The Great Books … a common thread

I recently finished listening to a hefty chunk of The Teaching Company’s lecture series “Books that Made History: Book that Will Change Your Life.”

In this Prof. Rufus Fears has assembled a list of The Great Books and walks us through them in an entertaining, inspiring fashion. There’s a lot of non-fiction on his list, of course. But let’s look at just the fiction choices:

  • The Iliad
  • Gilgamesh
  • Beowulf
  • The Orestaia
  • The Bacchae
  • The Divine Comedy
  • Faust
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • The Death of King Arthur
  • Othello
  • Prometheus Bound
  • 1984
  • The Aenied
What’s the common thread here? Except for a very few — Othello, All Quiet on the Western Front, maybe the Orestaia — they’re all fantasy books. (1984 is the sole sci-fi selection, so it’ll have to be lumped in with fantasy on this one occasion.)
I mean we’ve got it all here — swords and sorcery, a monster or two in Beowulf, a Champion or 30 in The Iliad, (a Companion to Champions, too, in Gilgamesh, I believe), a Satanic poodle in Faust, angry Gods, etc… Heck, there might even be fanfic in there, i.e. The Aenied and The Divine Comedy.
So is Fears a closet Fantasy nut or is it simply that most of the greatest books ever written are Fantasy — illuminating the human condition with tales of the inhuman?

One Response

  1. One possible explanation is that well-written fantasy lasts past its own civilization more than well-written realism, which becomes anachronistic and hard to understand.

    But another is indeed that this list of classics leans toward fantasy. No Don Quixote, which is about the limits of fantasy. No Hamlet. No Moby Dick. No War and Peace. No Emma. No Les Misérables.

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