World Literature Written Pre-Modernity: Influences, Traits & Famous Works

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  • 0:01 A Global Society
  • 0:32 Changes in World Literature
  • 2:09 Beowulf
  • 2:49 The Odyssey
  • 3:47 The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Literature has flourished worldwide, even in the time before the historical modern era. In this lesson, you'll learn why some literature has lasted for thousands of years, and you'll look at three particular classics.

A Global Society

Today's movie makers understand that, for a major motion picture, the audience could spread well beyond its country of origin. Film producers thus have to consider the overseas market. Will the movie appeal to viewers in Europe or Asia? Might it offend those in Africa or South America? In our global society, it pays to consider the broad global audience, but it hasn't always been this way. There was a time, not long ago, when ideas didn't travel so quickly.

Changes in World Literature

World literature, as we currently define it, is writing that circulates widely beyond its country of origin. In our modern world, that's easy enough to do because distribution happens at the nearly instant speed of information. If the ideas and writing are strong enough, a work from Nigeria can become a common high school English text, as in the case of Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart.

But hundreds of years ago, writers didn't expect their works to live outside of their country's borders because widespread distribution just didn't happen. Historically speaking, the modern era began in the 16th century, so the time of pre-modernity is considered to be before the 16th century. Literature in pre-modernity was largely religious or culturally important works meant to be read by those of the writer's religion or culture. It only became what we now consider to be world literature after many years passed and readers from other countries began to see the importance of the piece.

Religious texts like the Bible, the Book of the Dead, or the Bhagavad Gita are works of tremendous cultural significance, and they have obvious lasting influence, but what about secular books? What kinds of stories gained a wide audience? These would be the tales, many written before the invention of the printing press, that have withstood the test of time and have remained popular, centuries later. Let's take a quick peek at three titles from around the world to help you get a better feel for these classics of world literature.

Example One - Beowulf

Beowulf is a European poem written over 1,000 years ago. It's an epic adventure story about the hero, Beowulf, and his struggle to defeat a horrible monster, Grendel. Aside from its nail-bitingly suspenseful action, Beowulf is also one of the first written works in English, although the form of English that was used is impossible for us to read today without special training in the language. Talk about a work that has continued to attract interest - this old poem had a strong influence on both The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars series of movies. A movie version has even been released in the past ten years.

Example Two - The Odyssey

Our next classic is a poem from ancient Greece that is usually attributed to the blind poet, Homer. It's called The Odyssey, and like Beowulf, it's an adventure story, but this adventure is a sprawling journey that stretches for ten years. Odysseus, the poem's main character, leaves the Trojan War and tries to return home to his wife and son, but the gods thwart him and send him challenge after challenge to overcome. This story is over 2,000 years old, but the tale of one man's struggle to reunite with his true love remains timeless. Modern movie hits like Forrest Gump draw heavily upon this tale, and what may have once been a poem specific to a single culture has become identifiable worldwide.

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