Heroes in Literature

One semester course
Open to 10, 11, 12
Range of difficulty 2-4

1. Rationale

This course examines heroes and heroism through the literature of different cultures and eras. The range in periods is vast: From the classical age of the Greeks, Romans and Mesopotamians to our contemporary times. Thus, the reading list includes such titles as The Voyage of Argo, Oedipus Rex, The Dwarf, Persepolis, Siddartha, The Stranger and The Power of One.

One lense through which students might examine heroes and heroism is Joseph Campbell’s work with hero stories. While students may not read Campbell’s seminal works The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth, the archetypes he devises might be a template with which to examine various stories. Students might also compare and contrast different “heroic codes” and different “brands” of heroes, such as Comic, Tragic, Super and Flawed. Through examining the similarities and differences students might see the similarities among a range of cultures and eras. They may also speculate about the differences in heroes and heroic codes and what that may tell them about the place and time the stories were first written. Two basic questions students might consider are: How have the standards by which we measure heroism changed over time? How have they remained the same?

Another aspect of the course is examining anti-heroes. One question students could consider is: What qualities of these characters earn them the label anti-heroes?

2. Topics and Themes Emphasized

The course is intended to explore, through a range of literature, the ideas of the hero and the anti-hero. What is heroism? Is it possible for heroes to exist in the modern world? What is the relationship of historical situation to heroism? How can we compare heroes from various eras and countries? What role does gender play in hero stories? In connection with these questions, ethical issues arise: What is good behavior? How do we evaluate the actions of others? How do we judge others and ourselves and what standards do we use?

3. Methods

Kinds of thinking and questions asked are suggested above.

Students work as a class on reading and discussion. The kinds of questions suggested above are directed at specific texts. There is some practice in close reading of text — concentration on a passage and careful analysis of it.

In addition, there are writing-to-learn exercises–short, in-class writing to spark discussion and questions about reading.

Students may also work in groups to formulate questions and to evaluate one another’s writing.

Short writing assignments, both creative and analytical, are used to improve critical thinking and to improve writing skills. There is concentration on developing clarity in writing; students write in class and out, look at the papers of others in the class, have individual help on their work, and do revision of their work.

Students may be introduced to Joseph Campbell’s heroic archetypes as discussed in his books, such as Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. Study of contemporary heroes in popular culture — films such as “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and “The Matrix” — may be helpful in introducing students to these archetypes.

4. Expectations for Students

Students are required to do reading assignments of approximately 15-25 pages per night. The reading amount may vary, based on difficulty of reading. There is a range of difficulty in the reading chosen.

There are frequent reading quizzes which require short answer to short paragraphs to short essays.
Students write short papers on each thematic unit or major work. Some work is done in class on how to compose these papers, and for some papers students are expected to hand in drafts for comment before the final “product.”
Students also do frequent in-class writing that is both graded and non-graded.

Speaking and listening:
Students work in groups for discussion of literature and discussion of writing. Students are expected to participate both as listeners and as speakers in class.

The course involves some film study and media analysis, as well as vocabulary study from the reading.

5. Reading List and Other Materials

Alice in Wonderland
Cry, The Beloved Country
Death of a Salesman
The Dwarf
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Inherit the Wind
Iphigenia in Aulis
The Moon Is Down
Mother Night
Nectar in a Seive
Oedipus Rex
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
Other Voices, Other Vistas
Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha
The Power of One
Richard III

selected myths
“A Simple Heart
The Stranger
The Swallows of Kabul
The Palm-Wine Drinkard
Voyage of Argo

The Watchmen
White Tigers (Kingston)
The White Tiger (Adiga)

47 Ronin
Antonia’s Line
Brother from Another Planet
Cry Freedom
Cyrano de Bergerac
Garden State
Ghost in the Shell
Harold and Maude
King of Hearts
Looking for Richard
The Matrix
My Left Foot
Norma Rae
Pan’s Labyrinth
Spiderman 2
Rebel Without a Cause
Star Wars
The Bicycle Thief
The Great Santini
The Usual Suspects
Umberto D
The Wizard of Oz

6. Bibliography

Ancient Myths, ed. Goodrich
The Enduring Legacy, ed. Broun
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
Holocaust Years: Society on Trial, ed. Chartock and Spence
The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell
Sunsongs, ed. vanOver
The Theme of the Hero, Pickett

Sample Assignments

1. What about Peekay [the hero in The Power of One] makes you want him to succeed?

2. Explore the significance and symbolism of the final scene in The Power of One?

3. What do you suspect Piccoline [the anti-hero and narrator of The Dwarf] is NOT telling you?

4. What do you find strange about Meurseault [the anti-hero of The Stranger]? And what do you NOT find strange about Meurseault?

5. Consider the boy and his father in “The Bicycle Thief.” Do you see either one or both of them as heroic? Explain.

6. Write a story about what happens next in “The Bicycle Thief” — that is, after the end of the movie.

7. Spend five minutes a day practicing quiet reflection in the style of Siddhartha. Record in writing your experience.

8. Do something good for somebody you don’t usually do. Then, write about how the person reacted and how doing the good deed made you feel.

Comments are closed.