My "literary" favorites and influences
Geoffrey Chaucer once noted that "familiarity breeds contempt." And while I'm not here to question the wisdom of such a renowned author, I can honestly say that I most heartily disagree. In my case familiarity has bred contentment, because the books and plays I would consider to be my all-time "classics" are ones I have read many times without ever having them lose their luster. So here, in no particular order, are 10 literary classics that helped shape me as a writer. Some may question whether a few of these are literally classics, or literature for that matter. But this is, after all, my own personal list.
I taught high school English for 29 years, which means that in some cases I have read/taught certain titles dozens of times. In the case of The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet, I'd say I've read it well over 100 times and seen it performed at least a half a dozen. Shakespeare isn't easy for most of us, this writer included, and that certainly is true for freshman English students. So, rather than send them home to toil over it on their own, I always enjoyed reading it aloud with my students, who may not have shared my enthusiasm for it, but often got a good laugh out of R & J's toilet humor and my rousing portrayal of Juliet's father. This was particularly true during Act III, scene v when the old boy tears into his "disobedient" daughter for refusing an arranged marriage to a man she barely knows, Paris. (For the record I find Paris to be a total wimp, and don't even get me started on the cowardly Friar Laurence).
Many of my students likely believed that I had hobbit blood coursing through my veins due to my great affinity for J.R.R. Tolkien's all-time classic (at least in my opinion), The Hobbit. The same holds true for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, regarded by some as the greatest fantasy books ever. They'll get no argument from me. I was fortunate enough to get to teach The Hobbit for many years before the curriculum wrecking concept known as Common Core ravaged our district like a pandemic all its own. For a few years I also got to teach LOTR in a senior elective that was wiped out by the previously disdained Common Core. Tolkien's descriptions, for me, are a thing of beauty, and his ability to create an entire world with layers of history is something I have long admired. I'll admit it right now, the various songs that are part of Mr. Tout's Magical Forest were directly influenced by Mr. Tolkien, as well as 29 years spent teaching poetry to my ninth graders.
Continuing my affinity for old English authors who are known by their initials, The Chronicles of Narnia by Tolkien's longtime associate C. S. Lewis also ranks among my favorites. The best known book in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is also my runaway favorite, although I like all seven volumes. Seemingly so simple that even a child can read it, yet carrying a depth it takes years to unravel, Lewis has accomplished something often unparalleled in literature. Without becoming overly "preachy" he does a masterful job of relaying the death and resurrection of the Lord himself, Jesus Christ. While I'm not an overly religious person, per se, I am truly fascinated with the means by which both he and Tolkien were able to relay their Christian beliefs in such subtle and beautiful ways.
Which leads me into a true lifelong favorite, the stories of the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks.
The first stories I ever remember hearing were the Greek myths, as read to me by my wonderful mother. That's why The Iliad and The Odyssey are also among my literary favorites, as well as the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, which I discovered many years later. I always enjoyed teaching Oedipus at Colonus, and in particular I adore the Oresteian trilogy, likely an offshoot of my childhood fascination with the Trojan War. While Agamemnon and The Choephori are both exceptional plays, my personal favorite is the third part, The Eumenides. The three Furies are one of the most frightening concepts I have ever come across, and Homer's plots have been borrowed and reshaped by writers and playwrights for centuries. It's a pity that very few movie directors have been able to recreate these stories on the silver screen without deviating so greatly from the original myths. I may be in the minority here, but I have been largely unimpressed by movie versions of these timeless tales.
And that is quite ironic, given the fact that I am such a huge fan of L. Frank Baum's (there's that initials thing again) The Wizard of Oz. I know I am not alone in saying that I adore the movie version of this classic. What kid wasn't frightened by the flying monkeys and the Wicked Witch of the West? Long before VHS and DVD and online streaming, The Wizard of Oz was a once a year event that was "must see" TV. Perhaps that is why I can excuse the numerous ways it differs from Baum's original version. The fact that I saw the movie dozens of times before I ever read the book is also a major factor, although I still hope the day comes when someone makes a film version that follows the original manuscript. Children need to see the characters of "The Dainty China Country" and "The Country of the Quadlings" in all their larger than life glory, or at least this big kid does.
Unlike college itself, grad school wasn't the most exciting time in my overall education. With one noteworthy exception. One memorable spring I enrolled in an Arthurian Literature class, and it was during this time that I discovered the work of French author Chretien de Troyes. It was fascinating to see the way that different writers from different time periods dealt with the classic cannon of Arthurian literature. And as an added bonus I wrote a paper comparing the literary versions of the famed king to two movies of the time, Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the professor loved it! Like my earlier complaint about the way the Greek myths have been mangled in the movies, I share a similar sentiment about King Arthur's treatment in celluloid (if they even use real film any more). I have, however, seen a few decent mini-series and television series that were highly entertaining, if not true to the original stories.
But as you may have noticed, a common thread running through my "literary favorites" is the way they all largely deal with fantasy and imagination. And when I step back and really analyze it-that-not the ability to follow the written story step by step, is the real beauty of what I consider to be a true literary masterpiece.