Reading Classics: Challenges and Ideas

I am not likely to meet a goal/deadline: I wanted to finish reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes by the end of October. It’s got really pretty, literary writing, but I’ve had to sometimes force myself through certain parts when I get bored or lose focus. This got me thinking about the struggle to read something because you have to or feel you should. I’m planning to teach something that takes inspiration in part from Bradbury’s novel, plus it’s a classic work by a canonical author which I’ve never read. The thing that’s causing me some trouble here is I suspect that I want the story and the style to work better together; for me at least, I’d like to be able to enjoy the two things together, but it’s been hard so far to do that. Mostly, I’ve only been able to focus on one or the other. If I, who have lots of academic literary training have a hard time with something that’s supposed to be a classic, then what must students sometimes feel when asked to read things like this, or things even less familiar in terms of language and/or cultural background?

For commonly assigned longer readings, like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Canterbury Tales, I have found that students have often already read at least excerpts, and thus get bored, or they find the material and style too difficult, and give up on actually doing the reading. I noticed pretty quickly that when I included Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on syllabi for World Lit and Brit Lit 1 surveys that a lot of students had had to read at least some of those texts in previous classes. One problem is that it’s difficult to introduce some of the more intricate issues and interesting problems of either one of these two texts when about half the class knows the story but the other half does not. Issue two is that in most surveys, reading the entirety of multiple longer poems like this can be difficult to get students to actually read, as opposed to the Shmoop, CliffNotes. Grade Saver, etc. summaries. Some of that kind of thing is inevitable, but when students get tired of struggling with the style, that makes considering some of the features of the actual poetry more difficult, and those are some of the things that most survey students are not as likely to have encountered before.

This is something I can relate to from Something Wicked This Way Comes because the style is so much the point of the book, more so than with an average novel at any rate. I have to admit I looked at some of the supplementary materials in the edition I have and found out enough that I can already summarize the entire plot without having read half the novel yet. On one hand, now that I know the story I can focus a bit more on the style and more literary elements like foreshadow etc, but on the other I won’t be able to follow the gradual building of the characters and the world as naturally.

Something I’ve been considering doing is switching to some lesser known texts that cover many of the same literary and cultural elements as the commonly taught ones. For example, instead of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon contains a lot of the same warrior culture stuff and literary elements, and has the added bonus of being relevant to actual history as well as the Vikings. One assignment I personally would enjoy would be to have students write their own endings and/or introductions to the story since we know the history for guidance but enough of the text is missing that students could get creative.

Instead of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I think selections from a sister text like Pearl might be an interesting option. As with the Old English texts, there remains a lot of cultural and historical and poetic room for exploration and interest. I taught excerpts of Pearl in a Middle English language and culture course one summer, and I was surprised a little at how much some of the students took to Pearl. I have not really looked, but I have to wonder if there is a passable translation readily and freely available for students to use. I know for a fact such things exist for The Battle of Maldon, so I have some hope for Pearl. Maldon is short enough that it can be done in its entirety, and wouldn’t be too much of a burden on someone’s attention or interest if it turns out this just is not something they can get into; for Pearl, I would imagine that the opening sequence and the conclusion would provide enough for students to work with and appreciate, but likewise not be overly difficult to get through if again it turns out this is just not something a given person gets into.

This brings me to another related idea; when you are told something is canon, classic, or traditional, it can give the impression that you must like it to demonstrate you are a person of intelligence and/or taste. I would like to figure a way to allow students to dislike something as long as they can explain why in more depth than “Boring”, “Too hard”, “Too long”, etc. I hesitate to use examples of my own personal taste because then students are apt to go with the strategy of “cater to Prof’s personal interests”. However, I do think the general idea has some merit. I don’t especially care for Leaves of Grass, but I can explain why in terms of technical details of poetry. I also cannot stand a lot of traditional chivalric romances, particularly those in the Arthurian tradition. A lot of Crétiene de Troyes’ works annoy me in a fairly visceral way and I absolutely cannot stand Le Morte d’ Arthur for their overly melodramatic and soap-opera-esque characters and plot-lines. Nevertheless, these things do have cultural and historical interest to them, and a lot of people are likely familiar with some of the basics but not as much with the original stories or versions.

To the original question of what to do about classic works and the perceived need to read them, there seems to be a bit of a stalemate: one the one hand, students should have at least some basic familiarity with the literary canon in order to consider where current trends (literary, historical, cultural, etc) might have come from and they might actually discover a surprising interest, but on the other the majority of the time, reading such things can be burdensome when forced, making it far less likely a person would be able to appreciate anything about a particular text. This is why I’m thinking of changing a few things out to see if it makes any difference. As for Bradbury, I will finish it in part because it would be professionally useful for me since I am planning to teach a novel with direct literary debts to this canonical original. Whether or not I end up enjoying the original is still unclear, but we’ll just have to see.

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.

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.