How to Learn or Explore the Comedy of Good Omens

I chose to assign an intro to lit class Good Omens; this decision was made before I realized the timing of the release of the tv version. The resulting assignment is a research paper looking into basic tropes and how the novel applies, ignores, tweaks, or generally deals with said set of expectations and conditions. The beginning of class very nearly coincided with the tv release, so there was a good bit of media attention to both the pending tv release as well as its source novel. Two particular themes kept showing up in the reviews and predictions: the comedy (success, failure, possible dated-ness) and romance/gender (especially the nature of Aziraphale’s and Crowley’s relationship, and the presence and treatment of female characters). The thing with the comedy got me thinking about how a group of early-ish career college students in a not-large urban-ish area in the Southern United States were going to be able to appreciate nearly 30-year old British language and comedy. Never mind the possible research subject, I was starting to wonder about just following the story.

We haven’t gotten to this point in the course yet, but I’m wondering if a review on general British comedy might not be in order. Starting with medieval riddles, fabliaux, and drama would be something fun to look into. One of my favorite things to do when teaching Chaucer, in both surveys and upper-level literature courses, is to surprise students with some of the lower level comic bits. It always amuses me that students don’t realize how old the word ‘fart’ actually is, and that they (farts) have been funny since before the Middle Ages in Europe. There is a surprising amount of scholarship on the history of farting and fart-based humor in the Middle Ages (and a good bit for even earlier times). Just search Google for “medieval fart”; you’ll end up with academic and non-academic links and some videos about comic performances involving farts, significant and often untimely farts in history, ancient and medieval medical practices involving farts (often capturing them in various ways for various reasons), farting and early music, and more. Then there’s the “Christmas” song sing-along in the morality play Mankind; again students are often surprised that that kind of thing was actually A) done that long ago, B) was considered (by most) to be funny, and c) involved “bad” words modern students both recognize and (probably) use. I am actively trying to avoid the word ‘humor’ here since that word had a much different, and broader meaning pre-seventeenth century. To show a little continuity, I’m thinking some of the British poetry in the section of class (before drama, which is before the novel) might be helpful. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” along with John Donne’s “The Flea” might be an entertaining paring. Entertaining and potentially educational though this sort of thing can be, this is really not the same style of comedy or entertainment that appears in Good Omens. But it does provide a baseline for comparison, especially on the level of British vs American language.

One of the dramas currently on the reading syllabus is Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. In terms of style and type of comedy involved, this is the closest we get to Good Omens before the actual novel itself. Father Ted or Keeping Up Appearances, or The Office (the first, British one) might also be points of reference students can easily look up via places like Youtube, Netflix, etc. that give a similar flavor of the language and style. The level of absurdity is debatably a touch higher in the play than in the novel, but I would argue not by all that much. I hesitate to consider Monty Python here simply because the more theologically inclined of the movies (Life of Brian) is not something I think would be terribly productive. It’s not that I don’t think my students can’t be open-minded (I know for a fact many of them can be) but rather that it would be difficult for many of them to fathom the possibility and nature of the language used and the tone of the satire, meaning we’d spend too much time trying to figure out/explain the Monty Python, and lose track of the Pratchett/Gaiman. Holy Grail would be a better candidate both in terms of comfort with basic content (most everyone has at least heard of King Arthur et al.) and also for satiric-parodic meaning, but not as directly relevant in terms of content and potential meaning. Either way, the biggest problem has little to do with content and more with the language and cultural background. I’ve noticed in the past when using video clips of British performers doing Shakespeare or Stoppard, that many of my student struggled with the accents and vocabulary they were hearing. Add the cultural knowledge required to catch the comic intent, which in an introductory class isn’t guaranteed students have beforehand and would have to be provided, I’m wondering if it won’t be struggle enough to get through Good Omens itself, never mind the comic strategies at work; then again, the comedic elements are a major part of understanding the novel, so they can’t rightly be ignored.

There is some good theory and history out there that I could point students towards, since British tv and dramatic comedy has been well studied both in terms of works from this century and those past. Titles such as Comic Persuasion: Moral Structure in British Comedy from Shakespeare to Stoppard (Alice Rayner, 1987) or British TV Comedies: Cultural Concepts, Contexts & Controversies (ed. Jurgen Kamm, 2016) provide a good background in some of the theory and history behind a lot of things students are likely to be working with. A problem with using such books and article collections though is that my institution library does not carry many such titles, which means accessing useful material could be somewhat difficult.

