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The National Epic

ENGL 321.401
also offered as: COML 321
TR 1:30-3


                                                            National Literatures


You cannot build a wall to stop the free flow of literary and creative ideas. But in constructing narratives of national identity, states have long adopted particular texts as "foundational." This course traces how particular literary texts, very often medieval epics and romances, are adopted to become foundational for national literatures. Key moments of emphasis will be the early nineteenth century, the 1930s, and the unfolding present.


Some texts immediately suggest themselves for analysis. The Song of Roland, for example, has long been fought over between France and Germany; each new war inspires new editions on both sides. The French colonial education system, highly centralized, long made the Chanson de Roland a key text, with the theme of Islamic attack on the European mainland especially timely, it was thought, during the Algerian war of independence. Germany has also seen the Niebelungenlied as a key text, aligning it with the Rhine as an impeccably Germanic: but the Danube, especially as envisioned by the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, offers an alternative, hybridized, highly hyphenated cultural vision in running its Germanic-Judaic-Slavic-Roman course to the Black Sea.


The course will not be devoted exclusively to western Europe. Delicate issues arise as nations determine what their national epic needs to be. Russia, for example, needs the text known as The Song of Igor to be genuine, since it is the only Russian epic to predate the Mongol invasion. The text was discovered in 1797 and then promptly lost in Moscow's great fire of 1812; suggestions that it might have been a fake have to be handled with care in Putin's Russia. Similarly, discussing putative Mughal (Islamic) elements in so-called "Hindu epics" can also be a delicate matter.


Beowulf has long been celebrated as a foundational English Ur-text, and was compulsory reading for all English majors in Oxford until quite recently. But is set in Denmark, is full of Danes (and has been claimed for Ulster by Seamus Heaney). Malory's Morte Darthur, a romances written during the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses,was chosen to provide scenes for the queen's new robing room in 1834 (following the fire that largely destroyed the Palace of Westminster). But Queen Victoria found the designs unacceptable: too much popery and adultery.


Some "uses of the medieval" have been exercised for reactionary and revisionist causes in the USA, but such use is much more extravagant east of Prague. And what, exactly, is the national epic of the USA? Moby Dick (mad captain pursues a whale), Walt Whitman, bard of Camden, NJ, Leaves of Grass, D. W. Griffiths, The Birth of a Nation (silent film of 1915, originally called The Clansman, with some vile racist neo-medievalism), Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (crossing from Europe to discover the Renaissance in Harlem)? 


Syllabus: to be finalised later, but candidate texts for inclusion may include:


Ireland, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, medieval legends of the Red Hand of Ulster

Iceland, Egil's Saga (key to independence movements in the 1930s)

Wales, Mabinogion

Italy, the three crowns (Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, a medieval group formalised in the sixteenth century to represent a "stable" model for Italy-- which did actually achieve nation status until the 19th century. Also: the Aeneid as national Italian epic? Catherine of Siena as a national saint?

England: problematic. Beowulf, Malory, Spenser, Milton?

Uzbekistan, Dede Korkut

France/ Germany/ Anglo-Norman England: La Chanson de Roland

Turkey, Iskandersname (epic of Alexander, a figure claimed by many national literatures)

Hungary, myths and legends of St Stephen (including the so-called "Crown of Hungary" transferred to the parliament building by President Viktor Orbán: it is now illegal, in Hungary, to research this object).

Spain: El Cid, or the Libro de buen amor?

Israel: the Bible (its history is its religion, its religion is its history; Ruth, Esther, Tobit, and Judith as historical novels-- discuss!)

Iran/ Persia: Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

Saint Lucia, the Caribbean: Derek Walcot, Omeros

territory unbounded: The Shahnameh ("Persian Epic as World Literature," Hamid Dabashi)

Japan, The Tale of Genji (the paradox of a female-authored national text)

China, novelle of the Tang dynasty (featuring the misadventures of students studying for exams)


Assessment:  short essay, longer essay with research component, class reports, class participation.



fulfills requirements