My sophomore year in high school I decided that I wanted to study English. At the time, it was my favorite class. We read books, discussed them and wrote about them. Additionally, we did a small amount of creative writing.
I believe in stories. I believe that stories move us, shape us, build us. They create our individuality and establish our place in a society.
My junior year in high school, I began to learn about literary analysis. I thought it was most banal, useless waste of my time ever. But I still loved stories. I loved reading, writing, thinking, reflecting and creating. As I progressed through the rest of my time in high school, I was challenged by analysis. I did not understand the point. I did not care that the white fence was a symbol of purity around the house, I did not want to spend half an hour talking about how the stain on the table was a reflection of the tables owner. I was remotely interested in the terms used to analyze, but mostly just interested for the purpose of impressing my teacher and getting a better grade in the class.
Since being in college, until this year I have had very little connection to English classes. I have been trying to finish my General Education requirements. Tangentially, I have recently realized that when I graduate, I will spend more time on General Education than I will on my major. Back on topic: This past fall, I took my first major English course: Literary Analysis. The teacher assigned a theory book, Frankenstein, The Great Gatsby, and The Painted Veil, as well as a reader that I did not purchase, and barely read any of. I spent much of the classtime completely lost. I was challenged by how to engage in the class on the level the teacher was expecting. But when I read the theory book and tried my hand at the homework, it came to me. It was difficult. But it came to me. For the final essay assignment, we were assigned to use any form of criticism we learned about to analyze any of the texts we read. So I chose the text I skimmed – Frankenstein – and the theory I understood and liked least – Feminist Criticism – for my essay. I spent all my free time for about a week in the 24-hour computer lab. The result was one of the best essays I have ever written. In a class that I had gotten straight B’s in, I was proud to receive an A on the essay.
This past semester – the spring semester – I took my the senior level literature class that is required of my major. The topic? Monsters in Medieval Literature. Epic win, right? I originally thought the class was going to be a cake-walk – the majority of the texts were ones I had already read, and the three essays only needed to be four pages long. This class challenged me. Yet like all things that challenge us, I grew from it. The amazing thing is that I can already see how much I have grown this semester. The first weekend, we were assigned a four page essay – not graded, just needed to be turned in. The first paper was on Beowulf, a text I have read multiple times before. The second paper was on Dante’s Inferno, which is easily one of the most challenging books I have read for class. Yes, even more challenging than Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Finally, we read Mandeville’s Journey’s and the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the reason I tell you any of this. For those who are unaware, SGGK is an Arthurian tale of chivalry, adventure, and making the right choice, even when it is challenging. Long story short: New Years party at Camelot. Arthur won’t eat until he hears about an awesome adventure. The Jolly Green Giant rides in. He’s awesome. He challenges someone to hack at his neck with his axe, as long as in 366 days he can do the same. No one stands up. When Arthur is about to go for it, Gawain says “no wait! Me!” and cuts off the Green Knight’s head. The rest of the tale is about Gawain finding the Green Knight and what happens next.
Our final assignment in the class was to take a text from the course readings and do some research on it. I decided to do an in-depth analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, considering the elements of nature and gender. I spent close to a month closely attached to SGGK. The book was nearly always in my bag. It was through this book and this assignment that I finally began to fully appreciate literary analysis. I was peeling back the layers of the book, looking at specific word placement. I was considering cultural context, and the reasoning for actions, for colors.
For the first time, I began to appreciate – to really understand – literary analysis. I pulled apart the Green Knight, and began to see him as a personification of nature. I began to understand all the literary terms I have heard used on occasion over the past few years.
I fell in love with this small, simple book. It was more than just the binding, more than just the story. It was the quality I now saw in it. It was the marking I had done in the margins of the print.
In my life, there is nearly always one book that I am connected to. One book that makes an impression on me, that my mind first goes to in conversation. For almost a month, I lived with this book. I breathed this book. I thought about it in the corner of my mind, always working on the problems I was having.
One of the most frustrating things for me is that even though I always carry a notebook around with me – in case of some brilliant idea that I simply MUST write down, I do no always make use of it. I think, “oh, I’ll remember that later” or something along those lines. Or I get lost in my busy-ness, going from place to place, or driving, or showering. These are challenges I need to overcome.
I was going to celebrate my uncle’s birthday the other week, and I stopped at the bookstore to pick up something to give as a gift. After browsing the store for about an hour or so, I decided to purchase a copy of SGGK to give him as a gift, because it really is a fascinating story.
So yes, I have a bit of a bias, having written two papers on it in the past month. That aside, you should really check out Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He makes the text really accessible and understandable. While the translation may not be completely accurate, no translation will be completely accurate, and this one best suits the modern vernacular.