I was inspired by the mini review posts Remnants of Wit recently did on the books she read in literature class, so I thought I’d do a quick overview of the books I read this past year.
This past school year I’ve read a lot of books written by British authors from various historic and literary eras. I definitely didn’t enjoy all of them–some I outright detested–but I was, and still am, fascinated by how our idea of “good writing” has changed so much over time.
I read from the Anglo-Saxon era to the Modernist period so I’ll go in chronological order.
BEOWULF translated in verse by Seamus Heaney
As a huge fan of epic poetry and the early heroic ideal, I expected to like Beowulf. I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed the fact that, though the story is about a hero and his exploits, not everything is rainbows and butterflies. The resolution of the story is much more complicated. As much as I like happy endings, I feel that the solemn but hopeful end of this story is more fitting.
Another aspect of Beowulf that I enjoyed was the mixture of the Old Scandinavian ideals and the obviously Christian symbolism of certain events. The author, whoever he was, produced and interesting mixture of both traditions.
When it comes to the structure of the poem I’m a fan of alliterative verse, so I don’t think anything else needs be said.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when texts written in verse are translated into prose. No. Just no. In my opinion translating verse into prose completely ruins the magic of the text.
That’s why I was extremely pleased with Seamus Heaney’s translation; I think his verse translation really keeps the spirit of the original text alive. Furthermore, the original Old English is presented side by side with Heaney’s translation, and I could really see that he tried to keep as much of the original in tact as possible.
Side Note: Whenever there are illustrated children’s editions of famous works, I will usually read them because a) picture books are amazing, and b) they usually summarize the major plot points of the story well.
Side-Side, Note: Tolkien wrote an essay on Beowulf called The Monsters and the Critics which I’m dying to read.
The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman
I had high hopes for The Canterbury Tales, and I was surprised to find out what this work actually consists of–I can’t decide if this was a pleasant surprise or not.
Structurally, the premise of the story is incredibly fascinating. I enjoy the whole “tale within a tale within a tale” idea, and must say that Chaucer executed the whole concept really well. I liked the creativity behind how Chaucer is organizes his story so that there are multiple levels of meaning behind each character’s actions and story.
I only read certain tales, but in the tales I did read, I found it amusing to see how each pilgrim’s story relates to his or her actual position in life and the actual morality he or she practices. It was amusing because I picked up on a theme of hypocrisy that permeates throughout all of the tales. At least the ones I read.
This was most evident in The Monk’s Tale. Supposedly the Monk is a godly man because of his vocation and the fact that he’s going on a pilgrimage and all, but according to the narrator he is known for being a worldly man. In his tale he tries to moralize by alluding to lessons from Scripture and the Classics, but it quickly becomes evident that he twists the meanings of things to justify his lifestyle. I found the Monk’s character particularly interesting when considering the attitude towards the Church during Chaucer’s time.
All that being said The Canterbury Tales wasn’t my favorite read because I found the bawdy humor quite disconcerting. I just…I don’t know. Literature with that kind of humor bores me after a while. I feel the same about Shakespeare. There are very few Shakespeare plays in genuinely like.
Anyway, I also read some of William Langland’s Piers Plowman which is from about the same period as Chaucer’s work. It is a pretty heavy read that would probably take me a whole year to go through so I really only read a little bit. But what I did read, I enjoyed…to a certain extent. I think Piers Plowman is interesting for its structure, its use of language, and its wordplay. However, Langland used allegory quite heavy-handedly, which after a while becomes tedious. Although I would like to go back at some point and read the resolution of the story. Plus this Norton edition has really nice paper so I had fun annotating.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queene
I had read Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight before for fun, but I hadn’t really understood the point of the story. I just appreciated it for the alliterative verse.
I’m already a huge fan of the Arthurian legends, so I was stoked to read a story about he famous Sir Gawain. While I was reading this text though, I was also reading Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.
The intriguing difference between these two texts, besides time period, is the fact that Spenser was illustrating the characteristics of what he believed to be the ideal knight. And lo, and behold! Sir Gawain is a real knight, but he differs from Spenser’s ideal on some key points.
Overall both texts were incredibly agreeable reads. And like the above mentioned Beowulf, the mixture of fantastical elements and Christianity was thought-provoking.
Also, Simon Armitage’s translation in verse is a real work treat.
King Lear and Hamlet
Of all the Histories I’ve read so far, King Lear was definitely my favorite. It was, in my opinion, a great improvement over King John.
The plot of the story itself felt like pretty generic fare in and of itself, but I did like the theme, at least I think it’s a theme, of knowledge and its limitations. For example, King Lear is a good, accomplished king who rules justly, and his kingdom, from what I understand, is prosperous. Yet, despite his knowledge of kingship and his understanding of his subjects, he is completely blind to the machinations of his closest relatives. He is intelligent enough to run a kingdom, but not intelligent enough to look past his own ego. Gloucester is similar to King Lear in this. He understands all the politics going on in Lear’s court, but is blind to the deceit of his own sons.
My favorite aspect of the whole play was definitely the dialogue. Especially all of the Earl of Kent’s lines. I appreciate a good Shakespearian insult, and Shakespeare definitely outdid himself this time. (See Act II, Scene II.)
When it comes to the notorious Hamlet, I am not precisely sure why it is my favorite Shakespeare play. I suspect it might be due to the incredible balance Shakespeare strikes between displaying both the inner and outer worlds of his characters. I also appreciate its incredibly dismal ending.
Plus, its ambiguity of the story provides a great base for retelling the story, and you all know how I feel about retellings.
Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim’s Progress
While reading Paradise Lost, I suffered greatly for two main reasons. The first was entirely my fault: I chose to read a Signet Classics edition, which is like a Dover Thrift edition, in the sense that it’s impossible to read properly.
The second reason was undoubtedly the author’s fault: The writing itself is insufferable. There are too many allusions and symbolisms and allegories. Just ugh. I wasn’t expecting to like Paradise Lost, but at the same time, I wasn’t expecting to dislike it as much as I did.
The Pilgrim’s Progress had a similar effect on me. Like Paradise Lost, I found the author’s viewpoint pretty despairing and depressing. Both stories had too much darkness, without any sense of hope, in my opinion. And again the Bunyan’s style of allegory was not to my taste.
I only needed to read parts of both texts, and in truth, I have no intention of going back to finish either of these works.
So these are the books I read during the first half of the year, starting from the Anglo-Saxon period through the Renaissance Era. Nearly all of these works were in verse, so it was exciting to compare how the poetic style changed through the ages. Similarly, all the works contained a good deal of symbolism and allegory, which, again changed throughout the ages.
Of all the texts I think Beowulf and The Faerie Queene were my favorites. Beowulf because it has a really interesting use of language, not to mention its metrical style, and The Faerie Queene because the Spenserian Stanza is delightful to read. Finally, I like both because I appreciate how the authors balance providing action and conveying truths.