Myth and Folklore towards a Theory of Superheroes

There’s an old saying that to learn something thoroughly, you have to teach it. For me the past few weeks, that’s been mythology and folklore that’s affected literature (and culture), and the theories that have been applied to them. I’ve been familiar with many of the basic stories since childhood, but I hadn’t gone very in depth in terms of context or interpretive strategies. With a little research, context isn’t hard to find, but interpretation when it comes to this kind of literature has a varied history, not to mention, literary theory is not something I have a lot of practice with using and neither is contemporary literature.

In retrospect, I first learned about literary theory in my senior year of graduate school. At the time, I wasn’t really clear what ‘cultural studies was or why it mattered. I later had two semesters of theory surveys in graduate school. I enjoyed those courses. The ‘problem’ was that my general scholarly specialty, medieval literature, is traditionally most often studied via close reading, source use, or historical context. It probably might also have something to do with the fact that I had an advisor who doesn’t believe modern theory has much applicability to older texts.

Not only then have I not used a variety of theory in my own scholarship, but I also have not taught it. That’s where things got interesting the past few weeks. I taught a 5-week short summer term course on ‘Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies’. I didn’t plan this initially, but as it turns out, theory was unavoidable. I knew the name Joseph Campbell from my senior year of high school, when I think we watched an episode of two of the series of interviews that he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”. I don’t remember learning or understanding much from that, especially not in terms of using those kinds of ideas to interpret stories.

What I ended up doing was starting with definitions of ‘mythology’ and ‘folklore’, then adding a new theorist each week. My students and I ended up with Campbell twice (once for archetypes, and once for modern utility and applicability), Karl Jung, Vladimir Propp, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Otto Rank. Not that I’d tell them this directly, but I probably learned as much about theory over the past month as they did. We also ended up going into pop culture more than I had planned, but it was something the students could relate to and they also (hopefully) now know that there can be academic value in using scholarly tactics with things like anime or comic books. For example, we looked at a translation/prose rendering of the first section of Journey to the West, which covers the backstory of Sun Wukong the Monkey King, which has been very influential even in American popular culture. We used that story as the basis to try and formulate a theory of the American superhero story. We ended up with something that looked an awful lot like Rank’s breakdown of the hero story. I admit I was a little disappointed things didn’t get more creative with putting together a new theoretical framework derived from the examples of heroes that the class had been reading and talking about, but it was a start. In any event, it was entertaining to see the class try and reason how well their ideas fit a range of contemporary hero characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman.

I was also a bit inspired by some of the work done for their final projects. The assignment was to take a classic adaptation of myth or folklore like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, or The Hobbit, and compare/contrast the treatment of the identified source material with a modern adaptation like Krampus by Brom, The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky, The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, or The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. After seeing what a small group of English majors about halfway through college managed to work out, I now rather want to see what might be done if I applied Otto Rank’s ideas of the family romance and his 10 step hero journey to the likes of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. Or, once the sequel to Vicious, Vengeful, comes out in September (9/29- not that it’s not on my calendar or anything), using any and all of the theories previously noted to determine once and for all the good guy-bad guy dynamic, since I have long questioned the common blurb that comes with Vicious that it’s a twist on the superhero/supervillain story.

After some brief checking, it looks like most scholarship on modern (ie- 20th century-ish) American superheroes deals with their cultural origins and meanings, and very little on structural or morphological characteristics that theorists of centuries past have constructed. While I readily admit this kind of approach is old-fashioned and not terribly fashionable at the moment, it does have its uses, especially for introducing students to interpretive possibilities. Frameworks that include things like concrete patterns (ex-7 basic archetypes) and lists (ex-31 functions) are far easier to start working with than ideologically-based theories. Not that ideologies are bad as interpretive bases, they just seem a bit harder to start with for most. Techniques that allow for patters to appear seem a good half-way point between theories that start with a pattern to apply and those which advance a more philosophical approach.

For example, if I wanted to use Vicious and Super Powereds (by Drew Hayes) as my primary basis for contemporary treatments of heroes, a basic comparison and contrast such appears in Levi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth” provides a technique for gathering information and looking for potential patterns resulting in something like:

Super Powereds is far more traditional in some ways (capes, secret identities, lairs, etc) than Vicious, but there are overlaps in things like concerns for ethics and individual moral choices/reasoning, starring college age individuals who must learn how to use their abilities, the perceived gaps between those who have powers and those who don’t, and the question of created vs naturally super-powered individuals.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a lot of ways this could go. I’ll have to work on this further.

