MAP OF THE SOUL: Dissertation Bibliography

Just in case you wanted to look further into anything I discussed in my dissertation, here is the bibliography! (MLA)


Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2011.

Baron, Frank. “Who Was Demian?” The German Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 1, 1976, pp. 45–49. 

“BTS Special Interview [Entertainment Weekly / 2016.11.07]”. Youtube, uploaded by KBS World TV, 7 November 2016, Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

“BTS speech at the United Nations | UNICEF.” YouTube, uploaded by UNICEF, 24 September 2018, Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

“BTS (방탄소년단) ‘피 땀 눈물 (Blood Sweat & Tears)’ Official MV”. Youtube, uploaded by ibighit, 9 Oct 2016,

“BTS (방탄소년단) ‘봄날 (Spring Day)’ Official MV”. Youtube, uploaded by ibighit, 12 Feb 2017, Accessed 10 Apr 2019.

Dahir, Ikran. “After BTS Used This Professor’s Book As Inspiration, It Became A Bestseller In Korea”. Buzzfeed News, 7 June 2018, Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary theory: an introduction. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Firchow, P. E. “Ezra Pound’s Imagism and the Tradition.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1981, pp. 379–385. 

Gans, Herbert J., and Gifford Phillips. “Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis.” Leonardo, vol. 12, no. 2, 1979, pp. 175–176. 

Hesse, Hermann. Demian. Translated by W.J. Strachan, Penguin Classics, 2017.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed., Oxfordshire, Routledge, 2013.

—. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.”, 2011, Accessed 20 Oct 2018.

K., J. “BTS Talks About Using “Demian” In “WINGS” Concept And Names Variety Show They’d Like To Appear On”. Soompi, 17 Oct 2016, Accessed 28 Feb 2019.

Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose, Gollancz, 2015, pp. 254-262.

“Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh”. Translated by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Webexhibits, c. 24 Jan 1885, Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

 “LOVE MYSELF.” love-myself, Accessed 25 Apr 2019.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester UP, 1983.

Monteros, Maria. “Halsey Praises BTS’ Success After the Group Makes Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019”. Newsweek, 17 Apr 2019, Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

Mueller, Gustav E. “Hermann Hesse.” Books Abroad, vol. 21, no. 2, 1947, pp. 146–152. 

Mundy, John. “Postmodernism and Music Video.” Critical Survey, vol. 6, no. 2, 1994, pp. 259–266. 

Roberts, Peter. “From West to East And Back Again: Faith, Doubt and Education in Hermann Hesse’s Later Work.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008, pp. 249 – 268.

Sleight, Graham. Introduction. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose, by Ursula Le Guin, Gollancz, 2015, pp. v – ix.

Tusken, Lewis W. “Hermann Hesse’s ‘Roβhalde’: The Story in the Paintings.” Monatshefte, vol. 77, no. 1, 1985, pp. 60–66. 

Van den Haag, Ernest. “Reflections on Mass Culture.” The American Scholar, vol. 29, no. 2, 1960, pp. 227–234.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. Methuen, 1984.

Yonhap. “Suicide No. 1 cause of death for S. Korean teens, youths.” The Korea Herald, 26 Apr 2018, Accessed 24 Apr 2019.

Toss a Coin to Your Medievalist: Norse & Celtic Mythology in The Witcher

Note: This post is completely spoiler-free!

The feature image for this post has been taken from Wikipedia. By Source, Fair use,

In case you really have never listened to a single word that has come out of my mouth, you may be surprised to know that I am deeply interested in Irish and Norse mythology, on top of my usual Medieval English stuff! I’m also a big fan of video games; I used to stick with Pokemon and Animal Crossing, until I got more comfortable with the fact that yes, I am bad at video games, but I also really enjoy playing them, so everyone is just going to have to deal with me muddling my way through The Witcher 3

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, screenshot

Put these things together in a pot and what do you get? This blog post, I suppose! To my absurd delight, The Witcher 3 is saturated with references to Norse and Irish (or just generally Gaelic) mythology and legend. I have not read the original Witcher books by Andrzej Sapowski, nor have I played the first few games — yet — so this post will be specifically talking about the Wild Hunt game, though I did find a passage from one of the books that I will mention. I do hope you can forgive me for being so late to the party. 

Firstly, for anyone who is not familiar with the world of the Witcher, let me explain what the hell I’m talking about. The Witcher books are fantasy novels written by the Polish author Andrzej Sapowski, first published in 1993. The games were then produced by a small Polish video-game company, CD Projekt Red, and received increasing support and praise with each release. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt sold over ten million copies during its first year of release alone. You also may have heard of the recent Netflix adaptation starring Henry Cavill as the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia. At nearly 30 years of age, The Witcher universe appears to only grow ever-more popular. So, yes. Would recommend. 

Part of the appeal for me is how mythologies from real cultures are woven into the world of The Witcher. Though the landscape is fictional, it’s still very obvious that the world is based on Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and, obviously, draws most heavily from Polish folklore and legend. And while engaging with real mythologies that many people would be familiar with, or drawing on your culture’s history as inspiration, isn’t exactly uncommon, the manner with which the real and the fantastical are blurred is deeply satisfying. It isn’t difficult to see that Sapowski did thorough research before adapting different mythologies to suit The Witcher, rather than just plucking names and references from thin air and hoping they fit together. 

So, with some knowledge about Norse and Irish mythology tucked under my belt, and a PS4 controller in my hands, let me show you some cool Easter-eggs!

Andrzej Sapowski. Taken from Wikipedia.

“That large rock suspended above the water […] is Kaer Hemdall, Hemdall’s Watch-tower. Hemdall is our mythical hero. Legend has it that with the coming of Tedd Deireadh, the Time of the End, the Time of White Frost and the Wolfish Blizzard, Hemdall will face the evil powers from the land of Morhogg: the phantoms, demons and spectres of Chaos. He will stand on the Rainbow Bridge and blow his horn to signal that it is time to take up arms and fall in to battle array. For Ragh nar Roog, the Last Battle, which will decide if night is to fall, or dawn to break.” {Crach an Craite to Yennefer}

A small note first; though I’m not sure where “tedd” comes from, “deireadh” is the Irish word for “end”! The merging of Celtic and Nordic cultures is most obvious in the place names like Kaer Hemdall — ‘caer’ means city/fortress in Welsh, and Heimdall is a figure in Norse mythology. 

In this small passage alone, there are so many references to Norse mythology; Heimdall, in Norse legend, is known as the watchman of the gods. He spends his time at Himinbjorg and overlooks the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects Midgard and Asgard. Heimdall owns the Gjallarhorn, which he blows to signal the beginning of Ragnarok (i.e., the apocalypse) and warn the gods in Asgard that the frost giants are attacking. “Morhogg” also reminded me of Niðhogg, the dragon that chews at the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. 

In The Witcher universe, Hemdall is supposed to have had many children, who then went on to found Skellige. The Skellige Isles appear to be based heavily on Irish/Gaelic culture, though references to Norse legend are still very much present. The people of Skellige are very much people of the sea, so using Norse/Gaelic-esque mythologies links them heavily to the Vikings. Again we see that blend in one of Hemdall’s children, Tyr, who establishes one of the many tribes of the Skellige Isles, the Clan Tuirseach. 

Tyr is another very real figure from the Norse myth cycle; he is the god of glory in battle. Tyr is most well known for losing his hand to Fenrir the wolf, one of Loki’s children. In terms of the name “Clan Tuirseach”, we see more Irish influence, though it seems a little funny — “tuirseach” is the Irish word for “tired”. But hey, who am I to judge?

