Sunday, August 19, 2012

Texts that elicit awe

Awe is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder”. Synonyms include amazement, astonishment, admiration, respect, dread, fear and terror.  Our usages of awesome  and awful, springing from the same root, acknowledges that awe connotes both negative and positive responses, but also affirms that it is an emotional response.

“Awe” is a good subject to examine because a fundamental role of texts is moving us in the depth of our being. Texts can inspire us, expand our appreciation, and transport us. In one example I have selected, even a “dry” science documentary is shown re-worked into a song to inspire us to have a sense of purpose in the Cosmos.

Here are presented five texts from diverse genres and modes which might move the respondent at an emotional level. Although it is acknowledged that such selections are subjective, it is hoped that elements common to moving texts can be identified and appreciated. Students will reflect on factors contributing to the effect of the texts, such as the descriptiveness of the language, the scope of the scene described, the appeal to fundamental human hopes and fears, and the degree to which personal identification with the text is possible.

In three cases, a source text is written, but will be considered alongside a rendition in another medium (film or audio). In another, the text is a “mashup”; an original work (a song and music video) drawing on other texts (a science documentary series of the 1980s). In yet another, the selected text is written, but is a fictional extension of characters and a story better known in the medium of film (Star Wars) designed to explore a characters inner-life and unspoken backstory in the form of a diary. Students would explore the relationship of the primary texts, forward to their adaptations, or back to their antecedents, contrasting their fidelity or subversion, or any change of meaning.

To assess students’ understanding, they would be asked to nominate texts which have moved them, and to justify their selection using the same methods employed to critique my five. Optionally, they could compose a brief text which use the same (or similar) tropes to elicit the same response.

1. A more glorious dawn, mashup of Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series

2. The Bridge of Khazad Dûm, from The Fellowship of the Ring


3. Henry V's speech, "St Crispin's Day" at the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.

5. "And Death Shall Have No Dominion", by Dylan Thomas (1933).
There seemed to be no appropriate reading of this available on the Internet, so I found an old CD I had bought years ago of distinguished British actors reading war-poetry and which had a great rendition by Sir Derek Jacobi. I created a video with this reading and the text of the poem and uploaded it to my own YouTube channel. Here it is:

Further notes about these texts are included below:

Selection 1

“A More Glorious Dawn”, YouTube mashup autotuned song of scientists Carl Sagan and Steven Hawking, based on the 1980’s science documentary series Cosmos.
Medium:        YouTube video (3m34s)
Genre:            Music video, created by user melodysheep as part of the “Symphony of Science” video series
Source:          Internet video, drawn from non fiction TV from the 1980s

Example Syllabus area:   Stage 6 English (Standard) outcome 5 (p26):
“A student describes the ways different technologies and media of production affect the language and structure of particular texts.”
(and its subsections)

This text shows how source material can be repurposed to alter a message or reach a different audience. Carl Sagan, a scientist and a populariser of  science, made the 1980’s TV series Cosmos to inspire people as much as educate them. His luminous prose and distinctive intonations have made him an enduring figure in popular culture. This video, one of a series of mashups set to Sagan’s voice, encourages us to believe we are a part of the universe and that humanity has a destiny among the stars.

Questions for students:
-       Is Sagan’s message changed from it’s original intent, or merely repackaged for a different audience? Is it subverted or faithful?
-       What relevance would this message have in today’s world (eg, in relation to the landing of a new rover on Mars?)
-       Is such a “mashup” on YouTube as authoritative as another medium, such as a book or TV documentary?
-       Is it an example of democratised media (ie, the author did not need a publisher to make this creative work seen by millions?

Selection 2

“The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm”, from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien .
Medium:                    Written (7 pages)
Genre:                        Fictional, fantasy novel.
Source:                      Book, paired with video segment of the movie
Fellowship of the Ring (2001)  (7m40s) of the same events.

Example Syllabus area: Outcome 2 (p25)
2.  A student identifies and describes relationships among texts. Students learn to identify and describe the relationships among texts by:
2.1 identifying similarities in and differences between texts
2.2 identifying and describing the connections between texts
2.3 identifying and describing the ways in which particular texts are influenced by other texts and contexts.

This text describes a climactic moment from the Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf confronts the Balrog in the mines of Moria.

Tolkien’s language is rich, evocative and descriptive. Students will contrast the passage from the book describing the events with the segment from the movie, satisfying the syllabus requirement for students to contrast texts

Questions for students:
-       What emotions are evoked by the piece?
-       What changes are there between the book and the movie, and why might  such changes have been made (sequence, pacing, omission, addition, emphasis)?
-       Does being presented with a movie version “ruin”a book for a reader by leaving less for the imagination?
-       This text is more fanciful than the others, set in a fantasy world. Does this make it less relevant to us? Differently relevant?

