Thursday, August 23, 2012

Masterpieces of Medieval Literature, by Timothy B. Shutt


A series of fourteen lectures covering, well, the literature of the Middle Ages. Starting with the 'Germanic North', then moving west to the Icelandic family sagas, then back to the more familiar land of the Anglo Saxons and the Celtic West and on to France, Shutt covers a broad range of literary genres and, obviously, geographic locations.  He's a solid lecturer, and his enthusiasm about the subject matter is contagious.

Literary heavyweights Chaucer and Dante get short shrift here; Shutt notes that they are significant enough to their own separate courses. And indeed, the Modern Scholar offers a course on each--Dante and His Divine Comedy (by Shutt) and Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (by Michael D.C. Drout, whose courses on science fiction literature and fantasy literature are definitely worth checking out).

Instead, Shutt focuses primarily on lesser-known works (to me anyway), many of which, as with the Icelandic sagas (vikings!) and epic poems of the Anglo Saxons, were written anonymously.  Not that it's all obscure stuff--there is an entire lecture devoted to Beowulf, and a thorough discussion of such important works as The Song of Roland, the tales that formed the basis for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and, one of my personal favorites, the deeply weird and yet thoroughly awesome Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Shutt does a great job of tracing cultural changes and shifting attitudes through these works, as well as highlighting the literary differences in the various medieval cultures.  For fans of The Lord of the Rings, a lot of the Anglo-Saxon stuff will have a familiar feel; Shutt himself notes the similarities of various cultures to Gondor and Rohan, and he's not wrong.

Honestly, I was pretty tickled to learn about Viking poetry (Viking poetry!) and the totally cracked out Icelandic sagas, wherein at one point some warrior-princess essentially swaps shapes with another chick so she can get pregnant by her brother in order to produce a truly 'royal' heir who can accomplish some brave task or other.  I forget the details.  But the point was, she needed a full-blooded descendant of their awesome dad, so obviously she had to seduce her brother.  And I haven't even started to explain about the talking dragon.  It's crazy, is what I'm saying (a fact which Shutt freely acknowledges, with no small amount of humor).  And were it not for these lectures, I might never have known.  Talk about tragedy.

Also, as an added bonus, Shutt reads excerpts of a lot of the Old English/Middle English poems in the original language, which I found utterly fascinating.  He seems to really relish the language, savoring the rolled 'r's and archaic vowels, and I suspect you get a much better feel for the meter and rhyme scheme when you hear these works in the original languages.

Bottom line:  If you're interested in learning more about, well, the Middle Ages and the literature that was produced during that time, check out this course.  For those interested in learning more, Shutt's source guide is available online.  It includes recommended resources and his notes on/summary of each lecture (plus a bibliography, if that's your thing).

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