“[F]or Freya is the patron of fertility, love, and beauty. She also poses as the patron of soothsayers, clairvoyants, telepaths, as symbolized by her sacred animals: the cat, which sees and hears while being unseen, and the falcon, who watches everything from the sky.” {Witcher Wiki}

The Skellige Isles have a temple dedicated to Freyja, which is attended to by priestesses. They refer to Freyja as the ‘Great Mother’, which may be in reference to her power over fertility and love in Norse mythology. The priestesses in the game may be substitutes for the valkyries that serve Freyja in her hall. In Norse legend, Freyja rides a chariot that is pulled by a pair of cats, and she possesses a cloak of falcon feathers which allows her to transform and fly. I was absolutely baffled seeing such attention to the details. These are such specific elements of the goddess to include for one small part of such a large universe; The Witcher 3 really refuses to cut corners.

I could go on! But I shan’t. I will simply implore you to absorb The Witcher via whatever medium you deem fit. I can’t imagine you’ll regret it.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Conclusion (5/5)


“[I]f I am no good now, I shall be no good later on either, but if later on, then now too. For corn is corn, though people from the city may take it for grass at first”.

(“Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh”)

If, fifty years from now, BTS are looked back upon as artists that were worth something, then they are worth investigating today. It is easy to dismiss what is deemed popular as surface, depthless, meaningless. However, our exploration during these last few chapters has given us evidence to the contrary; it has become difficult to deny the significance of the work that Bangtan are doing. We have seen them challenge notions of originality and superiority; bring awareness to the mental health crisis in today’s youth, particularly in South Korea; subvert harmful metanarratives and encourage difference and individuality; bridge cultural borders and transcend language through music; dismantle notions of superiority with regard to the Western canon, and even blur the lines between high and popular or mass culture.

Having worked with BTS on their latest album, Halsey explains that “[b]ehind those three letters are seven astounding young men who believe that music is stronger than the barriers of language. It’s a universal dialect” (Monteros, Newsweek). This is echoed in Gifford Phillips’s writing, which argues that “[i]f real art is indeed trans-cultural, it is because of the unique ‘language’ in which art communicates – a language of expressive forms” (175). If we take this to be true, then BTS’s work is certainly what Phillips calls “real” art, as is Hesse’s and Le Guin’s. Does that move BTS from the realm of pop culture to high art, however?

In his essay “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Fredric Jameson discusses that there are currently “notions of the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement (or to its ideological or aesthetic repudiation)” (59). He also brings attention to the “prophetic elitism and authoritarianism of the modern movement” when it comes to high art (59). Most notably, however, Jameson explains that there is one “fundamental feature” which appears again and again in the Postmodernisms he discusses;

[N]amely, the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologies of the modern. (59-60)

BTS’s use of an arguably Postmodernist form, the music video, and their adaptations of Hesse’s and Le Guin’s works, most definitely fit Jameson’s description above. They challenge the superiority of the Western canon and notion of high art at all with their music, music videos, and even by virtue of the fact that they are South Korean. Bangtan bridge a cultural gap with cross-cultural adaptations, and establish a sense of universality between the East and West. Their work rejects the clear-cut polarised binaries such as that of East/West, white/non-white, or high culture/mass culture.

Herbert J. Gans believes that “[a]s long as high culture is the culture of an elite – and of ‘cultural experts’ – the rest of the population will go along with their standards”, but as Phillips argues, this view entirely “excludes the possibility of transcendent art” (175). Thus, as BTS have proven, popular culture can and does produce so-called ‘real’ art as well as transcendent art, and makes high culture works (like Demian or “Omelas”) accessible to a larger population. One of their more recent albums, “Love Yourself: Tear” used a book entitled Into The Magic Shop by Dr James R. Doty as inspiration; it didn’t take long after the album’s release for the book to become a bestseller in South Korea (Dahir). In an interview with Buzzfeed, Dr Doty explains that BTS’s popularity has:

[…] not only resulted in my book becoming a best-seller in Korea, but has resulted in a dramatic increase in exposure of the book to many others around the world – boosting sales and promoting the message of the power of having an open heart and of love, which I appreciate and which is needed more than ever. (Dahir)

Therefore, BTS’s influence and popularity, their very status as pop culture, has in fact enabled them to spread ‘high literature’ to thousands, if not millions, of more readers. Furthermore, though some members of BTS’s audience may not get any sort of gratification, or experience any emotional resonation, with the source texts, their experience with BTS’s adaptation still brings that aforementioned ‘spirit’ to large swathes of people. One still sees the bildungsroman nature of Demian in the “WINGS” short films; and one still feels the bittersweetness of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” when watching the “Spring Day” music video. Should these be considered any less valuable, simply because they are experienced via cross-cultural, popular adaptations?

Ernest van den Haag asserts that true, high culture classics “cannot be irrelevant, for they deal with subjects relevant to the universal human predicament in ways to be experienced perenially” (228-229). By this definition, BTS’s work, their adaptations, their message, are classic. Human beings will always experience the process of growing up and discovering themselves; they will always question, wonder, love, and extend a hand of friendship, or at the very least allyship. Human beings will always tell stories, and retell them with their own unique contribution. They will always make music. These are undeniably universal human experiences. It is true that BTS’s adaptations are tailored towards a twenty-first century, young audience; however, it is difficult to imagine that Hesse wrote Demian with this same audience in mind, and yet, because of Bangtan, it is precisely this audience that is reading the novel today.

In the same essay, van den Haag goes on to group mass culture with “diversion from boredom” and “time killing” (229). In his view, no “serious writer” would set out to produce a work with the sole intention of making an audience happy (230). Again, however, I would like to bring your attention back to the quote which introduced this dissertation:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. (Le Guin, 256-257)

It seems almost dangerous to dismiss happiness in this way, especially when we consider the alternative. Would BTS’s work be ‘better’, then, if they encouraged their audience to wallow in their sadness? If instead of combating the mental health crisis in twenty-first-century youth, they promoted it? 

The final challenge that BTS pose us is this: to view happiness as a complex idea that is worthy of its position as an artist’s muse, and also of exploration, investigation, and experimentation. If we were to shift our perspective and look at happiness as something other than surface and frivolous, what could we stand to gain? In a time where walls – both physical and figurative – are being built between people, the hand of universality and happiness that BTS are extending seems crucial. Rather than walls, Bangtan Sonyeondan build bridges, through their music, their videos, their art.

Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Unicef’s official website, where you can find out more information about the “Love Myself” campaign.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Chapter Three: Postmodernism (4/5)


“Postmodernism is, claims one American critic, like the air we breathe, everywhere.”

(Mundy, 260)

Postmodernism appears to play a significant role not only in the content of BTS’s works, but in its form also. In addition to examining BTS from a Postmodernist perspective, this chapter will examine BTS’s music videos as potential works of metafiction, and explore whether or not they challenge any metanarratives; if so, then the reasons why BTS adapted Hesse and Le Guin may need to be studied further. Before we begin, we must once again establish the definitions that will be used for the remainder of the discussion. Firstly, what do we mean by ‘Postmodernism’? It is both an extensive and elusive term, though critics such as Linda Hutcheon assert that postmodern texts are inherently political. Their political nature will become more apparent as we progress. Lyotard writes that when “[s]implifying to the extreme, [he defines] postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives” (The Postmodern Condition, xxiv). Metanarratives are those which attempt to envelop and explain the world and universe using one universal grand ‘truth’. An obvious example of a metanarrative would be Christianity, or Marxism. Terry Eagleton aptly explains:

Postmodernity means the end of modernity, in the sense of those grand narratives of truth, reason, science, progress and universal emancipation which are taken to characterise modern thought from the Enlightenment onwards. (200)

The metanarratives that were widely accepted for the last two centuries no longer serve as satisfactory “interpretive frameworks” we can use to make sense of the world around us (Mundy, 260). Postmodernism’s inherent political nature comes from the challenges it poses to these grand narratives. We are forced to question not only the text we are presented with, but the world we ourselves occupy outside of the text. Constructs that we take for granted as ‘natural’, are, in fact, just that: constructs. According to Hutcheon, the postmodern’s initial concern is “to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as ‘natural’ […] are in fact ‘cultural’; made by us, not given to us” (The Politics of Postmodernism, 2). It is because of these very cultural constructs that “no narrative can be a natural ‘master’ narrative: there are no natural hierarchies, there are only those we construct” (emphasis in original, 13).

