ELA 10: World Literature—Semester A
Or, why bad things happen to good people.
Why would a culture imagine that the world exists on the back of a Turtle? Why do we create stories about larger-than-life heroes who grapple with their own mortality? Why do we like watching dramas about guys killing their fathers and marrying their mothers? What's the use of stories, anyway?
Those are some of the big questions we'll answer in this 10th Grade World Literature course aligned to Common Core Standards. On Shmoop's whirlwind tour of some of the literary biggies of the pre-modern world, we'll
- investigate myths and creation stories from around the world, investigating what we can learn about a culture based on its myths.
- use Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey to think about narratives and how to write an awesome story.
- fight alongside the heroes of the Iliad, Odyssey, and The Epic of Gilgamesh and investigate their themes.
- learn why it's supposedly a good thing to bawl our eyes out at a tragedy about a Theban king.
- get angsty with Hamlet and learn about the features of Shakespearean tragedy.
- think about big ideas like war, heroism, mortality, and power.
For the teachers out there, this semester focuses on the basics of literary analysis, using textual evidence to explicate literary and informational texts, putting together short argument essays, and writing short narratives.
And that's all in the first half. ELA 10: World Literature—Semester A is a two semester course. This is Semester A but you can find Semester B here.
Unit 1. Myth, Heroes, and Social Power
This unit is all about myth. We're talking myths about creation, the apocalypse, and heroes and their exploits from Greece, Rome, Japan, North America, and Europe. At the same time, we'll ask ourselves why these stories were so important to their cultures and what we can learn about a culture and its values by reading its stories. The unit wraps up by using Campbell's Hero's Journey to investigate narrative patterns and introduce us to the basics of creating writing.
Unit 2. Ye Olde Blockbusters of Ancient Epic
Ever wondered how to win kudos in 2000 BCE? In this unit, we'll read (sections of) the blockbusters of the ancient world, i.e. epics: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and the Iliad. We'll focus on the biggies of literary analysis: characterization, theme, and figurative language and continue to master our narrative writing technique.
Unit 3. Grecian Mama's Boy
This unit explores the beginnings of drama with Sophocles' Oedipus the King. If you think you know tragedy, just wait until you meet the guy who outwitted a sphinx, killed his father, and married his mother. Oh yeah, there was that whole self-blinding business, too. As we hone our literary analysis skills through close-reading of literary and informational texts, we'll also learn how to put together an organized literary argument paper.
Unit 4. Hamlet, Power, and Corruption
Who would win in a battle, Sophocles or Shakespeare? You'll debate the merits of their respective tragedies by reading through Hamlet. (Sophocles has got some hardcore characters, but Billy's got the angst down.) We'll learn the ins and outs of Shakespearean style, read some outside texts to give us a different perspective on Hamlet, and wrap things up by comparing and contrasting Shakespearean and Sophoclean (a.k.a. Aristotelian) tragedy.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 1: We Love a Good Story
We at Shmoop love a good story. Have you heard this one?
Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world
Took the midnight train going anywhere
Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit
Took the midnight train going anywhere
A singer in a smoky room, a smell of wine and cheap perfume
For a smile they can share the night
It goes on and on and on and on…
Okay, we may have borrowed that one from Journey. How about this one?
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;…
And what's the difference between "The Night Before Christmas" and the Thanksgiving story told to kindergartners when they're making hand turkeys?
Despite the three different mediums (or media, if you want to be accurate about it) here— song, poetry, and folk story—these three examples are narratives that tell stories. What's more, they're stories that have worked their way deep into American culture. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean we care about Journey's Small Town Girl and her escapades, but that doesn't stop her story from being blasted over the airwaves.
People have always loved to tell stories. Seriously, we heart stories.
Stories are entertaining, they teach us important cultural information (like how our country was born out of a fruitful relationship between immigrants and Native Americans as exemplified by Thanksgiving… Oh wait…), they teach us moral values (sharing is good, kids), and they show us appropriate, culturally-sanctioned emotions, like that warm, fuzzy feeling many people get around the Christmas holidays, or how we should feel pride and glory at ruthlessly vanquishing our enemies. Check out this song about a Zulu king:
He is Shaka the unshakeable,
Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi
He is the bird that preys on other birds,
The battle-axe that excels over other battle-axes in sharpness,
He is the long-strided pursuer, son of Ndaba,
Who pursued the sun and the moon.
He is the great hubbub like the rocks of Nkandla
Where elephants take shelter
When the heavens frown...
Is this guy Shaka some weird shape-shifting bird, axe figure? Nope. He's just a freakin' awesome fighter whose ability to kill other dudes earns him a story which makes him look like a mythic hero.
As you may have just figured out, one kind of story which is particularly important to a culture is called a myth. There's a lot more going on in mythology than just the sheer entertainment value of the stories (although, boy, have they got that covered).
