Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



Casino Royale

Casino Royale
Ian Fleming

In April, 1953 the world was introduced to one of the most enduring and iconic fictional characters of the Cold War 20th century. Casino Royale is the first of the James Bond novels, and launched a series of 13 books, numerous adaptations for the big and small screens, comic strips and more. And made Bond the symbol of the western spy – at least until John Le Carre showed up and did his best to offer an alternative, darker and more realistic version. James Bond is the guy – the epitome of the masculine ideal, he’s charming and suave, brave and cool in the face of danger, sipping martinis and bedding women across the world as he saves us all from assorted evils and takes care of the bad guys. Oh, we swoon, we drool, we aspire and emulate – Bond. James Bond.

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Don Quixote

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes
1605 – 1615

One of the world’s first novels and considered a foundational text of modern literature, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha follows the comic adventures of a gentleman farmer who decides to live out the fantasy of knighthood, dressing up in an old suit of armour, designating a neighbour his great love and inspiration, and hitting the road to chivalrous heroics with his “squire” Sancho Panza. Quixote sees grave insults and corruptions everywhere around him, battles for justice, glory and honour at every turn. To him, a great steed stands in place of his broken-down horse, a loyal servant is made of a bumbling neighbour, castles arise in the place of local inns, and giants – ferocious, menacing giants – replace the windmills on his journey. The neighbours see a crazy old man who’s just going to get himself hurt, and plot to get him home and safe and quiet once more. But Don Quixote will suffer no such indignation.

It’s the last great hurrah of chivalry, a laughing glance at the myths we live by, and still a nostalgic reflection – if not on what we’ve lost, on what we believe we’ve lost. And now, Cervantes’ book itself has entered history in the same way – as myth, as nostalgia, as a work of literature emblematic of worlds that collide, the death of the middle ages, the rise of modernity, a new literary form for a new cultural age and yet entirely occupied with what was lost even if it never really was to begin with.

Rob Roy

Rob Roy
Sir Walter Scott

Set in the years immediately preceding the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, in which supporters of James VII of Scotland (known as James II in England) sought to restore him to the British throne, Rob Roy is an historical novel depicting the social conditions and political upheaval of Scotland at the time, as seen through the eyes of a young man of a Jacobite family. The name of the book is taken not from its principal character, but from the real-life person of Robert Roy MacGregor, who appears at various times in the story and whose presence and personality shape both the plot and the context in which Rob Roy is set.

A Jacobite himself, the historical Rob Roy is something of a Scottish folk-hero not unlike Robin Hood. Landowner and later debtor, nationalist and notorious outlaw, he represents the struggle of Scotland for freedom from foreign rule as represented by the House of Hanover dynasty, the German royal dynasty that took power in England and Scotland following the fall of James VII/James II. More broadly. Rob Roy symbolizes the anti-colonial impulse generally, Sir Walter Scott’s novel appearing as sympathy towards those colonized in the Americas and elsewhere took root in the UK and drawing clear parallels between the experiences of the Highland Scots and the indigenous peoples of North America.

Robin Hood

A Gest of Robyn Hode
1450 – 1475

and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
Howard Pyle

Robin Hood was, of course, one of the first things identified for this list. It was tricky, however, to sort out which text to include with which date. We opted to include two: first, A Gest Of Robyn Hode, one of the earliest versions – because the whole point is to note cultural significance, so it was important to find something early that laid the foundation for the Robin Hood we know; second, the most well-known of the Robin Hood texts, Howard Pyle’s 1883 book The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.

The moral outlaw, the one who robs from the rich to feed the poor, who takes to the country to hide among the people as he strikes back against unjust and corrupt authority. He is Robin Hood, and in more recent song and story he is also Ned Kelly, Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd.

