What you'll learn

  • The early history of World Literature

  • How literary works are transformed by cultural transmission and modern recovery

  • How to critically analyze literary works

  • The significance of major technological advances in writing

Course description

This short literature course, based on the first half of the Masterpieces of World Literature edX MOOC, examines how civilizations and cultures of the ancient world defined themselves through literature and how that literature has continued to contribute to our understanding of those civilizations and cultures today.

Cities, nations, and empires from antiquity through the middle ages drew on foundational histories and myths for their identities, relating these narratives through generations by means of oral-storytelling and new writing technologies. These epics, story collections, and novels, which take a keen interest in heroic travelers, would eventually travel themselves, finding new global audiences as the first works of world literature.

Tracing developments in language, writing, and literary genre, this course also travels in time, from legendary accounts of ancient kings to histories of medieval courts and early-modern exploration. We will stop to consider how all of these texts affected the history of their own eras, but also how they have continued to find new prominence and significance in ours.

Course Outline

Introduction: What is World Literature? (Goethe)

The Birth of Literature (The Epic of Gilgamesh)

Homer and the Archeology of the Classical Past (The Odyssey)

West-Eastern Conversations (The 1001 Nights)

The Floating World (The Tale of Genji)

The First National Epic (The LusĂ­ads)


Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, Harvard University
Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature, Harvard University

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