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The Monster Returns | Thesis Extract

Note: This post’s feature image is a still from “If Found…”, an Irish video game from dreamfeel that includes a trans protagonist, as well as many other LGBTQ+ characters!

It has been a great many months since I have posted here, but I have returned to share a sample of the fruits of my labour! Yes, it’s true; the dissertation has been written, submitted, and graded (first class honours, baby!). I am incredibly proud of it, and will definitely post the full paper somewhere, but I do feel a blog post is not the place for that! Still, this blog was made to document the progression of my research, so it’s only fitting that I would post even just a little bit of the culmination of all that work.

There has also been a seemingly endless spew of invective and ignorant pieces about trans people, both in Ireland and the world beyond. But why get into fights on Twitter with people who do not want to learn, only attack those they do not understand?

Instead I want to post this extract from the introduction of my dissertation, as an indirect counter to the misinformation and fear-mongering that has been spread recently.

So please, enjoy!

Of Monsters and Thems: Problematising Cis-Heteronormativity in Old Norse and Old English Scholarship.

“[C]riticism worthy of its name arises from commitments deeper than professionalism.”

(Lawrence Buell, quoted in Postcolonial Ecocriticism, 11)

Allow me to preface this dissertation by stating clearly that I am a transgender, non-binary, queer individual.  That is to say, I am not cisgender, and I am not heterosexual. I feel it is important to make clear that I am not speaking over trans or queer voices – I am one. I by no means have any authority to speak on behalf of any other member of the LGBTQ+ community, but the fact remains that there are not enough trans voices in Old Norse and Old English scholarship, and, as I have been handed a megaphone (that is, the opportunity to write a thesis) it seems unwise to let the moment pass in silence. There is, inevitably, a personal element to this thesis, disguised only thinly by the passive voice, but the issue of prejudice against transgender, non-binary, and even intersex people is larger than any one individual and impacts not only our view of the world in the twenty-first century, but, as it pertains to this thesis, our perception of pre-Christian Scandinavia and early medieval England. 

The queer theory and subsequently, criticism, that does exist in Old Norse and Old English academic spaces1 is largely limited to the heterosexual/homosexual binary, and some discussion of (implicitly cisgender) gender transgression, the most radical of which I have seen is the proposal that the valkyries are a distinct gender outside of the male/female binary2 (see Self’s “The Valkyrie’s Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender”). Queer theory itself possesses gaps and silences that need to be filled; namely a neglect of transgender issues, non-binary genders, and intersexuality. Old Norse and Old English scholars have, like much of the modern Western world, assumed that the male/female gender and sexual binary system is ‘natural’, and thus a historically and geographically universal truth. Unsurprisingly, this presupposition has influenced interpretations and criticism of Old Norse and Old English texts and figures. The aim of my dissertation is to bring transgender and non-binary perspectives to the fore by examining cissexist attitudes and prejudice against trans and non-binary people within theoretical and critical approaches. Subsequently, through close reading, I will illustrate how our perception of Old Norse and Old English texts and figures changes when re-examined through a more trans-inclusive lens.

  1. I do, of course, stand on the shoulders of giants while shouting into my megaphone. Incredible scholars applying a queer perspective to Old Norse and Old English literature include, but are not limited to: Amy Jefford Franks, Rebecca Merkelbach, Richard E. Zeikowitz, Kathleen M. Self, David Clark, Gareth Lloyd-Evans, Brit Solli, Glenn Burger, and Stephen Kruger.
  2. Self refers to the valkyries’ gender as a ‘third’ gender rather than using the non-binary umbrella. The issue with the language around ‘third’ genders is that “by framing variations of gender productions as dismissable deviants, we ignore the nature of personhood” (Jefford Franks, “Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 33).

Queer and Related Terminology

It is important to note at this point that when using the term ‘queer’ in academic discourse, it does not necessarily hold the same meaning as it does in the vernacular of LGBTQ+ spaces. In fact, ‘queer’ is widely considered to be a homophobic and transphobic slur. Many LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed slurs, that is, subverted their negative connotations and remade them into something empowering instead. However, in much the same way that white people cannot reclaim racial slurs, non-LGBTQ+ individuals cannot reclaim slurs used specifically to disempower, Otherise, or vilify LGBTQ+ people.

According to Eric Savoy in his essay “You Can’t Go Homo Again”, the term ‘queer’ entered the academic sphere in the early 1990s; he specifically cites the Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference held at Rutgers University in 1991 (129). ‘Queer’, Savoy explains, was a term borrowed from a political activist group called Queer Nation. They had broken away from the New York branch of ACT UP (“the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power”) in the early months of 1990, and were committed to “acknowledg[ing] and deploy[ing] gay and lesbian anger in specific, highly volatile, antihomophobic demonstrations” (141).  In its inchoate state at that time, ‘queer’ “slipped frequently, often in the same performance, between synonymity with gay or lesbian positionalities and an anxious marking of distance from those critical perspectives” (129). In fact, by the time the MLA Convention in New York rolled around in 1992, queerness in academia had taken on a defiant hue and had “an oppositional relation to the gay and the lesbian” (emphasis in original, 130). The contention between gay and lesbian studies and queer theory is difficult to reconcile. Many people dedicated years of their lives to fighting for a legitimate space for gay and lesbian studies in academic spaces, and unsurprisingly, wanted to remain being taken seriously. Thus, they were hesitant when queer theorists began to demand the focus be shifted to queer theory instead of gay and lesbian studies. On the other hand, the frustration of queer theorists in the nineties is difficult to dismiss.  It is exhausting to constantly contort yourself in order to remain palatable to those who would deny you a voice, representation, and basic human rights.

While keeping its history and some of its more negative connotations in mind, ‘queer’ still remains a fitting term for its eponymous theoretical and critical approach. Richard E. Zeikowitz, in his essay “Befriending the Medieval Queer”, asserts that ‘queer’ can “signify any nonnormative behavior, relationship, or identity occurring at a specific moment”, and also “describe an alternative form of desire that threatens the stability of the dominant norm” (67). Jefford Franks3 translates Solli’s poetic definition in which “queer is not defined as an essence, but as a position that implies resistance to the prevailing norm of power” (“Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 32). It should also be stressed that queer is intended to be an umbrella term. There are a myriad of far more specific terms found in the vernacular of the LGBTQ+ community that have as yet not found their way into academic spaces. For instance, what is meant by the term ‘non-binary’, in the context of a discussion on gender? The Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI) defines non-binary as:

“An umbrella term for gender identities that fall outside the gender binary of male or female. This includes individuals whose gender identity is neither exclusively male nor female, a combination of male and female or between or beyond genders. Similar to the usage of transgender, people under the non-binary umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms.”

Helpful Terms and Definitions

It is important to keep in mind this idea of non-binary as another one of these umbrella terms, rather than a third gender. There are countless gender identities that fall under the category of non-binary; gender fluid individuals, for example, “experience different gender identities at different times” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). This thesis will demonstrate how, say, Loki can be interpreted as a non-binary figure, but will not delve into more specific identities. Loki could arguably be labelled as genderfluid, or androgyne – such discussion can become tedious, however, if one is unfamiliar with modern queer jargon. Thus for the sake of simplicity, the remainder of the dissertation will use broader umbrella terms like ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’.

