HC221H: Eco Literature and the Green Imagination

Professor: Barbara Mossberg

4.00 Credits

  • CRN 21033: Monday & Wednesday, 1000 - 1150 @ CHA 201

The ecological mind is old as the hills, revealed in the extravagant stories first imagined by humanity coming to consciousness on earth. We will be literary detectives, exploring ecological themes in ancient through pre-modern literature, from Gilgamesh through Shakespeare, covering Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses. When did a green imagination appear? How is the concept of “wild” developed in earliest literature and law? When did we feel guilt—and reverence—for the earth? What was earth like as earliest humanity began to understand life? Epic literature is our clue. We are literary archeologists, anthropologists, and geologists looking at epic as artifact, drilling down to our human bedrock conceptions of our natural environment.

Whether in myths or legends, from trees expressing people to Rome founded by wolves, epic literature is a lens into our understanding of how the environment is conceived and represented in earliest literatureIn the woods, on the wine dark seas, following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City—wildness represented as witches and monsters and beasts and tempters at every bend and even in the mirror: our course explores the power of story to illuminate our lives as a momentous terrifying and terrific learning journey on earth. Just as in today’s culture we say “epic” to mean something enormous, whether a sandwich, a wave, or an adventure, we say “wild” to mean outrageous, large-scale, threatening—greatly strange and strangely great. 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, with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Shakespearian drama, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We will investigate epic examples from around the world to construct a global understanding of humanity's understanding of nature.

Tracking today’s “classic” covers of eco epic in literature and film through the lens of our iconic green models, such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and filmed stories such as Wizard of Oz, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Into the Woods, and Tarsem’s The Fall, we will engage with the roots of wildness in epic—and the human imagination and conscience in conceiving our world. We will consider whether all literature is eco literature, and towards that end, consider The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman; you will be assigned a book report in your field, do a translation in your field, and engage with recent examples of eco literature including Mary Oliver. And yes, we will walk to our own Walden Pond in the dawn, with our journals, as the sun rises!