Finally, we must determine what we mean by ‘metafiction’. Metafiction is a term used to describe fictional writing “which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”, and allows us to explore “the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text” (Waugh, 2). If we are to take John Mundy’s definition of the music video as a form which has a “knowing, self-reflexive direct address to spectators who are deemed to be always there”, then the music video would fall under the category of ‘metafiction’ (259-260). Furthermore, Mundy asserts that with music video “the old distinction between fiction and reality simply dissolves” (260). Fiction and reality in these instances bleed into one another and become almost indistinguishable, because the images we are presented with in the music video appear in our everyday lives.

 As was the instance in previous chapters, the importance of the author comes back into play with Postmodernism. Hutcheon writes that the “postmodern artist is no longer the inarticulate, silent, alienated creator of the romantic/modernist tradition” (The Politics of Postmodernism, 18). A rather literal and famous example of this would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, where, towards the end of the novel, Vonnegut himself explicitly enters the world of the novel and orders a drink. Again, we see the boundaries between reality and fiction blurred, and traditional narrative constructs challenged. BTS play an even more obviously vocal role in their position as artist, as they write, perform, and act in their music videos.

“If there are no overarching explanatory social theories, […] if there are no ‘truths’, ‘absolutes’ or ‘universals’, […] then all we have left is to constantly re-invent ourselves as we respond to fragments of the spectacle […] of the mass media” (Mundy, 261). Constructing an identity in a cultural climate which is constantly shifting and changing is an unstable endeavour. If we are to reject metanarratives, or at the very least approach them with scepticism, and embrace the sign as reality, as Mundy suggests, then individual identity becomes a changing kaleidoscope.

Hutcheon argues that “the postmodern world is utterly mediated through representations” (The Politics of Postmodernism, 29).  In a similar fashion, Mundy asserts that “for postmodernism, the sign has become reality” (emphasis in original, 260). The music video constructs a dreamscape, a series of images or signs that the viewer internalises, and then finds “reproduced and reverberating beyond the world of the TV set” (Mundy, 260). Consequently, the silences and gaps in the representations, the images, the signs that we see, reveal to us our own internalised metanarratives, and the cultural constructs that we simply took as natural. Hence Postmodernism actually “challenges our mimetic assumptions about representation […]: assumptions about its transparency and common-sense naturalness” (The Politics of Postmodernism, 30).  If Postmodernism is focussed on challenging what it is we take for granted as ‘natural’, then we must examine what it is that BTS are asking the spectator to challenge when watching their music videos.

While homosexuality is not outright illegal in South Korea, same-sex marriages are not legally recognised. In 2016, just four months before BTS released the first of their Demian-based music videos, a prominent gay film director filed a lawsuit seeking legal status for his marriage which was rejected by a South-Korean district court. It is noteworthy, then, that the homoerotic, or at the very least homoromantic, undertones in the relationship between Max Demian and Emil Sinclair were not shied away from in BTS’s adaptation. In the final pages of the novel, Sinclair dreams of Demian appearing in his ward, and kissing him. This kiss, it seems reasonable to argue, is reflected in BTS’s music video “Blood Sweat & Tears”, when Kim Seokjin kisses a statue that appears to represent the god Abraxas, an important symbol in both the music videos and Demian itself. Furthermore, it is heavily implied that another member of BTS, Kim Taehyung, embodies Abraxas also; as Seokjin is about to kiss the statue, the shot cuts to reveal Taehyung has two large gashes in his back, where he supposedly once had wings – just as the statue does (04:44 – 05:32). Cutting these two scenes together, rapidly switching back and forth, makes an explicit connection and implies a homosexual theme runs throughout the music videos. The novel Demian puts a heavy emphasis on the good versus evil, purity and light versus contamination and darkness, even sin; it is impossible to ignore the influence of Hesse’s experiences being raised in an intensely Christian household. As mentioned in previous chapters, Hesse was exposed to a type of Christianity that combined “a scrupulous soul-searching inwardness with a sense of sin and unworthiness” (Mueller, 146). Christianity has become an increasingly strong presence in South Korea. Including this homoerotic tension is subversive of the Christian metanarrative which establishes homosexual relationships as sinful and inherently ‘wrong’. Including the romantic undertones of Sinclair’s relationship with Demian is a conscious choice on the part of the adapter, that is, BTS.

The other primary grand narrative that BTS challenge with their work is the nature of ‘high art’. Taking pieces of high literature and adapting them into a ‘lower’ form such as the music video, and placing them against the backdrop of their pop music and rap, complicates our understanding of the source texts. Are Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” still considered high art now that they have been consumed by masses, thanks to a boyband from South Korea? The videos evoke similar or even identical emotions in the spectator through a medium which is accessible to millions of people. Furthermore, it is significant that BTS chose to adapt texts from the Western canon, rather than to select Eastern texts. This further subverts predisposed notions of superiority, originality, and possibly even highlight latent casual racist beliefs of Western intellectual superiority. Without looking carefully, one could simply brush the music videos off as frivolous pop culture, completely oblivious to their own subscriptions to metanarratives presenting them with only half-truths.

Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Wikipedia. A print from Bernard de Montfaucon‘s L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (Band 2,2 page 358 ff plaque 144) with different images of Abraxas.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Chapter Two: Intertextuality (3/5)


“Meaning becomes something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates, moving out from the independent text into a network of textual relations.”

(Allen, 1)

In the last chapter, we established that adaptations contribute to stories and form a sort of continuum. By extension of this, we are informed by the source text as well as other adaptations we have witnessed from the continuum. This more or less constitutes intertextuality, or at least illustrates how it functions. The term ‘intertextuality’ was only coined as recently as the sixties, by literary critic Julia Kristeva. As mentioned before, Hutcheon wrote about the nature of adaptations almost speaking to one another, breaking down notions of superiority and originality, of the possibility of witnessing an adaptation before the source text, and how that might influence a person’s experience of a particular story. Additionally, Henry Jenkins argues that adaptations instead make “unique contributions” to a story, building onto its world rather than trying to replace it (2011, italics in original). Much of what Jenkins and Hutcheon write is applicable even when turning our attention away from adaptation and towards intertextuality. That notion of a dialogue between texts is, of course, the defining idea of intertextuality.

In order to fully understand what intertextuality involves, it is important to explain what is meant by a ‘dialogue’ between texts. Texts which are dialogic (which is, arguably, all of them) have “meaning and logic dependent upon what has previously been said and on how they will be received by others” (Allen, 19). Throughout the course of this chapter, we will look at intertextuality while taking for granted that all texts are dialogic; that is, that no text has independent, isolated meaning. Graham Allen goes so far as to argue that to “interpret a text, to discover its meaning, or meanings, is to trace [its textual] relations” (1). Take, for example, the previous chapter; in order to examine the reason why BTS might have adapted Demian, we first had to examine what Demian meant to its original author, Hesse. Already, a dialogue was beginning to form. We delved even further by exploring Hesse’s personal life, putting Demian in conversation with its author as an adolescent, and then with each member of BTS, and also with their videos, as well as the socio-historical context of both BTS and Hermann Hesse. These complex connections all feed into our reading of Demian and our interpretation of the “WINGS” album.

