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