A Little History of Literature
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This little history takes on a very big subject: the glorious span of literature from Greek myth to graphic novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. He introduces great classics in his own irresistible way, enlivening his offerings with humour as well as learning: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, the Romantics, Dickens, Moby Dick, The Waste Land, Woolf, 1984, and dozens of others.
be set in stone. It is a living, organic, ever-changing thing. Johnson's other magnum opus (great work) is his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, published in 1779–81. Again, the title page is illuminating: The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, with Critical Observations on their Works by Samuel Johnson. The point he makes with his selection of fifty-two ‘most eminent poets’ is that an appreciation of literature requires a separation of the worthwhile from the less than
has a ‘happy ending’. In simple and complicated ways, we find that kind of ‘plotting’ everywhere in narrative literature. There is another element to myth. Myth always contains a truth, which we understand before we can clearly see it or explain it. To help prove that point, let's look at the oldest – and many would say the noblest – work of literature that we have, the poems known as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Tradition has it that they were created by an ancient Greek author, known only as
‘mature’ enough, that we can see some films, drink alcohol, drive a car, marry or vote in public elections. Wordsworth saw it differently. Growing up was not gaining something, but losing something much more important. As we saw in Chapter 18, Wordsworth's heir in terms of a shared belief in childhood's primacy in human existence is – who else? – Charles Dickens. In his second novel, Oliver Twist (written in his mid-twenties, in 1837–38), he attacks new legislation, recently introduced, which
Polyphemus, he and his crew are stranded on an island where the beautiful sorceress Circe tries to cast spells over them, and are threatened by the sea-monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Finally Odysseus contrives to make it back to Ithaca and save his own marriage to the ever-faithful Penelope. Stability (after much slaughter) is restored. Civilisation can grow. Empires can rise. That is a dominant theme of Homer's two epics. The Iliad and Odyssey remain the most readable (and filmable) of stories.
popular. Neither, if we're being honest, would we call it ‘great literature’. It falls into the category of what George Orwell called ‘good-bad books’. All the adaptations of the original novel, in different ways and with different degrees of fidelity, retain the core element: the long feud between the prisoner and his jailer and the original novel's social message, what Hugo called the ‘social asphyxiation’ which causes crime (in Jean Valjean's case, stealing a loaf of bread for his starving