The big problem I’m facing really isn’t even the lack of specialized resources; it’s the lack of time. The novel is scheduled to take that last 2 ½ weeks of class, which needs to include time to read, time to research, lectures and  classwork on how to do all that, and finally, write the research paper. A lot of what I’ve reviewed above would be a struggle to cram into a full-length semester course, never mind a shortened summer term. Comedy will be simply an option along with a host of others including Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Armageddon, Biblical/Christian fiction, and fantasy. It’ll be interesting to see what members of the class choose to focus on.

To be continued….

 

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Thoughts on a Theory Kick

I remember a certain professor in graduate school who seemed to think that modern theory had little application for the study of medieval literature. I’m not going to take up that argument here, rather I’m suggesting that medieval ideas and texts offer some interesting challenges in terms of applications for modern theories. Take Joseph Campbell and his hero’s journey. Medieval literature is hugely influenced by myth and folklore, so there is some application there. However, there is also the question of the chivalric romance. Many of these stories feature stories that star “heroes” who go on journeys, and yet they don’t quite fit the pattern presented by Campbell. King Arthur stories comes to mind. Something like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might work out in terms of following the monomyth, but Lancelot? Even Galahad, by Malory’s version at least, doesn’t quite fit the pattern on account of being too perfect. I have to wonder whether or not anyone has really tried this kind of theory on these stories beyond Arthur himself; it would be pretty interesting to see the results for anyone of the other Knights of the Round Table. A quick Google search suggests that there’s plenty out there on Arthur, but not much on other individual knights. On a side-note, there was one comparison or suggestion of tracing Tiger Wood’s career as following the monomyth alongside Harry Potter or King Arthur.

Propp’s 31 functions and 7 characters is another interesting case. With this one, the Arthuriana seems like it would fit reasonably well. However, I wonder whether or not a medieval story collection of mostly folk and common stories, like the Canterbury Tales, would hold up. The popularity of the frame narrative and story collection was pretty high in mid to late medieval Europe, and certain tales might work well, I wonder what a story-within-a-story would do to Propp’s ideas. While Propp does allow for repetition within the functions sequence, I have my doubts that the interweaving of stories within a master narrative would work. Admittedly, Propp’s theory was designed specifically for fairy tales, but even so, what happens if the fairy tale in question is part of a larger narrative, and an unfinished one at that?

Bakhtin is already in use and was in some ways designed especially for medieval narratives, including his ideas about discourse, heteroglossia, polyphony, and the carnivalesque. The ideas of the carnivalesque were borrowed from medieval carnival practices, and the dialogic stuff is still an approach used in manuscript and marginalia studies as well as literary studies. The Canterbury Tales has been examined from several of these approaches with genuine effort (as in un-ironic). But, there was a second frame story collection that was well known and influential in the Middle Ages: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Both the Metamorphoses and some of The Canterbury Tales include scenarios, characters, and settings that meet the general definition of fantasy that involve the use of a frame story.  So then the question becomes, how seriously should the frames and the narratives they contain be taken? Chaucer’s frame has been observed to contain some degree of satire, but how about the Metamorphoses? It’s frame as a history of the world sets up a more serious tone on Ovid’s part. So the question becomes what would a more Bakhtinian reading of some of the escapades and the many problems of communication do to an interpretation of medieval versions like the Ovid Moralisé?

Gender and queer studies of various approaches are also in current use towards all kinds of texts, as are multicultural approaches and those which consider race. Travel and Crusade narratives provide a point of consideration for considering race, which Geraldine Heng gets into in her recent book The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. As general understanding about such concepts changes in the modern world, every so often, a re-evaluation of how they might help in understanding the medieval consideration of the same kinds of questions and issues might reflect an update in understanding or thinking. How the Middle Ages thought about Ovid’s Metamorphoses for example would change if the definitions and perception of gender and consent being applied had shifted substantially.

Theories like deconstruction and psychoanalysis are no longer as popular as they used to be, at least not in their original forms, and I’m guessing a good part of that at least in relation to medieval literature has to do with the recognition of the complexity of dealing with texts many centuries old. Derrida’s notion that language is fundamentally impossible to fully understand or assess is not particularly compatible with the reasonably recent notion that much medieval literature contains components that have gone unrecognized, and as such must now be studied. The connections between western Europe and the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa are currently a topic of interest for many medieval scholars, and it almost seems like Derrida’s theory would sound like a poor excuse to ignore an important but until now overlooked or oppressed existence or perspective. I do have to wonder what applying Freud in any kind of depth to a fabliau would do beyond attempt to destroy the humor.

Semiotics and its focus on how meaning can be created using language still has some utility although the theory doesn’t seem to be terribly popular at the moment. The social side of language such as Barthes thought of it might make for an interesting consideration of something like the Harley lyrics or the riddles of the Exeter book which engages the question of how big a role should historical or cultural context play in interpretation, and how possible such analysis really is from a non-native perspective; non-native here refers both to time and place.

