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Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature

Broaden your understanding of the concept of the hero in this course that examines these characters in the greater context of world history and culture.
Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 79.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from This was a very interesting and engaging course. The lectures were a good introduction to the books I had not read yet. I wish this professor taught another course.
Date published: 2021-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'm Running Out of Superlatives In the mid-1960s, one of my high school English teachers contended that historical trends in literature could be regarded as the changing attitudes to what constitutes a hero. He did not illustrate his viewpoint with very many examples, though, and the ones he did give were of male heroes crafted by male writers. Now, decades later, I have benefitted from Dr. Thomas A. Shippey’s Great Course, which delivers a fascinating, updated treatment of similar ideas, including discussions of male, female, and even non-human (e.g., Frodo Baggins, Thor) heroic characters. Each example is thoroughly and entertainingly analyzed. Keys for selection of the featured characters are how each represented (or overcame) the societal context of an era, plus how each has especially influenced subsequent writing. I now understand how Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” demonstrates independence despite social pressures, and how J. K. Rowling’s character Harry Potter offers a template for the whistle-blower hero. Perhaps my favourite lecture in this series was the one unpacking all the symbolic components of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” causing me to recognize for the first time the martyr-like heroism of Tom and the crusader’s heroism of the author herself. Two general theories that Dr. Shippey shared about creative writing particularly impressed me. One was that prescient writers sometimes introduce the most-needed sorts of heroes before a given generation has even recognized that special relevance. Thus, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn epitomized the difference between legality and moral right, a timely contemplation for U.S. readers in the second half of the nineteenth century. A second insightful generalization was that authors can find new life in time-honoured stories by, so to speak, “writing into the gap,” exploring new story lines suggested by what an earlier writer had left unsaid. An example of that process was how the poet Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid” filled a time gap between the events recounted in Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” successfully bolstering pride in the Roman Empire, providing his fellow citizens with their own epic and their own hero, Aeneas. I have studied and reviewed many fine audio and video courses from The Great Courses collection, and I am running out of superlatives with which to commend them. Suffice it to say this present course is one of the best.
Date published: 2021-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Heroes and legends of literature What a delight! And an eye opener! Loved the professor. Excellent insights, easy to comprehend.
Date published: 2021-08-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from What makes a hero? A very interesting and absorbing look at some of the popular characters across a range of literary genres. Professor Shippey does a good job in probing beneath the surface, showing why his choices have - and will -stand the test of time. But engaging with those choices so much depends on the listener's personal literary tastes. I can't honestly say I was inspired to pick up the works I hadn't previously read. There are so many other heroes in my personal library.
Date published: 2021-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining and Educational Professor Shippey is an engaging and entertaining speaker. His lectures on heroes and legends ran the gamut from the popular (eg, Harry Potter) to the academic (eg, Canterbury Tales). I enjoyed this series so much that I finished it in a little over a week. I'd like to hear more from Dr. Shippey.
Date published: 2021-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful and interesting I thoroughly enjoyed this course. I gained insights into familiar characters and archetypes and was also introduced to new concepts, characters, and ideas. Professor Shippley is engaging and humorous, too, which I really appreciate. I highly recommend this course and professor.
Date published: 2021-03-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining (& flawed) tour of story figures This course offers an insightful look at some heroes and heroines in popular fiction from ancient times. Don't expect the likes of Hamlet or Mrs. Dalloway; instead we hear about figures like Robin Hood, James Bond and Dracula. Also, be aware that the professor is a huge fan of fantasy and science fiction, and the course is skewed in that direction. What I found most interesting is his discussion of how heroic stories respond to their time. The professor discusses how Robinson Crusoe, Lisbeth Salander and others were rooted in social, economic and cultural realities in their respective eras. He also talks a lot about how stories transmute over time. For example, some tales received significantly different treatment by Chaucer, Shakespeare and Bocaccio, while Pride and Prejudice got updated in the Bridget Jones novels. Except for the lecture on The Color Purple, the course held my interest. The professor speaks clearly, though with some strange pronunciations which may or may not relate to his Scottish upbringing. Although I enjoyed the course and am planning to re-listen to two or three lectures, I felt it had several weak points. 1)The opening lecture, on JRR Tolkien's characters, was badly out of sequence. Everything else was roughly chronological. In that first lecture, the professor describes the Tolkien characters as "a different kind of hero." However, he never gave a definition in that lecture of what the standard profile of a hero is! In fact, he never gave a basic definition of "hero" at all. Only gradually as he repeats in several lectures that a hero is supposed to be "big, strong and fearless" does this emerge as a working definition. He's supposed to be an expert on his topic, so he shouldn't assume that we all know what a hero is without him giving a definition. To me, this was a serious obstacle to taking seriously his treatment of the overall topic of the course. 2)He never specifies that he's actually talking about Western heroes. It would greatly enrich his course if he could drop in a couple of Eastern heroes to see how different they are. For instance, I would suggest Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, from the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, who is as well known to kids and adults in China as Robin Hood or Peter Pan are in Great Britain and the US. 3)It's astounding that he barely uses the word "archetypes" and never mentions either Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, who both studied story heroes and their relationship to deep human needs. He mentioned Freud in one lecture but also said somewhere that he doesn't like psychological commentary. That's extremely strange, given his subject matter. Although he discusses why so many people might admire specific heroes he focuses on, he never broaches the subject of why heroes are generally important to people. Again, a strange omission.
Date published: 2020-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this course! There are many things I loved about this course but I'll just mention a few. First, I admired the wide range of types of heroes Prof. Shippey selected and the insight into how the definition of a hero has changed over time. As a woman, I appreciated the inclusion of many remarkable female characters and I found Prof. Shippey's critique of them to be both insightful and generous. I enjoyed his elaboration of how these literary figures have been expanded on and morphed over time. I had read most of the works Prof. Shippey discussed but he never ceased to provoke new ways of thinking about them and he did an excellent job of weaving all of the material into a high-level, historic fabric that made each individual work even more interesting. And he suggested some excellent additional reading. Prof. Shippey is that rare lecturer who you feel you get to know by the time course is done. He is generous in sharing his own experiences, ideas, and doubts. For a reader, it is like having the best book club buddy ever, which I really needed during the pandemic. Thank you, Prof. Shippey!
Date published: 2020-11-14
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Heroes hold a special place in our imagination. Names such as Odysseus, Beowulf, and Queen Guinevere summon up mythic legends, while Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Huckleberry Finn are some of the most recognizable figures in all of world literature. What do these memorable characters have in common? And what impact have they made on world history? Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature is an opportunity to study some of the most memorable and important characters ever created. Taught by Professor Thomas A. Shippey of Saint Louis University-one of the most well-known scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien-these 24 lectures give fresh insight into what makes a hero and what makes a character successful.