3. It should be noted that Amy Jefford Franks uses they/them pronouns.

Another term which will be useful to keep in mind is ‘cisgender’. A person who is cisgender is simply someone who is not transgender, i.e. “a person whose gender identity and gender expression is aligned with the sex assigned at birth” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). Cisgender is an important term because it “acknowledges that everyone has a gender identity” and so “a non-trans identity is not presented as normal or natural which stigmatises a trans identity as abnormal or unnatural” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). In a similar vein is the term ‘cissexism’, which is the “assumption that a cisgender identity is more authentic or natural than a trans identity” and that “a person’s sex assigned at birth always remains their real gender” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). The system under which modern Western society functions is what is known as a cis-heteropatriarchy, a “society in which men are an oppressive force over women, and within which cisgender and heterosexual identities are assumed as the default” (Jefford Franks, “Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 31). This system or model is “seen as a colonial force in both historic and modern concepts” (32). Literatures of the past have been colonised by reading them through the lens of cis-heteronormative contructs. Chapter One, in particular, will examine the ways in which the cis-heteropatriarchy has been naturalised, and how this affects our interpretations and criticisms of Old English and Old Norse texts.

People who are intersex are “individuals who are born with sex characteristics (such as chromosomes, genitals, and/or hormonal structure) that do not belong strictly to male or female categories, or that belong to both at the same time” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). Many intersex individuals do not identify themselves as being members of the LGBTQ+ community (InterACT, “FAQ: Intersex, Gender, and LGBTQIA+”). I will, however, be including issues surrounding intersexuality, because cissexist and cisnormative attitudes also affect intersex people. Doctors can use language to describe intersex bodies (such as ‘disorder of sex development’) which is rejected by intersex people because it often “supports the idea that their bodies are wrong, or up to doctors to ‘fix’” (InterACT, “FAQ: What is intersex?”). Intersex people assert that they are not ‘disordered’ or ‘broken’, but simply have different bodies that do not fit in neatly with the male/female sexual binary system. The language used by medical institutions to discuss intersex people is reminiscent of the language historically used to describe queer and transgender people4.  Feminist psychology has produced many works based on the gender/sex distinction (that is, gender as cultural and sex as biological or ‘natural’), but intersexuality “poses a fundamental challenge to the assumed ‘naturalness’ of biological sex” and insists that we should “see ‘sex’ (as much as ‘gender’) as socially constructed” (Kitzinger, 494). A more detailed conversation about intersex issues can be found both in this introductory chapter, and in Chapter One.

4. It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association ceased to consider homosexuality as a mental disorder (Lyons, “Psychiatrists, in a Shift, Declare Homosexuality No Mental Illness”). The WHO only announced in 2019 that it no longer classified being transgender a mental or behavioural disorder (BBC, “Transgender no longer recognised as ‘disorder’ by WHO”). The WHO have given countries globally until  January 2022 to implement changes for transgender healthcare.

A more recent but important term to know is ‘TERF’, an acronym that stands for ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’ (Pearce et al., 677). Thanks to technological phenomena like the Internet and social media, trans people have become more and more visible in feminist activism, “prompting a concurrent rise in discrimination, most notably from within the radical feminist movement” (Munro, 23). Many TERFs do not refer to themselves as such, however, instead preferring to label themselves as ‘gender critical’. This is a misleading term as it denotes “less a critical approach to gender, and more an emphasis on claiming ‘biologically defined’ notions of femaleness and womanhood over gender identity and social concepts of gender” (681). Trans-exclusionary radical feminists argue that allowing people to self-determine their gender will give ‘men’ – which, it should be noted, “is a category frequently presumed to encompass trans women and non-binary people assigned male at birth” – an opportunity to invade women-only spaces (Pearce et al., 680). The extent to which TERF rhetoric and attitudes affect trans activists and perpetuate harmful cissexist prejudice will be explored in greater detail in Chapter One.

January 2021 update: Find the full dissertation here.

The Wonders of the Thesis | Literature Review

The aim of my thesis is to create a queer critical perspective of Old Norse and Old English literature. While there have been queer approaches to both of these areas in the past, many have stayed within the frame of the homosexual/heterosexual and male/female binaries; my approach strives to dismantle and problematise both of these constraints on the queer critical approach to medieval literature. The general starting points I plan to begin with are translation, monster theory (including notions of the Other and liminality), feminist literary criticism, contemporary queer theory, and even some aspects of Postmodernism.

I will begin by grounding myself in current queer critical approaches and theories, such as Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger’s collection of essays Queering the Middle Ages or Richard E. Zeikowitz’s “Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes”. I want to use these various perspectives to create my own working definition of what it means to be queer, and more specifically what it means to be queer in a medieval text. I will seek to expand this definition to go beyond the boundaries of a binary sexuality and gender system, and thus see how our perspective on certain episodes or characters in medieval texts change accordingly, if at all. This definition will of course largely be impacted by my knowledge of monster theory and feminist criticism; the most significant complementary piece being Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Her theories on the binary, and discussions on displacement and performativity will be essential when attempting to include transgender (binary and otherwise) identities into the mainstream queer approach.

One of the most important sources for my research is J.J. Cohen’s chapter “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” published in The Monster Theory Reader. Cohen describes a “set of breakable postulates in search of specific cultural moments” in this chapter (38). He notes the way monsters emerge from individual and collective anxieties, and can be used in a political way – such as the way in which the Nazis made ‘monsters’ of Jewish people in order to further their political agenda.  His discussion on the body of the monster in particular links directly to questions about transgender and/or intersex bodies. I want to use Cohen’s seven theses to examine the way in which queer and trans people have been made into the monstrous Other. Cohen asserts that monsters act as warnings and encourage people to act within the status quo; but for those who know they have been cast in the role of monster, it is the status quo/the place in which ‘heroes’ dwell that poses danger. I will use Cohen’s theses to uncover the perspective of the monster, that is, the queer or trans community. In a similar vein, I will be dismantling and problematising pieces such as Acker’s “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf’” to demonstrate the inadequacies of labelling characteristics and behaviours as masculine or feminine. Some Postmodernist critical technique comes into play here, namely distrust of metanarratives, as outlined in Linda Hutcheon’s The Politics of Postmodernism. Pieces like Acker’s begin to unravel at the seams once the delicate structures of the metanarrative in which it operates (the metanarrative being, in this case, a binary gender system) are torn down. Hutcheon’s work on Postmodernism and metanarratives will be an important tool in dismantling these binary structures. 

In terms of the Old Norse primary texts, I will be using Carolyne Larrington’s translation of The Poetic Edda. This translation is one with which I am intimately familiar from my undergrad, and Larrington’s other critical work on Old Norse literature both complements my research and signifies to me the perspective she had while translating the Edda. She employs the feminist literary critical approach of “reading against the grain”, which I believe also proves useful when examining texts from a queer perspective. Having looked closely at her word choice in some instances already, one can see gender being problematised in a way other translations may have obscured or made more palatable for a binary, cisgender audience. Thus Larrington’s translation will be vital for my research. In addition, I will be using Dr. Tom Birkett’s prose retelling of the Norse myths as an example of modern, prose adaptation of the texts. In a sort of contrast, I will be using both Fulk’s edition of the Beowulf manuscript, as well as Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem Beowulf. As with every translation, our interpretation of a text is tinged by the translator’s own experiences and biases; I am using multiple translations in an attempt for some kind of balance, as well as the opportunity for comparisons. Heaney’s word choices when translating sections on Grendel’s Mother, for example, have been criticised for having unnecessarily negative connotations.

