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ENGL 2700 B. Devine: Topics and Background Information

A guide developed to assist students with library resources related to British Literature I

Possible Prompts

Beowulf

  1. Compare the opening funeral with the concluding one.
  2. Compare the opening funeral with the concluding one.
  3. Does your emotional experience of the poem conflict with your understanding of its themes?
  4. How is Beowulf seen as a Christ-figure and in what other ways is the pagan poem Christianized?
  5. What is the role of art, including poetry, in the poem?
  6. Is there a tension between the values of these warrior peoples and the suggested Christianity of the poet? Are the tenets of paganism idealized or valorized here more than Christianity itself?
  7. Compose your own question, including comparing Beowulf to other works of literature.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  1. What does the opening, about nation-building, have to do with the rest of the poem?
  2. The kisses Gawain delivers to Lord Bertilak are more than perfunctory; what does queer eroticism contribute to the poem?
  3. Articulate a theme in Gawain and find it epitomized in one or more striking images.
  4. Why is it a girdle and not some other article of clothing—a glove, a sock, a necklace?
  5. Why are the images of truth (the pentangle) and chastity (Mary’s face) painted on a shield and not, instead, some other article of arms?
  6. Manners—eating, dressing, talking—carry a heavy weight of meaning in the poem. How are they reflected in its form (the feast topos, the passages of effictio, or description, the dialogues)? What do they mean?
  7. Antithesis is a major feature of the double effictio at line 941, yet the descriptions of the two women are deliberately enmeshed. So?
  8. What role does the feminine play in Gawain’s identity?
  9. The interlacing of the hunting and bedroom scenes follows a romance plot convention and is a prominent feature of the poem. How are we invited to respond?
  10. What qualifies one to be a hero like Gawain in this poem? Compare the poem’s depiction of heroism to the heroic in other literary works.
  11. Compare to Beowulf or Piers Plowman

Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

General Prologue

  1. Does Chaucer draw on different vocabularies for his different portraits? Does Chaucer draw on different values within each portrait? Where do they come from?
  2. Are you surprised when the long opening sentence gives “pilgrimages” as the object of folks’ longings? What does the poem invite you to expect? Why would it do that?
  3. Choose a portrait that is particularly visually evocative, and describe Chaucer’s appeals to the eye.
  4. What role does Chaucer suggest for the poet?

The Miller's Tale:

  1. Can we compare the fabliau’s vision of the human body to that of the romance?
  2. What is the religious material doing in this dirty story?
  3. Are all the characters punished at the end? According to poetic justice, where does each of their faults lie?
  4. What view of the “private” does the story present?
  5. What, exactly, do Alison and Nicholas enjoy?
  6. Compare the fabliau’s vision of sexuality to that of the romance.

The Wife of Bath's Tale:

  1. Is the Wife an example of the antifeminist tradition, or is she a counter to it?
  2. Or, to put the same question another way, does the Wife of Bath’s Prologue belong in Jankyn’s book of wicked wives, or does it effectively tear the antifeminist tradition apart?
  3. How does the Wife manipulate argument and textual authority? Is she justified in manipulating texts and argument in the way she does?
  4. Does the Wife expose power relations that are inevitable in marriage?
  5. Is the Wife capable of imagining any alternative to the exercise of absolute power by either husband or wife in marriage?
  6. How acute is the Wife about why so few stories of good wives exist?
  7. Is the Prologue simply about one woman’s history, or is it also about how literary tradition is determined by structures of power?

The Pardoner's Tale:

  1. How does Chaucer craft our responses to the Pardoner? When are we drawn to him; when do we recoil?
  2. What is the relation between the prologue and the tale?
  3. Find some images that help to bind the poem together and explain their significance.
  4. Does the Pardoner’s exposé of his own vice invite us to be better or worse?
  5. How can we assess sexual orientation six centuries gone?
  6. If we say the Pardoner is a homosexual, how does that affect our reading of the poem?
  7. What is the quest vowed by the three “riotours”? (To kill Death.) Is it wrong to imitate Christ?
  8. What are the different registers of tone employed by the Pardoner?
  9. Work out the significance of the “turd-shrine” at the end of the poem.
  10. How does the old man who longs for death affect us?
  11. Is this poem a criticism of the Church?

The Nun's Priest's Tale:

  1. What does the poem suggest about literary interpretations and criticism?
  2. Why does Chauntecleer translate “mulier est hominis confusio” (line 344) the way he does?
  3. What are the values upheld by the beast fable as a genre? How does Chaucer demonstrate or correct those values?
  4. Why explore grave philosophical issues in a fiction about chickens?
  5. Why not write this one in an Aesopian plain style?
  6. How does Chaucer integrate a realistic vision of interpersonal relationships with philosophy or courtly love?

Piers Plowman by William Langland

  1. What is Langland’s topic, the individual or the Church? Or both?
  2. Is theology separate, for Langland, from questions of law and economics?
  3. Is Langland a rigid conservative rejecting the urban and money-driven world with which he is faced?
  4. Why should Langland’s poem be so fluid formally?
  5. What is the status of the narrator, Will? Is he reliable?
  6. Why should the poem’s spiritual hero, Piers, be a plowman?
  7. Why should Langland go to such lengths to set Christ within a specifically fourteenth-century
  8. world?
  9. Is Langland’s anger at the corruption of the world matched by his pity for the pain of sinners?
  10. Does Langland believe in the possibility of works contributing to salvation?
  11. The story contains satire; religious allegory; biblical narrative in a local setting. The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play provides a perfect comparison with Piers Plowman for the way in which theological questions are embedded in the painful material realities of hunger and poverty. The mystery plays generally offer rich comparative material for Piers, insofar as they set biblical narrative in a specifically contemporary setting. One might also compare the Prologue of Piers with Chaucer’s General Prologue: how and why does each author criticize society? The other Chaucer text that will repay comparison with Piers is The Pardoner’s Tale, since both Langland and Chaucer lay grievous charges against ecclesiastical practice in these texts. Langland’s presentation of Christ’s humanity is very different from that of either Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, but the comparison is rewarding, if you have time for extra reading beyond that assigned. You might also compare Piers with much older material, such as The Dream of the Rood, where Christ is also presented as a heroic figure.