Leland Ryken taught English at Wheaton College for and astounding 45 years, and he is sharing the fruits of that long tenure in a Crossway series, Christian Guides to the Classics. So far Ryken has written on Homer’s The Odyssey , Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter , and Milton’s Paradise Lost . Each volume is about 70 pages long, and provides an overview, a section-by-section commentary on the text, and marginal notes that highlight more technical features of the work. The commentary is straightforward, clear, and full of the kind of mature insight you’d expect from a master teacher.
On the presentation of Satan in the early books of Paradise Lost , for instance, Ryken points to the “allusions to classical mythology” and the epic similes. This builds up Satan as a “heroic figure in a classical mode.” Contrary to critics of Blakean variety, though, this is not a commendation:“Milton disapproves of the military hero of classical mythology and epic. Milton’s mythological allusions and epic similes, far from exalting Satan and his followers, are actually part of the disparagement of them that Milton builds into his poem.”
He takes The Scarlet Letter as Hawthorne’s brief for Christian orthodoxy over the Romantic individualism represented by Hester Prynne. In the margin, he quotes Darrel Abel: “Hawthorne does feel moral compassion for Hester, but her role in the story is to demonstrate that persons who engage our moral compassion may nevertheless merit moral censure.” Dimmesdale, meanwhile, loses the world but saves his soul by his confession. I have my doubts, but Ryken makes this Christian reading plausible.
These are helpful guides for teachers, and plenty easy for students to work through.