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Thoughts from ICMS 2018

Conferences are fun, from locating a coveted JSTOR sticker to old friends and favorite places to Michael Jackson and Disney in Latin to Marjorie Kempe visits Wonderland, to the little annoyances like the teen hoard that took over the Pita Pit about 5 minutes before I got there resulting in nowhere to sit and a 20 minute wait to the campus Bigsby schedule not matching what was printed in the program to never meeting the person you’re sharing a bathroom with and praying you don’t walk in on or get walked in on.

With larger ones like the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS) at Kalamazoo, you have the burden/opportunity to choose from 40+ sessions each round of panels. While this can be aggravating when 3 panels you really want to see are at the same time, it also means that you have the opportunity to hear talks on things you know little to nothing about. This time around, I ended up enjoying those more than the ones I had more familiarity with. There were quite a few popular culture panels and I went to several since they were relevant to my current science fiction/fantasy in the Middle Ages project, and because they might provide some useful information or sources for my Myth-Folklore course.

The concept of ‘medievalism’ has been around for a few years. In fact, the last time I was at ICMS in 2015, the keynote speaker Richard Utz presented on that very topic, and later published the address “Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists” as both an article and a short monograph. If you can find the version published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the comments section reiterates the points for him. To oversimplify a little, it essentially means uses of the medieval in or by non-academic sources such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, video games, Dungeons and Dragons online fora, etc. The idea is that this kind of adaptation of medieval history and culture is not necessarily any less valid in terms of accuracy or usefulness than an academic book or article by someone with a PhD in the exact area they’re discussing. I’m hoping that borrowing some of this theory might help students really start to look at some of the texts, the less traditionally academic ones in particular, as genuinely worthy of in-depth analysis.

NB: For citation in the following, everything is labeled as (panel #) as noted in the ICMS program, available here: https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/events/sessions Apologies to individual speakers, but my notes weren’t always clear on which paper some ideas were from. If you notice a detail that you recognize as yours, let me know and I’ll update the reference.

Why does all of this matter? A lot of the pop culture panels I went to that I found useful in adding some ideas and information to what I’m working on dealt with medievalism. For example, a couple of the panels included papers on the videogame Witcher 3 (#119, 469). I plan on using the first Witcher novel The Last Wish in class. I’m not a gamer, but I have read the first few novels so I figured I might get some interesting interpretive possibilities. I was not wrong. Use of gaze make sense for the video game, especially paired with gender and it turns out that in the game there’s a lot of jokes about Geralt potentially being gay or queer. It’s also interesting that there’s a version of the Grail quest in which the Lady of the Lake is actually sick of people going on Grail quests, which also factors in questions of gender since chastity becomes a factor, at least in the original Arthurian version as the chaste knight Galahad is the only one to actually succeed. The point was also raised about how in many games like The Witcher, when you start, you’re given the choice of race of your avatar, except that ‘race’ is more like ‘species’, and the term ‘race’, like gender and sexuality, has very current modern relevance. I’m hopeful that analyses like this will prove useful in class when we get to a lot of the folklore and some of the mythology.

I think these approaches about gaze, gender, race, and identity might work well, at least with the first novel of the series since it’s effectively a collection of short stories which are interrelated. Certainly the traditional ideas about good and evil and destiny and similar are there, but as a modern folk tale set of stories considering fairly contemporary and current issues, in the same way the original folk stories reflected the fears and values of their tellers, I’m hopeful that at least one or two people will take on this option.

It may be my current research interests, but I noticed an interesting emphasis at quite a few panels on some connections between nature, humanity, magic, and Christian faith (#33, 160). A talk on medieval medical folk remedies and/or magic pointed out that the Church borrowed the formulae used for cures concerning relics and other faith-based medical treatments, while simultaneously labeling and condemning the folk beliefs themselves as ‘magic’. The close connections between magic, faith, and medicine have some interesting possibilities in terms of fantasy and science fiction literatures, especially those dating to the middle ages, although I’m hopeful there might be room for application of some of the ideas in more contemporary novels and stories as well. I think that something like Uprooted or The Bear and the Nightingale might work well with some of these ideas. The Bear and the Nightingale gets pointedly direct in its consideration of the medieval Christian church and folk beliefs and practices, so that one might have an edge, but Uprooted presents folk knowledge in contrast to formal academic knowledge and their uses, so I think that either story might work out. Given how popular these two novels have been, I wouldn’t doubt that at least of them gets taken up.

