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The comprehension of literary history gives us insight into the past, recognition of historical events and corruption written into the works of those who were present. By including societal behaviors, political tensions, and common folklore, authors have indirectly provided the reader with a broader and deeper understanding of the literature, as well as the period in which it was written. Besides insight into society as a whole, literary history has provided future writers with models of poetic device, style and content influencing literary works in todays present.
Literary history is a vehicle to understanding the past and plays a major role in its influence on literature up to and including the present day. Knowledge of historical literature gives us insight into the traditions and societal conventions of the time in which the piece was written. One outstanding example comes from Anglo-Saxon times. Beowulf is a literary work which enables a reader to glimpse not only the societal customs but into the savage and seemingly uncontrollable environment of the first century.
In the fight between Grendel and Beowulf it appears as though Grendel is represented by the degraded form of human life attempting to gain power through violence, in his attempt to overthrow Hrothgar and take control of Heorot, he is fatally wounded by Beowulf. The Beowulf poet describes Grendel and Beowulf as “Both .. enraged, fury filled, the two who meant to control the hall. ” (Beowulf 36). The fight over control of the hall, could be seen as a representation of the struggle between good and evil, or perhaps the control of the king, over uncontrollable people.
Taking into account the explanation of Grendel, a reader may also reason that the dragon symbolizes a threat from outside the human realm. One notes that the dragon is not given the humanistic qualities of Grendel, he has no kin and appears to have no mortal thoughts. Due to his lack of humanistic characteristics, the reader may believe that the dragon is less representative of a human threat such as a human-like enemy. One begins to understand a little from the Anglo-Saxon period as well as some of the pagan values from reading this piece of work by the Beowulf poet.
Another, much later example supporting historical representation in a literary work, in this case religious tension, is evident in Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale. The Pardoner’s Tale was written in a time when the “Age of Faith was passing into an age of skepticism and all authority was being called into question by the English public. ” The church was corrupt at a time when, if anything, it should have been protecting its followers.
It was making no attempt to secure faith through true belief but instead portraying salvation and redemption as an item to bought and sold by the church. In Chaucer’s description of the Pardoner’s feelings about being the absolver of sins he writes “For myn entente is not but for to winne [for my intent is not to but make money]” (Chaucer 67) . Chaucer’s use of satire and his description of the Pardoner’s morals is a deep reflection of the religious and corrupt tensions of this period in history.
Literary history generates great interest in the modern world and it is also imperative that we understand it so that we are aware of its vast influence all over the world. It engulfs whole historical periods and allows the audience a glimpse into the life and times of the author. Through the reading of Beowulf a reader is able to catch a glimpse of the Pagan societal culture. In Chaucer’s poem The Pardoners Tale one can see the shift in faith from the devout, to the skeptic.
Through his satire, the audience is able to grasp the idea that the world was changing. Following the line of literary history, one observes the influences of one writing style over another and can understand that it plays an important role in understanding our present world. It explains major literary traditions, movements and authors of a country and region, it also allows the audience a porthole in which to experience the past and use it to influence future literary works.