Craig R. Davis
Professor of English Language and Literature
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Sabbatical spring 2013
I love old poems and stories, the oldest that have survived in any language or tradition. I surprised myself in my senior year of college when I suddenly abandoned plans for medical school and began to study Old and Middle English, ancient Greek and Latin, and early Chinese and Japanese literature. After my B.A. from the College of William and Mary, I spent several years abroad studying medieval Welsh at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and Old Norse at the University of Iceland, Reykjavík. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and joined the Department of English at Smith College in 1985, where I now teach Old and Middle English, Old Norse and medieval Celtic languages and literatures, as well as direct the program in Medieval studies.
My book, "Beowulf" and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England (1996) uses comparative ethnographic research to suggest the social meaning of the monsters in the poem, as well asto explain why Beowulf failed to achieve the cultural authority of other epic poems of comparable depth, ambition and artistic quality: Gilgamesh in ancient Mesopotamia, the Mahabharata and Ramayana in India, the Homeric epics in Greece, the Aeneid of imperial Rome, the Old Irish Táin, the Old Icelandic Njál's Saga, the medieval Welsh Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the Shah Nameh of medieval Persia, the Kalevala of 19th-century Finland, and the Mwindo Epic recorded in the Belgian Congo in the 1950s. I teach these and other traditional epics and sagas in comparative literature courses on Arthurian literature of the Middle Ages, Celtic worlds, the primary epic and early national legends, and Scandinavian mythology. In these courses we focus on the way traditional narratives express tensions in a culture's worldview and value system, as well as shape that culture's theory of the way human history unfolds through time.
For the past few years I have taught a Beowulf seminar and other courses during the Sommersemester at Hamburg University in Germany and have recently worked at the American Academy in Rome on a project exploring the ethnogenesis of the Goths in late antique Italy.