Even the New Critical focus on close reading and the-text-and-nothing-but-the-text is problematic for medieval works since they are so far separated in time and culture from any current scholar that without context, any real level of comprehension would be difficult if not impossible. Take Pearl for example. As a text alone, and no reference to medieval dream vision or theology, the story is superficial, and what narrative and character information would survive leads to only minimal understanding. Even the technical prowess of the text would have less meaning since a lot of the rhyme and numerical meaning depends on knowledge external of the text.

I’m also thinking that medieval theories and practices might have some interesting results when paired with modern texts and theories. But that’s another discussion.

Challenging the Canon

I teach a lot of survey courses, often to non-English majors. Recently the idea came to my attention of the question of accessibility of some less than canonical authors and texts that still might be useful in a literature survey. I have taught a few things that aren’t staples in surveys of global literature and British literature, but Ovid’s Amores, Boethius‘ Consolation of Philosophy, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Mankind are all canonical, at least tangentially, in terms of general Western literature. With some extra annotation and lecture framing, these texts are not too hard for a student to look up either for background or for translations or secondary analysis.

I have used Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound before as well, and students generally respond well to it, although this is definitely a play where you need to use both the script and a performance. Because it isn’t a classroom standard, it’s less likely that students will have studied it previously, and some students might be more interested because this play is something new to them that they haven’t even heard of. Even Stoppard’s biggest commercial/popular hit, Shakespeare in Love, isn’t as well known to students in a first year introduction to literature class. I know this because I asked, and upon further reflection I figured out that the movie might be slightly older than some of the younger students.

There are some titles, both medieval and popular, that could have some real classroom use, but aren’t always available in accessible forms, which makes them even more likely to remain obscure. For example, the 9th century monk Sedulius Scottus wrote among other things a series of lyrics, some of which would fit nicely into either ancient or medieval traditions. For example, one of his poems (c. 81) is a debate between a rose and a lily. Not only is debate poetry a popular genre around that time, but the poem also explores some themes and images which are common like the symbolism of the two flowers, and the attempt to balance pagan and Christian ideas. The problem is that both the original Latin and the single published translation are not readily available. Neither is freely found online, and in physical book form, three copies of Sedulius Scottus: On Christian Rulers and The Poems and a single copy of Sedulii Scotti Carmina (CCCM 117) exist in the library system for the entire University System of Georgia (which includes places like the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech). There are ways to include a single poem in a syllabus, including doing my own translation, but if students get interested, their options for further exploration are quite limited.

Similarly, something like Walafrid Strabo’s Hortulus, as a botanical treatise, might get students who aren’t planning to be literature majors interested in 9th century poetry. Nursing is a popular major and learning that at one point in history lilies were considered an anti-venom in addition to their literary and cultural symbolism might be a gateway for certain students. A dual language (Latin and English) edition is the same large USG library system exists in only three copies; again, as with the lyrics of Sedulius Scottus, if a student were interested in further investigation, finding the materials to explore that text would be a struggle if their institution did not possess one of these copies. A more determined student might be able to find some additional resources, but often, if the class or assignment doesn’t directly align with the student’s major or career goals, they are less likely to be willing to take the time to seek out further information.

The problem with using something that’s not especially standard as a teaching text is not just that the primary text itself can be difficult to find. The same problem exists when a more modern text is popular, but too recent to have generated much secondary scholarship. I have previously used V.E. Schwab’s Vicious in the same general literature survey as The Real Inspector Hound. I also used novels by Kim Newman (The Secret of Drearcliff Grange School) and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. All three novels were reasonably popular (two were best-sellers) and all published within about the past ten years. My reasoning was that these were stories students might be able to get interested in, and that they wouldn’t be able to rely too much on secondary work and online summaries or study guides. Vicious was probably the most successful, and I’ll be using it again, but this time I’ll compare it to how students get on with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Drew Hayes’ The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, Vampire Accountant. All of these novels are pretty readily available, although none free should a student want their own copy. It’s my experience with novels like these that tells me that often students aren’t often willing to spend time digging into related but less direct avenues of research if they can’t find something directly on their subject within an hour at most. Of the novelists I’ve listed, only Neil Gaiman has been around long enough, been popular enough, and been viewed as literary enough to have much secondary scholarship published on his work. But the interesting thing is that the university library system doesn’t have much of that scholarship; I had to go to the public library for it. Again, limited access and/or time many students may not be willing to spend.

