Epic and the Art of Fiction
Schedule of Readings and Papers
What does epic mean? Several words come to mind almost immediately: weighty (if not lumbering), ancient (if not obsolete), and most importantly, long, as in "The epic saga of…" or even better, "A tale of epic proportions…" Ironically, most epics are no longer than an average novel, and shorter than many modern bestsellers. What then is an epic? According to the classical theorists, epic is an attempt to concentrate a very long story—perhaps a story spanning decades and even of generations—into a compact but suggestive narrative. This course will examine four such attempts from four different periods in four different languages: Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, and Milton's Paradise Lost. In reading each work, we will consider several questions. Some of these will focus on interpretation: What is this poem trying to achieve? What does the final result tell us about its author? About its culture? About the imagined audience? But in addition to considering the meaning or importance of fiction, we will also address certain practical issues of technique and the art of fiction: Where does a story begin? Where does it end? Which is more important: character or plot? What is the role of description? And again, How does a writer combine brevity with the impression of passing time?
All four works, with the exception of Paradise Lost, will be read in modern English translations.
Hard copies of all assignments are due at the beginning of the class period. Assignments delivered after that will receive a lower grade. (For instance, an A- essay that is delivered up to 24 hours late will receive a B+, an A- essay that is delivered between 24 and 48 hours late will receive a B, and so on.)
Essays. Over the course of the semester you will submit two essays of app. 2,000-2,500 words each on topics of your choice. I do ask that you write at one essay focusing on a classical epic and one essay focusing on a renaissance epic.
Essays should be typed and should follow the format specified in one of three style books: the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Essays (5th ed.; New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999), the Turabian Manual for Writers of Term Essays, Theses, and Dissertations (6th ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), or The Chicago Manual of Style (14th ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
Please number your pages and staple them together. This helps me put your essay back together in case I drop it; not that I would ever do that, mind you—but just in case.
Discussion and Weekly Analysis. Your essays will make up approximately two thirds of your grade for this course. The remaining third will be determined by a combination of two factors: your participation in class discussion and a weekly writing assignment of 400-500 words. There will be no midterm or final exams in this course. Instead, you will submit a weekly written analysis of the previous week's discussion. Your analysis of week one will be due at the first class meeting of week two and so on.
A good analysis will summarize the content of the previous week's discussion, but it will also evaluate that discussion: what, for instance, got left out of the conversation last week, and why does it matter? Because these assignments take the place of midterm and final exams, they will be graded. This means that spelling, grammar, and punctuation count, as well as content.
One final note. You will submit each written analysis in two forms: to me, on paper, and to the members of the class, by emailing it to the course mailing list, email@example.com.
Midterm and Final Exams. There will be no midterm or final exams in this course.
Attendance and Reading Quizzes. There is one more requirement for this course: you have to come to class and you have to do the reading. If you don't, I will give you a no credit (NC) for the course. There are several reasons for this. First, this is a discussion course. What goes on in class, therefore, is part of the content of the course. There is a certain body of wisdom and knowledge that I want to impart to you, and which I expect you to absorb. You can't do that if you don't come to class or do the readings. Second, your classmates have wisdom and insight that they want to impart to you. They can't do that if you don't come to class or do the reading. Finally, you have wisdom and insight to impart to your classmates and to me. You can't do that if you don't come to class or do the reading. So come to class and do the reading.
If you need some encouragement in this area, you may find it helpful to know that I give short reading quizzes from time to time. Sometimes I give them quite frequently. Now there are no make-ups for missed quizzes. On the other hand, the quizzes themselves are very easy—so long as you're there to take them and you've done the reading. In fact, they're not even part of your grade for the course. You do have to pass them, however, in order to get a grade. Fail or miss them on a regular basis and you'll get a no credit (NC) for the semester—even if you hand in all of the graded assignments. So come to class and do the reading.
"Students are expected to complete the work in each course on schedule. Under unusual circumstances, an instructor may allow a student an additional specified time period, not to extend beyond the first class day of the next semester, for completion of the course. In any such case, the instructor's submission of the 'I' grade must be accompanied by a course completion agreement form specifying the work yet to be completed. This form is signed by both the student and the instructor." That's what the Catalog says. Please note the words "unusual circumstances." Unfortunately, the Catalog doesn't specify what kinds of things constitute "unusual circumstances." The following, suggested by the Dean of Students, will have to serve, therefore, as a working definition for the purposes of this course: "unusual circumstances" means 'an unexpected catastrophe that occurs near the end of the semester'.
Important times, phone numbers, addresses
Office: Old Main 205 (phone 651.696.6643)
Office hours: MWF 2:20-3:20 pm. Extra hours as needed and by appointment. If you'd like to schedule an appointment—and I encourage you to do so if these hours don't work for you—just grab me after class or give me a phone call and we'll set up a time. If you call my office and I'm not there, do try me at home, though not after 9:00 pm, please.
Email discussion group for this course: firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the address to which you will submit your weekly discussion analysis in electronic form. This is also a good place to raise questions or make points that didn't get covered in class discussion.
Course materials on the web: http://www.virgil.org/dswo/courses/epic-99/