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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: Western cultural tradition

Keep your bling, give me the treasures of the Western Cultural Tradition

Wisdom quotation; created by L.A. Nicholas

In chapter 8 of the Book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom says, “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. … I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice, endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries.” This is a saying any true-hearted student of the liberal arts, like myself, can heartily endorse, but it is not a saying that would have much appeal in the modern world, most of whose denizens would much rather have the bling. I’ve never gone in much for wealth or celebrity, myself, but since I was a child I have always hungered for wisdom and understanding. This explains why, as I contemplate the Lenten call to almsgiving (and my own abject poverty) I am inspired to offer you, dear readers, the benefit of my education, which is among the few (and the greatest) treasures I have accrued in my life.

I’ve probably said enough on this blog about why I think literature (taken in the broad sense) is vital to anyone who wants to be wise and live well, so I won’t go over all that here (read my page on Literature and the Moral Imagination, for a summary of my ideas on the subject). I have arrived at these views after many years as both student and teacher, and I started this blog mostly because I wanted a forum to talk about such things. Modern universities don’t care much about imparting wisdom — in fact, I’ve heard academics (former colleagues) protest that it would be impertinent for the university to pretend that it had anything to offer students in the way of wisdom. So here, in a free public forum, I try to share with anyone who cares for such things a little of the fruits of my own study and reflection.

Now one of the deficiencies of my early education (guided, sadly, by my own unformed taste) was that I studied modern languages and literature long before I studied the ancient world; I made up for that deficiency to the extent that I was able, when I finally returned to my studies later in life, at the University of Dallas. In effect, I was educated backward, which caused me quite a bit of confusion. That is something I have always wished to spare my students, so I prefer to approach things in the proper order to show how ideas develop and grow as ages pass.

Some of the books I want to discuss on this blog.
Some of the books I’d like to discuss on this blog — from Plato
to Andrew Seddon’s latest sci-fi (time travel!).

So I propose for the time being to concentrate on some of the most ancient works of the Western literary tradition, those that form the foundations of Western thought and imagination, and and then to move slowly forward, to show how these works build upon one another, how they get woven into the fabric of what eventually became Western Christendom. As I suggested in my last post, there is great value in knowing well the great stories of our culture, and I know from experience that few of us have even passing familiarity with many of them.

Some essential works from the ancient Western world

Here’s a list of the ancient works that I consider most essential to our cultural/literary tradition. (Yes, it’s a variation on the list in my last post — a work in progress.)  I’ll explain as we go along why I chose these particular works. I hope you’ll follow along and contribute your own thoughts and questions as I discuss these treasures of our common heritage, beginning with the Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions. (When I feel like I’ve covered these well enough to move on to medieval works, I’ll propose a similar list for that long span that we call the Middle Ages.)

Greek

  • Hesiod’s Theogony
  • Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
  • Aeschylus’s Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides)
  • Sophocles’ Oedipus the King
  • Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Republic

Roman

  • Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” from De Republica
  • Livy’s History of Rome (Ab urbe condita)
  • Virgil’s Aeneid

Judeaeo-Christian

  • The Holy Bible: Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), Gospels, Acts, Revelation
  • Augustine’s Confessions and City of God
To start with, I propose to discuss these three: Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, and Augustine’s Confessions — just in case you want to read along as we go. I do not pretend that I will be very systematic in my discussion of these works, or that I will even get around to everything in the list. I’ll try to bring out the things that I find most interesting and evocative, rather than presenting a series of scholarly lectures. I’ve chosen them chiefly because of the fund of stories they have contributed to our culture — stories that help us think about the nature and purpose of human life. Some I may linger over, while others I may skip through pretty lightly. I’ll always be more interested in the perennial appeal of these works than in some kind of antiquarian parsing of them. And I’ll be sprinkling in other things, as I see fit, rather than sticking strictly to “the curriculum.”

As the song says, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee.” I hope you will find yourselves in some small way enriched by my offering. If you have any burning questions — or bright ideas — about any of these works, please let me know. Comments, queries, and quibbles will always be welcome.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

On Film Adaptations of Beloved Works of Literature

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, film by Peter Jackson

Many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels of Middle Earth are waiting anxiously for the premiere of Peter Jackson’s new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which will cover the first part of Tolkien’s famous novel about Bilbo Baggins’s taking off from his comfortable life in Hobbiton to travel with a band of dwarves bent on retrieving a bunch of treasure from a dragon. I use the term “anxiously” advisedly, as many Tolkien purists were not entirely happy with Jackson’s massive three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s even-more-massive novel, Lord of the Rings, and are worried that he’ll similarly distort this story of a beloved Hobbit, as well. As a Tolkien admirer myself, I must admit that, while I have greatly enjoyed Jackson’s films about the One Ring and the humble hobbit tasked with destroying it (the extended editions, not the truncated versions that aired in cinemas), I was somewhat put out that the films distorted or obscured many of the themes found in the novel.  (I insist on thinking of Lord of the Rings as Tolkien conceived it, a single story; only the tale’s great length caused it to be published serially in three separate volumes. Probably it should not even be called a novel, but a romance or a saga.)

Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar

Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar
in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films

However, as a student of the Western literary tradition, I have long since learned that great stories get handed down by being retold in succeeding generations; each new telling brings out something different, making an old story new again. The whole history of the Western literary tradition – at least, up to the invention of the modern novel – bears witness to this fact. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, even not-so-great and lousy stories get re-told ad nauseum these days, presumably because screenwriters aren’t aware of the truly great, time-tested tales, having been “educated” in universities where the classics of literature have been abandoned and where no one actually reads anymore. (Here endeth the rant, before it is even begun. Another day, perhaps.)

At any rate, whenever I find myself watching a film version of some greatly loved literary work, I have learned to stuff the student of literature back into a dark corner of my mind so that the film enthusiast can enjoy herself. I tell myself that Peter Jackson the filmmaker, creating cinematic versions of Tolkien’s tales, are rather like Mallory or Tennyson reworking the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Geoffrey of Monmouth. I would not reject Mallory’s version of Lancelot as an illegitimate appropriation of Chrétien’s original, so perhaps I should not begrudge Jackson’s giving Arwen Evenstar the role of an Amazonian action star or accuse Jackson of failing to appreciate the true thematic depths of Tolkien’s stories. I can convince myself that “different” is not necessarily “inferior.”

Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson in The End of the Affair, 1955

The End of the Affair (1955), a good film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel

Of course, sometimes “different” really is “inferior.” I remember being truly enraged at the way the 1999 film version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair had completely missed the unmissable theme at the heart of the novel (without which it became meaningless). I probably should have simply skipped this “filmization” starring Ralph Fiennes, because it made me unwilling to watch film versions of beloved books for several years thereafter. I must add that the 1955 film version of this novel, which came out just a few years after The End of the Affair was published, managed to convey the book’s central theme adequately, while still providing enough romantic tension to satisfy those who cared nothing about meaningful themes and bought tickets only to see Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr in a clinch. (What? You haven’t read The End of the Affair? Don’t worry, it’s never too late. Find a cheap second-hand copy and start reading! Then get back to me if you still don’t understand what it’s all about. As a hint, I’ll just say that it is not simply about a love affair that ended too soon.)

I was shocked recently when one of my friends, whose literary taste and perspicacity has always seemed reliable, said she had quite enjoyed the 1999 film version of The End of the Affair. She was surprised that I had truly hated it. (Our conversation, alas, was cut short before I could explain why I thought the film was such an awful distortion of the novel.) This has led me to wonder: Is there any criterion for judging a film based on a novel, qua adaptation, to be “good”?

My first thought is that we might adapt the criterion for judging books “good” that C. S. Lewis set out in his An Experiment in Criticism. I would say that a good adaptation would have to constitute an intelligent, perceptive reading of its literary original. That is, in order to be deemed a “good” adaptation, the film would succeed in bringing out or developing some important
theme that can be found in the literary original in such a way as to enrich – or at least ratify – an intelligent reading of the original, even if it has to alter or truncate the novel’s plot or characters to be cinematically effective.

A still from Erich Rohmer’s film, Perceval le Gallois, a truly excellent film adaptation of the 12th century romance.

A truly “great” film adaptation would go even further, illuminating the story in such a way that a re-reading of the literary original would be enriched for having seen the film, perhaps bringing out nuances that had escaped the reader’s notice upon the first reading. I suggest that, according to this criterion, Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, a film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval/The Story of the Grail, is a great adaptation, although it does not even touch upon the Gawain strand of the narrative, which occupies about one third of the romance’s total length. My reading of Chretien’s romance, which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, was probably changed forever, and for the better, once I had seen Rohmer’s film.

On the other hand, if the film fails to bring out literary themes faithfully, no matter how closely it follows the original plot points or characters, it is a “bad” adaptation. Notice that this is quite different from saying that it is a bad film qua film. It’s possible, for instance, that the 1999 film, The End of the Affair, is of passable quality as a movie qua movie (I recuse myself from trying to judge it on these grounds) while being a truly execrable film adaptation qua adaptation (which is still my assessment, although I’m planning to re-watch both the 1955 and 1999 films, to see if my opinion still holds).

Tolkien, The Hobbit book coverAt any rate, it is a truly intrepid (or, sometimes, ignorant) filmmaker who dares to make a screen version of a beloved literary work. Fortunately, Peter Jackson is a great storyteller for the big screen, so I’m willing to bet that his Hobbit films will be more than worth the ticket price, even if it does turn out that he has deviated from Tolkien’s story in some significant way. The fact that he is splitting the novel, to create two films, suggests that he did not want to leave out a single interesting detail. (I turn a deaf ear to the cynics who suggest that he simply wants to milk the Tolkien cash cow for all it is worth.) I certainly am looking to seeing the new film.

By the way, if you are one of those people who like seeing film adaptations of literary works (or discovering that a film you’ve enjoyed is based on a book you’ve never read), you should take a look at Movies for Booklovers, a section of a larger web site called The Greatest Literature ofAll Time which lists and reviews film versions of great literary works.Meanwhile, anyone who both loves Tolkien’s The Hobbit and is looking forward to the Peter Jackson film might think twice before re-reading the novel before seeing the movie. Try to enjoy the movie for what it is before comparing it to the book that Tolkien wrote. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that it succeeds both as a movie and as a film adaptation of a beloved literary work.

What do you think about film adaptations of your favorite stories? Love ’em, hate ’em? Click “comment”  at the bottom of this page and chime in.