While student struggles with critical thinking, especially when research might be involved, have long been lamented in various academically-centered media for some time, very little, at least of what I’ve seen, has been able to come up with a particularly useful solution. Getting students more interested and invested in what they’re working with is the best solution I’ve encountered, and sometimes the best way to do that is to use things that aren’t as traditional or even canonical in the classroom or academy. The problem of resources is much larger and one individual instructors don’t have much control over, but we can at least get things started by getting students interested, since demand after all can be a pretty powerful force.

No Clear Door or Window or Gateway

About 7 months ago, V.E. Schwab gave the annual Tolkien lecture at Oxford. Her theme was gateway stories, books that really draw someone into the world of literature, especially fantasy. Her overall thesis was two-fold: 1) She argued that stories and book considered “literary” should not be required reading for fans of a genre because forcing yourself or being forced to read something just to say you’ve read it risks killing any potential enjoyment. 2) There is no such thing as pure fantasy. To be good, proper fantasy, what a story should do is allow “the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world. But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.” I also had the chance to hear her speak in person around the same time, at the Decatur Book Festival 2018. In her talk she suggested that there are two general kinds of fantasy- those which provide doors (a more immersive and complete experience of the world and narrative) and windows (those which provide only a partial view of the world of the story ad require more inference on the part of the reader).

About a month and a half ago, I participated in a series of interviews with high schoolers, many of whom mentioned (often prompted) the book or story that really got them interested in literature and reading. There were connections, both in titles as well as general ideas. Several shared V.E. Schwab’s experience of Harry Potter being their gateway into fantasy and reading. Some others named Rick Riordan, particularly the Percy Jackson series. What caught my attention was not only the trends of these two series for this generation, but also how uncanonical they are in terms of the traditional “literary canon”; both series are best-selling popular fantasy fiction.

About the same time as the interviews, there was a thread bouncing around Twitter which had been started by someone asking academics and scholars about reading they considered guilty pleasures or fun junk; the majority of the responses were likely not what the author of the original Tweet had been looking for. Most of the responses that I saw were something along the lines of, “why should any reading be shameful?” and “just because something like a romance novel isn’t considered literary doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about enjoying it”. Putting these three events together in terms of both proximity and general argument, there would seem to be a bit of a trend developing where tradition and popularity converge, particularly in the realm of speculative fiction and fantasy.

All this got me thinking about what titles were my gateways since many of those mentioned above were not the ones that really got me into reading; I’m slightly older than V.E. Schwab, and now nearly old enough to be the biological parent of a high-schooler. I’m also a professional academic and scholar who tries to make time for ‘fun reading’, which in my case often leans towards the speculative, both fantasy and sci-fi. I avoided Harry Potter at first because it was on the best-seller lists, and I didn’t have much luck with enjoying titles that usually ended up there. But by the time the third novel was published, I’d gotten curious and borrowed a family member’s book club copy of the first one. This was my senior year in high school. Throughout college and a few years following, I became one of those fans who waited in line for the midnight release, and who downloaded and had to wait for the filters to buffer the movie trailers for the first film. Around the release of novel #6, I’d started to lose interest. I didn’t find out about the Percy Jackson series until I was in my early 30s, but I read all of them and enjoyed them. I tried a few of the other series as well, the Roman one and the Egyptian one; I just couldn’t get into the Egyptian mythology series, which is too bad since the actual mythology is fascinating. My point is that neither of these series could be my gateway since I’d gotten interested in reading beforehand, and neither really made me a lifelong fan of fantasy.

I agree with V.E. Schwab about the nature of fantasy and the nature of fandom. I also half agree with the Twitter thread. While I agree that there should be no shame in enjoying a book of any sort, whether we like it or not, there are some pretty clear expectations and cultural assumptions about what is canonical, popular, and literary. These things sometimes intersect, but frequently they do not.

I was always encouraged to read as a child. I don’t remember any favorites, but I do remember some series’, which I take to mean I must have liked them. I remember Dorrie the Little Witch (fantasy), Amelia Bedelia (comic but real world), and Babar (fantasy). I also remember reading C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia in the originally intended publication order which is not fully chronological in terms of narrative. I remember more about the BBC tv movie versions (late 1980s, early 1990s) than I do the books. The one novel I do remember was The Horse and His Boy which is set in the same world, but features characters that have little to do with the Pevensies. I also remember liking the Little House on the Prairie novels. With the exception of Dorrie, all of these series are well-known canonical children’s series’; I honestly don’t know if Dorrie is still especially remembered and read.

