Graham Elsdon looks at what context means for students of literature
The Lion King has become a seminal childhood text. A Black Beauty (as it were) for the Disney generation. A proto-Hamlet for the babyccino brigade.
I watched it with my children, smugly noting the Shakespearean echoes. The fratricidal Scar-Claudius, the three hyena-witches, and the warthog-Falstaffian saturnalia all elicited the self-satisfied glee of the English graduate.
The children weren’t bothered by that stuff. They didn’t give a guava about what critics in 1994 thought, and, thankfully, weren’t inspired to hunt out Elton John’s back catalogue.
Instead, they were happy when Scar was ripped to shreds and Simba became the new boss. Their contexts for judging the film were all moral ones – and all rooted in the story.
As a young teacher, I fell into the trap of asking students to write about contexts which led them into blind alleys – essays killed by constipated paragraphs about Dickens’ dad, witchcraft in Jacobean times and half-wrong accounts of Stalin’s Russia.
The Bad History Boys
Context is a problematic word. In some teenage heads it means the past. And the past is a foreign country. They definitely do things differently there. It’s a place where some students imagine that:
- Women in Elizabethan times had no power (except the Queen of course…)
- Everybody was racist (and they’re not now)
- No one was gay
When students try to ‘do’ context, they write bad history. This is unavoidable really – how could they know genuinely what happened then, beyond reading a few lines somewhere which give them a generalised view?
Check out last year’s GCSE literature exam tasks. Not one of them invites a historical reading. They all ask the student to judge characters in moral, cultural or literary contexts.
History is history. Leave it in the past.
Although The Lion King criticises the life of carefree irresponsibility in the end, in our classrooms, we might take our cue from a ‘no worries’ approach to context: soft-pedal it.
Don’t ask students to consciously ‘do’ context.
Instead, our questions need to build in contexts which invite students to judge. And so in answering our well-crafted questions, students can forget all about the problematic term ‘context’.
This liberates them. They integrate context without trying (or knowing they’re ‘doing’ it).
So which contexts are useful to work with?
Be Here Now
Fruitful contexts offer ways to judge texts – backdrops to place a text against. They might be moral, cultural or literary.
To use The Lion King as an example, we could ask:
- Do you admire Simba? (a moral context)
- Is the ending of the film a satisfying one? (a narrative context)
- Are lionesses always presented as weak? (gender/power contexts)
All of these questions ask viewers what they think now – in the 21st century. We can ask the same questions of our canonical texts. Swapping Disney for Steinbeck, we could ask:
- Do we admire George?
- Is the ending of the novel a satisfying one?
- Is Curley’s wife weak?
These questions require students to bring their own moral baggage to the question. They prioritise contexts of reception – how students see things from their perspective.
Genre as context
Courses for older students often ask students to judge texts against the backdrop of genre. Authors use, adapt, distort or kick against conventions.
We could ask how Disney’s leonine funfest plays with – and against – these genres:
- Tragedy (death of the father, isolation of the protagonist, violence, revenge)
- Crime (fratricide, villainy, revelation, justice)
- Bildungsroman (personal growth, discovery of love, time passing, mentor figure)
- Comedy (Laurel and Hardy double act, mockery of stereotypes, happy ending)
- Pastoral (rural setting, destruction/rebirth of Eden, nature as teacher)
Asking students to locate familiar texts in unexpected genres can bear fruit. On the current Literature B specification, Hamlet is classified as a Crime text. It could quite easily be reclassified as a Political text. If it was, which political aspects would students focus on?
Theory as context
The application of critical theory to literature offers a further way with context. Handled well, different reading positions such as Marxist and postcolonial criticism can shed new light through old windows.
Band Aid’s 1984 chart-topper assures us that Africa – like Scar’s Pride Rock – is a place ‘Where nothing ever grows / no rain or rivers flow’. Might the same be said about the representation of Africa in The Lion King and Heart of Darkness? Do these texts suggest the continent has the snake of self-destructiveness lurking within?
If that’s too much, just have some popcorn, replay the film and try to forget how it tells you that society functions best when everybody knows their place.