Topics in World Literature: Ancient to Medieval


War, Violence, and Heroism

Tue/Thur 2:00-3:15
Peck Hall 3315


Prof. Eileen A. Joy

Office Hours: TUE/THU 3:30-4:30 & WED 4:00-6:00

Peck Hall #2225



Figure 1. still image from Apocalypse Now (1979)

"Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to the victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. . . . Perhaps all men, by virtue of being born, are destined to suffer violence; yet this is a truth to which circumstance shuts men's eyes. The strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong, nor are the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this. They have in common a refusal to believe they belong to the same species. . . . The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection. Where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence."--Simone Weil (from "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force")


In this course, we will study some of the major works of ancient and medieval literature in both the Western and Eastern traditions, with a special emphasis on war and heroism, the problem of violence, and the question of what it means to be virtuous in a world that is marked by extreme violence. As part of our exploration, we will discuss some of the social and cultural histories that went into the shaping of these works, and we will explore together why it might be important to have a global perspective on literary culture, and further, whether or not we can better understand the world through different cultures' unique artistic productions. Finally, since we will mainly be reading what are called epics and sagas (stories, told in a "serious" manner, containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation), we will also spend some time contemplating why we need such works at all, and why they remain so stubbornly popular even today (think of films, just to same some, such as Gladiator, Troy, 300, Avatar, Arthur, Star Wars, Kingdom of Heaven, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and even television series such as Battlestar Galactica and V)--why do we think we need epic narratives (or conversely, why do we think we should outgrow them), and what can epic stories tell us about a culture's hopes and aspirations, as well as its fears and nightmares?

Preparing for and participating in class are vitally important to your ultimate success, and therefore, your contribution to in-class discussions as well as your attendance record will be factored into your final grade. Although I will provide much guidance and commentary, this is a discussion-, not a lecture-centered, course, and therefore students must come to class prepared with critical questions and comments related to the readings and films under discussion. As this is also a reading-intensive course, not keeping up with the reading could be extremely detrimental to your progress and final evaluation. One final (but important) word: coming to class without the text under discussion will be automatic grounds for dismissal from that particular class period (and will count as an absence).


Textbook Rental Services>

Davis, Paul et al, eds. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Package A (Vols. 1, 2 & 3). Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.


2 CRITICAL ESSAYS (25% each)

There will be two short papers (approx. 4-5 pages each) in which you will demonstrate your skills at the close analytical reading of a literary text, as well as at the comparative analysis of two literary texts. In these essays, you will practice your hand at literary interpretation, where you produce your own ideas about how texts create meaning. Through close reading, you will look closely at the language of literary texts in order to demonstrate not just what you think the texts mean, but more importantly how they mean what you think they are expressing.

Sample Student Essays on Homer's Iliad:

"Fate Is Simply Free Will Driven by Ego"

"Fate versus Destiny"

"Formal and Internal Concepts of Honor"

"Honor with Regard to Desecration"

"Masking Rage with the Pursuit of Honor in the Iliad"

MID-TERM & FINAL EXAM (25% each)

There will be two take-home exams that will comprise sections of intepretive questions and short essay prompts. These exams will not be designed to elicit "right" or "wrong" answers to supposedly objectifiable questions, but rather, are geared toward encouraging you to think creatively about the texts we have read and discussed together in relation to the main themes of the class, and to also help you to showcase your close reading skills.


I do not accept late papers. Period. If there is an extraordinarily good reason for needing an extension on a paper due date, let me know in advance.


Attendance, promptness, and participation are essential to success in college courses. Faculty members recognize that unexpected occasions may arise when a student must be absent from class, but my general attendance policy is that if you are absent more than the number of required class sessions per week (in this case, that would be more than 2 sessions), I have the option of lowering your final course grade by one letter grade for each additional session missed. Furthermore, if absences become excessive (more than two weeks' worth of sessions), the SIUE Registrar, at my request, reserves the right to withdraw you administratively. For more information on this, please consult the following: SIUE Class Attendance Policy. Failure to attend class in a responsible and committed manner may thus be grounds for failure in or administrative withdrawal from the course.


Any student found engaging in an act of academic dishonesty will be promptly dismissed from the course with a grade of "F." By "academic dishonesty," I mean PLAGIARISM (the act of representing the work of another as one's own), which the University considers a grave breach of intellectual integrity. All definitions, terminology, concepts, and patterns of organization taken from an outside source must be identified and given credit in any essay or exam you write--whether it be for the English department or any other department. For more detailed information on this, please consult the following: SIUE Plagiarism Policy. For the English department's guidelines on documenting sources, go here.


