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 It’s slightly out of date for some theories but I can deal with that with some supplementary lecture and articles.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hold of several library titles that looked promising, and one of them was exactly right, although it too is a few years out of date, but not unmanageably so.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.


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…

Leaning towards the Digital this Summer for Myth and Folklore

Early to mid-October is the time when faculty at my institution are faced with deciding on textbooks for the Spring and Summer terms. This of course means at least partially planning courses, or objectives at minimum, in order to determine the sort of book required, and then finding what’s available that mostly closely resembles the need. I find myself faced with an interesting challenge and an opportunity to really start designing a course with a strong digital component.

I will be teaching for the first time this summer “Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies” in a 5-week half-term hybrid format.

The two main base textbooks for such a course would have to be either Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, or Bulfinch’s collected text of the same title. In either case, digital sources are necessary for more story and character and context, especially beyond the basic Greek and Roman stories. Hamilton only briefly covers Norse mythology, and includes nothing outside of Europe. Bulfinch covers more range but less depth of story, although he does include later references or allusions in major works of literature which is the main reason why I chose his anthology over Hamilton’s.

Given that the course is a major-level elective, an anthology with some theory would be ideal. I’ve encountered 2 issues. First, I don’t want to only use Jung (ie-Campbell), so those paperbacks won’t work as supplements to something like Bulfinch. Ideally, I want at least some Structuralism to add to the psychologically based ideas, and some approaches to folk and fairy tales including feminism and YA backgrounds. Second, I found a promising textbook of stories and theory but, being from OUP, it was too expensive ($100+) to reasonably ask for a 5 week summer course even as the sole textbook. My options are either pillage short segments from various textbooks as pdfs and course reserves or/and find quality articles online. As of right now, it’s looking like a mix of all of the above.

The Bulfinch paperback covers most major myths but I still need folktales. For these, I think the Internet will work fine because these were originally popular tales and not scholarly material, so finding a variety of versions and stories online will actually be more faithful to the spirit of the folktale anyways. For the Greek, it’ll be the likes of:

and for the Roman:

Concerning Norse myth, neither of the standard myth anthologies go into as much depth as I’d like, so I’ll be supplementing the range of the stories with online sources. Again, like the folktales, the sites may not be scholarly but they have the stories and since the material was not originally inherently scholarly, the sites need not be either. So for now:

For the Celtic traditions, both myth and folklore are needed. Bullfinch covers some Arthurian stories and excerpts from the Mabinogeon, but again I feel that’s not enough. I’m planning to add Yeats for folklore, and the Tain for myth. Thankfully there’s some decent online sources for both of these texts. See:

The situation is much the same with European folktales. Bulfinch covers some Robin Hood, but very little of the fairytale collections that make up most literary knowledge of folktales such as Perrault, Grimm, and Anderson. Again, those are located online in a variety of forms, including:


Particularly for more contemporary literature in English, I want to spend a little time with Africa, India-Middle East and Asia. These days will have sources almost entirely online for all with the exception of one short chapter on India in Bulfinch. So, this means places like:


Thankfully the course doesn’t start until the end of May, so there’s time to work on the details, and it’ll be interesting to see how a more digital-text-based course goes.

Suggestions would be welcome.