The novels that stand out to me most as my likely gateway into fantasy and reading for fun are both something I found in a used bookstore in downtown Dublin (Ireland), Chapters, which is apparently still there (Long may it prosper!).  I had two experiences here that I’m pretty sure shaped my reading habits towards what they still are 20 years later. Both times, I saw a book, picked it up, thought it looked interesting, but put it back. After repeating this a few times, I finally bought and read the book. The first one was Watership Down by Richard Adams. The second was Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. Both of these titles are fantasy, but one is recognized as more literary than the other. Part of this may be due to Watership Down being older (1972) than the Discworld series (The Color of Magic, 1983), but the best-selling nature of many installments of the Discworld series likely also factors in. Both have also been turned into tv programs, cartoons and live-ish action.

Terry Pratchett led to Neil Gaiman which led to Gail Carriger and a years-long steampunk kick. After college, when I started getting interested in Gaiman (I think Anansi Boys was my first novel of his- I really enjoyed it), I also got interested in manga and graphic novels. This I distinctly remember and can place. In 2006, I’d moved to an area rural enough to not have a bookstore, and to have a library but one which was not terribly well stocked for my tastes. I started picking up the Shonen Jump monthly, which was still in print at the time, at the grocery store, and flipping through it. I started buying that, then subscribed, and eventually started getting into the graphic novel forms, manga first, then comic books. The interesting thing about the graphic novel world is that no matter what the form or style (manga or comic book) a significant percentage of the titles belong in some way to a genre or sub-genre of fantasy.

I’m reasonably sure that it was manga and anime that brought me away from fantasy to science fiction; not that I don’t still read fantasy; I most certainly do, but I seem to have been expanding my fun reading a bit more the past year or two.  I just can’t quite pin down a gateway. If I had to, I supposed it might be either Chaucer’s “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” (c. 1390s) or Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi (2018). I’ve also read some of the more canonical and popular science fiction but it’s never really grabbed me. I read Neoromancer because I figured I should; I didn’t enjoy it. I read Planetfall by Emma Newman because I loved her fantasy Split Worlds series. I didn’t like Planetfall.

My point? Inspired by the conversation going on about the nature of literature, popular, canonical and otherwise, examining my own reading habits and what got me started both supports the current discussion and disagrees. I definitely agree with V.E Schwab that there should be no such thing as required fan reading. Case in point: the things I’ve read because I figured I ought to, I frequently did not enjoy. V.E. Schwab is herself an exception to my general experience with best-sellers, since I don’t often agree with the general public opinion on the amazing-ness of the novel. The things that I don’t agree with quite as much is the existence of the single or few gateway books or stories. For those who have them, I say ‘good for you’. My experience suggests that it is also possible for the introduction and fandom of anything, including fantasy, also has the potential to be lot be more gradual. As far as I’ve seen, this option hasn’t been really addressed.

Big and Small Versions of the Same Project

I have made it nearly four years at my current institution without having been asked to lead a senior English major project (called ‘Capstone’). What all English majors here are asked to do, nearly always spring of their senior year, is to produce a 20-page research project in a chosen area of interest, and then pare it down to a 10 -15-minute presentation which is then given to an audience of mostly faculty and administrators. While they take a course on general methods to guide and supervise them through the process, each student also needs to find an individual advisor who is a subject specialist in or at least near their chosen subject.

Spring of 2019 was open season on the medievalist who knows a thing or two about mythology and popular culture. I can only think to blame both my Summer 2018 teaching assignment (Myth and Folklore in Literature) and the fact that I have now been in my current position long enough to have had students who started in my introductory classes be in the spring of their senior year.  I say ‘blame’ but neither the time nor the course have been negative experiences in any way. It’s just that those two things coinciding are the only factors I can think of for my sudden popularity. Whatever the reasons, I’m now going to be guiding more than one student (in slightly different capacities) through the process from beginning to end of what is essentially an article draft, then turn it into an 8-10 page conference paper. I vaguely remember some classmates in graduate school complaining about a similar assignment in a course on Greek tragic drama as ‘evil’ and me being thankful to not have been in that class. This has since become a thing that I, like most professional academics, must do on a regular basis, forwards or backwards.

One of the reasons I’m putting together a general outline for myself is that I remember sometime in my first or second year of graduate work in English, there was a talk on getting through the dissertation process in a timely way. Granted, the scale is different in my current situation, but the basic premise is the same. One of the senior faculty members who was part of the panel had handouts that included a general timeline. I found that useful and although I was nowhere close to my own dissertation at the time.

It seems like some things that seem obvious to those of us who have to do it on a regular basis are not always obvious or even clear to someone facing the situation for the first time.