Feminist literary critical techniques can also be used for a queer critical perspective; as I mentioned before, Carolyne Larrington uses the “reading against the grain” technique in her essay “What Does Woman Want?: Mær und munr in Skirnismal”. I wish to use her example and listen to the gaps and silences left by heteronormative and ciscentric perspectives which have dominated traditional academia. In a similar fashion, I want to examine other examples of feminist criticism in the Old English and Old Norse fields, including Mary Dockray-Miller’s “The Masculine Queen of Beowulf” and “Female Community in the Old English Judith” and Clare A. Lees’s “At a crossroads: Old English and feminist criticism”. These are critics I admire very much, but I believe feminist approaches can inadvertently become (ironically) andro-centric, and, in the case of Lees’s piece, intersectionality can be forgotten or fall to the wayside. I want to build on the arguments and observations made by these feminist critics, perhaps even problematise them, to reveal a more intersectional, dialectic, and possibly complicated view of gender in medieval texts and the world beyond.

By using these texts together for my thesis, I hope to rearrange them like stars into a new constellation, and change today’s queer critical perspective of medieval literature.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Birkett, Tom. The Norse Myths. Quercus, 2018.

Burger, Glenn, and Steven F. Kruger, editors. Queering the Middle Ages. NED – New edition ed., vol. 27, University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006. 

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “MONSTER CULTURE (SEVEN THESES).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56. 

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “The Masculine Queen of Beowulf.” Women and Language, vol. 21, no. 2, 1998, pp. 31.

—.  “Female Community in the Old English Judith.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 70, no. 2, 1998, pp. 165-172.

Fulk, R.D., translator. The Beowulf Manuscript. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Heaney, Seamus, translator. Beowulf: A New Translation. Faber & Faber, 2000.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2002.

Larrington, Carolyne, translator. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, 2014.

—. “What Does Woman Want? Maer und munr in Skirnismal.” Alvissmal, vol. 1, 1992, pp. 3-16.

Self, Kathleen M. “The Valkyrie’s Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender.” Feminist Formations, vol. 26, no. 1, 2014, pp. 143–172. 

Zeikowitz, Richard E. “Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes.” College English, vol. 65, no. 1, Special Issue: Lesbian and Gay Studies/Queer Pedagogies, pp. 67-80.

Note: Featured Image: Hild, Thrud and Hløkk | 1895 | Lorenz Frølich | Taken from Wikipedia |Public Domain

Ave Atque Vale | E-Portfolio

Note: Featured Image is mine.

The time has come to reflect on what this little blog has blossomed into. The other MA English students and I began our online journey way back at the beginning of the academic year, an entirely different decade ago, in October of 2019. I was looking forward to trying out academic blogging; I had blogged informally for years on different platforms, but never academically. It would be an interesting challenge to merge the two styles, but it was one I was particularly eager to do. The world of academia can be quite inaccessible. There are incredible ideas just floating out there, and unless you have formal training, the jargon can be an impossible wall to overcome. I wanted to use this blog as an opportunity to get big ideas out there, with accessible language, links to real life examples to help turn the abstract into the tangible, and visual aids. 

I think I succeeded in some ways! I have had people reach out to me, asking for more material on non-binary genders and queer theory, and a few kind people, including academics and lecturers I admire, have sent me messages thanking me for expanding their perspective on LGBTQ+ issues. There was simply no better feeling than to hear that. In other ways, I think the blog has had its limitations. It has proven difficult to make short, snappy, engaging posts that also provide sufficient information so that everyone can enjoy and understand them. My mother, an intelligent and educated woman, looked at me bewildered at times when I asked what she thought of my latest post. There are still more barriers of accessibility to break down, it seems!

Chella Man speaks about being genderqueer. One of the sources I use to help explain and illustrate the non-binary trans experience.

Though I had a vague idea of the kinds of topics I was interested in from undergrad, I felt like my blog was pretty directionless for quite a while. My introductory post simply consisted of a list of things and writers that I liked, and a positive attitude. 

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.

(“It Simply Isn’t an Adventure Worth Telling If There Aren’t Any Dragons.”)

It took some time before any ideas for my first proper post to come to me. I remember poring over my peers’ blogs in a mix of excitement and apprehension. We were still in the early days of the semester,but I was itching to post something so that I wouldn’t fall behind. My very first post ended up being an enthusiastic book review of Leigh Bardugo’s novel Ninth House

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

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. 

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

I was proud of the review, but I was aware that it didn’t have anything to do with Medieval literature or study. Still, the book is written from the perspective of a character who has been made the Other, and such perspectives have now become a crucial aspect of my goal for my thesis. It’s interesting to look back now and see the patterns that I was blind to in the moment!

 I tried a different approach with my next post, by taking an essay I was reading, Paul Acker’s “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf’”, and giving my response to it. 

J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf (1908). Taken from Wikipedia.

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? 

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

This post was the first step towards what my blog has become in its present form; my ideas were embryonic, but more clear than they had been previously. I moved away from this style of post again for a few weeks. I used a strategy I usually reserve for my creative writing, and just let the questions and thoughts that had come up in the Acker post mull over in my mind. It isn’t difficult to spot my interest in gender and monster theory even at such an early stage of the programme, but it’s also clear I didn’t know how to channel that interest yet. In the meantime, I uploaded my undergraduate dissertation in installments onto my blog. It was interesting to be able to add hyperlinks and images, and finally share a project of which I am still very proud.

One of the music videos which adapts Hesse’s Demian, and, as I posit in my undergrad dissertation, challenges the metanarrative of heteronormativity.

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)

(MAP OF THE SOUL: Chapter Three: Postmodernism)

It’s worth noting, too, that deconstructing the metanarrative of the gender binary and heteronormativity has become one of the main tasks of my research. These thoughts and concepts have been bubbling under the surface of my work for quite a long time, only to be revealed through hindsight!

It wasn’t until the beginning of the second semester that I really began to hit my stride with my blog posts. With more completed assignments and readings under my belt, I turned my gaze back to Medieval material. The gestation period had done my ideas the world of good, and I rang in the new year with a post about examples of Norse and Celtic mythologies in The Witcher

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?

(Toss a Coin to Your Medievalist: Norse and Celtic Mythology in The Witcher)
Netflix’s trailer for their adaptation of The Witcher. Note also the themes of the Other and monstrosity! I am predictable!

Early February brought us the Wikipedia in-class assignment and our subsequent reflections on the exercise. 

The #EditWikiLit hashtag was much loved.

I chose to fact check and expand the Wikipedia article on the Norse myth Skírnismál. 

I had no idea which article to edit at first, but as everyone knows, I am desperately in love with Professor Carolyne Larrington, and I thought; hey! How about I spice up the page on Skírnismál? 

It did need a bit of spicing. The original synopsis wasn’t incorrect per say, but it did portray Freyr as some sort of broody teenager instead of a powerful god, and didn’t dwell on the fact that Skírnir maliciously threatens Gerðr until she agrees to a sexual meeting with Freyr.

I am a Big Fan of Larrington’s feminist reading of the poem (she employs the “reading against the grain” approach). She notes that generally, male readers do not struggle to align themselves with Freyr/Skírnir, and thus male scholarship on the poem has also been sympathetic to the god and his servant. But for women (or, as in my case I suppose, those who have been socialised as female) it’s pretty difficult to ignore the awful way in which Gerðr is treated. 

So! When editing the synopsis, I put a little more emphasis on the fact that Gerðr has no choice but to agree to the meeting. The original synopsis also stated that there are other versions of the poem where Skírnir does not use coercion at all, but because I am not sure whether these alleged other versions are in Old Norse or are simply poor translations, I decided to leave it untouched.

(A Shiny New Skirnismal: #EditWikiLit Assignment)
Skírnismál synopsis, edited by me.

