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Grappling with Giants

'There were giants in the earth in those days': Genesis 6:4, King James Version (KJV).

There are many giants in Literature—be it in folklore, fairytale, legend or just in the pages of our ordinary reading and appreciation: from the beanstalk clambering goliath of "Fee-fi-fo-fum" fame, to the benevolent clumsiness of the BFG. Then there are the giant characters—physically large and powerful, like Moses in The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing) and Atticus Finch who is described as a big man in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Harper Lee). In The Great Gatsby Tom Buchanan is endowed with a powerful athletic body. These characters may impress with their physical strength and underlying emotional or mental power.

Then there are those larger-than-life characters that can be classed with the giants—Shakespeare’s Falstaff, big in girth and in personality, Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights (Emily Jane Bronte) who dominates that novel from his first smouldering appearance at the opening of his story. They are large due to the complexity of their creation and their memorability.

To read, become aware of, and confront these very realistic characters is to take part in the literary experience. Indeed this is the heart of that experience, for we take those memories of incidents and characters away with us after we encounter them to wherever we go after truly engaging with the stories and works in which they thrive and live.

What of those, too, who purport to be the giants—the titans—of the literary world, commonly referred to as geniuses, or perhaps more esoterically, genii, with that special magic touch with words? Like those imaginary beings out of the Arabian Nights, the genii are summoned and magically transport us, the unsuspecting readers, to far away and magical new destinations using the powers of our own imaginations. Giants like Shakespeare, Hardy, Wordsworth, and Keats.

They win us with their facility with words, the cleverness of their expression and subtlety of language choice.

It is this power, of the spoken and written word, evoked from the symbols themselves on the page, that moves and ignites the image-making faculty of the human mind, not only its visual responses but also the visceral responses: those of all the senses and the central faculty of feeling that is able to integrate and combine all sorts of in a holistic way. To create meaning out of seemingly impoverished and inadequate symbolic markings—this is the real magic of what literature can do. Having worked with students in a language which was not their first language for some length of time (thirty-one years) teaching literary texts at levels well beyond what would be expected of them, I discovered this basic transformational skill that is the crux of literary understanding.

The key, I have found, is engagement, not enjoyment, which can become a secondary perk from the intense involvement in fictional texts, plays, and poetry. Engagement has to be stimulated from apparently unpromising material. After all, there is just the plain text on the page without any clues as to emotional variations, changes in pitch, tone, and volume, other than what can be physically read and read into the words delivered by the author.

The fact that there are now new ways of supporting a literature text, such as movies, movie clips, recordings, and video guides as well as a plethora of computer-aided resources cannot change that initial and ongoing confrontation with and participation in the actual text with words. The weight of the author’s own invention is pitted against our own contexts and backgrounds, our own biases and points of view. The result can be a rich exchange of views about important differences in values and ethics, and the construction of a framework for forward movement in terms of understanding and reacting to words and to others engaged with the same texts.

The issues that emerge from literature study are greater than is apparent from the cursory examination of "character," "plot," "description," and "story." There are deeper levels to appreciate, all through the medium of words; hence, any attempt to initiate any real study of literature with young minds, or with any who are willing to be involved in such a deeper study, necessarily includes the careful study of words and language as one of the main focusses for a structured approach.

Along with the above, there also needs to be a tuning into the humanness of the whole endeavor. We are engaged, and need to be engaged, at sensual, sensitive, and physical levels, drawing out the spatial, tactile, and expressive responses using the very advantages we have as humans as physical and sensual beings. This automatically moves us away from the digital and the abstract—already present in the marks on the page—to the experiential, and the real and now. Reading a poem, or a moving extract from a novel, or a dramatic dialogue in a play—all of these immerse us in the here and now and demand responses if we are sensitive and honest enough to open up to the possibilities of such responses without fear of judgment.

Education naturally provides the safe space to explore and stretch our innate capabilities. It provides the freedom in terms of physical areas and mental or emotional openness to be able to find our own responses and have them changed or refined or challenged in many ways. The importance of led-group responses cannot be belittled, so long as the leading is not bound by any preconceptions or prejudices. Texts challenge us and may even cause affront or offence, for the main object is to stimulate not draw conclusions or search for right answers.

Any organized planning or preparation of programs to handle texts of various genres and historical contexts needs to plug into the primary equipment all of us have been given as humans—the ability to respond at higher levels of understanding while still acknowledging our physical tie to the senses that inform and awaken our imaginative faculty. Only then can we recreate the essential act of reading in its deepest and most personal sense, leading to the concomitant responses.

Tony Hamid © 8th September 2018

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