Poetry might be an interesting avenue to consider as well. Something like Goblin Market or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be interesting to consider from the perspectives of magic versus faith, or nature and humanity. The problem here is that finding contemporary texts to use alongside would be a challenge, since that type of narrative poetry is far less common than it used to be. The only examples that I can name off the top of my head are Sexton’s “Cinderella” which students seem to struggle with, and Walcott’s Omeros. Neither or these 2 texts would work especially well with the themes of nature and faith and magic either.

Another talk noticed that the natural becomes God, and that nature becomes ‘other’/’bad’ in terms of symbolism of the forest and similar, and that the human eventually becomes substituted for the natural, and nature becomes not natural (#256, 391). Again, I feel this might have applications in terms of some sub-genres of fantasy. Certainly a text like Gawain and the Green Knight might be applicable here in terms of its contrasts with the Christian and chivalric values and how Morgan and Bertilak text Gawain.

So far, much of what I’ve said has been summarizing other people’s arguments and observations, and speculating a bit on potential applications. For now, I’m ok with that. What I need to do now is to figure out how effective some of these approaches might be in class, and how best to deploy them.

A Side Trip into Fantasy

While working on a project concerning the presence of science fiction in the Middle Ages, I noticed a question that seems to get left out of a lot of the history of fantasy and science fiction mixed origins: if, as a common argument goes, a lot of medieval stories based on what we might call science fiction now was fantasy, where does our notion of fantasy as based on medieval perceptions come from? Similarly and relatedly, if as I will eventually be suggesting many medieval stories were in fact science fiction before the label was invented, than what did medieval writers consider as what we now call fantasy?

A few working definitions to start: science fiction, no matter whose definition you’re looking at, seems to require a degree of connection to reality, either in terms of knowledge or believability in terms of technological basis, theoretical or philosophical understanding, or at least imagined possibility. Fantasy on the other hand, is based on a degree of acknowledged impossible and unrealistic characters, settings, and/or scenarios.

An obvious place to start looking for the medieval version of what at the time might have been called fantasy if that existed as a genre is the chivalric and Arthurian romance. These are the stories of the knights and kings and damsels that now make the basis of a lot of what’s now called high or epic fantasy (not fully interchangeable terms, but very closely related), the usual stereotype along the lines of the Shannara Chronicles or something by Robert Jordan. But there’s reasons why the chivalric romance cannot be the only basis. Firstly, to the medieval writer, these stories of Arthur etc. may have been a form of historical fiction, not necessarily fantasy as the requisite lack of realism may have been absent. Second, many of the modern versions contain a significant amount of magic, witches, wizards, demons, and other fantastical creatures like dragons. Again the realism problem is present if you take into consideration that on the creature front at least there exists the possibility that at least in theory these creatures were believed to be possible. This possibility rests in the medieval bestiaries which contain descriptions and pictures of creatures that would now be placed in the fantasy realm like griffins and basilisks. Third, looking at many of the original chivalric tales, there is a distinct lack of wizards, witches, and magic. Yes these things are present, but not nearly to the degree with which modern fantasy relies. Merlin is definitely presented as a wizard in many of the medieval stories including him, but he is less magician and more prophet. Witches or magical women of some sort occasionally show up as well, but again neither to the degree nor the range of powers that their modern equivalents are given; Morgan LeFay or the Lady of the Lake are virtually never a main character. Likewise, random acts of magic are few and far between, and even when they are a big part of the story, episodes like that of Le chevaler qui fist les cons parler focus less on the magic and more on the moral/humor of the resulting actions.

