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.