Course: Epic and Leadership

HC 221H

Professor: Barbara Mossberg

In the woods, on the wine dark seas, following the yellow brick road - witches and monsters and tempters are at every bend and even in the mirror: our course explores the power of story to illuminate our lives as a momentous learning journey critical for the role you will play in our world. In today’s culture we say “epic” to mean something enormous, whether a sandwich, a wave, or an adventure, although most people do not think of their own everyday lives as so large-scale. As individuals and in teams, our class will read and recreate - and argue translations of - a handful of famous pre-modern classic epics featuring Homer’s The Odyssey, including Dante’s Divine Comedy, GilgameshBeowulf, Virgil’s The Aeneid, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. We will look at the stories' relevance to leadership - decision making, strategic thinking, problem-solving, resilience, crisis management, effective communication, and what sustains the courage of service to one’s community. 

Tracking today’s “classic” covers of epic in literature and film through the lens of our iconic models, such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Whitman, and filmed stories such as Wizard of Oz, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and Tarsem’s The Fall, we will get to the root of epic meaning by creating our own dramatic enactments, do scholarly and critical analysis and close readings, and reflect on films and texts, in journals, poems, and essays. We will ponder classics’ enduring power as we creatively engage with the way minds make a hero out of the struggle to tell us the story. Thousands of years old, invoked by the Muse, chanted around a fire, or expressed as poetry, personal essays, lyric drama, or film musical, these works of epic imagination have influenced historic civic leaders from John Muir, Anne Frank, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, The Freedom Writers, Churchill, Gandhi, Nikki Giovanni, to Dr. Paul Farmer. How can preposterous and outlandish and idiosyncratic epic scenarios possibly mean something to us in our own lives today? How can we take from epic a knowledge essential for leadership? What does it mean to be an individual in a group: what is the role of friendship, peers, imagination, creativity, spirit? How do we get ourselves and others through a hard day and night? 

Through the magic mirror of epic, works on love and war and identity and life dreams and goals may reflect our own real life struggles. Dante’s dark woods, the Walden woods where Thoreau saunters to “live deliberately,” Dorothy’s whirlwind journey in Oz, Odysseus’s turbulent seas, or the mirror in which Cyrano and the beast confront themselves, may reveal our own lives as epic terrain - and the leadership in each person’s journey.