Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

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.

Example 3 – The Epic of Gilgamesh

The final example is the oldest one. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written around 4,000 years ago, and many consider this poem to be the first great work of literature. It’s so old it was written on stone tablets. The characters were pressed into wet clay and allowed to harden. The Epic of Gilgamesh came from Mesopotamia, the part of the world that is now Kuwait and some of the countries around it. It’s the story of a king, Gilgamesh, and Enkidu, a man who was initially his enemy but who became his closest friend. Like other books in this list, it also contains a journey with a quest; this one is to find eternal life.

In all three examples, what started as stories valued by a particular culture became literature treasured by the world. These poems all tell interesting, exciting stories, and a well-told story is something that we value, no matter where we’re from.

Lesson Summary

The historical modern era began in the 16th century. Literature written after that point has had increasingly efficient distribution systems, with contemporary literature being the most efficiently delivered as much of it moves at the speed of the Internet. Since travel, communication, and publication were limited in pre-modernity, most literature was meant for the eyes and ears of those in that country, but texts that have religious significance or that tell a great story have gained the wide spread popularity that is part of what we now refer to as world literature. Beowulf, The Odyssey, and The Epic of Gilgamesh each tell the story of a hero who goes on an epic adventure, and even thousands of years after they were written they remain popular and influential texts.

Lesson at a Glance

Pre-modern literature was written before the 16th century. It was mostly religious in nature and did not generally expand beyond a given country’s borders. Secular pre-modern works include Beowulf, The Odyssey, and The Epic of Gilgamesh. These are enjoyed internationally and continue to influence and inspire today. Because they circulate well beyond their country of origin, they are considered world literature.

Pre-modern literature such as The Odyssey is still enjoyed around the world today.
The Odyssey

Learning Outcomes

After reviewing this lesson, you should be able to

  • Discuss world literature
  • Contrast publication/distribution in the pre-modern and modern eras
  • Cite and summarize examples of pre-modern world literature and recall their influence
Join the conversation