Course: EPIC! Or, My Life as The Odyssey

HC 221H

Professor: Barbara Mossberg

In the woods, on the wine dark seas, following the yellow brick road-- witches and monsters and tempters at every bend and even in the mirror: this seminar explores the power of story to illuminate our lives as a momentous learning journey. In today’s culture we say “epic” to mean something enormous, whether a sandwich, wave, or adventure, although most people do not think of our 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, Gilgamesh, Virgil’s The Aeneid, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. We will ask why and how classics can matter in our world today. 

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 heroic 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 heroes from John Muir, Anne Frank, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, The Freedom Writers, 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?  

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 wild and heroic in each person’s journey.