Backgrounds of Western Lit

Focus Designation: Oral Communication

English Major Requirement Designation: Historical Breadth pre-1700

English Major Pathway: Literary Histories and Genres

In this course we will read a range of ancient and medieval texts to get acquainted with some of the genres, myths, themes, and characters that influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and a host of other authors from the Middle Ages to the present day. The course will address the social, historical, religious, and technological issues that are crucial for understanding the various roles writing, reading, translation, and interpretation have played in the development of literature and the scholarly discipline of literary studies. The reading assignments will include The Epic of Gilgamesh (one of the earliest works of imaginative literature on record); selections from the King James Bible; Homer’s Odyssey; Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus the King; Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata; selections from Virgil’s Aeneid; poetry by Archilochus, Sappho, Catullus, and Ovid; selections from Augustine’s Confessions; and Beowulf. We will wrap up with an exploration of the sources of the medieval romance and the King Arthur legend, reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Throughout the semester we will examine the many ways these early works have been adapted in visual art, films, and other forms of cultural production. The course will also give you a basic introduction to some central problems in literary research: establishing the text, relating the text to its historical context, dealing with translations, and discerning the strengths and limitations of our interpretive methods.

This class carries the Oral Communication (O) Focus Designation. Fifty percent (50%) of your grade will be based on your performance as a speaker and respondent in oral presentations in various formats. Prior to all of your oral communication assignments, I will provide training in effective public speaking in academic contexts, which will include advice on preparing and rehearsing for these assignments as well as pointers for creating successful visual supplements to your presentations.

Required Texts

Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Translated by Douglass Parker. Signet Classics, 2009.

Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. Norton, 2001.

Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. Atria Books, 2006.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson. Norton, 2018.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by James Winny. Broadview, 1992.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Translated by Robert Bagg. Harper Perennial, 2012.

All these books can be purchased at the UHM Bookstore

All other readings will be provided for you as downloadable files in the Resources section of our Laulima site.

Student Learning Outcomes

 Upon successful completion of this course you should be able to

  • identify major authors and literary works from the ancient world and medieval Europe
  • situate ancient texts in their historical and social contexts, accounting for formal, stylistic, thematic, and other relevant features in relation to these contexts
  • identify key events in ancient history and the history of medieval Europe
  • recognize key genres, myths, motifs, and characters Western literature has inherited from the ancient world and medieval Europe
  • identify and accurately employ basic concepts in literary theory
  • write clear, coherent interpretive responses to literary texts
  • conduct oral presentations that effectively convey information and arguments to your audience
  • carry on collegial discussions with peers in formal academic contexts


Your grade will be based on your performance in the following assignments:

One 5-minute lightning-round presentation (50 points)

One 5-minute instructional PechaKucha-style presentation (10 slides, 30 seconds each) (25 points)

One 7-minute conference presentation (50 points)

Five quizzes on assigned reading (5 points each)

One midterm and one final examination (50 points each)