Thomas A. Shippey
Thomas A. Shippey

There's nothing to beat a new idea, a new angle, a new response-except a new idea that people have been waiting for without knowing it; a new idea that responds to an existing new situation.


St. Louis University
Dr. Thomas A. Shippey is Professor Emeritus at Saint Louis University, where he held the Walter J. Ong, S.J., Chair of Humanities. He holds a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.\r\nProfessor Shippey has published more than 100 articles, mostly in the fields of Old and Middle English language and literature, and he has a long-standing interest in modern fantasy and science fiction. He is a regular reviewer for The Wall Street Journal on both medieval and modern topics, and he also writes for The Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, among other journals. His books include The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology; Beowulf: The Critical Heritage (with Andreas Haarder); J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century; and his edited collection The Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous.\r\nHe has given invited lectures and keynote speeches at conferences in at least 25 states and more than 10 European countries. He appeared on an often-replayed television program, The Story of English, hosted by Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil, and he was an adviser on pronunciation for Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings movies.

By This Professor

Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature
Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature


Frodo Baggins-A Reluctant Hero

01: Frodo Baggins-A Reluctant Hero

What makes certain characters successful? Begin your study with a look at Frodo Baggins, the hobbit-hero from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In considering what makes him a hero-and how he runs counter to our notions of the traditional hero-you'll see how changing cultural values connect to heroism.

