The Western literary canon has come to epitomize the official—and sometimes controversial—list of works that every educated person should know.
Among its more than 3,000 works are the Odyssey, Beowulf, Hamlet, and War and Peace—all of which have stood the test of time to become essential aspects of Western culture and our reading lives. Even if you haven't read some of them, you've undoubtedly heard of them—their mere titles are synonymous with greatness.
But what exactly is the Western literary canon? Why does it contain certain works and not others?
What is its history? What is its future?
Most important: What do particular works in the Western canon tell us about the development of literature and civilization?
You explore these and other thought-provoking questions in The Western Literary Canon in Context, a thorough investigation of more than 30 key works of the Western canon and the critical roles they played—and continue to play—in the development of Western literature. Over the course of 36 lectures, award-winning professor and author John M. Bowers of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas takes you from the formation of the Bible to the postcolonial literature of the late 20th century, revealing the exciting stories behind these classic works and their often surprising connections with one another.
It's an insightful approach that will reshape your thoughts about the evolution of literature and will open your eyes to the hidden dialogue among Western civilization's most cherished and influential authors.
Explore Key Influences
Great literature has always played a central role in Western civilization and our lives. It has given us creation myths, celebrated the glories of our past, shown us new ways to envision our future, helped us make sense of tragedy, inspired political movements, and instigated social change. The important role of books in our lives makes understanding canonic works all the more essential to understanding our culture.
The various entries in the Western literary canon also encompass a wide variety of subjects, genres, themes, and literary styles that set the standards that today's authors follow. We study Beowulf to get the best example of epic Old English poetry; we study Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to understand stream of consciousness as a narrative technique; and we study William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury to experience the complexity of the American South.
In addition, studying these works in their various political, religious, and cultural contexts helps you see and appreciate the lively dialogue between authors and works within the Western literary canon. As the poet (and member of the canon) T. S. Eliot wrote in a 1919 essay, "You cannot value [the artist] alone. You must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead."
The Western Literary Canon in Context is your opportunity to delve into hallmark works of the canon specifically chosen to exemplify its growth within a series of similar themes. You gain invaluable insights into the stories behind these masterpieces and some of the important elements involved in canon formation:
- The influence of editors: Canon formation, you discover, is a critical part of the Bible's enduring legacy to Western literature. In the 4th century, Eusebius of Caesarea sorted out the body of Christian scriptures and established 20 books of the New Testament, acknowledging the Acts of the Apostles while rejecting the Gospel of St. Thomas, for instance. Later that century, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria issued a list of 27 New Testament books that would prevail as the standard—he even used the word "canonized."
- The influence of culture: You see how some of the West's greatest cultures fostered the creation of key canonic works and how some works, in turn, became part of that culture's soul. Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey, helped cement the idea of a Greek hero in its characterization of the crafty warrior Odysseus, while Virgil's Aeneid, commissioned by the Roman emperor Augustus, celebrated the origins of the Roman Empire.
- The influence of education: The best way to get into the canon is to get into the classroom, where we are first introduced to the Western canon's great works. While teaching at Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien pushed to get Beowulf on the required reading list—and even today the college classroom remains the typical place readers first encounter the poem.
- The influence of controversy: Many of the Western canon's works were controversial upon their publication, drawing both the anger of religious and political establishments and the appreciation of literary critics. The "racy" elements of works like Ovid's Metamorphoses and James Joyce's Ulysses shocked contemporary readers but later were celebrated for their influence on Western storytelling techniques and the groundbreaking new ways they explored the human spirit.
Participate in a Riveting Literary Discussion
The Western Literary Canon in Context's approach to the masterpieces of Western literature focuses on the unique connections between each work and its predecessors.
You follow and participate in a riveting literary discussion, witnessing how, through their works, history's great writers have "talked" with one another across time. You come to understand that the books in the Western literary canon were not created in a vacuum but instead were shaped by the literary traditions that came before them. As Professor Bowers emphasizes, the Western literary canon generates itself backward.
- When Virgil wrote the Aeneid, he echoed the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey to reflect the transition of power from the Greek to the Roman world and similarly the transition of culture from Greek literature to Latin poetry. In the Divine Comedy, Dante's Christian epic, Virgil would be portrayed as Dante's spiritual guide during his journey through Hell and Purgatory.
- Voltaire's Candide contains numerous allusions and references to canonic authors and works. The Venetian nobleman Pococurante mocks authors like Homer and Milton when he gives Candide a tour of his library, while the hidden realm of El Dorado to which the title character flees bears a striking resemblance to the world in Sir Thomas More's Utopia.
- Herodotus and Thucydides are considered the fathers of history, and their respective works The Histories and The Peloponnesian War provide us with the two major models for history writing. Herodotus sought to find the root causes to explain the military and national events of the Peloponnesian War, while Thucydides structured his history like an Athenian tragedy.
- John Milton's epic religious poem, Paradise Lost, is a catalog of the canonic works that precede it, from Plato's The Apology of Socrates (in Satan's use of persuasion with rhetoric) to William Shakespeare's Hamlet (in Satan's motive of revenge against God).
As you progress through The Western Literary Canon in Context, from the ancient Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides to the multicultural themes of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, you see that as the cultural landscape changes, so, too, does our reading of these works.
Ponder the Western Canon's Future
The Western canon continues to broaden its definitions in the 20th century with stylistically unique works such as T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." As Western civilization expanded, its literature also expanded to encompass Eastern literary themes. What was once a canon dominated by Western themes and works started to become increasingly diverse.
Many of the works and authors you examine in the final lectures of The Western Literary Canon in Context have not been touched on in previous Teaching Company literature courses. While the canonic status of these contemporary works is still up for debate, Professor Bowers makes convincing arguments for the worth of these recent novels:
- Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain
- Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop
- J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy
- Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children
Analyzing these recent works gives you a wealth of ideas as to the possible future of the Western canon and offers you insights into works that may well be the canonic masterpieces of the next 100 years.
Take a Panoramic Look at Literature
With more than 30 years of experience teaching literature at a variety of universities, including Princeton University and the University of Virginia, Professor Bowers has a passion for literature that is contagious. The recipient of a Nevada Regents' Teaching Award, he draws rich connections between works as diverse as The Tempest, Dante's Divine Comedy, St. Augustine's Confessions, and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and makes you think about these icons of our literary tradition as an essential part of our world.
Novels, poems, plays, histories, and philosophical treatises: All of the masterpieces studied here provide, at their core, engaging literary experiences that have captivated readers for centuries. As you study the importance of the Western literary canon in works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Decameron, and The Charterhouse of Parma, you find yourself immersed in worlds of adventure, intrigue, and fantasy and exploring a range of human themes like romantic love, chivalric honor, and religious devotion.
A panoramic look at literature, The Western Literary Canon in Context proves to you the central importance of these cultural milestones and reveals their timeless legacies. The course is your opportunity to witness a rich literary dialogue and take an amazing journey through thousands of years of literary beauty, grace, and humanity. You'll never think about these classic works the same way again.