This chapter will pay particular attention to Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, which was first published in 1973. In an introduction to a collection of Le Guin’s works, Graham Sleight describes the story as forming “a particular question about society and the price of living the good life” (vi). Stories like “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” are what Le Guin calls ‘psychomyths’, stories “outside real time, past or future” (vi).

The nature of the question that Le Guin poses through the story of Omelas is explained as follows in James’s ‘lost soul’ passage:

[I]f the hypothesis were offered of us a world in which Messrs Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain? (Le Guin, 254)

The central idea from which “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” was born also appears in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, though Le Guin has stated that in actuality, the idea was fresh in her mind having stumbled upon the myth again in William James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (254). By mentioning this in a brief preamble before the beginning of the story, one can already see intertextuality at work. This question has been played out before, in the works of Dostoyevsky and James, and Le Guin’s pre-existing knowledge of each of their interpretations informed her own writing, both consciously and unconsciously.

Le Guin even admits that ‘Omelas’ is simply ‘Salem, Orgeon’ backwards. She writes: “Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace. Melas. O melas. Omelas. Homme hélas” (255). The very name of this fictional place is in dialogue with other meanings, other connotations, even with other words from other languages that simply sound similar.

Furthermore, Le Guin explicitly states that some of James’s writing is directly applicable to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. One such excerpt is this:

All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend. (Le Guin, 255).

Our attention is immediately drawn to the idea that ideals, to James, and to Le Guin, are the “probable causes of future experience” (255). If our ideals hold such power, then they become vital factors in the shaping of the world around us, no matter what cultural/social/political/historical context we inhabit.

Now we must establish the ideals that Ursula Le Guin may have wished would influence the future experiences of the human race, and then see how this might spark a conversation between Le Guin and BTS. Bangtan, for example, are known to have discussed the importance of mental health awareness, particularly in young people; South Korea, after all, has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world (The Korea Herald). This may shed a new light on our perception of “Omelas”; as William James described, enjoying the utopia that Omelas offered always means that one is benefitting from the suffering of another. To consciously accept such a bargain says volumes about one’s own ideals, and according to the logic of Le Guin and James, gives us a glimpse into the future experience of human beings. As mentioned in the last chapter, BTS have dedicated large swathes of their time and influence to promoting ideals of self-love, self-realisation, and the attainment of happiness. For them to accept the offer of the world of Omelas would be for them to choose who does and does not deserve their message. Thus, it may be argued, BTS are actually encouraging their audience to be the ones who walk away from Omelas. This is asserted by the carousel which appears at several points throughout the video. It is rusted, broken down, and evidently out of use, yet the words “you never walk alone” can still be made out in yellow paint across the top. It seems that though the people of Omelas have forgotten this sentiment; if you are the ‘lost soul’, sacrificed for the happiness of others, then you always walk alone. What individual can say that they have never felt like they have been a lost soul, or suffered alone, in silence? It appears that BTS, through their “Spring Day” music video, are offering their answer to the question of the lost soul. Even if they should find themselves in Omelas, their ideals would force them to leave. Looking at the video, it appears that Jungkook is the first to decide to leave; he is pictured alone in a train carriage, and also alone when looking at the message on the carousel. However, by the end of the music video, the rest of the members of BTS have joined him.

Omelas only makes its appearance in a single BTS music video, rather than a series, as was the case with Demian. The music video for their song “Spring Day”, which was released in February of 2017, is not as heavy-handed with borrowed, allusive imagery as the short films for the “WINGS” album were. The only explicit reference connecting the music video with Le Guin’s short story is the fluorescent sign hanging above a motel that reads “Omelas” (01:07). Notably, a smaller sign to the right reads “no vacancies”. This utopia is inaccessible. Furthermore, at various points throughout the video, members are shown holding up their hands to form a sort of frame around their view; this, it may be argued, helps to highlight the snap-shot nature of the events going on around them. If they are to stand by their ideals, the paradise they live in must be temporary. Like the psychomyth, the utopia exists outside of time.

The lack of a logical narrative in the “Spring Day” music video (and the decision to depict “Omelas” in the music video form at all, really) is reminiscient of a Postmodernist style. These fragments of allusive imagery are arguably the way we conceptualise our reality in the twenty-first-century; a sort of non-sensical mosaic that encompasses contemporary day-to-day life. Thus we move to the third chapter, on Postmodernism, to examine the extent to which the postmodern permeates BTS’s work overall.

Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Wikipedia. By Source, Fair use.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Chapter One: Adaptation (2/5)


“One lesson is that to be second is not to be secondary or inferior; likewise, to be first is not to be originary or authoritative.”

(Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, xv)

The first, and arguably most obvious, way this essay will begin exploring the relationship between the works of BTS, Hesse, and Le Guin, is through the lens of adaptation theory. In its most basic and simplistic form, Linda Hutcheon describes adaptation as “repetition, but repetition without replication” (A Theory of Adaptation, 7). What Hutcheon means by this will become clearer as we go on; first, though, this chapter will examine why creators adapt in the first place, the advantages and disadvantages of adaptation, the particularly curious notion of cross-cultural adaptations, and even reformatting, that is, adapting a story from one medium (e.g. a novel) to another (e.g. a music video).

Adaptations, due to their inherently repetitive nature, are generally viewed as inferior to the original or ‘source’ text. It is possible that a ‘source text’ could, of course, be a film, and not a work of the written word at all. However, for the sake of convenience, the term ‘source text’ will be used to refer to an original story, or the form a story took, for the remainder of this chapter. Furthermore, while the music video as a narrative medium will be discussed more thoroughly in the chapter on Postmodernism, it is important to keep in mind that general attitudes towards the music video as a form play an important role when looking at BTS’s adaptation of Hesse and Le Guin’s stories. Hutcheon mentions two key words relevant to attitudes towards adaptations: iconophobia, which is “a suspicion of the visual”; and logophilia, which is the “love of the word as sacred” (A Theory of Adaptation, 4). Adaptations are seen as inferior not only because they are inherently repetitive of the source text, but also because often adaptations are reformatted to what are largely considered ‘lower’ forms of media. Our logophilic tendencies dismiss visual adaptations before we have even viewed them. Though film has increasingly crept its way closer to the title of a form of high art, the music video has yet to be taken seriously, especially in an academic setting. This, however, is something that makes BTS’s adaptations of Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” even more intriguing; they have taken pieces of high art and adapted them to a pop culture form. In A Theory of Adaptation, Hutcheon discusses this desire in adapters to “shift cultural level[s]”, though this term is generally used when taking a piece of pop culture and bringing it to a high art form. BTS flip this on its head, though it may be argued they are still raising their own cultural level by doing so. In bringing prominent writers like Hesse and Le Guin into their work, BTS make a statement about their own artistic ambitions; of course, adaptations have long been used to “engage in a larger social or cultural critique” (A Theory of Adaptation, 94).

There are a myriad of advantages and disadvantages to consider when telling a story through any particular medium, written text included. However, when it comes to adaptation, Henry Jenkins aptly states that “[i]deally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (2011, italics in original). As the Modernist poet T.S. Eliot put it, “art is derived from other art; stories are born of other stories” (A Theory of Adaptation, 2). Though adaptation is often looked at as inferior for its rehashing of a story already told, it may be more productive to instead look at adaptation as a contribution to the story, as Jenkins puts it, rather than a mindless retelling. Adaptations have been a huge part of Western culture for a long time. The Modernist movement in the early twentieth century prided itself on drawing heavily from other works, traditions, and styles, and applying them to a modern (often post-war) context; to “make it new”, as Ezra Pound famously stated (Firchow, 379).

