In June 2014, the Great Homeschool Convention is coming to Ontario, California. I am excited and honored to be a speaker on the roster and look forward to seeing many familiar faces and making the acquaintance of some of you that have followed this blog, but whom I’ve yet to meet. I am presenting three sessions, and while the topics for these have yet to be determined by GHC, as you can imagine they will involve something to do with the wonderful world of children’s literature, whether that’s history, science, geography, or just fabulous family read-alouds!
I’m also looking forward to hearing from some speakers myself, and hope in particular to catch a session by Dr. Kathy Koch. Dr. Kathy is the author of How Am I Smart? A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences, which helps parents and teachers better understand their children’s and student’s learning strengths. Dr. Kathy provides down-to-earth, yet compassionate counsel on parenting and her brief video posts are always good for a boost. Kathy reminds us about the importance of respecting our children in the various ways they are gifted and letting go of trying to form them into our own image. Her approach resonates with those of us who love Charlotte Mason and how she taught us to respect the individuality of our children. Her current post addresses that very topic. You can read it here.
Readers of this blog who are interested in attending either the Greenville, SC convention, or the Cincinnati, OH conventions can register online through this link. For those attending the California convention, registration will be available next month. Because we are also trying to support the Blickenstaff family due to their recent tragedy which you can read about here, any registration you place through our site will earn a $5 donation for the Blickenstaff family through the Patty Pollatas Fund. Thank you for your support, and I hope to see you in Ontario in June!
Studying medieval history using a literature approach offers a rich opportunity to mine some fabulous treasures of classic and historic works. The “terms “Middle Ages” and “medieval” were first used by Italian Renaissance historians “as they sought to separate their own rapidly advancing era from what was often referred to as the “Dark Ages.”1 While no one living during the period generally accepted as the Middle Ages (400-1500), considered they were living in a dark age, in contrast to the rapidly advancing, emerging, and awakening world of the Renaissance, the difference was dramatic. This article will present a brief collection of those works that have status in the Western canon, or have achieved noteworthy awards in the world of children’s literature.
Just as no study of the ancient cultures would be complete without its greatest epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, so too the medieval period opens with the first Anglo-Saxon epic–Beowulf. Based upon a Norse myth set in the year 500 AD, the Geat hero Beowulf saves the Danes from the man-eating monster Grendel. There are many excellent editions for children, but one that can be used across many levels is Michael Morpurgo’s, with its lyrical alliteration and vigorous illustrations by award-winning artist Michael Foreman. For junior high students, Ian Serrallier evokes the sparse beauty of the original in his simple straightforward verse in Beowulf the Warrior. For high school students desiring to do the full epic, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulfincludes the original Anglo-Saxon opposite his translation and is notable for winning the UK’s prestigious Whitbread Book Award.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is based upon the legendary Arthur of the late fifth and early sixth century, who seeks to push back the evil and injustice of corrupt lords and Saxon invaders. Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Holy Grail, Merlin, the beautiful Queen Guinevere and the tragic Lady Elaine all continue to capture modern readers. Lady Elaine’s heart-rending story is immortalized in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 19th century poem, “The Lady of Shalot” and would make a rewarding follow up to the study. A popular edition for middle grade students is by Roger Lancelyn Green–a classicist himself and student of C.S. Lewis. Older students will enjoy Howard Pyle‘s edition of this work, with his beautiful line drawings, or The Boy’s King Arthur; the original Scribner’s edition has incomparable illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.
The Viking discovery in North America around the year 1000 is engagingly told in the children’s classic, Leif the Lucky by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. The D’Aulaire’s lavish stone lithographs feature beautiful Norse runes, majestic fjords, and the muscular beauty of Viking life amidst Northern expanses. Leif Erickson’s North American discovery comprises an important component of the movement of Christianity westward as Leif was converted to Christianity in the courts of the Norwegian King Olav Trygvason; he then carried the gospel to Greenland. This well-researched text has been popular since its original publication in 1940.
The Adventures of Robin Hood reflects the enmity that existed in England subsequent to the Norman Conquest (1066) and which was still a factor over a hundred years later, when Richard the Lionheart came to the throne. Robert Fitzhooth, Earl of Huntington, is unjustly stripped of his lands and must resort to the life of an outlaw, under the assumed name of Robin Hood. Robin and his merry men of Sherwood Forest resist the corrupt civil and religious leaders, and set things aright by “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.” Roger Lancelyn Green and Howard Pyle have both written wonderful editions for middle grade students (and up) and Marcia Williams has a lavishly illustrated edition for primary. N.C.Wyeth’s illustrations for the Scribner’s edition by Paul Creswick captures the romance and adventure of this enduring story.
