A little history of literature

“An enjoyable tài khoản of a lifelong involvement with literature.”—John Vukmirovich, Times Literary Supplement   This “little history” takes on a very big subject: the glorious span of literature from Greek myth lớn graphic novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. Beloved author, John Sutherland, who has researched, taught, và written on virtually every area of literature, guides both young readers và the adults in their lives on an entertaining journey “through the wardrobe” lớn show how literature from across the world can transport us and help us to make sense of what it means to be human. Along the way he introduces us lớn a wide range of works, enlivening his offerings with humor as well as learning—from Beowulf và Shakespeare khổng lồ T. S. Eliot & George Orwell, and from the rude jests of Anglo-Saxon runes lớn The Da Vinci Code.   For younger readers, Sutherlvà offers a proper introduction lớn literature, promising khổng lồ interest as much as instruct. For more experienced readers, he promises just the same.

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John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature, University College London, has taught students at every cấp độ và is the author or editor of more than trăng tròn books. He lives in London.

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Imagine that, like Robinson Crusoe, you are marooned for the rest of your days on a desert islvà. What one book would you most want lớn have with you? That is a question asked on one of the longest-running & most-loved programmes on BBC radio, Desert Islvà Discs. Broadcast also on the BBC"s World Service, it is listened to lớn across the globe.

The question is one of two that are put khổng lồ that week"s guest, after we have sầu heard snatches of the eight pieces of music they would take to the islvà. The castaway is allowed one luxury – what will it be? Answers are usually very ingenious: at least a couple of guests have sầu chosen cyanide pills, for instance, and another chose the Metropolirã Museum of Art in New York. Then they are asked which book they would lượt thích, in addition to lớn the Bible (or any other equivalent religious volume) và the works of Shakespeare, which are already on the isl& – presumably left by the previous occupant, who chose the pill.

I"ve sầu listened lớn the programme for fifty years now (it"s been running since 1942) and much more often than not, the guest chooses a great work of literature to lớn keep them company for the rest of their lonely lives. In recent years, Jane Austen, interestingly, has been the most popular author (more of her, and of Robinson Crusoe, later). And on virtually every one of the thousands of programmes aired, the chosen book has been a work of literature that the castaway has already read.

This points to some important truths about literature. First, obviously, that we regard it as one of the most important things in our lives. Secondly, that although we"re said to lớn "consume" literature, unlike the food on our dinner plate it is still there after we have consumed it. And, in most cases, it"s just as appetising as it was the first time round. My own choice, when on the programme some years ago, was a novel, Thackeray"s Vanity Fair, which (since I"d spent years editing và writing about it) I must have sầu read at least a hundred times. Yet still, lượt thích my favourite music, it gives me pleasure whenever I revisit it.

Re-reading is one of the great pleasures that literature offers us. The great works of literature are inexhaustible – that is one of the things that makes them great. However often you go bachồng lớn them, they will always have something new to lớn offer.

What you are holding is, as the title says, a "little history", but literature is not a little thing. There is hugely more of it than any of us will read in a lifetime. At best what we can put together is an intelligent sample, và the most important decision khổng lồ make is how lớn assemble our selection. This little history is not a manual ("Read this!") but advice, along the lines of, "You may find this valuable, because many others have sầu, but, at the kết thúc of the day, you must decide for yourself".

For most thoughtful people, literature will play a big part in their lives. We learn a lot of things at trang chính, at school, from friends, and from the mouths of people wiser và cleverer than ourselves. But many of the most valuable things we know come from the literature we have read. If we read well, we find ourselves in a conversational relationship with the most creative sầu minds of our own time và of the past. Time spent reading literature is always time well spent. Let no one tell you otherwise.

What, then, is literature? It"s a tricky question. The most satisfactory answer is found by looking at literature itself; most conveniently at the very first printed works we come into lớn liên hệ with over the course of our lives – "Children"s Literature" (written, one should note, for children, not by them). Most of us take those first faltering steps into lớn the world of reading in the bedroom. (We learn to write, most of us, in the classroom.) Someone we love reads lớn us, or with us, in bed. So begins the lifelong journey through all those pages that lie ahead.

As we grow up, the practice of reading for pleasure – which typically means reading literature – stays with us. Many of us will go through life taking a novel to bed with us. (Or we may listen to Book at Bedtime, another long-running Đài truyền hình BBC radio programme.) How many of us, in our youngest days, will have sầu naughtily gone on reading by torchlight under the bedclothes in our pyjamas? The garments (our "armour", in a sense) which we put on lớn face the outside world – the "real world" – are more often than not tucked away across the bedroom inside a wardrobe.