If you feel that you are entitled to special accommodations (for example, a volunteer note-taker, interpreter, special desk, or extra time on tests), please contact the Disability Support Services office in Rendleman Hall #1218 (Phillip Pownall, Director), or visit their website, and they will help you fill out the necessary paperwork.

Figure 2. still image from 300 (2006)


All readings are in the Bedford Anthology of World Literature, unless indicated otherwise; readings listed below are accompanied by hyperlinks to notes & study guides, plot synopses, and background material which are provided to assist your understanding of what can often be difficult reading material, and also to help you when preparing for your exams.

Tuesday Jan. 12 Introduction to Course
Thursday Jan. 14 View: Apocalypse Now (film)
Tuesday Jan. 19 No Class -- Professor at Symposium
Thursday Jan. 21 View: Apocalypse Now (film)
Tuesday Jan. 26 The Iliad, Books 1 &9
Iliad Study Guide
Yet Another Iliad Study Guide
Iliad -- Detailed Synopsis of Each Book
Homer Webpage
Who, or What, was Homer?
Ian Johnston, "Some Preliminary Observations on Classical Greek Literature"
Ian Johnston, "The Legend of the Trojan War"
Thursday Jan. 28 The Iliad, Books 1 &9
Tuesday Feb. 2 The Iliad, Books 16 & 18
Thursday Feb. 4 The Iliad, Books 16 & 18
    Achilles's Shield (an imaginative re-creation)
    W.H. Auden, "The Shield of Achilles"
Tuesday Feb. 9 The Iliad, Books 22 &24
    "Why Courage Matters" (NPR audio clip)
Thursday Feb. 11 View: Band of Brothers, "Carentan" (Episode 3)
Tuesday Feb. 16 The Iliad, Books 22 & 24
Thursday Feb. 18 The Iliad, Books 22 & 24
Tuesday Feb. 23 The Mahabharata, Intro. pp. 1434-1441 + Book 2.XX-XXIV
    Areté, Dharma
    Mahabharata Study Guide
    The Bhagavad Gita: Background to the Mahabharata
    Krishna (Wikipedia)
    "The Great Hindu History of India" (Discovery Channel Documentary)
    Critical Essay #1 Due
Thursday Feb. 25 The Mahabharata, Book 5.XL-XLV
    View: Krishna's Exchange with Arjuna (Mahabharata, dir. Peter Brooks)
Tuesday Mar. 2 The Mahabharata, Book 6.XLVIII-LVIII
Thursday Mar. 4 The Mahabharata, Book 8.LXVII-LXIX + Book 9.LXX-LXXIII
Monday-Friday Mar. 8-12 No Classes -- Spring Break
Tuesday Mar. 16 View: Kingdom of Heaven (film)
    Historical Documents: The Crusades (Internet Medieval Sourcebook)
    The Crusades (Wikipedia)
    Lecture: The Holy Crusades (The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History)
    An Historian's Response to Kingdom of Heaven: Thomas Madden (Professor History at Saint Louis University)
Thursday Mar. 18 View: Kingdom of Heaven (film)
    Mid-Term Exam Due
Tuesday Mar. 23 The Song of Roland (pp. 540-577, Book 2)
    FULL TEXT: Song of Roland (Online Medieval & Classical Library)
    Song of Roland Study Guide
    Medieval Society: The Knightly Ethic
Thursday Mar. 25 The Song of Roland
Tuesday Mar. 30 The Song of Roland
Thursday Apr. 1 No Class -- Professor at Symposium
Tuesday Apr. 6 Dante, Inferno (Cantos I-XIII)
    Dante's Inferno Study Guide
    Dante's Inferno Test: Impurity, Sin . . . and Damnation
    Dante's Inferno: The Videogame
    Danteworlds (Univ. of Texas at Austin)
Thursday Apr. 8 Dante, Inferno
Tuesday Apr. 13 Dante, Inferno (Cantos XIV-XXIV)
Thursday Apr. 15 Dante, Inferno
Tuesday Apr. 20 Dante, Inferno
Thursday Apr. 22 Dante, Inferno (Cantos XXV-XXXIV)
    Critical Essay #2 Due
Tuesday Apr. 27 View:Pan's Labyrinth (film)
Thursday Apr. 29 View:Pan's Labyrinth (film)
Friday May 7 (midnight) Final Exam Due (essay must be emailed to me at: eileenajoy@gmail.com as an attached Word document)