysseus? How would his leadership style compare to leaders of today?
  • The Greek/Roman gods were not known for their morality – this is a Judeo-Chrisitian concept. What role do the gods play in this story and how do we see divine intervention played out in modern epics?
  • Keep in mind the larger personal journey that Odyssesus is making – how does he change as the story progresses? What are his biggest weaknesses? How do these weaknesses prevent him from finding home?

Well, that should give you a good start. The in-person book club meets on July 28th but until that time please use this venue to begin sharing your ideas and questions with other participants. Feel free to invite others to contribute or to begin your own book club.

Welcome to the Classics


If you are here it is because you have been invited to participate in an online discussion regarding classic literature. I teach Western Literature at a local community college. However, I frequently have friends and/or family make the comment that they wish they could take my class because they would like to read the “Classics” but are intimidated at the idea of wading through the text without a navigator.

As a result I have started a book club with actual physical meetings. However, I had requests from people who said that they would like to participate in the book club “virtually”. So, I’ve started this blog.

This is how it will work. I will post a new reading assignment with some discussion questions/themes/concepts to get us started. I will monitor the comments and answer questions or suggestions as the discussion takes place. I will discuss what makes these works significant to the Western Canon of literature.

Enjoy! Make some new friends and please don’t be shy. Ask questions – there is nothing more inspiring than reading a good book and sharing it with other people.

Paganism And Other Modern Trends

I’ve been meaning to respond to a discussion my father recently posted on his blog “The Puntocracy”. My dad’s post was regarding a decision by some politicians to ban the Easter bunny, Easter eggs and other symbols of Easter. My father goes on to point out that their is nothing even remotely Christian about the Easter bunny or Easter eggs except that they are somehow randomly associated with the Christian celebration of Christ’s crucifixion and ascension. My father is right (of course), but he also touches on a subject that is very dear to my heart – paganism in modern society. Even though most pagans stopped practicing about two thousand years ago their influence is still heavily felt today.

First, some very high-level and brief history….

Paganism and Judaism coexisted. While Paganism was popular and polytheistic in nature, Judaism had a small following and was monotheistic. Part of what was working against Judaism was that it was based on a moral God who had all the right answers – rather intimidating. The Pagan gods were anything but moral, rarely right and were generally a meddling group of gods that could be easily blamed for everything that went wrong in anybody or any country’s existence. Thus, it didn’t take a great deal of discipline or sacrifice on the part of the individual to be a pagan while Jews demanded more. You can see why it took time for Judaism to catch-on. Judaism had some powerful leaders – inspirational people that helped build their following including: Moses, Abraham, Joseph, et al. Judaism began to become a bit of a force within the vast Roman empire and this began to worry the Roman leaders. They were trying to strike a delicate balance between religious tolerance and civic peace.

Enter Jesus Christ.

Now, Judaism coexisted with Paganism for a long time and so Jewish rituals, ceremonies and holidays were all created and established long before Christ was born. Christianity as a religion is a relatively young religion and was created, spread and established in the backyard of paganism. As a result the combining and assimilation of pagan traditions into the Christian faith was inevitable. You add to that the idea that every learned or educated person since the written word has studied ancient Greece and ancient Greek philosophers and you have an entire Judeo-Christian society full of pagan symbols and traditions.

I don’t have the space here to touch upon all the references to paganism in our life and I am sure there are books written on this very topic. However, I will quickly discuss Christmas since the season is upon us.

Jesus was not born in December. It is widely believed that Jesus was born in the spring. So, why do we celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December? Well, that is one of the great stories of our shared religious history. During the first 300 years after Christ’s death we see Christianity quickly spread across Europe. Conversions were often done at the tip of a sword (see Charlemagne) but were often encouraged by the church abdicating pagan holidays. From the very first Pope Leo we see the church taking pagan holidays and turning them into Christian celebrations which is how we end up with crazy holidays like St. Valentine’s day and St. Patrick’s day.

The Roman calendar was based on 30 day months and so as a result there were 5 extra days at the end of the solar calendar. The Pagans took these five days and turned them into one of their famous festivals filled with debauchery and drink. The church struggled in getting pagans to give up these holidays in the name of Christianity, so around 400 A.D. Pope Liberius officially makes December 25th Christ’s birthday and insists that the celebration on that day be in the name of Christ. Thus, pagan and Christian traditions merge with the result being Santa Claus, Christmas trees, elves and the drinking of warm mead.