Getting Medieval on Theory

I face an interesting challenge this fall: teaching my first theory and methods for English majors course. I’ve had to start thinking on it now since textbook orders are due late February. I was surprised how few theory anthologies there are which are not $100 plus, or mostly summaries of ideas without actual excerpts (preferably longer ones) of the actual original theories. I had the idea that for the first ¾ of the class I would choose a single base text that students could practice on. Ideally, this would be something of manageable length, has been around long enough to have been subjected to a variety of examinations, and not too much of a chore read, meaning something most students are likely to have at least heard of if not had to read bits of before. Not a deal breaker but also preferable would be something I’ve studied in some detail myself, so that gives me medieval works like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Shakespeare was also an option for a while (I was thinking either Macbeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream), but I figured that a) there might be too much on some of the plays, and b) I don’t know the scholarship off hand quite as well, meaning more set up work for me.

The full semester at my institution is 16 weeks, which means I can cover about 12-13 areas of theory; there needs to be an intro week, and a few weeks at the end to focus on the main end-of-course paper/project. It’s going to take me a while to really get things fully designed, but for a starting point, here’s an initial list, in no particular order: feminist studies, gender studies, Marxist, new critical, new historicism, eco-criticism, race studies, queer theory, post-colonialism, structuralism, deconstruction, disability studies, psychoanalysis, reader response, and cultural studies. I did find a theory reader that has a decent balance of description and actual readings from theorists, as well as some sample applications. It’s slightly out of date for some theories but I can deal with that with some supplementary lecture and articles.

The other side of the course is the methods side, and I found that textbook pretty quickly after getting a hold of several library titles that looked promising, and one of them was exactly right, although it too is a few years out of date, but not unmanageably so. This handbook covers general research resources both online and print, bibliography, history of the book and editing literary texts, history of the discipline, interdisciplinarity, translation, media, and planning/executing a larger research project. My literary trial text needs to be something that has options for all of these areas, and with medieval literature, many of them are pretty accessible, even for mid-level undergraduate students.

So besides the obvious need to overlap and work out scheduling time for each thing to be covered, I still need that literary test piece. If Beowulf and SGGK are my main choices, the big question now is which one will work best, again bearing in mind the level of my students.

Beowulf:

Feminist reading: Gendel’s mother and the Hrothgar’s queen

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and some of the transactions between families during war/feuds

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors

Race: the controversy and contents of the new collection of essays that was all over social media late 2019; also Gredelkin as racially other

Queer: less of the sexuality angle, more on the otherness identities of some characters

Post-colonial: Grendlekin as native against the Danes, maybe Geats and Danes in each other’s lands

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, possible links to other Scandinavian epics or sagas; maybe bring up Tolkien here

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation possibly in Beowulf the character

Psychoanalysis: dreams, prophecies (alluded to in the songs), and maybe Beowulf and Grendel’s mother

Disability: this one will be trickier but I’m thinking maybe old Beowulf’s final battle

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

Beowulf also offers ample possibilities for all the basic methods components including bibliography, editions, translation, media, etc.

 

On the other hand, we have Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Feminist reading: Arthur’s queen, Morgan leFay, and Lady Bertilak

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and the transactional nature of the bargains

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors; the Green Man

Race: the othering of certain characters in certain situations, the casting of Gawain in the new movie, possibly race in Arthuriana

Queer: discussions of Gawain’s identity

Post-colonial: founding of Britain frame, Gawain and the Green Knight in each other’s territories

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, the Arthurian traditions

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation Gawain, but also the identities of the Green Knight, and possibly a few others

Psychoanalysis: symbolism, Gawain’s psychology, and Gawain in Bertilak’s castle

Disability: Gawain as guest in the castle vs the hunting; this one again might take a little work to get right

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities of Arthur’s court vs the Bertilak’s

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

 

Much like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also has plenty of strong options for the methods areas to be covered.

So far, the two texts are roughly equal. It comes down to text options. Both texts are available in a range of translations and edition types. I decided I didn’t want an edition that comes with a lot of extra supplementary analysis either, because the goal of using the text would be for the students to start working on their own analyses using the various theoretical and methodological applications. Part of the decision came from personal taste in terms of translation options, and I also wanted something that kept some of the original style or language but that was done in a readable way for a 21st century student, and was readily available in a paperback or ebook under $20. I landed on Armitage’s SGGK.

What I’ve got listed here are really only the initial starting possibilities. As I start to focus on designing this course over the summer, I’ll be getting a lot more into the details of each theory as it has been and could be applied to the medieval text. I’m also going to need to consider how to align pairing theoretical work with methodologies. IF anyone has any ideas or advice, I’d love to hear it…

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.

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.