Thanks to lớn the numerous TV, film và stage adaptations of the book, many children and adults know the story of the four young Pevensies who find themselves evacuated to a house in the country. It is wartime in 1940s Britain. Under the care of kindly Professor Kirke (the word "kirk" means "church" in the Scots language: literature is always bringing in these little symbolic elements), they are safe from the nighttime rsida of the London Blitz. The real world has become very dangerous for children; mysterious aircraft, for reasons not fully understood, are trying to lớn kill people. Explaining to young children the politics, or the history, or the point of it all would be difficult. Literature, with its ability to lớn communicate lớn all ages, can help.

In the story, while exploring the Kirke mansion one rainy day, the children discover an upstairs room with a large wardrobe. The youngest, Lucy, ventures inlớn the wardrobe by herself. I suspect everyone knows what she discovers inside, from whatever version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe they rethành viên. Lucy finds herself in what could be called an "alternative sầu universe" – a universe of the imagination; but as real, essentially, as the London she left. And quite as violent as that burning đô thị. Narnia is not a safe place, any more than lions or witches are generally safe for human beings khổng lồ hang out with.

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As it"s narrated, Narnia is not Lucy"s dream, something inside her head, a "fantasy"; it is actually there, as much a thing outside her wakeful self as the wooden wardrobe, or the looking-glass through which Alice goes into Wonderland, in Lewis Carroll"s children"s story published eighty-five sầu years earlier. But to underst& how Narnia can be both real and imaginary, we need to know how lớn process literature"s complex machinery. (Children pick up the knowledge as quickly & intuitively as, in their earliest years, they pichồng up the complex machinery of language.)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an "allegory" – that is to lớn say, it pictures something in terms of something else; it depicts something very real in terms of something wholly unreal. Even if the universe expands for ever, as astronomers nowadays tell us it might, there will never be a Narnia in it. That world is a fiction; and its inhabitants (even Lucy) are mere figments (fictional inventions, that is) of the creative imagination of the author C.S. Lewis. But nonetheless we feel (& Lewis certainly meant his reader lớn feel) that a solid core of truth is contained in Narnia"s manifest untruths.

Ultimately, then, we could say that the purpose of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is theological, a matter of religion. (Lewis was, in fact, a theologian as well as a story-teller.) The story makes sense of the human condition in terms of what the author suggests are larger truths. Every work of literature, however humble, is at some cấp độ asking: "What"s it all about? Why are we here?" Philosophers và ministers of religion & scientists answer those questions in their own ways. In literature it is "imagination" that grapples with those basic questions.

That early bedtime reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe transports us through the wardrobe (and the printed page) to a greater awareness of where & what we are. It helps make sense of the infinitely perplexing situations in which we find ourselves as human beings. And, as an added bonus, it does so in ways that please us và make us want to lớn read more. Just as the Narnia stories helped explain the world lớn us, as children, so our adult reading connects us khổng lồ other adult lives. Re-reading Emma, or a Dickens novel, in middle age, we are surprised and delighted lớn find much more in it than when we read it at school. A great work of literature continues giving at whatever point in life you read it, và from whatever sources it comes from. In the following chapters we"ll see again và again how privileged we are khổng lồ live in a golden age when, thanks to modern translation services, not just "literature" but "world literature" is available to lớn us to read. Many of the great writers who appear in the following pages would be green with envy at the abundance & availability we enjoy today. So although we"ll look at literature from far & wide, the kaleidoscope you"ll encounter in this book has one thing in common: you"re now able khổng lồ read it all in English (và I hope, one day, you will).

There have sầu been those, from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato onwards, who believe sầu that the charms of literature và its spinoff forms (theatre, epic & lyric in Plato"s day) are dangerous – particularly for the young. Literature distracts us from the real business of living. It traffics in falsehoods – beautiful falsehoods, it is true, but for that reason all the more dangerous. The emotions inspired by great literature, if you agree with Plato, cloud clear thinking. How can you think seriously about the problems of educating children if your eyes are bleary with tears after reading Dickens"s description of the death of angelic Little Nell? And without clear thinking, Plato believed, society was in peril. Give that child Euclid"s Geometry lớn read in bed at night, not Aesop"s animal fable about Androcles và the Lion. But, of course, neither life nor human beings are lượt thích that. Aesop"s fables had already been teaching Plato"s contemporaries important lessons – & delighting them, inkhổng lồ the bargain – for two hundred years, và two & a half millennia later they vị the same for us today.

