The Godless Canon

The Godless Canon

Is English literature naturally secular or has the canon been designed to marginalize religion?

The most startling[1] aspect of the canon of English literature that has come down to[2] us is how, from the earliest times, it questions, marginalizes and ignores religion. If we include Beowulf (C.9th?) in the canon (rather than[3] seeing Anglo-Saxon literature as a separate tradition that had little impact on what came after), we find a confused mishmash[4] of pagan monsters, Wyrd[5] and an Old Testament God who is clearly hands-off[6] in His approach[7] to humanity.

The next major work in the canon is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1380s?). Here the protagonist is a keen[8] believer in the power of the Virgin Mary, though this belief is undermined[9] in our eyes by the coexistence in his world of magic. In other words Christianity may be explicit but it is hardly[10] confirmed by being placed[11] in a fairy-tale[12] context.


The great canonical work in English of the Middle Ages is The Canterbury Tales (1400). Chaucer offers us a cast[13] made up of[14] a crusader knight[15], a prioress[16], a monk[17], a friar[18], a pardoner[19] and a summoner[20] (among others). However, these are brilliantly sardonic portraits[21], which thoroughly[22] question each of these overtly Christian characters’ true adherence to the faith they profess. The crusading knight is in fact a mercenary; the prioress is viciously[23] antisemitic coquette who shows more compassion for little animals than for the poor[24]; the lecherous[25] monk dedicates his time to hunting[26], and so on[27].


The Middle Ages came to an end with the Reformation and from then on[28], authors could not count on there being[29] a single set of religious beliefs that their audience shared[30]. Indeed[31], with a spectrum of beliefs ranging[32] from the Puritan to the Anglican to the Roman Catholic, most authors opted for marginalizing religion. For instance, Shakespeare wrote one religious sonnet out of[33] 154. However, Shakespeare goes further and when he does present[34] religious characters they are ineffectual (Friar Laurence[35]), hypocritical (Angelo[36]), ignorant (Oliver Martext[37]) or corrupt (the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely[38]). When Shakespeare includes a saint in his work – Joan of Arc – she is portrayed[39] as a witch[40]: La Pucelle. His most impressive creations are nihilistic worlds (such as the Albion of King Lear or the Scotland of Macbeth) or ones ruled[41] by magic (such as the Island in The Tempest or the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream). It is true that it was illegal to mention God on stage after 1603 but Shakespeare made no serious attempt to incorporate religion into his plays even before that.


The exception to the rule should be the towering[42] work of the 17th Century: Paradise Lost. Here we have an epic poem entirely dedicated to recounting the foundational stories of Christianity. However, even here the canon undermines9 religion, albeit unwittingly[43]. Despite Milton’s best intentions, later generations have found Satan by far[44] the most interesting character in the poem, and in a formal sense he is the central character. The Romantics went further and saw Satan as the hero of the piece.

The Rise of the Novel

The 18th Century saw the rise[45] of the novel and here again religion was marginalized and stories tended to be morally ambiguous. Where religious figures do appear[46] they tend to be hypocritical buffoons like Collins in Charlotte Brontë’s Pride and Prejudice or Seth Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) or hypocritical villains like Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1847) or Reverend Chadband in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853).

By the 20th Century the UK was one of the least religious countries in the world and the literature reflected the marginal place of organized faith in British society.

An Alternative Canon

What is fascinating for me is how artificial this focus is. Religious and moralistic literature has gradually been expunged[47] from the canon over the last 70 years. In fact, most surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The ‘other’ great work of the 14th Century was William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a poem entirely dedicated to how to lead[48] a god-fearing[49] life. Earlier generations studied George Herbert and John Bunyan as essential parts of 17th-century literature. Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) used to be considered an integral part of the rise of the novel. Only the religious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins[50] survives within[51] the canon as a testament to the long tradition of religious literature in English that existed alongside the modern canon.

I comment on all this not because I have any interest in restoring religious literature to its ‘rightful’ place in the canon but rather[52] to show how what we study as great literature is determined by contemporary tastes rather than[53] objective merit.

Indeed, the process of secularizing English literature has been reversed somewhat in recent years. This has not been because of a renewed interest in religion but because of a wish to rediscover women writers. As a result, the religious writings of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Anne Locke and Christina Rossetti are all being read again.


[1] startling – surprising, shocking

[2] to come down to (come-came-come) – reach, be inherited by

[3] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

[4] mishmashmixture

[5] Wyrd – a pagan Germanic concept similar to destiny

[6] hands-offnon-interventionist

[7] approach – (in this case) attitude

[8] keen – enthusiastic

[9] to undermineweaken, debilitate

[10] hardlynot really

[11] to place – put

[12] fairy-tale (adj.) – magical, fantastical

[13] cast – (in this case) a group of protagonists

[14] to be made up of – consist of

[15] knight – mediaeval soldier who fought on horseback

[16] prioresswoman who manages a priory/convent (directly subordinate to an abbess)

[17] monk – religious man who lives in a monastery

[18] friarmember of a mendicant order such as a Dominican or a Franciscan

[19] pardoner – sb. licenced to sell papal pardons and indulgences

[20] summoner – an officer for a mediaeval ecclesiastical court

[21] portrait – (in this case) description

[22] thoroughly – effectively, exhaustively

[23] viciouslyfiercely

[24] the poorpoor people

[25] lecherous – lascivious

[26] huntingchasing and killing animals for pleasure

[27] and so on – et cetera, etc.

[28] from then onafter that

[29] count on there being – assume that there was

[30] to sharehave in common

[31] indeed – (emphatic) in fact

[32] to range – stretch, span, vary

[33] out of – from a total of

[34] does present – (emphatic) presents, creates

[35] in Romeo and Juliet

[36] in Measure for Measure

[37] in As You Like It

[38] in Henry V

[39] to portray – present, depict

[40] witchwoman who practises black magic

[41] to rulegovern, control

[42] towering – (in this case) exceptional, supreme

[43] albeit unwittinglyeven though this is not intentional

[44] by far – unquestionably, easily

[45] rise – (in this case) emergence, appearance

[46] do appear – (emphatic) appear

[47] to expunge – erase, delete, eliminate

[48] to lead (lead-led-led) – (in this case) live

[49] godfearing – devoutly religious

[50] an English Jesuit

[51] within – in

[52] but rather – (in this case) I comment on it

[53] rather than – as opposed to, instead of


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