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ELA 12: British Literature—Semester A

A dinner date Medieval Times—plus annotation.

Put down your E. L. James and pick up some real British bestsellers. British literature may have a reputation for being stuffy and long-winded, but we're focusing on the good bits: the raunchy, the romantic, the revolutionary, and the revelatory. Don't let the big names and the big books scare you off. Guys and gals like Chaucer, Milton, Pope, Austen, and Brontë have a lot to say, and let's be honest: if you're writing world-rocking literature, you're going to need more than 140 characters.

The first semester of our Common Core-aligned course will introduce you to some of the major names and major ideas in British literature—and some of the minor ones, too. Through various readings and activities, we'll:

  • think about questions of national identity, domestic life, and individual agency.
  • ponder the role of women (and men) in shaping Britain and consider the way that a changing class structure brought new voices into print.
  • ask ourselves, why does our dad like Monty Python so much?

By the end of this course, you'll know more about English literature than the queen herself.

Okay, maybe not more than the queen. But definitely more than Prince Harry.

P.S. ELA 12—British Literature is a two-semester course. You're looking at Semester A, but you can check out Semester B here.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Here Be Monsters

This unit will focus on author's perspective and point of view by using English literature with famous monsters and villains. Ever wanted to hear the vampire's perspective instead of frightened villagers? Now's your chance: Unit 1's literary theory, nonfiction, and novel work will focus will be on villain and monster archetypes, character and author point of view, narrative techniques, and novel construction.

Unit 2. Heroes of Old (and Young)

This unit will cover well-known heroes from the English canon of literature, from Harry Potter to King Arthur. Plus, language focus will be primarily on complex and contested usage: words that attract special attention, abused items of usage, gender and language, and correct pronouns. How modern-day heroic is that?

Unit 3. British Morals...and Lack Thereof

In honor of how gross and filthy the Medieval Brits' writing was, this unit will engage students in an in-depth analysis of theme, motif, and moral. Archetypal characters from previous units will be examined within the framework of theme and thematic construction, as well as religious texts, codes of conduct, and epic poetry.

Unit 4. Are You Joking? Humor and Satire in the British Tradition

"Oh, that was supposed to be a joke? Heh heh…"

This unit will finally examine the satire, wit, double meaning words, and rhetoric of British humor writing, fiction, theater, and essays. Beginning with Jonathan Swift, and transitioning to Oscar Wilde's poking fun at aristocrats, and ending with children's literature and Roald Dahl, the satire unit focuses on the tried and true methods of British tongue-in-cheek humor, as well as which comedic styles remain today.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 5: The Once and Future King

A woodprint of Merlin, scowling over a large book.
Don't you hate it when you're trying to read and your evil wizard beard gets in the way?
(Source)

What do T.H. White, Monty Python, and Disney all have in common?

If you guessed that they all retold the ol' Arthurian legend, then you would be right. But of these, White was the pioneer. One of the earliest modern retellings of the tale of King Arthur, his The Once and Future King,was first published in four separate books and draws heavily from Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (alluding directly to Sir Thomas's text on several occasions). Although many other works of fiction have since done the same, White's story took the first step in making Arthur accessible to a modern audience.

So how does White's version of the tale stack up against Malory's? Well, The Once and Future King follows the source material pretty closely when it comes to characters and plot. All of the basic ingredients are still there—the noble king, the legendary sword, the knights of the Round Table, and the wise old magician who gets himself sealed into a cave for centuries after running afoul of a magical temptress.

As you journey through the story, however, you'll notice that White bestows upon his characters an emotional depth and individuality that's lacking in Malory's version. We get more insight into ladies man Lancelot's insecurities, Arthur's tragic character flaws, and Merlin's role as a wise and socially conscious, albeit lovesick and slightly absentminded, mentor—all of which leads to a greater emotional impact on the reader when these imperfect heroes meet their downfall. Lev Grossman said it best when he proclaimed that White had taken a story that was "as stiff and two-dimensional as a medieval tapestry" and turned it into something much more "rich and real and devastatingly sad."

In other words, in the modern era, the cherished tale of King Arthur and his noble knights is no longer a black and white romance. Instead, it has become something that did not appear until centuries after Malory's original retelling: a novel.