After my meeting with my blog supervisor, Dr. Tom Birkett, I went back to tweak a detail I had been unsure of, and wrote a short post about the update.

When touching up the entry on Skírnismál, I noticed that the previous author mentioned a version of the story that did not include any coercion on Skírnir’s part, but at the time, because I wasn’t sure what version they were referring to, I left it to its own devices.

My blog supervisor, Dr. Tom Birkett, suggested that maybe the original entry is referring to Snorri’s version of the tale. So, today’s main mission is to add this information to make my entry even shinier than before!

Other than this small edit, the entry has remained otherwise untouched! No one came rushing to dismantle all of my hard work, which was nice to see! 

(Update | #EditWikiLit Assignment)
The small, updated edit.

Though I admit I was slightly dubious about the exercise at first, I do believe it was a good experience; it certainly made me more confident in myself as a competent academic. It’s also no surprise that the page I selected had to do with Norse mythology, feminist literary criticism, and Prof. Carolyne Larrington. My blog theme, at this stage, has become predictable. 

We have been relatively free to do whatever we would like with our blogs, but among the few requirements was a minimum of two posts reflecting on the guest lectures that are hosted roughly every two weeks. These lectures could be about anything and everything in the world of literature, which was wonderfully refreshing. I attended as many as I possibly could, but it wasn’t until the second semester when I finally wrote these reflective posts. I had tried to draft a few of these posts, but they came out as dull, lifeless reports, rather than anything engaging or insightful. I was interested in what each guest lecturer had said, but I couldn’t figure out how to contribute to the conversation, so to speak. However, when Dr. Amelia Worsley of Amherst College came to give her lecture on the Romantic poet Charlotte Smith, I found myself jotting down my own ideas and notes as she spoke. 

Charlotte Turner Smith by George Romney, 1792. Taken from Wikipedia.

Echoes, for Smith, are exclusively plural, and meet in a kind of conversation; allusions (or echoes) are illusory in a way, because they mimic dialogue. There is no hierarchy to the echoes – it’s not about mapping who is echoing whom – which led Worsley to suggest that Smith’s echoes are distinct from masculine allusion, which can be fixated on genealogy. Instead Smith embeds quotes but pointedly does not attempt to slot herself into a masculine structure. 

(Speak to Me, And Become a Voice | Guest Lecture Series)

The notion of the poet on the fringes, seemingly alone, struck a personal and academic cord with me. So much of my research is centred on the concept of the Other, of liminality, of the monsters who dwell on the fringes of society. Though at first seemingly unrelated to anything I was looking at, I knew I could really connect with Smith’s work, and Dr. Worsley’s analysis of the poet’s use of echoes, solitaries, and feminist techniques. 

While Smith was solitary, and wrote extensively on Solitaries and Echoes, I do not think she was a ‘lonely’ poet as such. Who has not felt comfort in the embrace of a book? Who has not seen a friend in a writer that grasps your feelings? These friends, while maybe experienced as echoes, are not imaginary. Writing these echoes was the way Smith could fold the fabric of time and space to bring these friends together. It is the way I will fold that fabric in a similar way to bring Smith and I together, our echoes chattering across two centuries.

(Speak to Me, And Become a Voice | Guest Lecture Series)

When it came to writing the second reflective post, I had a much better sense of what I was doing. Dr. Imke Lichterfeld’s lecture focussed more directly on issues like gender, which meant that I was brimming with ideas by the time she was finished. 

Dr. Lichterfeld then turned to the subject of bastards such as Edmund. She proposed that characters who are bastards, or of ‘illegitimate’ birth, can act as a vehicle for an author’s opinion, for social criticism, and have more leeway for social mobility. Bastard characters can be classed as the Other, too; Edmund transgresses social laws in order to get into “the legitimate world order”. Anyone familiar with monster theory will recognise that characters who are deemed Other (think Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, etc.) are given a peculiar sort of freedom to explore what hegemonic characters cannot – it depends on what culture and time period you are discussing, of course, as difference is dictated by what is considered normative at any given time and place – things like homosexuality, gender fluidity, breaking out of gender roles, etc. So, would it be considered racist, or ableist, or homophobic, to cast a person of colour/with a disability/who is gay or trans, in the role of Edmund, for example?

(Why Brand They Us With Base? | Guest Lecture Series)

This post really shows that I felt much more confident about drawing links from different areas of study to my own work. I think I have benefitted from going to all of these guest lectures regardless, but being forced to actively reflect upon them certainly helped me to start identifying symbiotic relationships that I may have missed before. New ideas began to spark in my mind, and with the approach of the mini-conference and thesis proposals, blogging was an ideal way to explore and organise these thoughts.

Unfortunately, our mini-conference was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic; we had to improvise, and instead write up our would-be speeches to submit. We were, however, given permission to post our speeches to our blogs, so that we could still revel in the glory of our hard work, and enjoy everyone else’s presentations, too!

 ‘The Punishment of Loki’ Painting by James Doyle Penrose, R.H.A. (1862-1932). Scanned at sacred-texts.com, October 2003. J. B. Hare, redactor.

Why would I bother to point this out? Why should anyone care? Well, Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger assert that a queer approach to medieval studies “promises the recovery of cultural meanings that are lost, obscured or distorted in work that either ignores questions of sexuality or attends only to hegemonic or heteronormative understandings of it” (67). As someone who identifies as queer, I have become aware of these paper-thin structures that rule our lives; the notion of a binary gender system is one such structure. It permeates everything we do, thus influencing our study of these texts and characters. Non-binary genders are not a new concept, and toying with gender fluidity is a human preoccupation that crops up again and again. Take an Old English example; Grendel’s Mother is one of the three traditional monsters of Beowulf. She is generally considered to be a woman, although critics such as Acker do not categorise her as particularly feminine, and her pronouns switch between being masculine and feminine throughout the text. So what is it exactly that makes her a woman, and not non-binary? The fact that she is the mother of Grendel? Why, then, do we consider Loki to be a man, since he, too, gives birth? What is the difference between a mother and a father here? The only thing that appears to differentiate them is the labels we ourselves have prescribed them. Even if we were to say, ‘a woman is anyone who gives birth’, that too is insufficient. Not only does it exclude transgender women, it ignores women who have had hysterectomies, who cannot have children, who do not want to have children. Are these people not women, then?

(Of Monsters and Thems: Non-Binary Figures in Old Norse Mythology)

Even though it was difficult at times, I really adored the blogging aspect of the Contemporary Research module. It was a useful tool in many ways: interaction via comments meant I could use the blog as a soundboard for ideas; it kept me on track with my research and reading, at times forcing me to get creative when I was stuck for post ideas, and; it kept me in touch with my peers.  I loved being able to use visual aids, add links to quick definitions, and include videos, because it made me see that my work is part of a wider, growing, living web, that is valuable and important. This blog has helped me inform people about issues that are important to me, which is fantastic, but it is sobering to realise that the impression I leave has real-world repercussions of which I may never become aware.  I hope not to leave blogging behind totally, though it will have to take a backseat while I tackle the dissertation this summer. 

Until we meet again, reader! 

Ave atque vale.