How best, then, to describe literature? At its basic level, it is a collection of chất lượng combinations of twenty-six small blaông xã marks on a White surface – "letters", in other words, since the word "literature" means things made of letters. Those combinations are more magical than anything a conjuror can pull out of his top hat. Yet a better answer would be that literature is the human mind at the very height of its ability to lớn express và interpret the world around us. Literature, at its best, does not simplify, but it enlarges our minds và sensibilities to lớn the point where we can better handle complexity – even if, as is often the case, we don"t entirely agree with what we are reading. Why read literature? Because it enriches life in ways that nothing else quite can. It makes us more human. And the better we learn khổng lồ read it, the better it will vày that.


Fabulous Beginnings Myth

Long before we began to think of literature as something written down and printed, there was something which – on the principle "If it walks lượt thích a duông chồng and quacks lượt thích a duck, it"s a duck" – we could still Call literature. Anthropologists, who study humankind from the ancient past to the present day, gọi it "myth". It originates in societies which "tell" their literature, rather than writing it. The awkward and contradictory term "oral literature" (that is, "spoken literature") is often used. We don"t have a better term.

The first point to make about myth is that it is not "primitive". In fact it is very complex. The second point is that, taking the long view, written và printed literature are relatively recent arrivals – but myth has been with us forever. It makes sense to lớn suppose that as a species we are somehow wired, inside ourselves, to lớn think mythically, just as linguists nowadays argue that we are genetically wired, at a certain period of our lives, for language. (How else, as toddlers, could we learn something as complex as the language we"re hearing?) Myth-making is in our nature. It"s part of who we are as human beings.

What this means in practice is that we instinctively make mental shapes, patterns, from everything that goes on around us. As babies, we are born, one philosopher said, into "a great blooming, buzzing confusion". Coming lớn terms with that frightening confusion is one of humankind"s greachạy thử enterprises. Myths have sầu been a way of helping people make sense of our world. When we began to lớn write, literature would vị the same.

Here"s an elegant little mind game, phối up by the critic Frank Kermode, which demonstrates the point I"m making about being "wired" khổng lồ think mythically. If you put a wristwatch lớn your ear, you will hear tick-TOCK, tick-TOCK, tick-TOCK. "Tock" will be stressed more than "tick". Our minds, receiving the signal from our ear, "shape" the tick-tiông chồng inkhổng lồ tick-TOCK – into, that is, a tiny beginning và a tiny ending. That, essentially, is what myth does. It creates a pattern where none existed, because finding a pattern helps us make sense of things. (It also helps us lớn remember them.) And what is most interesting in that little "tick-TOCK" example is that no one teaches you lớn hear that narrative shape. It"s natural to lớn vì so.

One way, then, of thinking about myth is that it makes sense out of the senselessness in which, as human beings, we all find ourselves. Why are we here, and what are we here "for"? Typically, myth supplies an explanation through stories (the backbone of literature) and symbols (the essence of poetry). Let"s try a mind game. Suppose you are one of the first people lớn try growing crops on the l&, 10,000 years ago. You know there are periods when nothing grows. Nature dies. Then, after some time, the earth comes baông chồng khổng lồ life. Why? What explanation can you come up with? There is no scientist around khổng lồ explain it. But you have sầu, somehow, khổng lồ "make sense" of it.

Seasonal rhythm is vital khổng lồ agricultural communities – "a time lớn plant, & a time lớn pluchồng up that which is planted", as the Bible puts it. Any farmer who doesn"t know those "times" will starve sầu. The mysterious cycle of the earth"s annual death và rebirth inspires "fertility myths". These myths are often dramatised in terms of kings or rulers who die only khổng lồ be resurrected. It creates a reassuring sense that although things change, in a larger way they stay the same.

One of the oldest (và most beautiful) poems in English literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, opens, vividly, at the Christmas festivities in the court of King Arthur. It is the deadest time of year. A stranger, who is decked out in green from head lớn toe, bursts in on horseback. He imposes certain trials on those present, & gives them khổng lồ understand that bad things will happen if the right things are not done. He is a version of the Green Man, the pagan god of vegetation: himself holding a holly bough, he represents the green shoots which (God willing) will sprout in spring. If, that is, mankind is watchful.

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Let"s explore that tiny beginning & ending of the tick-TOCK pattern, this time in a more literary example: the familiar & much-told myth of Hercules. Early versions of the story are found on decorated Greek vases, from around the sixth century bc. A recent version can be found in the Iron Man films. The legendary strong man of myth meets a giant, Antaeus, stronger than even he is, with whom he is obliged to lớn fight. Hercules throws the giant lớn the ground. But every time Antaeus makes tương tác with the earth, he becomes stronger. Hercules finally wins by grabbing his opponent in a bear-hug và lifting hyên in the air. Uprooted, Antaeus withers và dies.

Chuyên mục: literature