National Epics

[The following is an undergraduate Honors seminar designed and taught by Prof. David Wallace at the University of Pennsylvania. As Prof. Wallace explains in the course description, “In this course we will consider texts that become ‘national epics,’ texts that in some sense come to ‘represent’ a nation. How and when might such imaginative texts emerge? Nations change, and old poems may no longer serve. Can the Song of Roland, once compulsory study for all schoolchildren in France, still be required reading today — especially if I am French Muslim? What about El Cid in Spain? How do some texts — such as the Mahabharata in India, or Journey to the West in China — seem more adaptable than others? The course begins in western Europe, but then pivots across Eurasian space to become gradually more global. Most all of us have complex family histories: Chinese-American, French Canadian, Latino/a/x, Jewish American, Pennsylvania Dutch, Lenni Lenape. Some students may choose to investigate, for their final project, family histories (and hence their own, personal connection to ‘national epics’).]


Prof. David Wallace           National Epics           ENGL 321.401; COML 321.401; Tues/Thur 10.15-11.45

Texts Required: in the early weeks these will be supplied by the instructor; you will need to order a couple of texts later in the semester, beginning with Egil’s Saga for week 6 (Iceland). Paperback, rather than Kindle versions, are preferred– so that you will be able to annotate the work more freely.

Forms of Assessment: Please submit assignments in the form YourName.doc. or docx. Each assignment will be assessed by dw using Track Changes

Assignment 1: pass/ pass: a short meditation, of about 500 words or 2 pages, on the theme of personhood and nationhood. You may draw upon your own experiences here, or offer a response to texts and issues covered in class.  This will serve a tune up writing exercise and will be especially useful if English is not your first language. Feedback will be provided. It will also help to provide a more detailed and nuanced account of your interests, of what you might hope for in this class.

Assignment 2: short essay, chosen from a list of topics to be provided (and covered in class): 4 pages.

Assignment 3: long essay brainstorm. Again, this need not be long: the chief point is to let me know how your thinking is developing, so that I can suggest further reading, focus on critical issues, etc. Some class discussion of topics and issues arising might prove useful.

 Assignment 4: longer essay, 8-12 pages. Long, but not ridiculously long: compactness and concision are to be valued above omnium gatherum bagginess.

Reports: there may be some opportunities for offering in-class reports. You may be offered the opportunity to do one, based on (and limited by) our knowledge of your particular areas of expertise. But do not be shy about volunteering, in person or by e-mail. Reports should be brief, seeking to generate some general points for class discussion (and perhaps using online resources, if useful).

Assessment: assignment 1 p/f; ass.2 20%; ass. 3 P/F; ass. 4 70%; class participation 10%

Schedule of Readings: these have been chosen for the weeks leading up to Spring break, which begin in western European space, pivot across Eurasia and then bring us to India. Later weeks will continue to move across wider Asian and global spaces.

I am open to suggestions for the texts to be covered in the second half of the semester. Texts likely to be included are: China, Journey to the West (Monkey King); Korea, The Story of Hong Gildong; Vietnam, The Song of Kieu.


Preliminary schedule of readings:

1:  Jan 13    introductions: national epics, personal journeys

2: Jan 18-20    France, The Song of Roland
                           English translation by Charles Kenneth Moncrieff       French edition of Joseph Bédier (1922)

3: Jan 25-27    Spain, El Cid                                                                                                   
                           English translation                Cantar del mio Cid website
                           Cid-o-bilia; Bronston’s El Cid (Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren)
                           hand out assignment 1

4: Feb 1-3   Ireland (Ulster), Buile Shuibhne (in the version of Seamus Heaney,  Sweeney Astray)
                           hand in assignment 1

5: Feb 8-10         England, Beowulf, tr. Seamus Heaney
                           hand out assignment 2

6: Feb 15-17      Iceland, Egil’s Saga

7: Feb 22 (Tues):  Russia, The Song of Igor’s Campaign                               
    Feb 24 (Thurs):  Mongolia, Secret History of the Mongols with Chris Atwood                                     
                          hand in assignment 2 by Monday 11.59 pm

8: Mar 1-3   IndiaMahabharata    Monday: Prof Deven Patel  

9: Mar 8-10        Spring break 😎😎😎😎😎Spring break

10: Mar 15-17    Korea The Story of Hong Gildong

11: Mar 22-24    China Journey to the West

12: Mar 29-31    Vietnam The Song of Kieu   Monday: Hanh Nguyen
                          hand in long essay brainstorm

13: Apr 5 (Tues)    Guatemala (and Mexico) Popol Vuh with Toni Esposito
      Apr 7 (Thurs) researching and special collections with Mayelin D. Perez

14 : Apr 12-14   workshopping

15 : Apr 19-21   workshopping

16 : Apr 26    last day of class, workshopping, USA discussion

hand in long essay by Friday 29 April at 11.59 pm (or earlier)