If any historical drama fulfills Ben Franklin’s adage, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” it is surely the saga of the Great Charter so beautifully told in James Daugherty’s The Magna Charta. The noble Archbishop Stephen Langton, along with his “Army of God”, present heroes for our day, as these brave men stood up to wicked King John and demanded he restore the ancient laws he had so unabashedly trampled underfoot.
Thirteenth and fourteenth-century English life are the subjects, respectively of Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray, which was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1943, and Avi’s Crispin: the Cross of Lead (2003), which won the same distinction sixty years later. Book-ending over half a century of works devoted to Medieval Europe for young readers, these two works echo surprisingly congruent notions of childhood, morality, faith, courage, civil freedoms, and what constitutes rollicking adventure stories for juvenile readers.
Adam Quartermayne, the protagonist of Adam of the Road, is the son of the traveling minstrel, Roger, and together they have some hair-raising and delightful adventures against a colorful swath of medieval life. Crispin and the Cross of Lead, is set just after the Black Death, the plague that wiped out 20 million Europeans between 1347 and 1350. Crispin is orphaned as a result, and in his travels passes through whole villages decimated by the Great Death. A major consequence of the plague was the labor shortage that resulted in the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and contributed to agitation to end the manorial system. Avi incorporates these features into an adventure story, setting the protagonist in the midst of events that furthered the progress of human liberty.
Marguerite De Angeli won the Newbery Medal in 1950 for her novel A Door in the Wall by breaking new ground in highlighting the challenges of physical disabilities. Set during the reign of Edward III (1312-1317), spoiled young Robin is struck by a mysterious disease that leaves him lame–a tragic fate for the son of a knight. After the household servants succumb to the plague, Robin is taken to a monastery by kind Brother Luke, whose gentle lessons impart the courage Robin needs to face his disability. Students who enjoy this read may appreciate Howard Pyle’s beautiful and darkly moving tale, Otto of the Silver Hand, whose protagonist faces physical hardship during the Germanic feudal era of the thirteenth century. Otto’s story is the story of a little boy “who lived and suffered in those dark middle ages, of how he saw both the good and bad of men, and of how, by gentleness and love, and not by strife and hatred, he came at last to stand above other men and to be looked up to by all.”
Geraldine McCaughrean won the Whitbread Award in 1987 for her depiction of a troupe of fourteenth century Mystery Players in A Little Lower Than the Angels. Young Gabriel plays an angel in a traveling play dramatizing gospel stories for the mostly illiterate peasants. Unlike the lighthearted minstrels in Adam of the Road, these traveling players are often run out of town by irate burghers or masters of guilds and have a hard go earning a meager subsistence, keeping out of jail, and traveling unmolested. Young Gabriel’s struggles and moment of awakening provide a satisfying read for middle and upper grade students.
McCaughrean has done an accessible edition of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer suitable for intermediate students. The importance of Chaucer’s tales and their impact on the progress of civil and religious liberty cannot be overstated. Chaucer’s subtle irony exposes the hypocrisy and corruption of the powerful; his humor sheds light upon common human foibles of pride, vanity, greed, and deceit–helping us see ourselves better. Barbara Cohen’s translation combined with the gloriously authentic drawings of Trina Schart Hyman makes a wonderful introduction for all ages. For primary students, Marcia Williams has abridged and edited the tales and enriched them with her whimsical illustrations. Those who enjoy Trina Schart Hyman’s work will appreciate her Caldecott Medal winner, Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz won the Newbery Medal for 2008, and deservedly so. Schlitz created monologues students could perform that realistically depict the lives of children from the runaway villein, to the village half-wit, to the Lord’s daughter. This is no sanitized depiction, but one full of the pathos of real human voices speaking across the centuries.
The story of the maiden soldier–Joan of Arc, is one of history’s remarkable enigmas, involving as it does, an illiterate peasant girl leading the army of France to victory during the Hundred Year’s War between England and France. Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc is the undisputed classic for high school students. In The Story of Joan of Arc the French artist/author, Maurice Boutet de Monvel, has created a lavish and moving panorama of scenes from a life both tragic and sublime.
Though this brief article cannot do justice to the wealth of literary gems available for this period, students fortunate enough to have the opportunity to read even a handful of these timeless works will find, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “instruction and delight.”
1. Hanawalt, Barbara. A., The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. p.7.
In Part II of my intro to Don Quixote, I will cover some of the themes and “illusions” that make the novel so unique. The historical context within which the work takes place is significant in understanding that appearances cannot be trusted. Even the novel itself suffers from an unreliable authorship as I will explain. So, since things are not as they appear, the key is attempting to look beyond the surface to what is really happening. For instance, the Edict of Exile of 1492 banished from Spain all Jews unwilling to convert to Catholicism and the Edict of 1499 effectually did the same to Muslims. Thus, both Jews and Muslims who chose to remain in Spain, did so only as conversos or Morenos. In reality, most of them kept faith with the religion of their fathers, but in public appeared as Catholics. This made for confusing cultural dynamics which Cervantes alludes to in humorous ways.
