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The Epic Tradition

ENGL 220.401
instructor(s):
TR 1:30-3:00

This course looks at a number of strands in the broad epic tradition: narratives of warfare, quest narratives (both geographical and spiritual), and the combination of the two in narratives of chivalry and love. We will start with Homer, reading good portions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and then see how Homeric themes are reprised in Virgil's narrative of travel, conquest, and empire, the Aeneid. We will then look at St. Augustine's Confessions, which has some claim to being considered an "epic" of spiritual discovery, and consider how Augustine reflects back upon his classical narrative sources. From there we will move to one medieval epic of warfare, conquest, and empire, the Song of Roland, which emerges from the same kind of oral poetic culture that produced the ancient Homeric epics. In the last part of the course we will read some Arthurian romances, which take up certain themes familiar from epic, but place them in a new context: the medieval institution of chivalry, where the ancient warrior is replaced by the medieval knight, where the collective battle is replaced by the individual quest, and where the psychology of sexual desire is now foregrounded as a motivation for heroic self-realization.

Among Arthurian romances we will read at least one by the French poet Chrtien de Troyes, as well as the English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and selections from Malory's Morte D'Arthur. All readings will be in modern English. Course requirements will consist of several short papers and one longer (research-based) paper which will presented in two stages, draft and final version.