The cool thing is that instead of looking at these myths simply as relics of the past—a fun read, but totally irrelevant to our lives—we'll find that myths have a social purpose. We'll ask what these stories were doing for their cultures.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1: Clash of the Myth Definitions
What is a myth? Go on; write down your answer. We'll wait.
Did you say:
- something that's false?
- a made-up story?
- a story about gods and goddesses doing crazy things?
- a story created by really old people where they wore animal skins and loincloths (depending on the temperature, of course. You've got to dress for the weather.)?
- what people thought about the world before science was invented?
These are common views of myth, but they're wrong. Banish them from your brain.
The word myth actually comes from the Greek word mythos, which is not a sub-par alcoholic beverage but a word that means an assertive discourse of power and authority that represents itself as something to be believed or obeyed. Heavy stuff, huh? Let's see if we can simplify this definition:
A myth is a socially powerful traditional story.
Okay, so what does that mean? There are three big, important ideas here:
Story: We're all familiar with stories—we just discussed it above, in cased you missed something. A story is a narrative, which means that it is made up of a series of events structured into a sequence. Usually we think of stories having a beginning, middle, and end. They tell us about something that happened in a coherent and understandable way.
Tradition: Myths aren't just any ol' stories. That story you told your friend Blake the other day about how the dog stole the cat's food bowl and sprinted off gleefully down the street with it? Not a myth. A story typically reaches myth status when it is told over and over again and gets passed down through multiple generations. Most of the myths we'll study had their origins in an oral song culture. In other words, these stories were performed through song or public recitation, often in a religious context, kind of like how the Easter or Passover stories get told every single Easter or Passover (we get it already, jeez). Just when you were able to stop freaking out about the idea of an "Angel of Death," you hear the story all over again.
Social Power: Although myths often tell of fantastic happenings suitable for the world of comics or action movies (or both), myths are more than mere entertainment (although we're pretty sure that people keep coming back to the Hercules story for the hydra...and those muscles).
Social power in the guise of hydra-killing action. Black-figure vase ca. 525 BCE (yes, BCE) in the Getty Villa
Myths are told over and over because they are important to a society or culture. Not just because it is super important to hear about heroes killing hydras, but because myths have a meaning or a message that a culture values. That's what we mean by it having power and authority in a culture and being a story that should be believed or obeyed.
In the case of Hercules and the hydra, we could say that the story gets told over and over because
- the stories about Hercules showed the Greeks what it meant to be a hero (if you don't act like Hercules, you're not a real man).
- Hercules' killing of the hydra represents the Greek worldview that values dominance over the wild, beastly, and barbaric.
- Hercules overcame a bunch of tough stuff and was rewarded with immortality. Pretty awesome. Hmm, if only we could achieve that too...
So the Hercules stories in some ways teach people about a certain set of values. But this doesn't mean they are mere metaphors or allegories. Hercules was worshiped as a god in shrines all over ancient Greece, so these stories definitely have religious importance as well. It's better to say that in many myths, especially from the ancient world, religion, ritual, values, beliefs, and worldview all come together to create these multi-functional stories that have value and meaning in many different contexts. Myths survive because they've got something for everybody. Also, kids learn about masculinity (and rockin' lion skins) better if they are entertained. Just sayin'.
Features of Myth
While these previous criteria are must-haves for a story to be a myth, there are a few other features that we usually find in myths, although not always.
- Take place in the distant past or in some sort of primordial time where the world looks different than it does now
- Feature supernatural or non-mortal beings like gods, heroes, or even superheroes
- Describe or explain the beginning of something—like the world, a way of life, an institution, an ability or power, a human behavior—and its meaning
- Establish the rules and "universal truths" of the culture that made them. Sometimes, they're even sacred. That's sacred, not scared. There's nothing to be afraid of.
- Frequently feature archetypes, or recurring symbols, plot devices, and character types (like the trickster character)
Now, just because we're going on about gods and superheroes doesn't mean you can go on and think of myths as false stories. We banished that in the beginning of the reading, right? "Okay Shmoop fine. Can we think of them as metaphorical stories that teach us stuff that science can't?" Well, Shmooper, you can think about it this way to a certain extent, but remember that to many cultures, these stories were treated as true accounts of the world. Thinking about myth as opposed to science tends to make us think of myths as primitive, backwards, old thinking, and that's a dangerous thought. Rather, let's think of myths as a way of thinking about the world that is generally pretty different than how we tend to approach it today, but one that's still valuable. As you go through this course, we'll ask ourselves the question: what does this story mean for people? "Cool, Shmoop. It's a deal."
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.1: The Meaning of Myth, Redux
For our grand opening here, listen to this interview with Karen Armstrong, a former nun who studies myth and religion.
You can also read the transcript to the right of the audio player and follow along there. Make sure you take notes as you listen and jot down her main points.
Once you've listened to the interview, answer each of the following questions in 3-5 sentences each. Refer back to specific comments Karen Armstrong makes as you answer.
- Credit Recovery Enabled
- Course Length: 17 weeks
- Grade Levels: 10
- Course Type: Basic
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.4