In regards to the authorship of Don Quixote, (Part I, Chapters 8-9) Cervantes sets up a complex literary conceit by claiming that the story of DQ ends abruptly and that he is at a loss as to where to find the “rest of the story.” But as he was walking one day “on the exchange of Toledo” he runs across a boy selling old papers with Arabic writing on them. Now this is significant, since during the Inquisition of Ferdinand and Isabella, both Hebrew and Arabic were outlawed. Books in these languages were burned (thus the scene of the book burning which opens the novel), and though Arabic had been the lingua franca during the Golden Age of Spain, it had now been outlawed for nearly a century and no one spoke it openly any longer. So while Cervantes knows the Arabic script, he is unable to read it. He therefore finds a “Moorish rabbi to read them” and low and behold, this is the very story of Don Quixote of La Mancha!
There are so many things going on in this scene that it is difficult to cover them all. First of all, Toledo was the center of the intellectual renaissance in Spain. It was there, that Brother Raymund de Sauvetot began his school of translation in the 12th century that brought together Arabic, Jewish, and Christian scholars to translate the classic works of Greek antiquity into Latin, Hebrew and Arabic from the original Greek. The Arab scholars brought the works of Persian authors in mathematics, science and medicine to be translated from Arabic into Latin. These three Abrahamic faiths worked side by side in tolerance and mutual respect. Now in the scene depicted by Cervantes, Toledo is nearly bereft of anyone who even speaks Arabic and the Golden Era of Spain is at an end. Not only that, but many of the texts painstakingly translated during this Golden Era were systematically burned on Inquisitional fires.
In the novel when the “Moorish rabbi” begins to read the text, he bursts out laughing because of notes written upon the margin. Cervantes questions him and he says, “This Dulcinea del Toboso [DQ’s lady love], so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand at salting pork of any woman in La Mancha” (68). The reason the Arab is laughing is because Dulcinea must have been a secret Jew, as Jews were forever trying to prove their authenticity as conversos by their willingness to handle pork, and become quite skilled at it.
Also, Cervantes ascribes authorship of Don Quixote of La Manchato an Arab historiographer–Cid Hamet Ben Engeli. But
as Cervantes notes, “if any objection lies against the truth of this history, it can only be, that the author was an Arab, those of that nation being not a little addicted to lying” (69). So even while he lays out the complex way in which the story of DQ comes to light, (by way of proving its veracity) at the same time he calls into question the reliability of the text by virtue of the fact that Arabs are somewhat known for their lack of honesty.
By using these complex conceits of reality vs. illusion, truth vs. honesty, and fact vs. fiction, Cervantes sets up a world where nothing is just as it seems. In this world, what DQ wants is the restoration of a better, more virtuous, kinder, and just world. Ironically, though, what Don Quixote imagines to be true he often inadvertently brings about. As Harold Bloom notes in his Modern Critical Interpretations: Cervantes’s Don Quixote,
Miguel de Unamuno says of Don Quixote’s loss of his wits: “He lost them for our sake, for our benefit, so as to leave us an eternal example of spiritual generosity”. That is to say, Don Quixote goes mad as a vicarious atonement for our drabness, our ungenerous dearth of imagination” (Bloom 150).
Enjoy this novel for the ways in which it can deliver us from our lack of imagination, our spiritual drabness and selfishness, and be inspired, like Don Quixote (as crazy as it may seem) to live life with joy, inspiration, imagination, and even a bit of foolishness.
Don’t forget to check out The Man of La Mancha with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren. Please preview before watching as a family. A number of artists have depicted Cervantes’s work with beautiful imagination. Don’t miss the woodcut etchings of Gustave Doré (featured in my last post) and also the oil paintings of Honoré Daumier. Also check online for images of the memorial sculpture in Madrid that honors Cervantes and his immortal characters from Don Quixote.
I have been thoroughly enjoying reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the first time. I am fairly dismayed and shocked that while I was earning my degree in English I was never introduced to this amazing work since it is considered the very first modern novel. Consider what a few of the brightest literary critics say about this remarkable work:
Don Quixote is to the Spanish language what Shakespeare is to English, Dante to Italian, and Goethe to German: the glory of that particular vernacular. Perhaps Cervantes’s masterwork is the central book of the last half-millennium, since all the greater novelists are as much Don Quixote’s children as they are Shakespeare’s. –Harold Bloom
We state his achievement somewhat more concretely when we say that he created a new form by criticizing the old forms” (Harry Levin, Cervantes’s Don Quixote).