One of the most interesting things about BTS’s adaptations, however, is that they are both reformatted (from written text to lyrics/music video) and also transcultural. This curious dynamic requires close scrutiny. Pop culture is often spoken about with “negatively judgmental rhetoric […], as if it is more tainted with capitalism than is high art” (A Theory of Adaptation, 31). When discussing a Korean pop boy band, for example, one is not usually met with intellectual curiosity. More often it is a condescending lift of the eyebrow. BTS are not Western artists; they are not white; they are all-male, but generally appeal to a female fanbase; they rarely sing in English; they rap; their general ‘sound’ is upbeat pop; and their visual presentation is androgynous. To compare them to high culture artists like Hesse or Le Guin is uncommon, but does not mean that there is nothing to gain from such a comparison.

Not only does an adaptation add its own novelty to a story, but it also, whether purposefully or not, is stamped by its cultural and historical space. There are variations in adaptations because of the adapter’s own personal influence shining through in their work. Hesse, in the early twentieth century, in the West, lived in a vastly different cultural context when writing Demian than BTS did when conceptualising their “WINGS” album in 2016 in South Korea. The Demian story, with their adaptation, has been brought across centuries, languages, and cultural borders – it has even crossed over from the realm of high art, literature, to pop culture music and music video. BTS have taken Pound’s advice and made Demian new.

Furthermore, before the twentieth century, it was commonplace, even vital, to interpret works while keeping the author’s biographical detail to the fore, as well as the political, social, and historical context in which they wrote. However by the twentieth century, through the growing influence of formalist approaches, the academic literary scene stopped taking these factors into account so heavily. Yet when looking at adaptation, biographical detail, and political/social/historical context, once again become important to keep in mind. One must ask why they have adapted this piece, and from where their urge to adapt came. Put simply, “[c]ontext conditions meaning” (A Theory of Adaptation, 145).

It may be interesting to note when reading Demian, for example, that as a child, Hermann Hesse was exposed to a kind of Christianity which “was a most intense pietism, combining a scrupulous soul-searching inwardness with a sense of sin and unworthiness in the presence of a transcendent and holy God absolutely revealed in His Biblical Word” (Mueller, 146). This doubtlessly leads one to think of the opening pages of the novel, that conflict between the two worlds Emil Sinclair finds himself caught between, as though good and evil were visible, tangible things he could see. In the second chapter, when Max Demian proposes Emil look at the story of Cain and Abel from an alternative perspective, Emil says that Max “left [him] standing there more baffled than[he] had ever been before in [his] life” (Hesse, 24). Here, Hesse’s biographical detail becomes undeniably intertwined with Demian – the themes of Christianity, of guilt and sin, and of incredibly intense inward reflection and deep thought. Of course, one can still read and enjoy Demian without reading into Hermann Hesse’s personal life; however, to completely ignore any sort of biographical detail or external factors relating to the context in which it was produced when dealing with the novel from a critical perspective, does seem to be purposefully naïve.

Moreover, Mueller describes the novel as an “educational” one (149). He states:

Its protagonist is the symbol for clear, logical thought, the friend and guide, who gradually leads Sinclair out of “bourgeois” respectability, “proletarian” chaos, “romantic” irresponsibility, finally to meet and love Demian’s “mother,” Frau Eva, who symbolizes the love of this world with its painful contrasts and opposites (149).

BTS discussed their reasons for adapting Demian briefly in an interview in October 2016 with reporter Shim Yeon Hee on KBS, a South Korean public broadcasting service. Kim Namjoon stated that they “felt that there were a lot of similarities between parts of [Demian]and the things[they] wanted to say”, leading them to use symbols from the novel in their music videos (“BTS Talks About Using “Demian” In “WINGS” Concept). In a separate interview in November of that same year, Kim Namjoon describes the concept of the “WINGS” album as being “about boys encountered with temptations” (“BTS Special Interview”, 00:55).

The question of why BTS adapted Demian becomes most clear, however, during their speech at the United Nations in September 2018. Kim Namjoon spoke about grappling with your conception of your self, and coming to love yourself along with all of the mistakes you have made:

And maybe I made a mistake yesterday, but yesterday’s me is still me. Today, I am who I am with all of my faults and my mistakes. Tomorrow, I might be a tiny bit wiser, and that’ll be me too. These faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life. I have come to love myself for who I am, for who I was, and for who I hope to become (“BTS speech at the United Nations | UNICEF”, 03:50).

Mueller calls Hesse’s writing “confessional, personal, functional, alive, written with the heart’s blood”, and that is exactly what BTS have attempted to emulate in their work, almost a century after Demian was first published (151). It is less the logical narrative of a story that BTS have adapted from Demian, but the ‘spirit’ of the novel, namely its nature as a bildungsroman, moving its themes, and even characters, easily from the literary form, to the visual.

In order to determine what Demian might mean to BTS, we must first look at what Demian meant to Hesse. Frank Baron suggests that the character of Max Demian is actually based on a boy Hesse met during his time at Maulbronn Seminary named Gustav Zeller. Baron writes that in both Demian and Zeller, “one recognizes an attempt to shape new myths in an age for which old beliefs are no longer genuinely meaningful” (48). For Hesse/Sinclair, Zeller/Demian “was also Cain, the unrepentant thief, a Messiah, the guiding spirit of Nietzsche, and a symbolic representation of an outside force which Sinclair absorbed ultimately in the process of self-realization” (48). Max Demian is not so much a character as a concept, a way of thinking, a way of being; it is not unreasonable to argue that even over a century later, Demian resonated with Bangtan Sonyeondan for the same reasons Zeller did with Hesse.

The cross-cultural element to BTS’s “WINGS” adds a fascinating dimension to their adaptation of Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. As Hutcheon beautifully puts it, “stories travel to different cultures and different media” (A Theory of Adaptation, 31). It is also not a one-way system, however; both Hesse and Le Guin were interested in and influenced by Eastern philosophy, and this carried into their writing. Peter Roberts writes that Hesse was “a man of the West who turned to the idea of ‘the East’ in seeking to understand himself and his society” (249). This permeates Demian, where Emil Sinclair turns to an alternative philosophy in order to understand both himself and the world around him, also. One may term this as a ‘mutual cultural exchange’. There is a back-and-forth between Hesse, Le Guin, and BTS. They each draw from each other’s traditions, philosophies, and narrative styles, while putting a novel spin on their work.

It is also interesting to note that the music video is a Western creation. In much the same way Hesse and Le Guin adapted Eastern philosophy for their own work, Bangtan – along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other Eastern artists – have adapted the Western form of the music video for their own work. This will be explored in greater detail in the chapter on intertextuality. Of the three approaches dealt with in this dissertation, adaptation and intertextuality in particular are linked most closely. Adaptations speak to each other, particularly if one has encountered the source text, or even a different adaptation of the same source text. Additionally, one may be prompted to read or view the source text, having first witnessed the story in its adapted form. In the year after BTS’s “WINGS” album was released, the sales for Demian spiked massively in South Korea. To Hutcheon, this challenges “the authority of any notion of priority” (A Theory of Adaptation, xv).

Through adaptation and intertextuality, the story of Emil Sinclair and Max Demian exists in a sort of continuum, rather than being simply confined to the original novel. BTS are contributors to this continuum, as twenty-first-century adapters; they have added their own shard to the mosaic, so to speak. But it would be an untruth to pretend we do not see the other shards. We need only step back to reveal the whole mosaic, and watch as each shard informs the other, as well as us. This brings us to our next perspective – intertextuality.

Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Wikipedia. By Aleister26 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Introduction (1/5)

Welcome! I thought it would be interesting to post my undergrad dissertation to this blog, in between other, more informal posts! Enjoy!

“An examination of the cultural significance of the work of Bangtan Sonyeondan and an exploration into the relationship between their music videos and the literary works of Hermann Hesse and Ursula Le Guin.

I would like to thank Prof. Alex Davis for his open mind and endless patience while supervising this project.

This dissertation is dedicated to BTS, for all the light and love they bring into the world.


