Rated 5 out of 5 by MisterDarcy The Hero With Twenty-Four Faces
A phrase mentioned in this lecture series is “the hero with a thousand faces,” which was coined by the scholar Joseph Campbell to describe the hero archetype in world mythology. In the compact structure of twenty-four lectures, this Great Course might be appropriately titled “The Hero With Twenty-Four Faces.”
Our lecturer, Professor Thomas A. Shippey, is an expert on the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. In his analysis of the hobbit hero, Frodo Baggins, the professor carefully places “The Lord of the Rings” in the context of Tolkien’s writing in the interwar period of the 1930s and extending through the global conflict of World War II. When Frodo exclaims, “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” his words recall those of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who asserted that “peace in our time” was achieved in his fateful Munich pact with Hitler in 1938. Those words would reverberate for decades as the essence of appeasement. For Tolkien, this is the antithesis of the hero’s quest that Frodo Baggins must fulfill.
A study of the great heroes places us in touch with the essential awe and mystery of life. The characters described in this lecture series share the goal of blazing a trail into the unknown. When Odysseus leaves the comfort zone of Calypso’s island after seven years of living in luxury, he must navigate uncharted waters in order to return to Ithaca. When Lancelot attempts to rescue Guinevere, he literally encounters “the edge of a razor.” When Huckleberry Finn breaks the law in order to protect his friend Jim, who is a slave, Huck is asserting the prerogative of the hero as the founder of a new and higher moral authority. In some instances, the authors themselves demonstrate heroism in the act of literary creation, especially Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Orwell, and Alice Walker.
In this course, the range and variety of character selections are superb, as we relive the journeys of the twenty-four heroes. In recounting the stories, the lecturer draws on a wealth of examples from literary works. The lively presentations are salted with wit, as the professor provides examples from both the literature of the past and popular culture today. And for icing on the cake, Professor Shippey has a smooth lecturing style with crystal clear articulation, plus the cadences, inflections, and brogue resembling those of the actor Sean Connery.
In such a wide range of stories, it becomes apparent that the adventure of the hero is the adventure of being alive. This material is so engaging that, upon completion of the course, it is difficult not to want to undertake the reading of all twenty-four of these extraordinary works of literature. The course should have an appeal to those already familiar with the literature, as well as to young people for whom the course may serve as an introduction to these unforgettable characters.
A hero is defined by deeds that transcend the ordinary range of human experience. As we read these works of literature, a pattern emerges in the journeys of the characters: they are all making a voyage into the unknown, sacrificing their needs for those of others. While the outcome is uncertain, the journey itself is enlightening, as the hero draws upon his or her inner strength for the crucible that lies ahead. As we become engaged in their stories, it becomes clear that the journeys of these great heroes may also be our own.
COURSE GRADE: A
March 12, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by DrJohnStevenson An Unexpected Journey
I normally gravitate more to the History Courses, so selecting this particular course was the result of a passing whim combined with one of the regularly enticing sales that the Teaching Company so frequently utilizes. In this case, I found the course to be not merely a pleasant diversion, but fun. Yes, there were two or three of the books reviewed that did not necessarily capture my interest, but for the most part, both the selection and the treatment were thoroughly engaging.
I found the professor's presentation to be a bit quaint (I am also an "old guy"), but I actually enjoyed him and especially toward the end of the series where he shared just a bit of his own story and how it interacted with several of the books in the review.
It is interesting to note that I have found myself reading a couple of the selections from the course and they were not the ones I would have chosen prior to listening to the course. Nicely done Professor Shippey!
January 20, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Rambam a superb, entertaining and thoughtful course
Why are certain literary heroes, like Odysseus, Aeneas and Beowulf, immortal? The same question applies to characters like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and Bilbo Baggins, who are as yet too new to be initiated into the canon, but look likely to join it in another few generations. Professor Thomas Shippey expertly asks and answers that question, starting with a look at JRR Tolkien's Hobbit saga. Anyone familiar with Professor John Bowers' course, The Western Literary Canon in Context (also excellent), is acquainted with the argument that Tolkien belongs in the canon alongside Dante and Shakespeare.
