Some of the most fascinating and challenging works in earlier English literature worry at the problems that arise when people seek to find and understand themselves, both as inwardly defined individuals and as socially defined members of various groups: a marriage, a friendship, a noble court, or a nation, for instance. Do self-discovery and social identity confirm and support one another? Do they undermine or even endanger one another? How does literature contribute to the quest for a self, whether in or out of society? We will read a variety of literary versions of the relation of self and society, including Beowulf; works by Marie de France, Chaucer, the Gawain-poet, and Malory; and selections from the prolific Middle English writer Anonymous. We will also consider key critical approaches to discern how current debates can open our eyes to new questions and insights. Old English and Old French works will be read in translation; those in Middle English will be read in the original language, aided by editions designed to make them accessible. No prior knowledge of Middle English is expected or required.
Work for the course will include (almost) weekly short responses and close readings, a class presentation, two critical essays (5 and 10 pages), the longer of which will be accompanied by an annotated bibliography.