Further thoughts concerning the medieval and modern fantasy

NB: I have yet to do any serious scholarly investigation on this subject; right now, I’m concentrating on working out my own ideas and reasoning.

It seems to me that a lot of scholars who specialize in medieval literature also end up working with fantasy, both as creative writers and as scholars. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and he wrote (among other scholarly things) a book on Beowulf. Although I haven’t looked for it, I know from other scholars that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ extensively from Beowulf and other medieval literature in his creation of the Lord of the Rings series and its companion works. Perhaps lesser known, but no less important in some ways, Kathryn Hume first wrote a scholarly book on The Owl and the Nightingale. She later went on to write another scholarly work on fantasy literature, Fantasy and Mimesis. One of the founders of the Monty Python comedy troop, Terry Jones, has written several books on Chaucer.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a medievalist as an academic specialty to create good fantasy literature. The late great Terry Pratchett includes medieval elements in his Discworld series, but he himself once said, his learning was broad, not deep. Patrick Rothfuss was an English major who went to graduate school, but I have no idea what he may have specialized in or if he took an advanced degree (his website says “I don’t’ want to talk about it.”). If I had to speculate, if not a specialty, Rothfuss has at least done some in depth study of medieval literature and/or history. There’s too many accurate parallels between medieval realities and the world of The Kingkiller Chronicles to be coincidence. Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing.

Similarly, successful fantasy does not need to be terribly medieval or academically based. Take The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This book has a lot of classic high fantasy elements like the unwilling hero, the journey, the band of friends, the elves and humans, the magic, demonic bad guys, etc. The world is generically medieval but there’s not much detail about the world itself; that’s not really the point of this series. It’s more about the characters and the plot. I have to admit, I only read the one and half of the novels, but I could already tell that there was a pattern, and I got bored.

Fantasy also doesn’t need to be medievally-based at all. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels hints at some research into the history and culture of Renaissance and Victorian England, but that’s not medieval. Likewise, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire dragon series is built on historically accurate life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Then there’s fantasy that’s built on mythologies, which often places them in somewhat medieval times or settings. Again turning to Naomi Novik, Uprooted is clearly based on Eastern European folklore; the Baba Yaga references give that away, as do some of the character names (I’d never heard of the names Agnieszka and Kasia until I met my Polish now aunt). The general time and place have a medieval feel, although not nearly as detailed as the likes of Tolkien and Rothfuss. I love Uprooted for many reasons, but it’s not as detailed in the same way.

Then there’s the fantasy that is based on myth but set at least partially in the modern world. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s adult novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods, which are heavily based in African and Norse mythology respectively, though not exclusively. Then there’s the YA versions, most notably Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson for the Greek myths, and Magnus Chase for the Norse.

Eventually I’m going to need to get into the actual scholarship done on these questions, but for now I think it’s safe to at least say that modern fantasy literature has a serious debt to medieval literature and culture and probably history too.

Beginning a New Project

Embarking on a new project is always an interesting time. What I am beginning to work on is an extension of an older project, but it represents a new direction. My current long-term research project is a revision of my dissertation into a book. The original project, titled “Argument In Poetry: (Re)Defining The Middle English Debate Poem In Academic, Popular, And Physical Contexts”, argues that many medieval English argument poems tend to follow two models based on academic and popular practices of the times. The academic models come from commentary and disputation practices (Chapter 2), while the popular practices are derived from medieval drama and sermons (Chapter 3). The physical context, addressed in the fourth chapter, reviews a sample of representative manuscripts containing debate poems in order to analyze the types of texts, themes and marginalia typically preserved along with the poems.

I am currently working on a replacement for my original chapter 4. I will be replacing that chapter with an extended analysis of a single longer poem, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. I plan to analyze the persuasive elements that relate to the commentary tradition, the disputation tradition, the sermon, and confessional literature. The first part of this project will be concentrating primarily on the interactions between Amans and Genius in order to analyze Gower’s treatment of the interpretive and persuasive dialogue in the context of the various related discursive traditions referenced above. The second part of the project will concern the same elements within the exempla presented by Genius.

I am proceeding thus:

1) Initial reading of the primary text for ideas and questions to guide research.