Exactly when the Robin Hood legend began is not known; the Gest represents one of the earliest written versions, and was written down sometime in the mid-fifteenth century but is no doubt based on a number of pre-existing ballads and folktales. Many of the familiar elements are already here – Little John, Much the miller’s son, the archery contest, the dreaded sheriff – illustrating quite a remarkable consistency in a legend that has spanned over 500 years and re-tellings from Howard Pyle (whose 1883 The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is the classic modern version) to Walt Disney. Whatever your favourite version, the bare essentials of Robin are the same, and we can expect he’ll be with us another 500 years more.

The Hardy Boys

The Hardy Boys
Franklin W. Dixon
Since 1927

Since 1927 the Hardy Boys series has continued to be one of the most popular of children’s series, translated into over 25 languages and continuing to sell over a million copies per year. The brainchild of publisher Edward Stratemeyer, the books have been ghostwritten by a number of authors and have been spun off into numerous related series as well as television and comic book versions.

Brothers Frank and Joe Hardy, the teen heroes of the series, are amateur detectives, each volume detailing a new case that comes to their attention. Initially somewhat younger (15 and 16 years old rather than the current 17 and 18), the boys in the early years of the series were quite different than they were portrayed in later series – initially actively dealing with financial struggles and suspicious of if not hostile to police and other authority, in the 1950s they were re-cast as affluent, obedient, and entirely law-abiding kids. At the same time, the books became less dark, less violent, and more explicitly modeled the ideals of that era’s middle America. Further, as earlier series had been criticized for extensive use of racial stereotypes, the series was substantially revised and newer volumes all but eliminated non-white characters rather than risk any discussion of how questions of race were handled. The 1980s saw further development with the introduction of the Hardy Boys Casefiles series; marketed to an older audience, here the violence is back, the boys themselves carrying guns and working as part of an undercover state network to battle terrorism, organized crime and other such baddies.

Hugely popular, widely-read and extensively-referenced in popular culture, the Hardy Boys – in all their incarnations – are one of the most enduring series of books for young people in North America, and their evolution over time provides insight into broader social, cultural and ideological change.

Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes
Edgar Rice Burroughs

There’s a whole analysis we can do on the Tarzan phenomenon – an analysis of colonialism, of the myth of ‘the savage’, the way notions of race are constructed and reproduced; and then a whole other on masculinity and gender. Tarzan is everywhere, and Tarzan remains a major cultural reference point precisely because it does play on and reinforce so much of where white anglo-american culture comes from, so much of what shaped the modern world, and what continues to shape it. Tarzan may seem like just a character for kids’ stories. But culturally, he is really, really important.

Magazine serials, the original novel, and some 25 sequels by Burroughs and countless other books and media by other authors demonstrate just how much the character of Tarzan spoke to and became a part of our general consciousness. White boy of aristocratic heritage raised in the jungle, Tarzan combines all those characteristics of the “noble savage” and puts them in a white skin to make them just that much braver, that much more noble, to represent in the popular imagination a unique twist on the colonial project, a unique marrying of civilization and nature. The ultimate representation of white masculinity in a world defined by conquest and empire, Tarzan tugs at deeply-held popular prejudices and ideals to take and retain iconic status.

Now, Burroughs was just writing an adventure story set in the assumptions of his time, the Tarzan books being intended as straight-ahead adventures coming out of a particularly racialized cultural place. The emphasis on the role of race and masculinity in this summary, then, is less about Burrough’s agenda and more about the fact that Tarzan’s wide and lasting influence speaks to something fundamental about white anglo-american identity – the tension between contempt for “savages” and the longing for a return to nature that is so perfectly embodied in the Tarzan character. And, make no mistake, that character speaks to us no less today than it did in 1912.

The British boy raised in the jungle. The epitome of manhood. Freedom, raw sexual power, strength and violence, a model of some imagined “natural” human ethic – what every woman wants, what every man wants to be, what Europe itself liked, in moments of fancy, to imagine in the colonial project and what Teddy Roosevelt liked to imagine for America’s own version of that project. Tarzan is important because Tarzan is – whether we admit or or not – what we want to be.

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