As much as we may mediate on Don Quixote, as the Greeks meditated on the Homeric poems, or the English on the dramas of Shakespeare, we cannot consume all the marrow of the wisdom that it contains. –Miguel de Unamuno
In losing myself in this remarkable work, I have to agree wholeheartedly with the above sentiments. Don Quixote is a treasure trove of wisdom on every aspect of life–so much so that while I am a habitual marker of texts (I highlight, post-it note, and underline continually), I have had to stop. The reason is that the text is so rich, so ironic, so satirical, so funny, so full of double-meanings and real-life wisdom that I would literally have the entire work underlined. Now, in studying this with your student, here is the caveat. Most translations for children are mainly plot driven. They follow the humorous and hilarious antics of this crazy knight-errant and his loveable squire Sancho Panza, but with little of the philosophy included. This diminishes the text considerably and can make the text somewhat frustrating as students will begin to wonder what the point of DQ’s and Sancho Panza’s continual beatings is anyway. So here are a few suggestions to help make the text more meaningful when using an abridged and edited version:
Gustave Doré’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
1. Don Quixote turns the notion of the archetypal hero on its head. In other words, the heroic figure we are used to is strong, handsome, young, brave, (think Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus) and has a beautiful maiden for whom he performs his deeds of honor, courage and valor. DQ is the antithesis is many ways because he is (like his horse Rosinante) rather broken-down, old, not much to look at, and crazy. Despite all of this, he is determined to perform valorous deeds and all he does is basically wreak havoc wherever he goes.
2. Due to DQ’s distorted perceptions of reality, he causes trouble in countless situations. This results in continual beatings, deprivations, and humiliating calamities to himself and Sancho Panza. Ironically, the very fact that they are being continually beaten further verifies in DQ’s mind the intrinsic veracity of his knight-errantry. So, one way to make this clearer to your students is to read passages from the original that will particularly strike your funny bone and make sense of the text. Free texts can be found online at a number of sites.
3. Since the novel itself turns the notion of knighthood and chivalry on its head, it subtly exposes the fallacies of so much of what we take for granted regarding chivalry, knighthood, and medieval notions of virtue and honor. Don Quixote exposes the ways in which chivalrous works (think Beowulf, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, El Cid etc.) neglects essential aspects of life in view of painting a picture of chivalry so ethereal and inspiring that it is virtually unattainable by mortals. Here are a number of aspects inherent in the works of Medieval chivalry that Cervantes (through the character of DQ) exposes using satire and irony:
1. Knights never carry money: “Don Quixote replied, he had not a farthing, having never read in the histories of knights-errant, that they carried any.
2. Knights never complain of pain: “If I do not complain of pain, it is because knights-errant are not allowed to complain of any wound whatever, though their entrails come out of it.”
3. Knights are never accused of a crime or brought to justice, no matter how many people they kill: “Peace,’ quoth Don Quixote, ‘for where have you ever seen or read of a knight-errant’s being brought before a court of justice, let him have committed ever so many homicides?”
4. Knights never eat: “If you had read as many histories as I have, you would have known this; for though I have perused a great many, I never yet found any account given in them, that ever knights-errant did eat, unless it were by chance, and at certain sumptuous banquets made on purpose for them.”
Cervantes applies this same kind of irony and satire to not only chivalry, but also to the many foibles of life and human nature as well. As you begin to recognize these, your appreciation for this marvelous work will only increase. In the meantime, for those wishing to study this work with their youngest readers, Margaret Hodges work is probably the best. For middle and upper readers the latest edition by Martin Jenkins, and illustrated by Chris Riddell will provide not only a well-written abridgement, but also a visual feast. Also, don’t miss the marvelous etchings of Gustave Doré, a few of which I’ve included here and can also be found online. Jennie Ruzicka also provides a book of them in her Gustave Doré Illustrations to Don Quixote.
As many of you know, I also write for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine (TOS) on topics related to history, literature and the Charlotte Mason Approach. For the first time, TOS is offering a free digital link to their magazine, so that you can read the entire issue online! So I am posting this by way of providing the link to you to read my latest article on “Teaching Medieval History Through Literature.” This is great timing for those of you planning to teach this historical period in the fall! Here is the link.
I have two additional postings on Medieval History that might be of interest. For those interested in Shakespeare’s Hamlet I’ve provided some background notes which you may find helpful here. Also, some insight into King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Tablehere. Study of the Medieval period should offer each and every student and teacher/parent a delightful journey into the past full of character lessons, adventure, pathos and insight into our cultural heritage.
Rea Berg is passionate about children's books and has been republishing classic and historical children's literature for the last 30 years through her company Beautiful Feet Books. She also designs guides for teaching elementary and secondary students history using award-winning classic and historic literature. She holds both an undergraduate degree in English from Simmons College, Boston as well as a graduate degree in children's literature.