34 min
Odysseus-The Trickster Hero

02: Odysseus-The Trickster Hero

Go back to the beginning of world literature to explore what made Homer's traveling hero such a powerful figure. Odysseus's story set the model for countless road narratives, but his character, which is surprisingly sly and resourceful, is unique. Here, follow him on some of his many adventures.

31 min
Aeneas-The Straight Arrow

03: Aeneas-The Straight Arrow

Turn now to the Roman straight arrow. Aeneas's story takes him from the Trojan War to the courtship of Queen Dido and on to the founding of Rome. In writing this epic, Virgil helped shape the Roman Empire's sense of self. It also shows how old legends provide the inspiration for new tales.

32 min
Guinevere-A Heroine with Many Faces

04: Guinevere-A Heroine with Many Faces

Trace Guinevere's adulterous affair with Lancelot and consider what effects it had on cultural values and Western history. As a powerful woman in the heart of King Arthur's court, Guinevere is an intriguing heroine-passionate, strong-willed, and complex in a way that still captures our imagination today.

31 min
The Wife of Bath-An Independent Woman

05: The Wife of Bath-An Independent Woman

Chaucer worked harder on the Wife of Bath than on any other character in The Canterbury Tales, leaving us not one but four separate perspectives on one of literature's most memorable female characters. Discover what Chaucer reveals about her, the time she lives in, and the surprising complexity of her character.

30 min
Cressida-A Love Betrayed

06: Cressida-A Love Betrayed

Cressida is an archetypal femme fatale, embroiled in a love triangle between her true love, Troilus, and the bad boy, Diomedes. Through the lens of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Scottish poet Robert Henryson, discover what makes Cressida tick-why does she send Troilus a "Dear John" letter? What doesn't she understand about love?

31 min
Beowulf-A Hero with Hidden Depths

07: Beowulf-A Hero with Hidden Depths

Beowulf is not an easy poem to understand, but Beowulf is not an easy character to understand. Here, analyze how this classic male hero-a big, strong, monster killer-may have a hidden vulnerability. Then, look at what insights Beowulf's story offers about life and death, the limits of self-reliance, and the path to achieving wisdom.

32 min
Thor-A Very Human God

08: Thor-A Very Human God

Thor may seem like another classic male hero-the god of thunder in Norse mythology and a superhero today-yet the Icelandic poems and stories from the 13th century undercut the image of Thor as a straightforward hero. These amusing tales will give you a new window into a character you thought you knew.

31 min
Robin Hood-The Outlaw Hero

09: Robin Hood-The Outlaw Hero

Who was Robin Hood? He's an anomaly in this course because his story cannot be traced to a single work or figure. Perhaps because of these gaps in the story, he seems to be a bundle of contradictions. Delve into the politics, religion, and society of Robin Hood's origins to understand his character and lasting appeal.

29 min
Don Quixote-The First of the Wannabes

10: Don Quixote-The First of the Wannabes

Turn next to Don Quixote, a wannabe knight-errant whose infamous exploits mark a pivotal moment in the history of literature. Explore his fantastic adventures and meet Sancho Panza, who is perhaps literature's first antihero. See why this novel is so innovative and how it has influenced writers in the centuries since its publication.

31 min
Robinson Crusoe-A Lone Survivor

11: Robinson Crusoe-A Lone Survivor

Robinson Crusoe might be the most flawed hero in the course-a colonizer and a slave-owning capitalist. Why, then, is he such an enduring character? Is it the desert-island story? Or is there something inherent in Crusoe's character, beyond the flaws, that has helped him stand the test of time?

30 min
Elizabeth Bennet-A Proper Pride

12: Elizabeth Bennet-A Proper Pride

Meet the charming heroine from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The story of her complicated relationship with Mr. Darcy is a realistic Cinderella story and has lent itself to numerous adaptations, including Bridget Jones's Diary. Consider the integral role that money and social class play in this classic tale of love and romance.

31 min
Natty Bumppo and Woodrow Call-Frontier Heroes

13: Natty Bumppo and Woodrow Call-Frontier Heroes

Shift your attention to two very American heroes: Natty Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and Woodrow Call from Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove series. These frontier heroes bring to life the conflict between Anglo- and Native American cultures-and capture a reality often glossed over by the romance of the Wild West.

