Heroes hold a special place in our imagination. Names such as Odysseus, Beowulf, and Queen Guinevere summon up mythic legends, while Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Huckleberry Finn are some of the most recognizable figures in all of world literature. Robinson Crusoe and Elizabeth Bennet are as real to us today as they were when Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen first created them. Meanwhile, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and Lisbeth Salander are heroes for our age and the legends of the future.
What do these memorable characters have in common? Why do we turn to certain stories again and again? And what impact have they made on world history? The answers to these questions tell us more than you might think. Great heroes have lasting power because they offer templates for behavior by showing us models of courage and fortitude. Whether by reinforcing traditional values or challenging values in flux, heroes reflect the mores of society. Some, such as Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, have changed the course of history, while others have inspired countless leaders, writers, and artists.
Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature is an incredible opportunity to study some of the most memorable and important characters ever created. Taught by Professor Thomas A. Shippey of Saint Louis University—one of the most well-known scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien—these 24 eye-opening lectures give fresh insight into familiar characters and a generous survey of characters we may be less familiar with. We think we know Robin Hood, for instance, but where does his story originate? What made the medieval outlaw popular, and how has he been rewritten for modern times?
Delve into original sources and explore the notable impact of these characters on world history. Get an inside glimpse into the writer’s process and see how authors “write into the gap” to flesh out—or, in some cases, reimagine altogether—old stories, making them new for new readerships with changing cultural values. In Professor Shippey’s words, you’ll “trace the buried power lines of great and successful fiction.”
What does it mean to be a hero?
The word “hero” might bring to mind a strong, fearless warrior who swoops in to save the day. You’ll investigate several of these “traditional heroes,” and by examining what makes them such compelling characters, you’ll see how they provide a window to better understand ourselves.
- Beowulf, the oversized monster slayer, is a model for the modern-day superhero, yet as he ages—and weakens—the epic poem treats us to a poignant look at vulnerability and the process of attaining wisdom.
- Sherlock Holmes has a narrow-minded, self-centered, addictive personality, but he also gives us a new sense of human potential. He gives us the chance to outguess him—to see more clearly, to gather more information, to deduce faster.
- James Bond allows us a certain kind of wish fulfillment: Men want to be him, and women want to date him. But beneath the charisma is a wounded and complex character.
Beyond these traditional heroes—strong, smart, glamorous—this course introduces you to other models of heroism. Characters who are meek, frail, or poor might run counter to our expectations for what makes a hero, but they play an important role in our imaginative world. For instance, you will
- study Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, whose sexual autobiography perhaps makes her the first complex woman in literary history;
- see how Sancho Panza’s role as an “antihero” deepens the story of Don Quixote;
- consider the heroic qualities in Celie, the impoverished and abused protagonist of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; and
- reflect on what Harry Potter has to teach us about heroism.
What do heroes tell us about our culture?
Heroes and Legends gives you the chance to study a diverse spread of characters from the beginnings of world literature through today’s bestsellers. In addition to exploring the core of what makes a character successful, the breadth of this course provides a window on our shifting cultural values—and the way historical circumstances pave the way for certain heroes.
Perhaps the best example is Frodo Baggins, the meek hobbit hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. In his opening lecture, Professor Shippey explains how, after the horrors of global war, the world was waiting for a down-to-earth hero, someone called to duty rather than born strong and fearless.
Throughout the course, you will analyze stories through the lens of culture and find out how our changing culture and values affect our sense of what makes a good hero, and how our heroes reflect the mores of our society.
- Trace the way different cultural eras have viewed Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot, from medieval admiration through Victorian prudery to modern sympathy.
- Look at the relationship between love and romance on one hand and money and social class on the other in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
- Reflect on Robinson Crusoe and the geography of undiscovered lands.
- Revisit the American frontier and see what heroes such as Natty Bumppo (from Last of the Mohicans) and Woodrow Call (from Lonesome Dove) tell us about the myth of the Wild West and Manifest Destiny.
Just as history shapes heroes, so, too, do heroes shape history. From creating narratives that define a nation to redefining our sense of self and our relationships, great heroes have changed the course of history. Professor Shippey surveys a wealth of memorable stories, helping us understand why such heroes were necessary and how they continue to influence us today.
- The mythical journey of Aeneas created a cultural history for ancient Rome and helped define its new imperial image.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe furthered the abolitionist cause with her saint-like Uncle Tom.
- Winston Smith, the unlikely hero of George Orwell’s 1984, reinforced the need for vigilance against state control.
- Writers such as Angela Carter who rewrote fairy tales in the 1970s constructed a new morality better suited for modern times.
Storytelling at Its Finest
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the course is that it covers the high and the low. Rather than employing the traditional academic approach to “theme” and “symbolism” and dense critical language, Professor Shippey is interested in story, with its entertainment value and memorable characters.
As such, he covers some canonical favorites—Homer, Virgil, Chaucer—but he also gives considerable attention to characters often ignored in academia, such as the “New Romancers” of the late 19th century and the fantasy writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. The result is an enjoyable approach to the great stories across the ages.
At the heart of the course is Professor Shippey himself, a charming, top-notch storyteller who is as engrossed in (and moved by) these stories as we are. But as a true authority on his subject, he offers a unique viewpoint and fresh insights to every lecture, making this course a memorable—and moving—experience.