Works Cited

Menton, Kel. “A Shiny New Skírnismál | #EditWikiLit Assignment”.  Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 6 Feb. 2020, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2020/02/06/a-shiny-new-skirnismal-editwikilit-assignment/. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

—. “How to Love Your Monstrous Mom: Thoughts on Acker’s “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf'”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 30 Oct. 2019, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2019/10/30/how-to-love-your-monstrous-mom-thoughts-on-ackers-horror-and-the-maternal-in-beowulf/. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

—. “It Simply Isn’t an Adventure Worth Having If There Aren’t Any Dragons”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 10 Oct. 2019, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2019/10/10/it-simply-isnt-an-adventure-worth-telling-if-there-arent-any-dragons/. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

—. “MAP OF THE SOUL: Chapter Three: Postmodernism (4/5)”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 6 Jan. 2020, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/map-of-the-soul-chapter-three-postmodernism-4-5/. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

—. “Of Monsters and Thems: Non-Binary Figures in Old Norse Mythology”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 20 Mar 2020, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2020/03/20/of-monsters-and-thems-non-binary-figures-in-old-norse-mythology/. Accessed 25 Mar 2020.

—. “Speak to Me, And Become a Voice | Guest Lecture Series”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 18 Mar. 2020, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2020/03/18/speak-to-me-and-become-a-voice-guest-lecture-series/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

—. “The Snake Uncoiled: A Glimpse into Leigh Bardugo’s ‘Ninth House'”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 21 Oct. 2019, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2019/10/21/the-snake-uncoiled-a-glimpse-into-leigh-bardugos-ninth-house/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

—. “Toss a Coin to Your Medievalist: Norse & Celtic Mythology in The Witcher“. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 27 Jan. 2020, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2020/01/27/toss-a-coin-to-your-medievalist-norse-celtic-mythology-in-the-witcher/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

—. “Update | #EditWikiLit Assignment”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 17 Mar. 2020, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2020/03/17/update-editwikilit-assignment/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

—. “Why brand they us with base? | Guest Lecture Series”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 25 Mar. 2020, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2020/03/25/why-brand-they-us-with-base-guest-lecture-series/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

—. “ƿiðymbe, or “Against a Swarm of Bees”, CCCC MS 41”. Þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 26 Feb. 2020, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2020/02/26/%c6%bfidymbe-or-against-a-swarm-of-bees-cccc-ms-41/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Why brand they us with base? | Guest Lecture Series

Dr. Imke Lichterfeld! Taken from the University of Bonn website.

Before the university shut down, we had one final, brilliant guest lecture given by Dr. Imke Lichterfeld from the University of Bonn, in Germany. Her lecture topic was inspired by an interaction between Gregory Doran and Dominic Cavendish, in which Cavendish argued that ‘wokeness’ was going to go so far as to cause us to ‘cancel’ Shakespeare. Traditional (i.e. white, able-bodied, straight, and exclusively male if you’re really being strict) casting for Shakespearean plays has, apparently, become almost ‘taboo’ in today’s political-correctness-gone-wild!™ society. 

(It’s not taboo, by the way. It’s just boring. Use your god-damn imaginations and include marginalised people, please. Geez.)

I found Dr. Lichterfeld’s discussion absolutely fascinating. She gave examples of diverse casting in productions of Shakespeare, but then asked: why these characters? Why have they cast Edmund or Othello as a black man? Or played with the genders of characters like Goneril and Regan? Why not cast main characters, heroes, as black, or disabled, or gay, or transgender? 

Why brand they us

With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?

(Edmund, I.2.7-10)

A lot of my research lately has been about the Other, monster theory, and queer/trans identities, so while I usually consider myself a sort of passive Shakespeare fan, my interest was instantly piqued. 

Dr. Lichterfeld then turned to the subject of bastards such as Edmund. She proposed that characters who are bastards, or of ‘illegitimate’ birth, can act as a vehicle for an author’s opinion, for social criticism, and have more leeway for social mobility. Bastard characters can be classed as the Other, too; Edmund transgresses social laws in order to get into “the legitimate world order”. Anyone familiar with monster theory will recognise that characters who are deemed Other (think Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, etc.) are given a peculiar sort of freedom to explore what hegemonic characters cannot – it depends on what culture and time period you are discussing, of course, as difference is dictated by what is considered normative at any given time and place – things like homosexuality, gender fluidity, breaking out of gender roles, etc. So, would it be considered racist, or ableist, or homophobic, to cast a person of colour/with a disability/who is gay or trans, in the role of Edmund, for example? 

I can only speak from my own experience, of course; I am white, and cannot speak on behalf of people of colour. But I was reminded of how much I admired Edmund while studying King Lear in secondary school. I could relate to him much more than other characters, but that was no surprise to me. I have often fallen in love with the characters you are supposedly meant to dislike, and I do believe that this is, at least in part, because of how I have been made the Other as a queer, trans, neurodivergent individual. I am still inclined to say, “Hell yeah Edmund, fuck those guys, you can do this!”, even though I’m well aware his actions are more than dubious. I don’t identify with the heroes who are simply born heroes,  or characters who have power handed to them; which is maybe the reason why I love Edmund, but don’t particularly like Goneril and Regan – to me, they’re villainous, but still part of the norm. 

Chella Man, a deaf, genderqueer man of colour, playing the role of Jericho in DC’s new Netflix show, Titans.

But would I consider it transphobic if a trans person was cast in the role of Edmund? I suppose it depends. Is that trans person the only marginalised actor in the entire production? Then that’s a little suspect. If the ‘good’ characters are played by cisgender, white, able-bodied people, and the ‘bad’ characters are played by people from marginalised groups? That’s a big yikes from me. But if it were mixed? If there was a balance of diversity between the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters?  Then, no, I don’t think that’s transphobic. 

I think being mindful while consciously trying to be diverse is so important. Our internalised biases creep out in significant ways that we may not always see. A casting choice that is not intentionally racist or homophobic can still be those things. Sticking one actor of colour into your cast does not make you inherently inclusive. I absolutely know that some of the things I write are lacking in representation, and I have become more and more aware of that simply by listening to marginalised groups. The world is brimming with beautiful people of all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, cultures, ages, and abilities – how could we do the disservice of dulling that picture down?

Note: Today’s featured image is Lear and Cordelia in Prison by William Blake, c.1779. Taken from Wikipedia.

OF MONSTERS AND THEMS: NON-BINARY FIGURES IN OLD NORSE MYTHOLOGY

“[I]t may be helpful to regard the mythological material as a place where one might more easily explore alternatives to the two genders delineated in a masculine/feminine binary.”

Kathleen M. Self  | (p.146)

We have long used tales of monsters and heroes to explore the impossible – or what we perceive to be the impossible, at least. Monsters and heroes are believed to be the antithesis of one another, but delving into monster theory and concepts of the ‘Other’ reveals more similarities between the two than we may at first like to admit. Those who know me even a little bit will be aware of my love for monsters, and I don’t think that this love came out of nowhere. In many ways the societal narrative in which I live has cast me in the role of monster; I am a queer, transgender non-binary individual, and I’m here to eat your children in the middle of the night. I am also here to introduce you to other non-binary individuals I have found in Old Norse literature: namely Loki and the valkyries. 

We mostly think of Loki as a man, and popular depictions reinforce this; Tom Hiddleston, a cisgender man, portrays the god in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Let me problematise this for you: throughout the course of the Norse myth cycle, Loki gives birth, more than once. 

Odin said:

‘[…] eight winters you were, beneath the earth,

a milchow and a woman,

and there you bore children,

and that I thought the hallmark of a pervert.’”

