By Chet Yarbrough
The Great Courses: World Literature Lectures
Little is offered on the foundations of literature by Professor Thomas Shippey in his lectures on Heroes and Legends. He fails to show how hero and legend stories are unique, repeated, and expanded upon in new literature about similar characters and adventures. The Heroes and Legends’ lectures are grade school snapshots of literary heroes and heroines. Shippey disappoints the listener by not drawing on his vast knowledge of Heroes and Legends in literature to illustrate genre’ continuity.
Professor Shippey’ lectures span centuries of Hero and Legends creations, from Homer to Stieg Larsson. Structure of the lectures is barely thematic and not chronological. Shippey’s lectures are, at best, a “stream of consciousness” exploration of western literature.
To characterize Odysseus as a trickster and Aeneas as a straight arrow trivializes adventure and ignores issues of motive, justice, and revenge in the genre. The battle between good and evil is ubiquitous in Heroes and Legends‘ literature; good and evil have become equally seductive qualities in heroes’ literature. Evolution of good and evil presence in heroes and legends is not explored.
The first lecture is about Frodo Baggins and the Tolkien’ trilogy which would have been a great introduction to the existence of good and evil in the genre but little is said about Baggins’ temptation by the power of the ring and how the temptation of evil is a recurrent theme in hero’ literature.
As Shippey points out Baggins is a different kind of hero. He grows into his role. He begins as milquetoast but grows into a Cincinnatus; not as a great warrior/leader, but as a person of conscience that understands the importance of rising to the occasion but returning to normal life when victory is achieved. Baggins is a hero willing to take a stand for what is right and then act upon it, but leave that persona when he is no longer needed. Baggins is a transitional character for the genre of heroes and legends but Shippey fails to build on that observation. How many more Baggins come after Tolkien’s masterpiece?
Shippey notes there is a foundation; i.e. a structural contiguity that supports hero and legend’ story-tellers. Shippey identifies some of the unique characters and vignettes of heroes and legends but often neglects the story-tellers’ contribution to literature. The lectures would have been more interesting if Shippey added more insight like his note that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes creates a foundation for dual heroes. Shippey shows how Blomquist and Salendar in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” carry the legend of Holmes into the 21st century. That is insight a listener is looking for; not a book report on chosen hero and legend literature.
In his last lecture of the series, Shippey talks about a house of legends with prescribed foundations. That should have been his first lecture. He is intimately familiar with the books he discusses but he fails to bring heroes and legends together in a format that describes the foundation of hero and legend literature.