So, where does all the magic come from? What did the general medieval story consider actual fantasy? A big part of the answer is folklore. Folk tales in the Middle Ages I would argue were at the time and remain today a major source of the fantasy genre. Take for example the fairly well-known story/poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The frame might be Arthurian but that is not the source of the fantasy, and neither is it really the focus of the story itself. The main focus is on Gawain as a knight and how his perfection in chivalry and Christianity are tested via supernatural, folkloric means. There is quite a bit of research on the poem that argues that the Green Knight/Bertilak has his origins in the folkloric Celtic figure of the Green Man, and I might also add a touch of the dullahan (also present in Celtic folklore). Both the Green Man and the dullahan are fantastic figures out of pagan Celtic folklore, and their presence in the main antagonist, friendly though he may end up being, gives an otherwise chivalric Christian poem the rightful label of ‘fantasy’. Particularly given the Christian flavoring elsewhere in the poem, for example the symbolism in the description of Gawain’s poem or his occasional prayers to the Virgin Mary just before he is miraculously rescued from a bad or unpleasant situation, the use of the Green Man figure would likely be in the context of folklore and not someone who may have genuinely believed in the character. Even epic poems like Beowulf owe the fantasy components of their stories to folklore. Adversaries like the swamp-dwelling Grendel-kin and the dragon that make the poem more fantasy than Christian (and in the case of Beowulf to the point of some scholarly questioning of how late an addition the Christian elements might be) come from the pagan folk traditions.

Folktales and lore also account for the presence in much modern fantasy of witches, wizards, supernatural creatures of many sorts, magic, alone and in combination with heroes, damsels, and kings. Consider any story in the Grimm, Perault, or Christian Anderson collections (the originals, not the sanitized versions presented in the Disney Princess canon). Stories like “The Little Mermaid”, “Cinderella”, or “Beauty and the Beast” have the same kind of knightly hero, the damsel, the royalty, the magic, and the supernatural denizens that you see in epic or high fantasy tales such as Markus Heitz’s Dwarves series or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

I have to admit that since I haven’t started seriously researching this thread yet I find it likely that many of the ideas I’ve expressed are not unique to me. Even though I suspect these initial thoughts are not exactly new to the world, they most certainly are commonly overlooked in popular understanding.

Thoughts on the Medieval Origins of Science Fiction

There is plenty of discussion on the medieval influence on some of the major sub-genres of modern fantasy, but much less on fantasy in medieval period literature, and even less than that on science-fiction connections to medieval literature. Part of this comes from a reference I found while shelf-browsing in a research library. The rest comes from some ideas I’ve been starting to pick up from older projects concerning Chaucer and science, and a thought to consider possible connections between steampunk and the Middle Ages.

Traditional high fantasy like Tolkien’s has been the subject of some scholarly attention in the past few decades, as has fantasy by writers who invoke folkloric of mythological elements in their story worlds, like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The idea of science fiction having connections to medieval writers and ideas might seem like an oxymoron since science is based more on projections into the future, not the past, but when you think about it, the Middle Ages actually marks the beginnings of science fiction writing as we now know it.

The book that got me thinking was Medieval Science Fiction, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Carl Kears, published in 2016 by the Center for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London. One of the essays made the connection between Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably one of the first works of modern sci-fi. The basic idea is that both Victor Frankenstein and the alchemists in the Canon’s Yeoman’s prologue and tale are attempting to change Nature through experimentation and the scientific method, which has disastrous or at least disheartening consequences for all involved.

This point about the Canon’s Yeoman and alchemy in Chaucer’s time, and the question of how much might Chaucer have actually know about alchemy brings me back to a project that I’m reviving and refocusing for a conference paper this summer, and possibly developing into something longer. One of the key conflicts in interpreting the story concerns Chaucer’s presentation of the perceptions of alchemy. Alchemy was fairly new in the public knowledge in the 14th century in England, and it was not wholly trusted. Chaucer clearly had some interest in science; he wrote Treatise on the Astrolabe after all, and this is basically a scientific instruction manual on how to use a device designed to help figure out calendar dates based on astronomical information. The problem with alchemy in Chaucer’s story is that the source, the Canon’s Yeoman, gets a lot of his interpretation wrong or is clearly quoting from a standard text, and makes frequent claims about the trouble with alchemy and his own lack of success. His tale about a dishonest alchemist who dupes a local priest out of a substantial amount of money to some extent reflects the distrust that the public may have had in what has sometimes been labeled as the predecessor of modern chemistry.

This use of a modern science and the problems it causes individuals and society in general is a theme in many science fiction novels, from William Gibson and Isaac Asimov to Emma Newman and Sue Burke. Not that all science fiction focuses on social problems resulting at least in part from technological human creations, since Star Trek’s Data probably has some loose connection to Talus,  metal-man sidekick of Arthegall, knight of justice in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Granted, Spenser was not a medieval writer, rather an Elizabethan, but the point stands that science fiction has much deeper/older roots than it’s usually given credit for.