Lokasenna | translated by Carolyne Larrington | (p.84)

This particular episode is unfortunately otherwise unknown, however in the Master Builder narrative, we do see Loki transform into a mare and seduce the stallion Svadilfari. This results in the birth of the eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Now, I’m no expert (just kidding, yes I am) but that doesn’t sound very cisgender to me. If you look at Larrington’s translation, you can see that Odin explicitly calls Loki a woman. In the words of Richard E. Zeikowitz: “Traditional readings of these characters have obscured or ignored their disruptive queerness” (67). While Lees is referring to Old English figures like Grendel, this is absolutely applicable to Old Norse figures as well. 

The Children of Loki |Willy Pogany | 1920 | Taken from Wikipedia.

Why would I bother to point this out? Why should anyone care? Well, Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger assert that a queer approach to medieval studies “promises the recovery of cultural meanings that are lost, obscured or distorted in work that either ignores questions of sexuality or attends only to hegemonic or heteronormative understandings of it” (67). As someone who identifies as queer, I have become aware of these paper-thin structures that rule our lives; the notion of a binary gender system is one such structure. It permeates everything we do, thus influencing our study of these texts and characters. Non-binary genders are not a new concept, and toying with gender fluidity is a human preoccupation that crops up again and again. Take an Old English example; Grendel’s Mother is one of the three traditional monsters of Beowulf. She is generally considered to be a woman, although critics such as Acker do not categorise her as particularly feminine, and her pronouns switch between being masculine and feminine throughout the text. So what is it exactly that makes her a woman, and not non-binary? The fact that she is the mother of Grendel? Why, then, do we consider Loki to be a man, since he, too, gives birth? What is the difference between a mother and a father here? The only thing that appears to differentiate them is the labels we ourselves have prescribed them. Even if we were to say, ‘a woman is anyone who gives birth’, that too is insufficient. Not only does it exclude transgender women, it ignores women who have had hysterectomies, who cannot have children, who do not want to have children. Are these people not women, then? In Acker’s essay on horror and the maternal, he states that a mother is “expected to be empowered chiefly through her son” (707). Are you not a mother until or unless you have a son? 

My point here, to put it bluntly, is that our current conceptions of what constitutes a woman or a man are not infallible, but rather the opposite. Trying to place Loki or Grendel’s Mother neatly into the gender binary simply does not work; they are comfortable in their dislocation. They are non-binary.

“[I]nsert them into a binary of masculine and feminine, wherein they sit somewhat uneasily in the feminine category.”

Kathleen M. Self | (p. 144)

Self proposes that the valkyries, too, fall into the category of some third gender outside of the traditional binary. This quote specifically struck a chord with me, as it describes astutely what I felt before coming to the realisation that I was non-binary. Valkyries are hardly examples of the ideal feminine; they take part in battle, have control over the fates of the warriors, and dress in armour. Clothing was especially important for differentiating gender through what Self calls “body codes”: “clothing, cosmetics, behaviours, miens, affective and sexual object choices” (144). That is to say, masculinity and femininity are codified, making the fact that valkyries wear warrior’s armour considerably more significant. There were strict laws in medieval Scandinavia against dressing out of accordance to your gender; you can find similar instances of members of the LGBTQ+ community being arrested for not dressing in accordance with their gender in the States in decades as recently as the sixties. Valkyries mix body codes and thus problematise their gender. 

Hild, Thrud and Hløkk | 1895 | Lorenz Frølich | Taken from Wikipedia.

It is interesting, however, that they are not condemned for this; Grendel’s Mother is labelled a monster, and Loki is called a pervert by Odin, yet the valkyries are a mostly positive or revered presence in the Norse myths. I reiterate that monsters and heroes are not as different as we may like to believe. They are a binary system that similarly crumbles under scrutiny. I may be non-binary, but I won’t be gobbling up your children anytime soon. I can’t say the same for Grendel’s Mother, however. 

Speak to me, and become a voice | Guest Lecture Series

At the beginning of this month, we had the wonderful Dr. Amelia Worsley of Amherst College visit and give a guest lecture on the writer and poet Charlotte Smith. MA students are encouraged to attend as many of these guest lectures as is feasible, even if they don’t deal with writers or topics that are specific to your degree; it’s refreshing, really, when you’ve been stuck somewhere in the middle of a forest with Thomas of Erceldoune for much longer than you had originally anticipated (how the Queen of Faeries stuck him, I’ll never understand).

I had never heard of Charlotte Smith prior to this lecture. I adore poetry, but most of my time tends to be dedicated to Old English alliterative verse rather than anything else, so I had no idea what to expect. 

I immediately fell in love. 

Worsley focussed on Smith’s ‘solitaries’ (like the hermit at the end of her most famous piece, Beachy Head) and the poet’s fascination with echoes and shells. Worsley’s analysis of Smith’s poetic techniques was fascinating; she illustrated an incredible image of Smith stitching together citations, allusions, recycled phrases, to create a vessel through which the poet could then ventriloquise. 

“I wove your bluebells into garlands wild, And woke your echoes with my artless song.”

Echoes, for Smith, are exclusively plural, and meet in a kind of conversation; allusions (or echoes) are illusory in a way, because they mimic dialogue. There is no hierarchy to the echoes – it’s not about mapping who is echoing whom – which led Worsley to suggest that Smith’s echoes are distinct from masculine allusion, which can be fixated on genealogy. Instead Smith embeds quotes but pointedly does not attempt to slot herself into a masculine structure. She was likely sick of masculine structures leaving her bankrupt. Poor gal.

(Sidenote: She has a sort of Postmodernist feel to me, even though she is classified as a Romantic…the fragmentation, the intertextuality, even the way she seems to toy with the idea of collective consciousness. Would love to hear if anyone else thinks so!) 

Debbie Tung | Find her work here

While Smith was solitary, and wrote extensively on Solitaries and Echoes, I do not think she was a ‘lonely’ poet as such. Who has not felt comfort in the embrace of a book? Who has not seen a friend in a writer that grasps your feelings? These friends, while maybe experienced as echoes, are not imaginary. Writing these echoes was the way Smith could fold the fabric of time and space to bring these friends together. It is the way I will fold that fabric in a similar way to bring Smith and I together, our echoes chattering across two centuries. 

I found it difficult to get a copy of Smith’s work, but the Book Depository has a rather inexpensive collection, find it here. (Not sponsored, unfortunately. Just enthusiastic.)

Note: Featured image is by George Romney. Taken from Wikipedia.

Update | #EditWikiLit Assignment

It’s been just over a month since the inter-MA #EditWikiLit assignment, and I am here to give you an update on my Skírnismál entry!

(In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, read this post to get all caught up!) 

When touching up the entry on Skírnismál, I noticed that the previous author mentioned a version of the story that did not include any coercion on Skírnir’s part, but at the time, because I wasn’t sure what version they were referring to, I left it to its own devices.

Original entry | Not mine

My blog supervisor, Dr. Tom Birkett, suggested that maybe the original entry is referring to Snorri’s version of the tale. So, today’s main mission is to add this information to make my entry even shinier than before!

Updated entry | Mine

Other than this small edit, the entry has remained otherwise untouched! No one came rushing to dismantle all of my hard work, which was nice to see! Though I don’t suppose many people are as dedicated to Skírnismál as I am, huh? 

(Kidding, kidding!)

Excelsior | We Are Still Here

It’s a scary time. 

No duh, I suppose. 

I’ve been self-isolating, which, it turns out, was actually a much needed break for my brain (I will find silver linings if it kills me) and has allowed me to start thinking again. Between work and the MA, my brain has had little room for anything besides stress. Stress can be good, stress gets you up off your butt and working to hit that deadline, but when I have a bit more room in my noggin, latent ideas come crawling out into the light. Generally these ideas are malnourished and/or dehydrated because I haven’t given them the slightest bit of conscious attention. It takes a couple days for the poor idea to recover enough to even tell me what it is. 

