Early English Classics
By Megan Powell and Michael Calder
We have decided to go right back in time to discuss some of the original works of literature in the English language. Historical English classics are a work of art in themselves, with not just the plots but language used. Written in Old English and Middle English, these stories reflect the time periods in which they were conceived. They may be a challenge to read, but there are of plenty of translations available online to make understanding these remarkable stories easier.
The Canterbury Tales
When you think of English classics, we are certain that Geoffrey Chaucer comes to the centre of your mind. Written in 1392, The Canterbury Tales - originally Tales of Canterbury - comprises twenty-four stories, featuring some of English literature's most beloved characters. This is without a doubt Chaucer’s most highly regarded masterpiece, earning a significant importance that remains today. Throughout the tales, Chaucer combines humour, drama, and impressive poetry to powerfully entertain the reader. The stories contain plenty of elements that mirror 14th century life, providing a valuable insight into what society was like. Chaucer doesn't just comment on class; he also considers entertainment, fashion and life in general. Each tale presents the reader with a moral dilemma, which creates an impressionable read. The common theme running through Chaucer’s stories is that honesty and most ideas are relatable to society today.
Transcribed between the 8th and 11th century, Beowulf likely began as part of an oral storytelling tradition, before being penned by an unknown source in Anglo-Saxon England. While there is no evidence that textual renditions appeared prior, the poem’s content may suggest that oral composition occurred earlier, before being appropriated, as the narrative compliments 6th century Anglo-Saxon culture with invading Christian values of the 7th and 8th centuries. As such, Beowulf becomes an epic tale which follows the eponymous character on various expeditions across 6th century Scandinavia and layers biblical symbolism into the narrative framework. The epic bears extraordinary length, over 3,000 lines, and comprises three acts, each detailing an adventure of the Geatish prince, and eventual king, Beowulf. Beginning in Denmark, the tale opens with diametrically opposed forces, as Beowulf faces the kingdom’s bane, Grendel, ripping off the beast’s arm to claim victory. However, this is not the eponymous character’s final heroic act. In classic fashion, Beowulf continues a journey toward legendary status and does not disappoint.
Le Morte d’Arthur
Composed during the late 15th century, Le Morte d'Arthur emerged as the Middle Aged faded into the Early Modern period, where the Renaissance swept across Europe. The work has contentious authorial roots but typically accreditation goes to Thomas Malory. Born in 1416, Malory lived a colourful life, surviving the Wars of the Roses (1455–85), which saw six kings ascend the English throne, and became a serial criminal. This wayward lifestyle bore a significant impact on his work. While Le Morte d’Arthur may be the only text from this period which recounts the entire Arthurian legend, demonstrating the expected romanticised notions of chivalry and dignity, Malory’s tale does not stray from the hideous realities that plagued the Middle Ages. Opening with the birth of King Arthur, and ending with his death, Malory depicts the death and debauchery that flowed through medieval society. Undoubtedly, Le Morte d’Arthur has become a crucial Middle English text when exploring Arthurian mythology, which has a rooted place in contemporary English media.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Published in the 14th century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a chivalric romantic novel featuring fantasy and battles. Sir Gawain is a knight at King Arthur’s round table and accepts a challenge from the Green Knight during a feast. The challenge dares any knight to strike the Green Knight but to expect a similar blow exactly a year and a day later. However, Gawain beheads the Green Knight and is unable to fulfil the full dare. This then presents Sir Gawain with a battle of honour as he did not follow the fate correctly. The knight’s loyalty gets tested and proves how important honour is to Arthurian stories. This author has included many great traditions and highlighted the classic pastime of a challenge.