32 min
Uncle Tom-The Hero as Martyr

14: Uncle Tom-The Hero as Martyr

The name "Uncle Tom" has complex associations today, but Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel had a truly powerful impact when it was published in 1852. Explore the historical circumstances of slavery that inspired Stowe's novel, and then consider the fortitude that makes this meek, long-suffering character a hero.

32 min
Huckleberry Finn-Free Spirit of America

15: Huckleberry Finn-Free Spirit of America

Join Huck Finn on his American odyssey down the Mississippi River. Although the story at first seems to be the fun adventure of a free-spirited hero, you'll explore the moral complexities of 19th-century America as Huck struggles with the tension between his conscience and the social circumstances in which he grew up.

30 min
Sherlock Holmes-The First Great Detective

16: Sherlock Holmes-The First Great Detective

We are familiar with Sherlock Holmes's methodology-using clues, facts, evidence, and reason to solve the case. Here, go inside the world of the 19th century and see what circumstances paved the way for such a hero. Then, turn to some of Sherlock's most exciting cases.

31 min
Dracula-The Allure of the Monster

17: Dracula-The Allure of the Monster

The 19th century produced a radically different kind of hero: the spooky and fantastical Dracula. After observing the structural complexity of this novel, you'll examine the hidden fears and repressed sensuality that led Bram Stoker to create this vampire and his seductive brides. Then ponder Dracula's lasting effect on world literature.

33 min
Mowgli-The Wolf Child

18: Mowgli-The Wolf Child

A boy in the woods, raised by wolves and living by the law of the jungle: This story is familiar to us, thanks to Rudyard Kipling's classic stories and the later Disney film. Revisit the original stories to see what they tell us about humanity, morality, imperialism, and political responsibility.

30 min
Celie-A Woman Who Wins Through

19: Celie-A Woman Who Wins Through

We've seen that heroes don't always have to be gods or queens or the social elite. Dirt poor in Georgia in the 1930s, Celie-the heroine from Alice Walker's The Color Purple-is at the bottom of the social totem pole, yet she exhibits remarkable heroism in the way she overcomes the forces pressing against her.

31 min
Winston Smith-The Hero We Never Want to Be

20: Winston Smith-The Hero We Never Want to Be

Winston Smith, the central figure in George Orwell's nightmare scenario, 1984, is fearful, undernourished, and oppressed by the state-not exactly the image we conjure up when we think of the word "hero." Dive into the dystopia of Big Brother and Ingsoc and find out what makes Winston worthy of being called a hero.

32 min
James Bond-A Dangerous Protector

21: James Bond-A Dangerous Protector

Thanks to novels, movies, and an array of charismatic actors, nearly everyone in the developed world knows about James Bond and how he drinks his martini-"shaken, not stirred." But who is Bond? What makes him tick? Look beyond the girls, gadgets, and glamour and discover the secret to the James Bond franchise.

30 min
Fairy-Tale Heroines-New-Style Princesses

22: Fairy-Tale Heroines-New-Style Princesses

Cinderella. Snow White. Rapunzel. These fairy-tale heroines are imbued in our cultural consciousness. What lessons are they meant to teach? And do these lessons align with our current cultural values? Study the composite fairy-tale heroine, both in the classic fairy tales and in modern revisions from authors such as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.

33 min
Lisbeth Salander-Avenging Female Fury

23: Lisbeth Salander-Avenging Female Fury

Lisbeth Salander, the heroine from the popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, seems to be an original character well suited to our times-hip, ingenious, computer savvy. But as you'll discover in this lecture, her character also has echoes of ancient myths, from the Greek Furies to the Scandinavian Valkyries.

32 min
Harry Potter-Whistle-Blower Hero

24: Harry Potter-Whistle-Blower Hero

Finish your course with one of the most unexpected hits of our time-and a smash hit at that. What can the surprising success of Harry Potter teach us about successful heroes? And what do his battles against Lord Voldemort tell us about our world today and the need for love, faith, and inner heroism?

34 min