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Lecture Topics

“What’s Fantastic About Fantastic Literature”

Fantasy literature has long been criticized as a genre that tells the same old folk tale, legend, or myth over and over again. And while it is true that fantasy’s base is in traditional narratives, and often narratives with a medieval folk tale or fairy tale setting, the best authors adapt those materials to their own purposes. The basic plot of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea certainly details the education of a wizard, but Le Guin’s purpose was also to create a psychological examination of the nature of pride, ambition, and—ultimately—self. A look at what the best authors in this genre create, beyond the plot, attempts to explain: “What’s Fantastic About Fantastic Literature.”

“Welsh Celtic Myth and Legend: Documenting Cultural Change”
The Welsh Celtic myths and legends in the “Four Branches” of The Mabinogi and the Irish myths and legends in the four major Irish “Cycles” are narratives that illustrate cultural changes. The Irish materials begin on the mythological level and move forward into a recognizable socio/political culture, while the Welsh materials chronicle development from a female-oriented culture to a male-oriented culture. In both cases, the narratives end depicting cultures that distinctly resemble our own.

“Welsh Celtic Myth and Legend in Modern Fantasy Literature” 
Although William Butler Yeats believed that the Celtic myths and legends would be as important an inspiration for the twentieth century as the Arthurian legends were for late medieval times, such has not been the case. But the Celtic materials have significantly influenced fantasy literature from Kenneth Morris through J.R.R. Tolkien to Lloyd Alexander, Nancy Bond, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Evangeline Walton, and beyond.

“Women in Scandinavian and Celtic Myth and Legend”
Scandinavian and Celtic myth and legend differ greatly from the classical myths of Greece and Rome and the various myths and legends of the eastern Mediterranean. Women in these Northern European narratives have great power, and only some of it is related to magic. The laws that have come down to us from the Celts and the Scandinavians are proof that women had legal and cultural rights and powers far beyond those of their Mediterranean sisters.

“Macbeth: A Man Out of His Time”
In 1606, when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, the Late Medieval Period was giving way on all fronts to the Renaissance, and Macbeth, as a piece of literature of its time, reflects some of that change. At the opening of the play, Macbeth is a quintessential Hero, but using his martial skills to become King is a route to failure, and young Malcolm, a successful Machiavellian, puts together a coalition to defeat the “man out of his time.”

“Hamlet: In Conflict with His Danish Traditions”
Hamlet is called home from the University in Wittenberg because his father has been murdered. There he finds his uncle married to his mother and his father’s ghost telling him that the uncle is the murderer. Hamlet’s Scandinavian (Danish) roots in family loyalty require him to avenge his father’s murder in spite of the recent marriage, but Hamlet is also university educated, affected by the new philosophies, and a man of thought: “To be or not to be” vies with “Revenge me.”

“Arthurian Literature from The Mabinogion to the Present”
Despite some weak claims to the contrary, the first appearances of Arthur in literature are in “The Dream of Rhonabwy” and “Culhwch and Olwen” in The Mabinogion. In France and Germany, much was added, and Sir Thomas Malory published Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485. Arthurian literature thrived in the Middle Ages, all but disappeared during the Renaissance, and was revived by Tennyson to have a long and successful run into to the present and probably beyond.

“J.R.R. Tolkien and the Rediscovery of the North”
J.R.R. Tolkien was in the right place at the right time to become the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. His interest in philology led him to study the ancient languages of Western Europe, especially the Scandinavian and Celtic literatures, and the narratives—the Icelandic sagas, The Kalevala, The Mabinogion, and others—created in those languages. He wove all of this, and his love of dragons, into the major fantasy novels of the twentieth century.

“J.R.R. Tolkien and the Traditional Dragon Slayer Tale”
Perhaps the oldest dragon slayer tale in European literature is the story of Thor’s battle with the Midgard Serpent, a story that captivated audiences through The Volsunga Saga (the story of the Ring of the Nibelungs) and the legends of St. George and the Dragon to the present day. Tolkien retold the traditional story of the dragon hoarding gold and the Hero who defeats the dragon, and like any traditional artist, he added something of his own.

“Robert A. Heinlein: Reinventing the Juvenile Science Fiction Novel, 1947-1958”
In the mid-1940s, Heinlein considered creating a Tom Swift-like series entitled “The Young Atomic Engineers,” but before the publication of Rocket Ship Galileo, in 1947, he changed his mind. That book did feature high school age main characters, but the next book was set in a different time and place with different main characters as were the next 10 books. Heinlein drastically changed the Tom Swift format and created a ground breaking new kind of series.

Tarzan: Popular in 1912, Popular Now.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the most popular American writers of the twentieth century, and Tarzan was his most popular creation. Some of that popularity was certainly due to the basic story of a child being raised by apes in “darkest Africa,” but the popularity of that first novel especially was also due to the popular ideas—from evolution to the contrast between the jungle and civilization—that he wove into the narrative.

Standing Stone at Avebury, the largest prehistoric monument in Britain. It is comprised of three stone circles.  The Neolithic Age earthworks and standing stones predate the Celts and were probably constructed around 4,000-3,000 BC.

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