For this first step finding the right edition of your text is important as the edition can be used to start the secondary source research process.  The advent of the digital humanities has made this element far more accessible than ever before. To me, a good edition, traditional or digital requires several components. First, a good scholarly edition must have a good “Works Cited” and ideally “For further information see” sections. A second key element is the inclusion of a glossary and textual notes. Particularly if I am looking at the text in question for the first time in depth, a detailed “Commentary-Notes” section is also very helpful. I am partial to the TEAMS Middle English series because these editions meet the above requirements. In the case of the Confessio Amantis, I will be primarily referring to:

Confessio Amantis, Volume 1


{I will eventually be using all 3 volumes, but volume 1 serves as a good example.}

An interesting fact about this series of editions is that many are available online as well as in print.  If I am committed to a specific text as my object of study, I find that I prefer to have the printed text. I prefer to not be tied down by WiFi connections and battery or cord availability. That said, I do like the digital editions because they can save time with hyperlinks to notes, and a digital text can make initial word searches faster than a paper concordance. I always make sure to double check a full concordance (when available) simply because, especially with Middle English, there may be forms of the word or alternative spellings that I was not aware of.

2) Once I have some ideas and questions from the initial reading of the primary text, I next begin looking into the secondary research to see what has already been done in the field, and to find out who the major scholars are. For this literature review, I start in two places. First, I have search my primary academic library’s catalog for potentially relevant sources.



The second place that I look to build my list of works to review is the Bibliography section of my edition.

                                                                                  LIbrary search

As of this writing, I have gotten as far as the two steps described above. What follows is based on previous practices.

3) As I read through the first round of primary sources, I keep notes. Based on my initial questions and observations concerning the text, I write down the relevant ideas for each text. I also make note of any potentially useful sources referenced so that I can look up the original arguments or ideas for myself. I prefer to keep track of my sources in a searchable digital file, but I keep my notes in a notebook. Although the paper notebook is less easily searchable, I find that if organized by title and author, I can still refer back to what I need while not being tied to an available screen.

This part of the process is probably the most time-consuming. The Bibliography and Index can be helpful places for saving time, especially if a text is not the work of a single author, but a collection or anthology of essays. That said, I firmly believe that taking time during the initial research phase will save time later on. Keeping detailed, organized notes will be helpful later on when I might realize that I want to return to a source I haven’t looked at in six months for a specific reference. In addition to checking my notes, I will also go through the indices and bibliographies provided to re-view the source in terms of my current question or perspective.

4) Outline. I like outlines and I find that I work well with them. As I teach composition students, I record my claims and reasons based on the primary text, keeping track of the relevant passages. I then add to each claim-reason the relevant secondary references.

5) First draft. After ensuring that everything in my outline is compatible, I sit down to write. I find that setting a schedule is useful, but that flexibility must be included. I set myself a weekly page goal and a daily  progress goal with a catch-up day built in.

6) Review and Revision. A hard lesson to learn is that having someone else read your unfinished work is helpful. After draft 1 is done, I send it to a willing trusted third party, while I begin my own revisions. This step is repeated until a polished project is completed.

Given that I am currently in the middle of step 2, the Gower project of mine will be ongoing for quite some time. I hope to have an outline at least started by Summer 2015. In the meantime, stay tuned for occasional updates and observations about how works is coming along.

Beowulf Online

First, the poem itself  does need some introduction. Although there was a movie that borrowed the title and some character names, said film was not in actuality anywhere close to the poem.

The Best Edition and Translation for Serious Students: Beowulf on Steorarume

This online text includes side-by-side Old English and modern translation, and a diplomatic Old English only version. The translation is more faithful to the original syntax and style than many which is why I like it. The site includes a glossary to the Old English, an Introduction to the text, supplemental readings from related texts, bibliography, and explanatory notes with the text. Admittedly, the ads and prominent ‘donate to support’ are not always fun to look at, but the rest of the site makes up for that.

While I admit to owing a huge debt of gratitude to this edition for helping me get through a course covering the original Old English text, this site is also a great illustration of the importance that Beowulf still has. Not only doe the site contain a variety of aids in the study of Beowulf itself, but it also presents other Old English texts that might relate to the same ideas and traditions.

