GENG 222: Genre - Medieval and Renaissance Epic Narratives


Mark Rankin 3 credits

          Blockbuster films adapt neo-medieval epics for modern audiences. Someone opens a sandwich buggy on a Midwestern college campus and names it “Epic Sandwiches.” A retailer runs an advertisement for college students, which reads, “Epic Dorm. Epic You.” A Google search on “epic” yields 349 million results, ranging from the Epic record label to the Epic software company, from Epic games to Chicago’s Epic restaurant, from Minneapolis’s Epic Entertainment Center to South Carolina’s Epic Kayak Company, which entices visitors to its website with “the epic story.” By all appearances, we live in an “epic” world in which anything and everything can be described as “epic.” In actual fact, an epic designates a continuous narrative celebrating the accomplishments of one or more heroes and set against a vast backcloth of events of significant proportion, such as (but not limited to) the rise or fall of entire societies.
         In order better to understand the origin of the modern use of the epic, our course will emphasize literary features of the epic as a genre which helped give shape to narratives while also not prescribing the form in which they evolved. We will undertake a survey of selected European epics written and circulated during the medieval and Renaissance eras (i.e., from approximately the year 500 to 1600). The epic, which finds its origins in Homer, the ancient Greek poet, fully matures during our period. Relevant topics for our shared inquiry will include the afterlife, brutality, friendship, heroism, history, immortality, invincibility, legend, magic, mythology, narrative, passion, punishment, revenge, sexuality, the supernatural, trickery, wealth, and more.
          Giving thought to the earliest circulation of our texts in manuscript and printed editions, we will take a comparative focus to our subject in order to understand the ways in which the epic responded to various local and regional concerns. We will begin with the Old Norse epic Völsungasaga (i.e. The Saga of the Volsungs) and its Middle High German adaptation Das Nibelungenlied. We shall then turn to the Old Irish medieval epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, typically translated as The Cattle Raid of Cooley or The Táin (pronounced “toyn”) to enrich our discussions. Next we will read Old English epic Beowulf and its Icelandic analogue, Hrólfs saga kraka (i.e. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki). The course will conclude with discussion of changes to the epic form during the Renaissance, which began in Italy during the 13th century. Our texts will include Dante’s Inferno, which comprises the opening portion of his 14th-century masterpiece Divina Commedia (i.e. The Divine Comedy), and selections from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the most accomplished English Renaissance epic prior to Milton. We will also consider shorter, Latin epics composed to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (1605). All texts will be read in translation.
          GEnglish 222 satisfies the introductory (200-level) course requirement for the English major (fall 2011 and after). It also satisfies the cluster 2, group 3 (Literature) requirement for the General Education program. English majors may be able to use the course to satisfy the old survey requirement of the major (pre fall-2011).

Required Texts
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Ed. R.M. Liuzza (Broadview Literary Texts).
The Faerie Queene, Book Two, ed. Erik Gray (Hackett) (paperback is fine)
Dante, Inferno: A Verse Translation by Jean Hollander and Robert Hollander (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
The Saga of the Volsungs, ed. and trans. Jesse L. Byock (Penguin)
Das Nibelungenlied: Song of the Nibelungs (trans. Burton Raffel) (Yale)
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, ed. and trans. Jesse L. Byock(Penguin)
The Táin, ed. and trans. Ciaran Carson (Penguin)

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