Sidney Harris made this interesting observation about literature: “It is writing that has the ability to survive the stupidity of the people who teach it and the indifference of the pupils who study it.”
It must be granted that there have been many teachers who have botched, butchered, bungled, and blundered great works of literature. I cannot imagine the sheer effort it must have taken for such teachers to have turned students against Shakespeare’s tragedies, Chaucer’s pilgrim tales, James Fenimore Cooper’s adventures, Faulkner’s streams of Southern consciousness, and Dickens’ delightful portraits of human nature.
Nor I am unaware of that strange breed of humanity that is characterized by the opportunity of youth but the curse of indifference to truth, beauty, and goodness. Sad to say, there are is no melody of music so grand, no poem so sublime, no novel so life-changing, and no theological truth so profound as to not have bored some lug filling a school desk at some point.
In spite of bad teachers (and all of us who teach have stumbled) and dull witted students (and I once aspired to that title), not all teaching of great literature is a lose-lose proposition. It can be and often is, in the right setting, an incredible experience. It is often romance, adventure, discovery, a quest, a journey, a metamorphosis, a conversion, an epiphany, an adrenaline rush, a meditative calming, an exhilarating climb, and more. And all those things might come simply from reading a sonnet by Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins or John Crowe Ransom.
Of late, I have led my students in the Veritas Humanities program through three outstanding reads. Students being students, that is, disciples needing discipline, they often have to be convinced, convicted, and compelled to read. The fast ones might hurry through to the last page, while the slow ones fall nearly hopeless behind. The zeal of those who are alert or who connect with the literature often turns off the one who doesn’t quite get what the fuss and frenzy is all about. I have been on both sides of the chasm, or maybe should say, I have viewed the mountains from both angles.
In December, my class began John Milton’s Paradise Lost. We attempted to make it through the first 9 of 12 books in this epic before the Christmas holidays. In January, I started back with a review of the first few books, and then we worked through to the end. Milton’s poem is incredible. He is Biblical, yet imaginative and speculative. His poetry is jammed full of mythology and Biblical illusions. His images and craft are stunning.
Teaching Book 3 of Paradise Lost often seems more like a worship service than a classroom discussion. In that book, God the Father and God the Son talk through the plan of salvation. Man’s fall is foreseen and certain, and man is doomed. God the Son beautifully puts Himself forward as the one who will take on human flesh and redeem man. Did it actually happen like that? No, but Milton enables us to see something of the sheer glory and beauty of God’s plan to redeem mankind through Jesus Christ.
The love of Adam and Eve, their prayers and worship, and pure innocent holiness are beautiful pictures of love, marriage, and worship. We are so tainted, warped, twisted, and corrupted by our sinful natures that it is hard to imagine purity. Milton helps.
And then there is Satan. More exactly, Milton’s Satan. Some literary critics have posited the idea that Satan, an incredible created literary figure in this work, is the hero of the epic. He is grand, inspiring, and rhetorically brilliant. When he says, “It is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” it is gripping. But, a careful reading keeps showing that this creature of reason, independence, and proud rebellion is actually a total fool. It is the apparent sublimity of wrong reason, the convincing nature of sinful thought, and the inspiring rhetoric of standing against God that makes Satan a picture of what human sin is all about. In short, Satan’s sanity is insanity. His presuppositions appear impregnable, but are pierced with even the simplist Godly truth.
I feel when I am teaching Paradise Lost that Milton is in an airplane passing over us. Meanwhile, I am in a hot air balloon teaching (with whatever implications one wants to make of that image). Finally, the students are trudging barefooted on the ground across the hot sand. This is not easy stuff. But for those students who glimpse the poetry here, the theology there, a truth enhanced by imagination, and beauty enclosing it all, Paradise Lost is quite a read.
The next read on our list was Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. This was my second or third experience in reading this book, and it was the turn-around experience. I think this was the first time that “I got it.” Even then, it was only toward the end that the scope and purpose of the book began to sink in.
It takes a bit of patience and perseverance to handle Walter Scott’s writing. In an age of fast and instant, Scott demands a slowing of the hands of the clock and the leisurely stroll through his language, dialog, and descriptions. A book then was bought to be enjoyed, not finished. The prose was to enrich, not explain. Like his near contemporaries Jane Austen and James Fenimore Cooper, Scott unveils his story in measured, careful paces.
One expects the whole of the novel to be about Winfred of Ivanhoe. That knight, who has just returned from the Crusades, is a central character, but he is one of many. There are the bad guys such as Brian de Boise-Guilbert and Reginald Front de Boeuf. There are the common folk, such as Wamba the jester and Gurth the pig herder. There are Saxon nobles like Ivanhoe himself and his father Cedric, Rowena, a beautiful Saxon girl and descendant of King Alfred the Great, and Athalstane. There are Normans, such as the bad guys listed above and Prince John, but also King Richard. Then there are the Jews, Isaac of York and his daughter Rebecca.
Ivanhoe is a web of stories and plots and adventures. There is love that fails and love that achieves. There are battles and jousts. There is loyalty and treachery. In the end, it is Ivanhoe who proves to be the model Christian knight. That is, one who goes into battle regardless of the likely consequences because it is the right thing to do.
Our most recent read is somewhat of a combination of Milton’s poetic gifts and Scott’s vision of knighthood. We are currently reading through Book I of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. Some years ago, this great work was published under the title Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves with some vocabulary helps and very useful notes by Roy Maynard. This work, and a second volume on Book II of the Faerie Queene, is published by Canon Press.
This is a story of a knight on a quest to kill a dragon. He is going on the request of a fair maiden whose family land is held captive by the dragon. But Spenser is using this familiar story line to tell a greater story. Book I is the story of the Red Cross Knight and the pursuit of holiness. It is an allegory of the Christian life, of the battle for holiness in a sinful world. It is the quest for sanctification battling against the world, the flesh, and the devil. And, Spenser is telling in poetry form the story of the Protestant Reformation; that is, he shows how salvation by God’s grace can be hijacked by self-works, pride, ignorance, and indwelling sin. This book is a great read for young men especially, but for all people of all ages.
As C. S. Lewis famously said, “Beyond all doubt, it is best to have made one’s first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large edition of the Faerie Queene on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen…To read him is to grow in mental health.”
Even if one is past age 16, and even if one only has Book I in this delightful edition, and even if one only reads Book I (and there are six complete books here on earth), reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene is a blessing on one’s health, mind, and soul.