The connection between steam-punk and medieval literary tropes comes from this reasoning. Steampunk reflects some of the fictional interest in the past similar to fantasy as it’s often set in pseudo-Victorian London, but it also considers the impacts of technology and man-made impacts on the natural world, including social implications both individual and general. Mark Hoddor or Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris would be prime examples. Especially when held up next to a text like The Canterbury Tales which has lot of potential for social commentary and critique, a lot of science fiction and steampunk reflects similar characters, attitudes, situations, and commentary via fiction. Granted, I need to do further tracing, but given Chaucer’s influence on literary history, I’m willing to bet that there’s more in the science fiction tradition between his 14th century, Spenser’s 17th, and the current 21st.

Different Ways to Read and Learn Medieval Stuff

Over the winter holidays, I did a lot of personal fun reading, some of which doubled as professional interest. This included Christopher deHamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, and Ironfoot (Enchanter General Book 1) by Dave Duncan. All 3 books have interesting suggestions about history and the importance of books. The thing is that one is of course a set of detailed manuscript studies written by a scholar, one is true story adventure/ political history written by a journalist, and the third is historical fiction written by a novelist. My point here is and will be that each of these different types of books and authors can be useful in terms of examining and understanding history and the role books and languages play, especially old books and languages.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is set up with the adventure of the librarians trying to save their books as a frame, and in the middle is a political and social history of the region, concentrating on the changing perspectives and roles of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Iyad Ag Ghali, who all become associated with major terrorist groups in high level positions. The frame, 50 or so pages on either side of the central 100 tells the titular story of the manuscript libraries being created, maintained, guarded, and then smuggled out of the Timbuktu area. This area (and I didn’t know this beforehand) was home to a lot of medieval manuscripts of most any subject you can think of, many kept by families. They were eventually collected into libraries. These libraries were largely the work of Ahmed Baba Institute and Abdel Kader Haidara mostly in the 1980s and 1990s; this is librarian-ing part 1 The secular content and some of the religion in the manuscripts was not in accordance with the Islam that men like Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Iyad Ag Ghali promoted, so when their groups started taking over areas closer and closer to the libraries, Haidara along with friends and family had to try and smuggle the books to a safe location, so they (both books and people) wouldn’t get destroyed; that’s the bad-ass librarian-ing (part 2). {NB: this paragraph was largely borrowed from a book review I previously wrote and published on the Cannonball Reads blog.}

As a general audience read, the structure bothered me a little, since while clearly connected in terms of theme, the two different parts didn’t have much direct narrative connection until the very end when the jihadis decide they might need to find and get rid of the manuscripts. It’s all important information to know, and I admit I hadn’t known much detail about how groups like Al Qaeda gained and lost influence in places like Mali over the past few decades. My problem was that if you’re going to title a book “Bad Ass Librarians” then the majority of said book should explicitly related to that, and the relation gets lost. Looking back though, this kind of focus is more something that scholars tend to worry about; journalists on the other hand focus more on the process of finding the information and presenting that alongside the results. I’m not suggesting literary and historical scholar don’t work with process or documenting it, the most certainly do, but rather that in terms of the final product presented as a result of the research, the standard practice in scholarship is thesis and topic sentences, all directly related to each other. Journalism on the hand typically seem to open with the result, then go back and present as much of the discovery was they have time for, and end with how the story currently stands. I say this without having had any formal journalist training, but it does seem to be a basic principle of reporting that you focus more on presenting information as you get it, and less on interpreting what it means throughout your research.

One of the more interesting elements of this book to me was the existence of personal manuscript libraries and how they were gathered together so recently. One of the biggest discoveries revealed towards the end of the book was that the collections had not been catalogued until having to relocate everything. I really would have liked to know more about what exactly they realized they had. But again this was a general interest book, and the books were more important as a group than as individual objects, at least in the context of the piece.