I’d recommend to pretty much any first time advanced researcher The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. Fitzgerald as it was once recommended to me. It’s user-friendly, practical, and multi-disciplinary all at once. It’s also not expensive, especially as far as textbooks go; it’s a paperback under $20. I admit I haven’t looked at the most recent edition, since I’m pretty sure my copy is at least 1 edition out of date, but it’s still the best, most useable guide for something of this sort, at least the part concerning the 20-page paper.

To my knowledge, there is no equivalent guide for turning a larger project into a more condensed presentation version.

*

Particularly for the medieval side of things, for the basic areas any general project of this sort might need, here’s my basic list of primary and secondary material:

General Primary: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

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

Here’s my reasoning for the above, in addition to studying the corpus of your author or genre of interest, if you’re working on anything British and medieval, you should know a little about history and some key genre theories, especially poetry and preaching. Admittedly these lists (above and below) are generic, and not necessarily what I would need for a specific project. That of course will have to depend on the nature of the proposed project.

Basic Secondary (borrowed from a 2014 post):

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 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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

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

I admit that some of the titles I have listed in the secondary section are possibly out of date by now or are being replaced by something more current; however, as of right now, I am not aware of anything that has fully replaced any of them. And I would also note that this list is more of an example preview, since it doesn’t include things like Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric by Copeland and Sluiter, which is an essential anthology for me, but it is specific to medieval literary criticism and theory, and not all projects might require that kind of thing. Some might, but it’s just a bit too category specific for me to put it on a general model list.

I have not included any of the many extremely useful web-based sources, because they both depend largely on the specific project/subject and there are too many to choose from. TEAMS and Lumiarium.org may be the lone exceptions.

If anyone has suggestions for any of the lists, please share!

The general process as I now understand and practice it should look something like this, based on the 16 week-long semester, a typical timing schedule for most academics, be it professor or student of most levels:

1)            Start with proposal/abstract ideas which must be flexible, since specific research on the question may not have been done previously.  (Week 1)

2)            Read the primary material, as widely as possible. (Weeks 1-5)

3)            Read the secondary material, focusing on the specific approach/subject. (Weeks 2-5)

4)            Formulate thesis and reasons (Week 6)

5)            Outline reasons with supporting citations both primary and secondary (Weeks 6-7)

6)            Draft 1 by Spring Break (Week 7-9)

7)            Revise for content (Week 9-10)

8)            Revise for structure and style (Week 11)

9)            Proofread (Week 12)

10)          Final written draft (Week 12-13) This may not be a fully complete article draft but should at least cover the main ideas and have notes for the secondary sources to be cited if not already included. I tend to use Comment boxes for this.

11)          To start moving towards the presentation, return to step 5 and eliminate any redundancies or pick one major example per point (Week 13)

12)          Make sure your current presentation draft is still cohesive, and time yourself (Week 14-15)

13)          Make any adjustments necessary, and Present or be generally ready for the eventual presentation (Week 16)

On the Necessity and Perils of Fun Reading

Sometimes being a professional literature academic has its hazards. You try to read something for fun, and you end up getting all academic on it. I personally believe that too much ‘high literature’ is not good for anyone (too much Beowulf or Chaucer would make anyone cranky), and that which is often called fluff can be surprisingly literary in some ways.

I present here a re-envisioning of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” which has been highly influential in fantasy (and other forms of) fiction ever since it was first published. I’m going to use two major components of the theory: the ways tragedy and comedy fit in, and the structure of the narrative itself. Both are presented in full in the “Monomyth” prologue of The Hero With a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949). The original theory states that tragedy and comedy together are necessary for a total life experience, and that both are needed for catharsis, the Aristotelian goal of tragedy involving the release of negative emotions of pity and fear. The journey itself has 3 stages (separation, initiation, return) each of which consists of 5-6 steps or episodes. These 3 stages represent the trilogy structure as used in fiction, both literary and cinematic.

This theory first came to me when I was working my way through False Idols (Dragon Lords #2) by John Hollins. As of now, this series is a trilogy; I have no idea if the author will keep it that way or continue with further installments. I read the first one (Fools Gold) a while ago, and found it entertaining, if at times vulgar, fantasy fluff. I was in a bookstore, saw book 2, and picked it up because I felt the need for something of that sort. I was in for a surprise. Book 2 contained little of the screwball comedy between the characters and winning by the seat of their pants or in spite of themselves. The happy ending had not stayed happy; everyone was miserable and unlikeable, and the rest of the novel kept up the misery. By the end, the bad guy essentially had won and nearly all the heroes had been murdered. I was not pleased, but at the same time I hoped that book 3 (Bad Faith) would redeem things; I haven’t read it yet, and though it is literally sitting on my TBR shelf, it may be a while before I get to it. If I’m going to be reasonable, the final stage of the initiation sequence is “passage into the realm of night” which means that things will get metaphorically dark, and that the return (to the world of the first part) has to wait until the third stage. This would explain logically why the second installment would be considerably less happy and entertaining, as it is all about the trials of the hero.

