Dr. Leland Ryken’s Christian Guides to the Classics

Augustine’s Confessions, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Dicken’s Great Expectations, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Homer’s The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great devotional poets — like a modern-day Mentor, Dr. Leland Ryken leads us to and through these classic works, revealing them in their true aspect as “fountains forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight.” These are no dry, dusty tomes “all about ‘isms’ and influences.” Instead, Dr. Ryken puts into practice the philosophy of Professor Lewis:

It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

In good Charlotte Mason form, I have always been quite skeptical of commentaries and guides, resenting the interference they generally create between the reader and the author. But Charlotte Mason had something that most teachers and parents of our generation do not have—the benefit of a classical education. Additionally, Miss Mason and her pupils lived in a culture that still shared the lingua franca of 2000 years of western literary tradition.

Our comparative poverty in this regard can make reading these classics a real struggle. As Mark Twain quipped, a classic is a book that everyone WANTS to have read, but few have ACTUALLY read. Maybe we were never even exposed to these works in our younger years. Or maybe we were compelled by an indifferent teacher to read just enough of them in a tedious literature “textbook” to innoculate us against them for life. How can we hope to  point our students to the wisdom and delight we’ve been told they contain?

For those of us who are struggling up Mount Parnassus, working to overcome our own educational deficits, Dr. Ryken comes alongside as a wise, experienced guide who knows, and more importantly, LOVES every twist and turn of the trail. He exhorts us to aim for the view at the top. At the same time, he knows when to make us stop and breathe a bit. He points out the enchanting vistas we are likely to miss as we labor just to put one foot in front of the other.

The Entire Range

Each Christian Guide to the Classics, like any good travel guide, opens with the big picture—a bird’s eye view of the entire mountain range. In three short pages, we are reminded why we want to begin the climb at all. The Nature and Function of Literature, Why the Classics Matter, and How to Read a Story renew our vision and refresh our resolve as we approach each new literary work.

This Mountain

Next, the Guides wheel us in a bit closer for a look at this specific mountain. The Book at a Glance provides an overview, including a look at the book’s structure and context, along with tips for reading. Nota bene: if this is your first time through a particular work, I recommend skipping the plot summary here, as it usually contains spoilers. Come back and read it at the end! Dr. Ryken then provides some brief and an very honest insights into The Author and His Faith. This section concludes with literary concepts or biblical references which will point us toward the wisdom and delight found in this particular book.

Along the Trail

Next comes the walking tour itself. Here is where you get the most practical step-by-step teaching guidance as you assume the role of travel guide for your students. Each section of the work is treated with a brief and unobstrusive Plot Summary and Commentary. Margin notes give extra helps toward thinking as a Christian about the themes and ideas in the text. Finally, helps For Reflection or Discussion equip you to imaginatively engage your students around this work.

At the Top

At the end of each Guide there are a few final brief helps—additional biblical or literary insights and perspectives, literary terms, and further resources. Again, these generally consist of only two or three pages.

I have stressed brevity quite a bit, and truly, it is one things I love best about these guides. As you read, you cannot help but see that Dr. Ryken’s knowledge of and about these works is extensive. This surely would tempt a lesser teacher to prolixity.  Dr. Ryken displays his genius by communicating so much insight in so few words. The main focus of these guides is to lead you to the text itself, not to what he or anyone else thinks about the text.

Using Christian Guides to the Classics in Your Homeschool

I personally use Dr. Ryken’s Christian Guides to the Classics for my own ongoing pursuit of a life well-read, my own Mother Culture. I also recommend them as a resource for teachers in Cottage Press Language Arts for Upper School.

As a teacher resource, my method is simple—read the pertinent sections in the Guide to accompany my own reading in the work, then use the ideas gleaned there to guide discussion with my students.  The ideal practice is to read or re-read the work along with its Guide in the summer before our study. More often, I live in that pesky gap between principle and practice, so I settle for staying two or three sections ahead of my students.

A few specific suggestions:

  • As you approach each new work, be sure to re-read The Nature and Function of Literature, Why the Classics Matter, and How to Read a Story.
  • Introduce the book using The Book At a Glance. Depending on the work, or the student’s familiarity with it, skip all or part of the plot summary at this point to avoid spoiling the story.
  • If your students are not having trouble following the basic storyline, have them read a section of the work itself first, then ask them to narrate the story back to you. The Guide provides you with a summary of the main points.
  • If your students are struggling to understand the work, read the Plot Summary together for each section before reading the work itself. This strategy is particularly helpful at the beginning of a work like The Odyssey where everything is unfamiliar and strange. As students get their “sea legs,” you can probably drop this practice. Of course, even when you have summarized the plot beforehand, do still have your students narrate after the reading.

Dr. Ryken is an excellent teacher, simply loving what he loves for all to see. Let these Guides inspire you to love these works, and then just follow his lead. Simply love what you love in front of your students! (HT Dr. George Grant)

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Landscape with the Rosenberg in the Bohemian Mountains, Caspar David Friedrich, 1835

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