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.

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.