This got me thinking about how this seems to be the eternal problem of the trilogy. Book 1 is a rousing, entertaining adventure, book 2 is depressing and not fun, makes you hate everyone and everything in the story, and then book 3 tries to create a balance of the seriousness of book 2 and the fun of book 1 but is rarely as good. I say ‘book’ here but very similar things can be seen in the original Star Wars trilogy, which was explicitly based in part on Campbell’s ideas. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy of movies follows the same general patterns as well. This visible influence of Campbell’s pattern on movies has been heavily criticized, and movie series rarely stick with trilogies anymore. Consider Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of books (which I have not read- so there!), which was made into a trilogy of movies, but then followed by The Hobbit (I have read this one), one book, made into a second trilogy of movies. Or Toy Story, left for 9 years a trilogy, which will become a quartet in 2019. The Campbell trilogy has been parodied as well, for example by the cartoon show The Fairly Odd Parents with aired three tv movies (1 hour each) as the season 6 finale, collectively titled Wishology! In addition to being a parody of the hero’s journey in terms of plot and characters, the episodes were titled “The Big Beginning”, “The Exciting Middle Part”, and “The Final Ending”. That’s another analysis.

Some contemporary novels series illustrate some of the trickiness of trilogies as well. V.E. Schwab’s recently concluded Shades of Magic series comes to mind. It managed to follow some of the structural rules of the Campbellian trilogy without getting too depressing or terrible in the second installment {this is another discussion in itself), but it will not remain a trilogy for long. The author has made known that she will be writing another series or two that includes some of the same characters and takes place in the same world, the first of which is already in publication (The Steel Prince comic volume 1 was released Oct. 8, 2018). Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles is a trilogy of novels, two of which have been published thus far (I haven’t gotten to The Wise Man’s Fear yet), but already has a fourth book which presents a side story about a side character. Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Homes series seemed to be a traditional trilogy, but now has a forthcoming fourth installment labeled as the conclusion of the series. Which I will not be reading. Book two was such a turn-off in terms of character and plot, that book three could not redeem the series. The only novel series that I can think of that will remain a trilogy, at least as of now, is the Rotherweird series by Andrew Caldecott, currently at 2 books with a forthcoming third labeled as the “thrilling conclusion”. This one I have some hope for, since it illustrates many of the qualities of the Campbellian hero’s journey, but because of some good decisions concerning point of view, and character and plot development in the first two novels, has generally avoided the complete and utter alienation of the reader, namely me, in book two; again, this will be another discussion in itself.

So, the re-envisioning suggests first that most modern novel and screen writers can’t or won’t stick to the standard trilogy structure. Second, the hero’s journey 3 parts in most current hands leans toward this pattern: 1-complete in itself and fun, 2-all dark and despair and no fun at all, 3-trying to get the fun back or at least have the good guys win. A lot of modern fictional narratives prefer to forgo the happy or at least conclusive ending. I’m all for literary complexity, but sometimes tradition is good. And desired.

This comes back to the balance Campbell requires of comedy and tragedy. What gets me is the general trend of leaving out the comic ending. Campbell himself argued that by the conclusion of the hero’s journey, the comic is redeemed and the tragedy is overcome. Granted, in the context of myth and fairy tale, this conclusion makes sense, but if modern narratives are going to follow the patterns noted by Campbell, why is this last bit so often left out? While comic technically in the Aristotelian sense only requires the double ending of good guy wins – bad guy loses, and nearly all the narratives noted above that are complete do observe this factor, the level of comedy in the more modern sense of entertaining and fun is not present nearly as much. Campbell required redemption of the comic and the world; escapist though it might be, I wish that part were a bit stronger. The damage done by the tragic seems to stick with the characters and their worlds too much for comic redemption to really take place is a lot of literary fiction. Note that nearly everything I’ve named above falls more into the ‘fantasy’ category, save the one I ended up hating. What that means is yet another discussion entirely.