“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid.”

(Le Guin,256-257)

In 2013 Big Hit Entertainment, a South Korean entertainment company, debuted their first boy group, Bangtan Sonyeondan, better known as BTS, with their single “No More Dream”. The group is comprised of seven members: Kim Seokjin; Min Yoongi; Jung Hoseok; Kim Namjoon; Park Jimin; Kim Taehyung; and Jeon Jungkook. In just six short years, BTS have become one of the biggest boy groups in the world, breaking records previously set by One Direction, Justin Bieber, and even the Beatles. In 2017 they won their first Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, breaking Bieber’s winning streak, and gaining a record amount of fan votes – over 300 million. Listing off Bangtan’s plethora of awards and achievements alone would surpass the word count limit for this essay; suffice to say, BTS have become a global force in a way that Korean artists have never done before. In the last twelve months alone, they have completed their first world tour, sold out two concerts at Wembley stadium, and appeared at the Grammys, performed on Saturday Night Live, the Graham Norton Show, and the Late Late Show with James Corden, to name but a few.

It should be stated clearly, however, that their success in the West is not what has made them suddenly worth examining. The borderline infuriating surprise at the quality of BTS’s content, as well as their international success, is proof enough that Western intellectual superiority still tinges our perception of what makes ‘good’ art, and what makes art ‘successful’. The band has done many collaborations with Western artists, such as Halsey, Fall Out Boy, Ed Sheeran, and the Chainsmokers. However, their discography, which now includes hundreds of songs, thus far contains just one song composed with lyrics sung exclusively in English. BTS have transcended language with their music, their music videos, and most significantly, their message.

Put simply, the band’s message is this: love yourself. Having rocketed into the global spotlight, BTS have taken their platform and used it to further this message of self-love, hope, and mental-health awareness (several of the members have had experiences with depression and anxiety, and even suicidal ideation – unsurprising when you consider that, according to The Korea Herald, the main cause of death in young people in South Korea in recent years is suicide). In November 2017, BTS launched the LOVE MYSELF movement, a two-year anti-violence campaign, in conjunction with the Korean and Japanese Committee for UNICEF. The campaign’s website home page reads “[w]ith our love and care, this world can be turned into a better place where people can dream of tomorrow” (LOVE MYSELF). In September 2018, BTS’s Kim Namjoon gave a speech at the launch of ‘Youth 2030: The UN Youth Strategy’, where he urged young people all across the world to love and be kind to themselves. He encouraged a practical form of self-love, by embracing even the ugliest parts of one’s self, stating of himself; “[t]hese faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life” (04:14). This message of hope and love is a universal one, and has consequently reached millions upon millions of people all over the world.

Boy bands such as BTS are often brushed aside as frivolous for many reasons: they make pop music, and so lack any ‘proper’ meaning; their fan base is comprised largely of young women; the members are too optimisitic, or try too hard to seem likeable. Undeniably, however, BTS largely make people happy, and, taking a page from Le Guin’s book, it seems unwise to brush this happiness off as something uncomplicated, unintelligent, or unimportant. Due to the enormity of Bangtan’s influence, which only grows each day, it seems only right to survey what it is the band are doing, and how. For example, one of the most fascinating things about the band’s work is their adaptations of literary texts. At first glance, their selected texts appear peculiar; thus far, Bangtan have exclusively adapted texts written by Western authors. Curiously, most of these authors have had a fascination with Eastern philosophy at some point in their lives. Thus, the following chapters will explore the global cultural significance of BTS’s work by examining their adaptations of Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian and Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. More specifically, each of the three chapters will focus on a specific perspective; adaptation theory, intertextuality, and Postmodernism, respectively.

The first chapter, on adaptation, will investigate the nature of cross-cultural adaptation, and transmedia. Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” are brought across time and cultural space through BTS’s adaptations, which prompts us to ask why it is that the band selected these texts. Then, in the second chapter, which deals with intertextuality, the discussion will build onto the ideas established in the previous chapter, and consider the conversation BTS wish to have with Le Guin’s world of “Omelas” through their music video “Spring Day”. Much of adaptation theory overlaps with the ideas surrounding intertextuality; to avoid repetetive statements or observations, Chapter One will deal primarily with Demian, and Chapter Two will place its focus on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. Finally, the third chapter will study the relationship between the texts from the perspective of Postmodernism. It will examine the way that BTS use the music video to challenge metanarratives, or even the way the music video most accurately represents the way we construct reality in the twenty-first century.

The ultimate aim of this essay is to achieve a perspective as comprehensive as possible of the significance of BTS’s work. By combining each of these critical approaches, as well as studying their relationship with the works of Hermann Hesse and Ursula Le Guin, we should be left with a greater understanding of how, and why, Bangtan Sonyeondan have become an international success.

Note: this post’s feature image is the album cover of BTS’s EP, “Map of the Soul: Persona”. Taken from Wikipedia.

How to Love Your Monstrous Mom: Thoughts on Acker’s “Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf”

I love monsters.

I have a soft spot for the creatures that skulk about on the periphery of society, casting menacing glances at the odd passerby. I do enjoy a good skulk myself every so often. But I am not supposed to love monsters; rather, I am supposed to hate them, fear them, reject them. So why am I not afraid?

Well, what are you afraid of? What do you check for under your bed at night? Gender? Your mom? These might seem like silly questions at first, but our society has been fixated, in fascinated horror, on notions of gender construction and discrepancies between these constructions and our reality. Moreover, it isn’t just Freud who believes we have weird psychological relationships with our mothers;  a whole host of critics have explored the terrors of our dear maternal figures. Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French literary critic (who really is very much worth researching), unearthed an image of the maternal in the work of Ferdinand Céline that left chills running down my spine: “[T]he mother gives us life, but since she does not give us immortality, she gives us death as well” (704).

Isn’t that a delightfully awful thought? I can’t decide if this is a genuine anxiety, or deliberately pessimistic and just scrambling for more reasons why women are awful and can’t do anything right. Sure, they’re life-givers, but what’s the point if they’re not immortality-givers? To me, that appears to make mothers twice as monstrous; not only are they women, but all of their offspring will eventually die. It’s just unprofessional. 

In “Horror and the Maternal”, Acker faces the most monstrous mother of all: Grendel’s Mother. For those unfamiliar with her, Grendel’s Mother is one of the three monsters Beowulf battles in one of the most important Old English epic poems, (yep, you guessed it) Beowulf. Her son, Grendel, appears as a sort of disfigured, clawed monster that terrorises the mead-hall of Heorot until our great hero swoops in to save the day and do away with the foul beast. Grendel’s Mother is, understandably, not super thrilled about this. She emerges from her mere to exact revenge on the men of the hall, killing one of them, Aeschere, in his bed while he sleeps – an eye for an eye, as is customary in the heroic/feudal society in which the poem is set. Women aren’t really supposed to be the ones exacting revenge, but Grendel’s Mother is the last surviving member of her family, so the role of avenger falls to her.

Here’s the thing: I don’t find Grendel’s Mother monstrous. I’m not scared of her. But I think she makes men anxious.

Arrested Development, Season 3 Episode 1, “The Cabin Show”. GIF made by KaitlynRochelle on

Acker calls Grendel’s Mother a “feminine antitype”, but doesn’t expand on what he means by ‘feminine’ in the first place. We could assume that Acker is referring to the construct of femininity of the time, but even that is an unclear concept; does he mean the femininity of the time in which the poem is set, or the femininity of the time in which the poem was written? But really, the impression I get is that Acker is speaking about femininity as something ubiquitous, timeless, unchanging –  when in reality constructs of femininity and masculinity have evolved hugely, and continue to transform now.  