This link to other texts presents one of the main reasons why the Old English Beowulf is still relevant today. It contains some of the only information to have survived the centuries concerning history, culture, and mythology of the time in the English language (at the time). For this reason alone, the poem deserves respect, because it is one of the only texts we still have that illustrates a connection between the English language literary traditions and the epics of Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and others. This heritage is important because it contains clues to the development of the English literary tradition from some of its earliest stages.

The question remains as to whether or not Beowulf is actually high art as a poem. This is a matter of interpretation, and requires research and study to answer. However, since the text exists in a single damaged copy, and is one of very few extant pieces of Old English poetry that we still have access to, Beowulf deserves attention. Whether we like it or not, it’s nearly all we have.

Beowulf has certainly gotten plenty of attention over the past few centuries. J.R.R. Tolkein was a scholar of the poem, and used sections of it as inspiration for parts of his LOTR series. Even today, the Internet contains many blogs and message boards dedicated to this poem. Just type ‘Beowulf’ into Google or any other search engine. The existence of these digital platforms allows people who may not be professional scholars to interact with some of the oldest known literature in the English language. For this reason alone, the Internet can be called a boon to literary scholarship, because the Internet allows people to experience and interact with texts and ideas they might not otherwise be interested in or have access to.

The quality of these interactions is another question entirely. Some blogs (and other digital sources) are written by trained academics, and others are not. I don not mean to imply that blogs and web sites composed by non-academics are not valuable, or that those by professional scholars must automatically be accepted as high quality. I do say that the author’s background should have an impact on how the content is approach, analyzed, and-or accepted (or not).  I would judge quality based on how the author of an opinion uses the actual text of the poem, and whether or not they account for previously published thoughts on the poem.  If an author cites the poem frequently and correctly, and especially if they cite authoritative scholarship (or even an authoritative edition of the poem), then I am more inclined to take their ideas seriously.  These are all techniques in which scholars are trained, and  a professional academic is more likely to use them.  That said, I don’t believe for a minute that a person must be trained scholar in order to be a thoughtful reader or interpreter.

Beowulf and its digital presence illustrates both the importance and the cautions of engaging with the digital humanities. While the Web allows for greater access, exploration, and discussion, the natures of said discussions and those who engage in them must be taken into account.  An astute observer might notice that I have yet to offer any opinion on the nature of Beowulf as a poem myself. I have no intention of doing so. While I do find the poem fascinating for historical and linguistic-literary reasons, I simply do not feel the need to engage the digital world on this matter. I plan on saving that for works and authors in which I have considerably more experience and expertise. First up, Chaucer. Coming soon.

Key Books for Most Any Medievalist

***This list is not exhaustive, nor is it permanent. It will be updated periodically. Let’s say it’s a permanent work in progress.***


The Owl and the Nightingale


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A Parallel Text Edition of Chaucer’s Minor Poems (there are also some Supplement volumes)

De Nuptiis Philologiae Et Mercurii (The Marriage of Philology and Mercury) by Martianus Capellanus

Anything in the TEAMS Middle English series


Prose or Poetry-for-not-strictly-poetic-reasons:

The Art of Preaching by Alanus d’Insulis

The Metalogicon by John of Salisbury

Ars Versificatoria: The Art of the Versemaker by Matthew of Vendôme

Anything in the TEAMS Middle English series



Riverside Chaucer edited by Larry Benson

Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology edited by John Conlee

Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475 edited by Rita Copeland and I. Sluiter

Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c. 1100-c. 1375: The Commentary-Tradition edited by A.J. Minnis, A. Brian Scott, and David Wallace



European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius

Medieval Narrative: An Introduction by W.A. Davenport

The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar by David Fowler

Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative by John Ganim

The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and its Critics by Kathryn Hume

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600 by Vivienne Law

Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: an Institutional and Intellectual History by Gordon Leff

Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages by A.J. Minnis

Handbook of Medieval Studies :Terms, Methods, Trends. Ed. Albrecht Classen

Old English and Middle English Poetry by Derek Pearsall

Reading Middle English Literature by Thorlac Turville-Petre


Manuscript Studies:

Introduction to Manuscript Studies by Ray Clemens and Timothy Graham

A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 by Michelle Brown

Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, Linda Olson

Pause and Effect: An Introduction of the History of Punctuation in the West by M.B Parkes