To Really Get Medieval, Go Beyond the Literary

One of the benefits of medieval literature (loosely defined as anything written between 1000-1500 CE) is that you often end up going beyond the traditional ‘literary’. I’ve noticed that a lot of scholarship done on fantasy literature is done by people who originally specialized in medieval. For example, Kathryn Hume has written both The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and Its Critics and Fantasy and Mimesis. Science Fiction is a bit different, since many argues it got its start during the Victorian (or later) period and scholars of those time periods or later are most likely to address it. That does not stop the occasional medievalist from getting involved. If you study medieval books though, you’re likely to come into contact with a lot of other disciplines. While this is true of other times, places, and languages, it’s especially apparent in the study of medieval Europe. If you study the medieval, you will likely run into the following in some way, shape, or form:

Classics, especially Latin: Since Latin was the main language of education and official communication for several centuries, this makes some sense. If you need to read something in its original form, and it’s official, it’ll be in Latin. On the more literary side, since Latin was a big part of education, Roman poets and theorists and philosophers were hugely influential on the Middle Ages, including Virgil, Cicero, and Ovid.  Famous works of ancient Greece like Plato and Aristotle were known mostly through Latin translations (done largely by Middle Eastern scholars), and were similarly influential on literary theory, philosophy, and more.

Religion: The Church (there was only one recognized until about 1517) was a big part of medieval culture throughout Europe. Ideas and issues of faith made their way into poetry, fiction, politics, philosophy, etc. If you need to recognize what the main practices were, who key people were, how the law worked, how education was done, key philosophical practices and argumentative strategies, ad more, you need to have a reasonably good understanding of the medieval Church and faith.

History: Much like religion and faith, history relates to a lot of issues that often get brought into literature, including poetry and fiction. Political goings on often influenced culture, but also everyday life, and if you want to understand and dedication in most any work of medieval literature written by and/or for the upper classes, then you need to know the ruling families and their policies including international relationships and economics.

Science: The history of science is of course much older than the Middle Ages, but science in the modern sense was becoming more publicly recognized beyond the academy and specialist scholars between 1300-1500. If you want to read medieval poetry, a working knowledge of astronomy and astrology is useful to understand a lot of common love poetry phrases and tropes. Science also connects with history and religion, since certain practices and beliefs were sometimes at odds with traditional Church teachings. Alchemy is a medieval example, and later, Galileo and other scientists would run into trouble with Church authorities on account of scientific ideas. There is also the occasional text that includes references to botany or biology or physics or medicine as they were understood at the time.

Material Culture, such as clothing: Descriptions of what people wore, ate, or objects used in everyday life are common in many kinds of written material of the literary sort. Knowledge of clothing for example can help identify if a character is an ordained or lay member of the Church, which could have implications in the narrative. A woman’s clothing or jewelry could give an indication as to her status or her values. There’s even a poem “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” which provides a major source of knowledge of how carpentry might have been done in the 14th-ish century.

Mythology and folklore: As with science, a lot of poetic and fiction tropes come from folklore and mythology. Some of the mythology is from classical sources, but much of the folklore is more localized. Being able to identify a particular character or event in folklore is often handy when trying to understand some of the more fantasy-influenced chivalric romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lanval or Bisclavret, or Sir Orfeo. Poetry requires some similar knowledge, and extends into medicine and magic. The Middle Ages also made a lot of use of proverbs which often have folk elements or origins.

Logic: Logical reasoning and argumentation were a key part of medieval education, and as such poetry and other written works often make use of the rules of Aristotelian logic, which became popular during the 12th century. Religious poems or texts would borrow exegetical techniques which were derived from logic, dialogue was a popular argumentative and teaching tool both in fiction and non-fiction, and university staff and students often themselves were writers of poems and stories, which means that they were likely to include techniques with which they had a lot of familiarity.

Modern Cultural Theory, including gender and queer studies, and media studies: If you go to a large medieval conference that has a more multi-disciplinary focus like Kalamazoo, then you are likely to find a lot of panels that deal with the medieval in video games or films. This type of study goes back to the medievalist connections to fantasy literature, which also connects with mythology and folklore, which also connects with the history of the Church and politics, as well as elements of medieval narrative. Generic medieval Europe is a common setting for a lot of video games for example, and knowing any and all of the above noted can help in understanding some of the finer details of storytelling and world-building that area  part of media studies. On the gender and identity side of things, the Middle Ages to some extent deserves its reputation for stuffiness about such things as sex but only in the official, often religious, sense. In practice, there are records of all sorts, including the literary, that suggest that gender and sexuality were in fact a lot less standardized and strictly practiced as is often presented in modern visions of the medieval.

And that’s not even going into things like bibliography, grammar, rhetoric, and art of all kinds. Knowledge all of these subjects is useful or necessary to really get into medieval literature. They are more traditionally connected with ‘literature’ but particularly for the Middle Ages also constitute a unique branch of knowledge, separate and distinct from the literary applications.