One regained its voice just now; as I write it’s close to midnight. It’s more of a question than an idea, but it’s one of those spark-like questions that end up starting wildfires. The question was this:

WHY DO YOU DO ANYTHING THAT YOU DO?

I blinked once, twice. Disbelieving that it was taking me more than an instant to think of an answer. I grabbed my notebook. Words came out slow and sluggish at first, then juddered, coughed, came out more fluidly.

I write and study and speak and exist and create and live and breathe to:

represent | expose/start a discussion | navigate spaces not made for people like me | reclaim | (self-)advocate | document | heal | (un)learn | free myself and others from walls 

I write creatively and academically to insert a queer trans neurodivergent voice into spaces that don’t have enough of these voices. I do this to become the voice that I did not have while growing up. I do this because I believe wholeheartedly that knowledge is power and education is a key. 

I’m saying all of this because, between the stress of the MA and the stress of this god awful pandemic, that had gotten lost. The why had disappeared, lost in the crowd of deadlines and hand-sanitiser.

Things have changed. The mini-conference we had planned for this week won’t be going ahead. Our classes have been cancelled. Campus is deserted, quiet, save for the birds. But we haven’t stopped working; the reasons we study or work or create have not disappeared, have not become sick. 

So expect to hear more from all of our blogs! Lots more! Excelsior!

Chella Man | Activism to strive for!

ƿiðymbe, or “Against a Swarm of Bees”, CCCC MS 41

Part of an assignment I had over the Christmas break was to produce a critical edition of the marginal charm, “Against a Swarm of Bees”, found in the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge Manuscript 41. It is one of 12 surviving metrical charms in Old English, curiously living in the margins of the Old English Bede, under a short Latin prayer. If you’re interested in Old English marginalia, I recommend Patricia O’Connor’s research, as she tries to reframe the way we look at the Old English Bede by taking its marginal works into account!

Now, please sit back, relax, and enjoy my critical edition of the Bee Charm, including my own (wobbly) translation!

Gif by Punziella.

Introduction

The marginal Old English metrical charm, “Against a Swarm of Bees”, referred to often as the Bee Charm, can be found in the Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 41. The manuscript contains a translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, known more commonly as the Old English Bede. The Old English Bede “survives in five extant manuscripts, dating from the mid tenth and late eleventh century” (O’Connor, 152), yet CCCC MS 41 is of particular note due to the peculiar amount of marginal texts it contains, “including complete homilies, sequences of liturgical material and charms” (Birkett, 465). Aside from the Bee Charm, there are also “three charms to use in the event that goods or livestock are stolen, and a Journey Charm” (O’Connor, 154). The three charms which refer to theft are known collectively as the Cattle Theft Charms, and include Latin incantations that appeal to Christ, the rood of Christ, and different saints. The Journey Charmis the longest charm, and also appeals to Christ and the Apostles.

“Against a Swarm of Bees” uses a vernacular, that is, an Old English incantation, rather than a Latin one, and does not appeal to any Christian figures. It instead relies on the naturally magical properties of the earth; no divine figures or intervention appear to be required for this charm to work.

Traditionally, it is agreed that there are twelve extant metrical charms in Old English (Tornaghi, 439). Metrical charms “alternate prose and poetry”, often with a similar structure, whereby the instructions are written in prose, and the incantations in poetry (439); this rings true for the Bee Charm. Though twelve may not seem like many, the charms have a substantial range of use; from ‘For a Sudden Stitch’ to ‘For the Water-Elf Disease’, as well as, of course, wið ymbe, “Against a Swarm of Bees”.

Many of the metrical charms deal with curing disease, indicating the relationship between magic and medicine in Early Medieval England. This is, Tornaghi asserts, why charms are often included in texts that “deal with medicine”, such as the Lœceboc (440). We are prompted, then, to wonder why charms such as “Against a Swarm of Bees” are included in the marginalia of the Old English Bede, or even why a manuscript like CCCC MS 41 has such an extensive collection of texts in its margins in the first place. If medicinal charms find their way into the margins of medicinal texts, what does that tell us about the Bee Charm’s relationship with the Old English Bede?

University College Cork alumnus Patricia O’Connor’s research aims to “assert the possibility that these marginal texts may have been meant as intentional textual additions to the passages of the Old English Bede they are written beside” (152-153). She stresses that modern critics need to keep in mind that “Anglo-Saxon compilers may not have shared our present preoccupation to compartmentalise texts and perhaps possessed a different rationale for recording these seemingly disparate texts together alongside the Old English Bede” (157). Her research marks the first instance where CCCC MS 41 is read from the perspective that the Old English Bede and the marginalia are one comprehensive piece, so to speak. Setting both the main text and marginalia in a new context could unlock new layers and meanings to the texts, including the Bee Charm, instead of simply viewing it as a convenient place for the scribe to make note of a useful magic charm.

“Against a Swarm of Bees” is written on page 182 of the CCCC MS 41, in the outer margin, tucked beneath a short Latin prayer; the upper and bottom margins of this page remain untouched. There are instances elsewhere in CCCC MS 41 where the scribe utilises the full space of the margins, such as on p.196, where the Old English wisdom poem Solomon and Saturn “completely surround[s]” the main body of the text of the Old English Bede (O’Connor, 152). It is written in a different script to that of the Latin prayer; the ascenders and descenders of the Latin prayer are far more decorative and Gothic. It is thought that the Latin prayer was transcribed first, and the Bee Charm was written down later, in a dark brown ink (Bredehoft, 725). 

N. R. Ker asserts that all of the marginal content in CCCC MS 41 came from one hand, and dates it to the early to mid eleventh century, although the texts’ “size, layout, and colour of ink vary widely” (Bredehoft, 722). Subsequent studies of the manuscript have also accepted this argument (Birkett, 465). Bredehoft, in his essay “Filling the Margins of CCCC 41: Textual Space and a Developing Archive”, maps the shifts in the stages of the marginalia scribe’s process, and concludes that the first stage, in terms of content, consists “primarily of various kinds of charms, in both Old English and Latin” (731).  The main body of text is, however, written in a separate hand. It, too, has more decorative and dramatic ascenders and descenders, though they are softer and rounder than the script of the Latin prayer. “Against a Swarm of Bees”, when compared to both the main text and the Latin prayer, appears to have been written down in a more relaxed fashion. It is written entirely in miniscule, with few decorative ascenders or descenders. While there is clear lineation for the Latin prayer, which is evenly spaced and meticulously neat, the charm, a later addition, seems to have been transcribed with less fastidious care. It does appear to follow the lineation of the main text when possible; however the first two lines of the charm are sloped, and the space between these lines is larger than any other. It may be possible that this is due to the manuscript page warping over time. The scribe appears to have noticed this spacing error and as a result lines further down, such as “forweorp ofer greot”, become more squashed together. Bredehoft writes that the “switch from main-text ruling to narrow ruling suggests the scribe’s response to a realisation that widely-spaced text may be an inefficient use of vellum” (727-728).

That is not to say the charm is not neat, however. The scribe uses the Tironian et (⁊) when transcribing the Bee Charm, while for the Latin prayer they employ the use of the ampersand (&) instead. There is nothing to visually denote the difference between the instruction the charm gives, and the direct speech it includes for the reader to use. Instead there is simply a change from imperatives to first person singular forms of verbs, as well as the immediately preceding instruction, “ond cweð”. Tornaghi also points to the vague narrative voice as a reason for this lack of clarity in the charm. This made it difficult to translate at first, as the sudden switch from the imperative to the indicative mood can be jarring, especially when the author appears to enjoy playing with words.

