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