English 9142B

Motifs and Tales from Beowulf to Ishiguro

Professor M. Fox
Winter Half Course.

Man Booker short-listed author Patrick Dewitt’s latest novel, Undermajordomo Minor (2015), has been called “a folktale of sorts,” “a folktale for adults,” and a “reimagining of the folktale.” Kazuo Ishiguro recently released The Buried Giant (2015), a tale set in a world half Arthurian and half Anglo-Saxon, a world inhabited by folktale characters like ogres and dragons. The Guardian’s review of Ishiguro’s novel likened this world to modern fantasy, suggesting that novelists of the kind who win the Booker prize tend not to touch Tolkien’s legacy “with a barge-pole.” What, though, is Tolkien’s legacy, how might it be deployed, and why has folktale seemingly become current again?

In this course, we will explore the folktale through the particular tale which lies at the heart of Beowulf, AT 301 (a folktale type also known as “The Three Stolen Princesses”). We will read Beowulf (in translation), several Old Norse/Icelandic adaptations of the same basic tale, such as Grettis saga and Örvar-Odds saga (in translation), The Hobbit, DeWitt, and Ishiguro. We will understand how tales are reworked (everything from Beowulf to The Hobbit is a retelling of AT 301) and motifs exploited (DeWitt and Ishiguro may be working at the level of motif instead of tale), and this understanding will be informed by such theorists as Lévi-Strauss, Propp, Jameson, and Genette. Structuralism and critiques of structuralism will lend us vocabulary and offer insight into the ultimate meanings of some of these “tales,” but in the end, this is a course about how stories are told.

View the course syllabus here: English 9142B. PDF download