I believe this prompts us to ask whether Grendel’s Mother is categorised as monstrous simply because she does not strive to achieve the feminine ideal (be that the ideal of her culture/time/society, or ours today). I do not believe it is unfair to say that the feminine ideal is an impossible goal, often full of contradictions; no woman ever actually reaches it, though they are expected to try regardless. Hildeburh, for example, with whom Grendel’s Mother is often compared, fails in her role as peace-weaver; she does not reach the feminine ideal, but since she tries, that does not make her a total monster.

(As a side-note, my peer John Buttimer wrote a wonderful blog post on the ‘bad’ queen Modthryth, which I think may be relevant here – she is another female character in Beowulf who is condemned for refusing to reach for the feminine ideal, and instead inflicts physical violence on those who attack her with the psychological violence of the male gaze. Needless to say, I love her.)

When Acker uses the term “feminine antitype” to describe Grendel’s Mother, what he appears to mean, in my opinion at least, is “aggressive”. To Acker, as well as many other critics both male and female, aggression is never feminine; that is to say, aggression is masculine, and passivity is feminine. He even goes so far as to state that Grendel’s Mother’s aggression is “arguably in a fashion reserved for men” (705, italics mine). Note that he does not qualify this with a time period, or with a particular culture or society. 

The only response I have is why? Why is aggression never feminine, and why is passivity never masculine? Moreover, is it even useful to gender attributes like aggression and passivity? If you are not going to refer to constructs of gender at particular points in history and in specific parts of the world, thus contextualising social/cultural values/anxieties/norms, then your ideas of gender constructs become far too ambiguous, broad, inaccurate. Linking the feminine with passivity and the masculine with aggression just feels lazy. Should we instead turn our focus towards expanding what the feminine and masculine can encompass, or even delve into the world of the non-binary? A discussion for another post, maybe.

So what makes Grendel’s Mother monstrous? Well, Acker explains that in Old English as well as Old Norse texts, “a mother, expected to be empowered chiefly through her son, was too horrible to consider in the destructive role of an avenger” (707). (My first thought when reading this was: Are you not considered a mother until you have a son?) It’s interesting that the destructive nature of revenge is acknowledged, considering how detrimental its cyclical nature was on heroic society, but it is only horrible when a woman, worse, a mother takes part. Thus Grendel’s Mother is a monster because 1) she is a mother, and mothers don’t provide immortality,  2) she is aggressive, which is not associated with the feminine ideal of her culture  and 3) she abides by the feudal code of the society in which she lives, which again, isn’t very womanly. 

That doesn’t make her very monstrous to me at all.

Works Cited

Acker, Paul. “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf.’” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 3, 2006, pp. 702–716. JSTOR,

Note: This post’s feature image is by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf (1908). Taken from Wikipedia.

The Snake Uncoiled: A Glimpse into Leigh Bardugo’s “Ninth House”

While I will refrain from including any spoilers in this review, I do want to quickly list out some trigger warnings for the novel (which will also be mentioned in this post). Please remember to be mindful of your limits and mental wellbeing; unlike Bardugo’s other works, Ninth House is intended for Adult audiences. 

Some trigger warnings for the novel include: rape of a child (on page); sexual assult (on and off page); physical abuse (on and off page); drug use and addiction (on and off page); gore/blood (on page); a brief mention of a car crash (not described in detail); and death (on and off page). This review will discuss Bardugo’s treatment of sexual trauma in Ninth House in detail. While it is not voyeuristic or romanticised, it is honest and that makes it graphic — so it’s okay if you can’t/don’t want to read this book!

Let’s start this blog off with a bang, shall we?

I have been waiting for Ninth House to fall into my clutches for years. I remember digging through Leigh Bardugo’s website and coming across a brief plot synopsis and, to my disgust, no trace of a release date; as you can imagine, the excitement in my stomach has been bubbling away for a while.

Still, part of me was apprehensive. The Grishaverse has held a near and dear place in my heart for a long time. I had no doubt Leigh’s writing would be up to its usual fantastic standard – she has never failed to amaze – but beyond that I had no idea what to expect when I stepped into this new world of hers. Was I really going to give two shits about Yale’s secret societies, even in the hands of my favourite author?

(If you have already dipped your toe into the world of Ninth House, you are doubtlessly cackling at my foolish past-self).

How could I have ever doubted Leigh goddamn Bardugo? Ninth House plucks expensive whiskey glasses from affluent, white secret society members and chucks them at other affluent, white secret society members. It is a gritty piece of coal among useless diamonds and it burns like one. It is unlike anything I have ever read, and has quickly established itself as one of my favourite books with some of my favourite characters. It is a labyrinth of plot and puzzles and characters who are not all that they seem. You must be content to sit with the discomfort of your blindness while navigating this structurally complex novel.

From the get-go, we are presented with three major puzzles: 1) Who murdered Tara Hutchins?; 2) Where is Darlington?; 3) Who is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, and what happened to her?

Too straightforward for you? Let’s throw some magic into the mix for good measure.

“It was one thing to be told magic existed, quite another to have it literally give you the finger.” (p. 305)

She had become distracted by her letter. By the time Leigh realised she hadn’t raised her head in a hot minute, it was too late – she didn’t recognise her surroundings at all. She turned about, and her gaze fell on something she had never seen before, but still somehow evoked an uncanny feeling of the familiar. Her gaze fell on what looked like magic.

Book and Snake, 2005. Taken from Wikipedia.

Upon further research, Bardugo discovered that she had stumbled across the clubhouse of the Book and Snake, one of the ‘Ancient Eight’ secret societies at Yale. While she does not cite this moment as the inspiration for Ninth House, Leigh does describe it as the moment that Yale campus and New Haven in general became a place full of magic for her. In her opinion, all lovers of fantasy “have this sense for the magical seeping into the ordinary world, and we just want more of it.” Anyone well practised in testing the backs of wardrobes will understand that desire to find hidden magic, and continue to believe that somewhere, it’s out there – you must only find the right wardrobe.

Darlington has that same ache for magic that readers do. The one difference between you and Darlington though? He finds it. He is similar to Alex in that way, I think. I am reminded of a quote from one of Bardugo’s previous works, Crooked Kingdom: “We learn to wring magic from the ordinary […] When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.” 

And in the world of Ninth House, magic permeates into reality in such a way that it becomes difficult to tell one from the other. “I wanted to build this world where you really couldn’t distinguish between the real and the imagined,” Leigh explains. “I want people to feel like there’s magic everywhere.”  This blurring of fiction and reality grows even more confusing when you realise how much of Ninth House is, in fact, cold hard truth. Take, for example, the skeleton unearthed in 2012, tangled in the roots of a tree that was blown over during Hurricane Sandy. New Haven is a bonkers place in and of itself, making it the perfect place for Leigh’s magic to take root and bloom.

“Maybe all rich people asked the wrong questions. For people like Alex, it would never be what do you want. It was always just how much can you get?(p. 84)

Magic, however, is not something that comes with no strings attached. It’s another form of power, is it not? And there is no way to write honestly about magic, or an institution like Yale, without looking at notions of privilege, power, race, or gender. For Leigh “magic is a commodity”  and she wanted to explore how it would affect the college world to control who did and did not have access to it. What is the price of magic, who pays it, who is willing to pay it? What is the human cost?

You don’t have to wait very long to find out any of these answers; at the very beginning of the story, we witness what it is exactly these people use magic for during a prognostication, which involves rifling through literal guts in order to predict the future. But you can be sure none of the society members are volunteering themselves for this gig. Instead, some unsuspecting patient is borrowed from a nearby hospital. And for what, you may ask? For the betterment of humanity? 

Actually, it’s for information on the stock market. 

We have found Narnia and it’s a capitalist hellscape.

There were moments when I wanted to reach into the pages and throttle characters — could they not spare even some of their power to save the environment or something? But such is life. Those with such power and privilege are quite happy to hoard their nuts like bitter squirrels. 