Gif by Punziella. Find her on Patreon.

One may enjoy discovering, as I did, the pun on the Old English present, singular form of the verb ‘to be’, which appears as beo, and the nominative singular form of the noun ‘bee’, which also appears as beo. Whether this was purposeful or not, the confused meanings, or the blurring of meanings and intentions, does give the spell a transformative and mystical feel, if not a humorous one. The purpose of the spell is, after all, to prevent bees from swarming; to transform one thing into another, using your will, or ‘magic’.  This is, in part, why I decided to translate “funde ic hit” as ‘I wish for it’. The person who implements the charm is blurring their will with that of the swarm, and thus, in that moment, they are, but they are also the bee. After all, as Patricia O’Connor points out, the “word charm conjures up associations with the linguistic fallacy of magic, the notion that words can have a tangible effect on the real world” (154). Tornaghi goes so far as to say that with magic, “the word becomes a symbol through which the speaker is able to manipulate reality” (440). This charm allows the user to manipulate reality and manifest their desire, not through the power of the Christian divine, but through wordplay. As Flower puts it, magical charms deal with “the discourse between man and his universe” (17). 

Diplomatic Transcription

ƿiðymbe nimearþan ofer

ƿeorp mid þinre sƿiþran

handa under þinum sƿi

þran fet ⁊ cƿet foic un

der fot funde ichit

hƿæt eorðe mæg ƿið

ealraƿihta gehƿilce

⁊ ƿið andan ⁊ ƿiðæmin

de ⁊ ƿiðþa micelan

mannes tungan ⁊ ƿið

anfar ƿearp ofer greot

þan hisƿirman ⁊cƿeð

sitte ge sige ƿif sigað

to eorþan næfre ge

ƿilde toƿuda fleogan 

beogesƿagemindige

mines godes sƿa bið

manna gehƿilcme

tes ⁊ eþeles

Semi-Diplomatic Transcription

wið ymbe nim earþan ofer[weorp] 

mid þinre swiþran

handa under þinum swi[þran]

fet [ond] cwet fo ic un[der]

fot funde ic hit

hwæt eorðe mæg wið

ealrawihta gehwilce

[ond] wið andan [ond] wið æmin[de]

[ond] wiðþa micelan

mannes tungan [ond] wið

an forwearp ofer greot

þan hi swirman [ond] cweð

sitte ge sigewif sigað

to eorþan næfre ge[wilde]

to wuda fleogan 

beo ge [swa] gemindige

mines godes swa bið

manna gehwilc me[tes]

[ond] eþeles

Normalised Transcription

Wið ymbe: 

Nim earþan, oferweorp mid þinre swiþran handa under þinum swiþran fet ond cwet; 

“Fo ic under fot, 

funde ic hit.

hwæt eorðe mæg wið

ealrawihta gehwilce

ond wið andan ond wið 

æminde ond wið þa micelan

mannes tungan.” 

Ond wið an forweorp ofer greot þan hi swirman ond cweð;

“Sitte ge sigewif,

sigað to eorþan

næfre gewilde

to wuda fleogan 

beo ge swa gemindige

mines godes 

swa bið manna gehwilc 

metes ond eþeles”.

Translation

Against a swarm of bees: 

Take soil, and with your dominant hand, throw it down under your dominant foot and declare;

“I seize under foot, I wish for it.  

So, earth prevails against each and every creature

and against envy and against neglect 

and against the great tongue of man.”

And throw dust over them, after they begin to swarm, and declare;

“Stay, you wise-women, fall to the ground,

never to fly to the wood untamed.

Be so mindful of my welfare

As each man is of food and of dwelling.”

Featured Image: Illustration of Mrs. Tittlemouse from The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse. Taken from Wikipedia.

A Shiny New Skírnismál: #EditWikiLit Assignment

The in-class assignment for my contemporary research module was to choose a Wikipedia article and edit it, while live tweeting the process (and then, as you can see, blog about it afterwards). If you want a good chuckle, you can still see the live-tweeting event under the hashtag #EditWikiLit — though I’m sure you all follow me on Twitter already, right?

One of our wonderful lecturers enjoying our informative hilarity

I had no idea which article to edit at first, but as everyone knows, I am desperately in love with Professor Carolyne Larrington, and I thought; hey! How about I spice up the page on Skírnismál? 

It did need a bit of spicing. The original synopsis wasn’t incorrect per say, but it did portray Freyr as some sort of broody teenager instead of a powerful god, and didn’t dwell on the fact that Skírnir maliciously threatens Gerðr until she agrees to a sexual meeting with the Freyr. 

The synopsis before I got my claws on it

I am a Big Fan of Larrington’s feminist reading of the poem (she employs the “reading against the grain” approach). She notes that generally, male readers do not struggle to align themselves with Freyr/Skírnir, and thus male scholarship on the poem has also been sympathetic to the god and his servant. But for women (or, as in my case I suppose, those who have been socialised as female) it’s pretty difficult to ignore the awful way in which Gerðr is treated. 

So! When editing the synopsis, I put a little more emphasis on the fact that Gerðr has no choice but to agree to the meeting. The original synopsis also stated that there are other versions of the poem where Skírnir does not use coercion at all, but because I am not sure whether these alleged other versions are in Old Norse or are simply poor translations, I decided to leave it untouched. 

The synopsis after being subjected to my Grendel-like claws

The biggest change I made to the article was the addition of a “Curses” section. 

Skírnir’s delightful curse

Based on Larrington’s essay “What Does Woman Want? Mær und munr in Skírnismál”, I outlined the five main points of the curse that Skírnir threatens Gerðr with. I also mention briefly that real-life examples of similar curses have been found, and are thought to have been employed on actual women in medieval Scandinavia (isn’t that deliciously horrifying?).

The point of this section is to further highlight that Gerðr has her power and agency effectively ripped from her, all because Freyr thinks she’s pretty; but because it’s Wikipedia and not my own personal blog, I just presented the facts as neutrally as I was able. I think.

There was a touch-and-go moment where I hit a button and all of my edits VANISHED. Freyr was not pleased with my work, I suppose. I said a quick prayer to Loki and rewrote everything in double time — when you write for a living, you get used to computers betraying you like this, and start storing all the good parts in your head. 

Finally, I made it to the “Sources” section!  

The sources section, pre-Kel

I added a few more translations (because the more perspectives/interpretations you have, the better!) and, of course, added Larrington’s essay to the recommended scholarship.

The sources section, post-Kel

I added Neil Gaiman’s book, Norse Mythology, though his portrayal of the story is a little less “the male gaze is going to gobble you up” and a little more “isn’t this all very romantic”. Still, for anyone interested in the Norse myth cycle, but not in the world of academia, it’s an accessible way to dive in. 

I also added UCC’s own Tom Birkett’s recent book, The Norse Myths, as it is not only incredibly detailed and full of beautiful illustration and art, but uses straightforward language anyone can understand. 

Am I owed any dividends for this?

Thus, the class came to its epic conclusion, and a shiny new Skírnismál article was born. So far, no one has come storming in to undo my work, but you never know. Should it happen, you will be the first to know. 

(I also discovered Carolyne Larrington has her own wordpress blog, which I will link here — I absolutely recommend following her!)

UPDATE: 17 March 2020

Find my post detailing an update here!