Heroes and Legends: The most influential characters of literature by Thomas A. Shippey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One of the things I like about The Great Courses series is the lectures are all 30 minutes or so, which makes them easily digestible. I have several of the courses (or others like them) in my library and they're great for picking up bits of knowledge between listening to full books. My latest scholarly endeavor then is Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature as presented by Professor Thomas A. Shippey
Over the course of 24 lectures, he takes his pupils from the beginning of literature, with the Odyssey and Beowulf, right up to the present with Lisbeth Salandar and Harry Potter. Shippey is a knowledgable English Don and fills his lectures with interesting anecdotes mixed in with his scholarly research. With these lectures he's looking, principally, at the evolution of the literary hero (the term being non-gendered, as he mentions several female heroes, including Guinevere, Cressida, and the Wife of Bath among others) from Perfect Specimen to everyday joe. He even includes Winston Smith, the protagonist of Orwell's 1984, as a hero (and his reasoning is quite sound).
Fascinating as well is the connections he draws, marking a linear path down through literature. During the lectures, Shippey gives you a synopsis of the particular book whose hero he'll be analyzing, so you're never left out of the loop. Sure, most of the names should be familiar, but you may not recall specifics or know of any but the most famous appearances of the character (For Natty Bumpo, Shippey gives brief recounts of all the Leatherstocking Tales and with Bond and Sherlock Holmes, we hear about as many of their appearances as we need to in order to fully grasp the character's importance.
The one hiccough, not counting that he starts with Bilbo and Frodo Baggins – he is a Tolkien scholar after all – is he puts The Color Purple into his list where it's set chronologically, rather than when it was written. This is easily forgiven, though, as Alice Walker's book works more as a historical piece, rather than a modern reflection of a past time.
All that said, a lecture is only as good as the lecturer and Shippey is good. He's not a dry academic, understanding pop culture influences and fully aware of what's going on in other media. He's perfectly at home working in references to Hunger Games and Twilight as he is talking about the Aeneid and the Norse Eddas. He'll mention graphic novels and comic books in the same breath as ancient scrolls and oral traditions. The only downside is Shippey's pronunciation is atrocious and his inflections leave you wondering if he needs to work on is breath control. While he's constantly making mistakes with general words, adding emphasis to words which don't need it or not having it when commonly it would be there, the biggest issue (and he's well aware of it) is his insistence on calling Cervantes' Knight Errant Don “quiksette” rather than Quixote. He claims this is how he learned it in school, which makes sense considering the long animosity (think Austin Powers) of the English for pronouncing foreign words with any consideration of the original, but come on! Quixote is such a common name you'd think he'd have gotten over his early prejudice by now.
All in all, a great way to spend 12 hours. You'll gain a new appreciation for old characters and add to your reading list with the one new to you.