All the more reason to fall desperately in love with Alex Stern, the antithesis of the culture of power and privilege at Yale.

Leigh did her damnedest to make Galaxy as isolated as humanly possible. She describes Alex as having had all of her threads severed, and that doesn’t just refer to her life at Yale; she is disconnected from any sort of culture or religion on both sides of her family, and the only people who have remained constants in her life are her mother, and Alex herself. “I wanted her to have to start to draw together and build a network of threads for herself, to give her strength by the end of the story,” says Leigh. “She comes from a background that has not equipped her for this place of magic and privilege.” 

But the little connection that Alex has to her Latinx heritage does end up saving her at one point. She knows a little bit of Ladino, which she learned from her late grandmother. In her interview on the Write Or Die podcast, Leigh describes Ladino as a language close to death (fitting for Ninth House, no?) but a beautiful one, a “combination of Spanish, Hebrew, and sometimes Greek and other languages.” She explains that many death ballads survive in Ladino. In fact, the epigraph of Ninth House is a Sephardic ballad of mourning called “Death and the Girl”. While Bardugo hinted that Alex’s heritage will play a bigger role in subsequent books, she also “didn’t want the person [she] was endowing with this much power to be white.” 

“Alex Stern was not what she seemed.” (p. 181)

Alex, of course, is the person most conscious of the fact that she does not ‘belong’ at Yale, that she is navigating a world built for the ease of others; thus the Alex we meet at the beginning of Ninth House is an Alex wearing a carefully-crafted mask, with the muted persona to match. She is a girl who is trying to do everything she can to bury her past, and her past-self. “[T]he truth of who she is and what she can do is very different from the person she’s trying to present at the beginning of this story,” says Leigh. But as the novel goes on, a hurricane appears, and Alex’s past in unearthed, caught in the roots of a fallen tree. The mask slips at last, and we discover the real Galaxy Stern.

“The snake inside Alex stopped twitching and uncoiled.” (p. 205)

Ninth House is not a comfortable book to read. It is honest in its handling of power, privilege, trauma, and that makes it, at times, shocking. It is not, however, a book of one-dimensional misery tourism. “I didn’t come here to make you comfortable,” Bardugo states simply. “I came here to write a book that’s going to f*ck you up a little.” 

One of the most uncomfortable but, in my opinion, invaluable honesties in Ninth House is Bardugo’s navigation through the experiences of someone who has been a victim of sexual trauma.

[Please note that I am not a voice for all victims of sexual trauma, and can only speak to my own experience. It is not my intention to put words in the mouth of any victim. Everyone’s experiences are different.]

Leigh explains that she wanted to “explore trauma through the lens of someone enduring it, surviving it, and then conquering it,”  which she believes takes more than just the span of one or two pages. There is no quick fix to the conquering of any sort of trauma — “it’s something that has to be explored day by day for the rest of your life.” The idea that Alex could discover some miracle ‘cure’ for her trauma by mastering magic would be dishonest to the reality of what it means to be a survivor of sexual trauma. For a reader who has experienced any sort of trauma in their lives, it would simply leave them to wonder, “Am I not deserving of a hero’s narrative?” when their own demons cannot be defeated in the same way. 

This is one of the key features that distinguishes Ninth House as a work of Adult fiction as opposed to YA. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Young Adult fiction and am a big believer in its literary merit. But part of YA’s appeal is its inherent optimism; the characters make it through a revolution or their last year of school, and then? A reader’s imagination can take over and fill in their happily ever after. Adult fiction leaves you with different questions, different impressions. It asks you what survival will look like on a day-to-day basis for the rest of your life. 

Yet I reiterate: Ninth House does not operate on a basis of misery tourism. It is honest, but not needlessly bleak. It may not initially sound like it, but there is actually a lot of hope in the book, though the author describes it as “a very angry kind of hope.” 

“Alex didn’t have money. But she did have power. She’d been afraid of it, afraid of staring directly at that blood-soaked night […] But when she’d finally looked? Let herself remember? Well, maybe there was something broken and shrivelled in her, because she felt only a deep calm in knowing what she was capable of.” (p. 314)

Galaxy “Alex” Stern, by Mélanie Bourgeois. Used with permission from the artist.

Alex is an angry character. Her sharp tongue and quick retorts are clever, but as Turner points out, undeniably aggressive. Though she tries to hide herself and her past, to rewrite who she is in order to fit in at Yale, that anger, that fury, remains a constant. The story marches on and Alex begins to come to terms with what has happened to her. And bit by bit, the mask begins to fall away, the anger turns to a useful source of energy and drive, and Alex trusts herself to follow her gut and find out the truth about the murder of Tara Hutchins. Coming to accept how trauma has changed her, instead of letting it sit in her gut and poison her, makes Alex an incredibly inspiring character to me. She is no one’s hero but her own, with her own moral compass and sense of justice and loyalty, and she cuts through the bullshit airs and graces of Yale and all its merry men to get to the truth. No one fought for her, but she’ll be damned if someone doesn’t fight for Tara Hutchins.

Alex’s experiences are not written off as being part of some ‘greater plan’. No — Alex takes these traumas and endures them, survives them, and lives through another day. That is a hope victims can hold on to, and realistically strive towards. 

So how should you feel when you finish Ninth House? Well, Bardugo wants you to feel like you’re “ready to burn shit down.” So let that snake uncoil, dear reader, and go burn your demons to ashes. 

Want to know more? These might be useful:

“It simply isn’t an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons.”

Welcome to þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, or the Dragon’s Fate! This is a new blog I’m starting as part of a module for my MA. My name is Kel, I’m 21, Irish, and non-binary (my pronouns are they/them).

The MA programme is called Texts & Contexts: Medieval to Renaissance, but I’m more comfortable in the medieval side of things – Old English texts/manuscripts like “Beowulf” or “Judith” or the riddles from the Exeter Book; even Old Norse material like the Poetic Edda – though some Middle English material does sometimes pique my interests too (I’m a sucker for faeries wreaking havoc on mortals). I have a habit of looking at the same texts over and over using different critical lenses. I’m interested in ecocritical/ecofeminist approaches, looking at gender constructions (binary and otherwise) within a text in terms of its subject matter and its grammar (use of pronouns or gendered terms, etc), adaptation theory, intertextuality, Postmodernism…I could go on. Some of this will become apparent as I post more, whether about the academic texts I’m currently looking at, or the pieces I’m reading for my own leisure, which tend to be quite different/varied.

My favourite books to read for pleasure tend to be YA or science fiction, and always with some sort of thread of magic twined through. I think magic can be used as a powerful and versatile metaphor, so it tends to creep into both the things I read and the things I write. I love authors like Holly Black, Leigh Bardugo, Maggie Stiefvater, Cornelia Funke, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Marissa Meyer, V.E. Schwab, Ursula Le Guin, Hermann Hesse, Kiersten White, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë…again, I could go on and on, but I feel as though all of this will become more obvious with each passing blog post. I’m an English student. I like reading. It will come up.

There’s a bit of a mish-mash of content here, as you can see. You may be wondering, how are you going to create any sort of coherent blog with all this? Well, dear reader, I too am wondering just that. It’s not clear to me yet, but the key word there is yet. I’m not making any promises about what this blog is going to look like, because I think that setting rigid boundaries this early in the process will just stunt any potential for growth. I’ll weed the garden once I can see the difference between the dandelions and the daisies. But for now everything stays.

I hope you’ll join me on this quest for knowledge! I hope knowledge will be acquired! I hope the garden doesn’t swallow me whole!

We’ll just have to wait and see!

(There will, of course, at some stage be dragons…)

Feature Image: J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustration of a dragon and a warrior.