Selection 3

And Death Shall Have no Dominion, poem by Dylan Thomas (1933)

Medium:                    Written (1 page), plus audio recording/ animation of poem
Genre:                        Poem
Source:                      The works of Dylan Thomas.

Example syllabus areas
3.1 (Cultural references)
6 (identifying language patterns, structural features, identifying key words and phrases)

This text was written by Dylan Thomas when tasked to write on the subject of “immortality”. Commonly evoked as a “war poem”, it was written in peacetime and Thomas was 19 when it was written, and went to lengths to avoid service in WW2.

The poem should be presented along with a dramatic reading, here by British actor Sir Derek Jacobi), and significantly, from a CD of “War Poetry” alongside Slessor and Owen.

Questions for Students:
-       What does this poem evoke?
-       Was there any intent for the poem to be understood a certain way by its author?
-       Is it a hopeful poem? Why does death “have no dominion”? Is death’s defeat literal or metaphorical?
-       What  word choices stand out to create a memorable effect? What repetition is made to underline the theme of the poem?
-       Would someone recently bereaved gain comfort from a poem like this?

Selection 4

Speech by Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, before the battle of Agincourt (Act IV, scene iii)

Medium:                    Written (1 page), plus video of the 1989 movie with
Kenneth Branagh of the same speech (5m30s)
Genre:                        Shakespearean Play
Source:                      William Shakespeare.

Example Syllabus areas:
2. Connections between texts
4.3 (historical context of language and conventions)
6 (identifying language patterns, structural features, identifying key words and phrases)
9 (developing a considered and informed personal response)

This famous scene from Henry V is regarded as inspiring and emotive.  It’s inclusion is justified as Henry V does not appear on the list of texts in “English Stage 6, Prescriptions Area of Study Electives and Texts” (p41), although other Shakespeare plays do.

Questions for students:
-       Does this speech evoke an emotional response?
-       What language techniques does Shakespeare use?
-       What about the situation acts as an archetype? (imminent battle, overwhelming odds)
-       What other examples of dramatic battle-eve speeches can you suggest? Do they owe something to Shakespeare or do they stand apart?
-       You might cite:
o   Braveheart
o   Independence Day
o   Queen Elizabeth’s speech to her troops (I have the body of a weak and feeble woman…)

Selection 5

The final chapter from The Darth Side: Memoirs of a Monster

Medium:                    Written (6 pages),
Genre:                        Fan fiction
Source:                      Serialised fiction appearing on author
Cheeseburger Jones’ blog, “The Darth Side”, and subsequently published commercially
(, but drawing from characters and events in the Star Wars movies.

Example syllabus area: 11.8.3 (p59):
A student demonstrates understanding of cultural reference in texts. Students learn to understand cultural reference in texts by:
3.1 identifying and explaining cultural differences relating to communication
3.2 identifying direct cultural references
3.3 identifying a range of culturally based values and perspectives in texts
3.4 showing understanding of some key cultural attitudes, beliefs and values underlying issues and language in texts.

This excellent, alternative fiction work purports to be the personal diary of Darth Vader from Star Wars, interweaving and referencing the events from episodes IV, V and VI (the “original trilogy”) and alluding to events occurring in episodes I, II and III. It challenges our conception of “serious” literature by being an exceptionally well written example of a genre usually disparaged, “fan fiction”. We obtain an entirely different view of Darth Vader’s internal thought processes and motivations, and feel empathy for his plight when the story is told from “the Darth side”.

Questions for students:
-       Does this text subvert a “traditional” understanding of the character?
-       Is this subverted meaning as valid as the traditional one?
-       Is the intention of the original author important?
-       Is this alternative meaning more valid if the original text (the Star Wars movies). is silent on the same questions? What if it disagreed with it?
-       How crucial are these cultural references (or our “traditional” understanding of Darth Vader) to our appreciation of this text?
-       Would this text have any meaning for someone who had no knowledge of Star Wars?
-       Should this be regarded as a legitimate form of literature given the mode of its appearance? (a serialised fictional blog based on a science fiction movie series?)
-       What other examples can you cite of an original fictional work subverting a previous one?

Note: You could cite:
-       The musical “Wicked” as a subversion of Frank Baum’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ character, the Wicked Witch of the West.
-       Reboots of various superhero movies where a character or their story are reinterpreted.
-       Novels written by authors who (authorised or not), create stories in the same “universe” as a previous work (eg sequels to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation, H.G Well’s The Time Machine)

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