Irontfoot is a novel, of the historical fiction/murder mystery/fantasy variety. Imagine fantasy and historical fiction are fused into a mystery, like what you’d get with a mash-up of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, anything by Terry Brooks, and Harry Potter. The result, if it’s decently done, would be Ironfoot (Book 1 of the Enchanter General). There’s a touch of historical reality in the social divisions between the native Saxons and the ruling Normans, which is probably accurate given the setting in 1164 England. The brief cameos by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and a young Richard eventually Lionheart help keep the historical setting from getting lost in a world where magic and the Church exist in uneasy balance. These parts actually do seem pretty accurate or at least plausible, except for the magic thing of course. Overall, it’s an enjoyable easy read, in spite of a lot of little irritations. {Again, NB, most of this summary is again from a review I’ve previously written and published.}

The first part of the book where the world and general situation are introduced take place at a school for enchanters, and the hero Durwin, who being Saxon is technically a servant allowed to sit in on classes, who has untapped potential, that is revealed when he fixes a prophesying spell by correcting the grammar of the Saxon language in which it’s written. Apparently this is something no one has thought of doing before (getting spells to work by correcting the grammar and language), and it helps Durwin save the day more than once. The idea though that language was part of the magic, and that by doing something as simple as editing and fixing the grammar (a known practice among historical scribes, although not always to the benefit of the text) a spell could be made to work is an interesting concept, and not one I’ve seen before, and I’ve read a good bit of fantasy fiction. There’s also the value of the spellbooks, which apparently is substantial in this world; Durwin at one point makes a comment about feeling guilty about taking a spell book or few as payment when the new owners likely has no idea how much she could get by selling the collection. Comparably in actual history, actual book manuscripts in the 12th century would have mostly indeed have been highly valued.

So then, overall there’s a traditional scholarly study of medieval manuscripts, a journalistic exploration of modern ideas about the history of faith and knowledge, and historical fantasy fiction. The common thread for me is that they each in their own ways had something genuinely interesting to say about the history and importance of medieval books.

Leaning towards the Digital this Summer for Myth and Folklore

Early to mid-October is the time when faculty at my institution are faced with deciding on textbooks for the Spring and Summer terms. This of course means at least partially planning courses, or objectives at minimum, in order to determine the sort of book required, and then finding what’s available that mostly closely resembles the need. I find myself faced with an interesting challenge and an opportunity to really start designing a course with a strong digital component.

I will be teaching for the first time this summer “Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies” in a 5-week half-term hybrid format.

The two main base textbooks for such a course would have to be either Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, or Bulfinch’s collected text of the same title. In either case, digital sources are necessary for more story and character and context, especially beyond the basic Greek and Roman stories. Hamilton only briefly covers Norse mythology, and includes nothing outside of Europe. Bulfinch covers more range but less depth of story, although he does include later references or allusions in major works of literature which is the main reason why I chose his anthology over Hamilton’s.

Given that the course is a major-level elective, an anthology with some theory would be ideal. I’ve encountered 2 issues. First, I don’t want to only use Jung (ie-Campbell), so those paperbacks won’t work as supplements to something like Bulfinch. Ideally, I want at least some Structuralism to add to the psychologically based ideas, and some approaches to folk and fairy tales including feminism and YA backgrounds. Second, I found a promising textbook of stories and theory but, being from OUP, it was too expensive ($100+) to reasonably ask for a 5 week summer course even as the sole textbook. My options are either pillage short segments from various textbooks as pdfs and course reserves or/and find quality articles online. As of right now, it’s looking like a mix of all of the above.

The Bulfinch paperback covers most major myths but I still need folktales. For these, I think the Internet will work fine because these were originally popular tales and not scholarly material, so finding a variety of versions and stories online will actually be more faithful to the spirit of the folktale anyways. For the Greek, it’ll be the likes of:

https://books.google.com/books?id=fHt6Jqnmkv0C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

http://fairytalez.com/author/gianakoulis-and-macpherson/

http://fairytalez.com/region/greek/

and for the Roman: https://www.worldoftales.com/Italian_folktales.html

Concerning Norse myth, neither of the standard myth anthologies go into as much depth as I’d like, so I’ll be supplementing the range of the stories with online sources. Again, like the folktales, the sites may not be scholarly but they have the stories and since the material was not originally inherently scholarly, the sites need not be either. So for now:

http://norse-mythology.net/

https://norse-mythology.org/

For the Celtic traditions, both myth and folklore are needed. Bullfinch covers some Arthurian stories and excerpts from the Mabinogeon, but again I feel that’s not enough. I’m planning to add Yeats for folklore, and the Tain for myth. Thankfully there’s some decent online sources for both of these texts. See:

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/

http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/funaro.html

http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/tain_faraday.pdf

The situation is much the same with European folktales. Bulfinch covers some Robin Hood, but very little of the fairytale collections that make up most literary knowledge of folktales such as Perrault, Grimm, and Anderson. Again, those are located online in a variety of forms, including:

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault.html

https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~spok/grimmtmp/

http://hca.gilead.org.il/

http://americanfolklore.net/folklore/myths-legends/

 

Particularly for more contemporary literature in English, I want to spend a little time with Africa, India-Middle East and Asia. These days will have sources almost entirely online for all with the exception of one short chapter on India in Bulfinch. So, this means places like:

http://www.aaronshep.com/stories/036.html

http://africa.mrdonn.org/anansi.html

http://www.yesterdaysclassics.com/previews/barker_folktales_preview.pdf

http://www.thisafropolitanlife.com/2015/10/19/african-folktales-introducing-anansi-stories/

 

Thankfully the course doesn’t start until the end of May, so there’s time to work on the details, and it’ll be interesting to see how a more digital-text-based course goes.

Suggestions would be welcome.

A Digital Research Project Outline

After an interesting conference panel on digital teaching ideas, discussion turned into a gripe-fest against giant corporate owners of journals and software and certain textbook companies, which then led to discussion of who owns online content created by professors, the professor who created it or the school (the answer is often the school). Intellectual property rights sound complex, and given how important such things are becoming, I was a little surprised at how little I knew.

The professional development workshop I went to a while back focusing on copyrights ended up being more on using digital sources (and citing them), not as much on creating your own; I admit, I may have dozed and thus could have missed something. While I recognize the importance of that aspect of law, I ended up mentally going back to students, and how much they might know or understand on the subject.

I ended up thinking back to the history professor who’d presented on the panel, talking about how to teach basic research techniques in an online class. The assignment he described that he’d developed to help students work with primary sources sounds like it would be easily adaptable to other subjects, like literature, especially the medieval. I’m not sure exactly when or how I’ll use this, but I do think this assignment would be really useful for helping students learn about primary sources, and some basic research techniques. NB: The following is based on a presentation titled “”Defining Good Research: Using Digital Resources in British and European History Surveys” by Dr. John Krenke, presented at the 64th Annual Midwest Conference on British Studies.

Step 1: Assign students a primary document. Have them analyze who the author was and consider any bias on the author’s part towards his or her subject.

Step 2: Have students consider the author’s goal and maybe do some general rhetorical analysis.

Step 3: Link the document and its details to the macro-context of the time, place, and situation of the subject. This final step would likely require students to do some research using tools provided by the instructor, including databases or textbooks or other reference sources pertinent to the subject.

This assignment would work with documents on a subject that covers multiple sides, such as the slave trade. Sources for documents include places like the Internet History Sourcebook, or on the literary side, any number of library digitization projects and Early English Books Online (if your institution has access- the free version only allows access to some documents).

In a more medieval option, questions like ‘should the Bible be translated into the vernacular?’ or ‘should women be allowed to own property?’ might work well.

Assignments like this have several benefits to my mind. First, they help students learn about digital resources. During that panel’s discussion segment, it was observed and universally agreed upon that most students, being of the Millenial generation, are perceived as tech-savvy, but really are not when it comes to learning how to navigate new (academic) tools, sites, and systems. I can personally attest to this. Not only does every fall involve a 2 week learning curve as new students learn how to navigate the D2L/Brightspace system, but even more advanced students can struggle with more specialized tools. For example, the online Middle English Dictionary requires some fairly detailed search knowledge to be able to navigate easily and efficiently. Boolean operators are a must-know, as are the different places one can search (head-words as opposed to entries, etc). The irony of all this is that while data suggest that online and technology based classes are where enrollment is keeping steady or rising in general, it’s harder for students and professors both to engage with each other and with the material.

Another benefit of this type of assignment is that it breaks down the process of primary based research into manageable pieces: focused background information research, close reading, and secondary research on the broader issue or context.

This assignment also presents the opportunity to blend digital tools and techniques with more traditional library and literary (or historical) methods. I maintain that no matter how good the digital catalogue of a library may be, it still can’t beat browsing the shelves of a decently-stocked research library for finding potential sources. That said, if students don’t have easy access to such a library then it’s all the more important for them to learn how to conduct focused and broad searches using digital resources with as much efficiency and efficacy as possible.

Going back to the original thought about intellectual property in the digital world, breaking down the assignment like this also makes it easier for students to keep track of their sources and citations in a way that makes sense. Students can get the idea that smaller assignments, like homework, don’t need the kind of attention to citation that larger, longer written work like essays require, and an assignment like this could be used to highlight the need to always cite any source that is outside of your own head..