Here, though, Professor Shippey starts his course with JRR Tolkien's creations, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, to show how they spoke to the zeitgeist and thereby gained durable fame. Bilbo and Frodo, small in stature and uninterested in the glory Odysseus craves, are the kind of heroes the post-WWI public was waiting for without knowing it. The hobbits overcome loneliness and terror similar to that encountered on the modern battlefield, which Tolkien and his early readers knew first hand. This is Professor Shippey's standard for a wildly successful literary creation-giving the public what they want even though they do not know they want it.
With each hero he examines, Professor Shippey makes astute observations about the culture which produced him or her and the values which he or she embodies. Harry Potter, the last hero of the course, has to contend not only with his nemesis Voldemort, but also with being a celebrity, an agonizing challenge for an adolescent, and a new twist on the hero's story reflecting our celebrity-mad world. Robin Hood, on the other hand, embodies the rise of the English yeoman, skilled with the long bow, a weapon that put the yeoman on more equal footing with the armored knight.
Professor Shippey does a wonderful job of summarizing each hero's story, and his account usually includes similar characters from other related stories. For example, the lecture on James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo also covers another American frontiersman, Woodrow Call, the hero the Lonesome Dove series. These compact accounts will whet your appetite to read (or reread) the stories.
Lastly, early in the course, Professor Shippey says that heroes arise when civil order has crumbled, and people crave its return. If so, expect a new crop of old style heroes, gifted warriors who restore order with their weapons.
January 10, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by Thankful2Study Good but not Great
When this course was released, I was very excited. Many of the characters I grew up with and the opportunity to learn more about them was tempting me to buy this course.
In the end I found it to be good but it needed to be more than just as quick treatment of these heroes and legends. Professor Shippey, I felt gave a cursory glance at many of the characters. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice is one example. The lecture felt like a Spark Notes version of the story with little commentary on the historical background to her character and society. It is not enough to say that in early 19th century Britain that women had to get married or face possible spinsterhood.
However, there were some lectures I thought served their characters well. Guinevere showed me how Medieval people had complex views of women, which accounts for so many different adaptations of her story. On the one hand she is the innocent princess bride, on the other she is a tempting dominatrix.
The Robinson Crusoe lecture made me uncomfortable for a couple reasons. One, he does not see any conflict between his Christian religion and engaging in the slave trade. He promises to take care of his slave Xury, only to sell him, and doesn't . Second he is an early imperialist who seeks any way to find how he can subjugate the land he occupies. It is a eerie foreshadowing of show Europeans will conquer the lands and people of Africa and Asia for profit and exploitation.
Another one that I really like was on Dracula. For someone so famous, he absolutely deserved to be on this course. Professor Shippey had some very thought provoking questions about this famous vampire. Does he deserve pity, because as a vampire he cannot help being what he is? It was an intriguing idea. Dracula is a victim of vampirism and needs to be saved, just as Lucy Westenra had been.
Harry Potter's lecture could have had more meat on it. Professor Shippey choose to look at him in only one novel, when he could have examined him both as the whistleblower hero and the hero of the boarding school novel. It was disappointing but considering that of all the characters chosen, Harry Potter is in the longest book series featured in this course.
This course was more Western centric than it should have been. I think the watchers and listeners would have been better served if heroes and legends from Persia, India and China were represented.
I also question the addition of the character Woodrow Call from Lonesome Dove. While the novel is great in its own right, I do not believe that he is as influential as Professor Shippey . I think that the title character of Own Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian would have been a more astute choice. The novel and its character are among the most influential in American culture, as it set the standard for Western literature and films for the entire century. Without the Virginian, there would have been no Woodrow Call.
However, with all that being said, I would love it if the Great Courses would do another course on great literary characters. This lecture could easily have been 36 instead of 24 and there are just as many more iconic literary characters to be included such as Gilgamesh, Simbad, Oliver Twist, Sam Spade, Captains Ahab and Nemo, Scarlett O'Hara, the Phantom of the Opera, the Lady of the Camellias, Edward Waverly, Fa Mulan, and Frankenstein.
September 23, 2015