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

MAP OF THE SOUL: Dissertation Bibliography

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

Bibliography

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

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

“BTS Special Interview [Entertainment Weekly / 2016.11.07]”. Youtube, uploaded by KBS World TV, 7 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqlLES_i5rk. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

“BTS speech at the United Nations | UNICEF.” YouTube, uploaded by UNICEF, 24 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=oTe4f-bBEKg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

“BTS (방탄소년단) ‘피 땀 눈물 (Blood Sweat & Tears)’ Official MV”. Youtube, uploaded by ibighit, 9 Oct 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmE9f-TEutc.

“BTS (방탄소년단) ‘봄날 (Spring Day)’ Official MV”. Youtube, uploaded by ibighit, 12 Feb 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEeFrLSkMm8. Accessed 10 Apr 2019.

Dahir, Ikran. “After BTS Used This Professor’s Book As Inspiration, It Became A Bestseller In Korea”. Buzzfeed News, 7 June 2018, https://www.buzzfeed.com/ikrd/bts-made-this-book-a-bestseller-in-korea?utm_term=.pvPNzmdl6#.iiyRg8yMX. Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.” henryjenkins.org, 2011, henryjenkins.org/blog/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html. Accessed 20 Oct 2018.

K., J. “BTS Talks About Using “Demian” In “WINGS” Concept And Names Variety Show They’d Like To Appear On”. Soompi, 17 Oct 2016, https://www.soompi.com/article/907457wpp/bts-talks-using-demian-wings-concept-names-variety-show-theyd-like-appear. Accessed 28 Feb 2019.

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

“Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh”. Translated by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Webexhibits, c. 24 Jan 1885, http://www.webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/15/393.htm. Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

 “LOVE MYSELF.” love-myself, https://www.love-myself.org/eng/home. Accessed 25 Apr 2019.

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

Monteros, Maria. “Halsey Praises BTS’ Success After the Group Makes Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019”. Newsweek, 17 Apr 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/bts-among-times-100-most-influential-people-2019-1399425. Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yonhap. “Suicide No. 1 cause of death for S. Korean teens, youths.” The Korea Herald, 26 Apr 2018, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20180426000581. Accessed 24 Apr 2019.

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

CHAPTER TWO: INTERTEXTUALITY

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

(Allen, 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll just have to wait and see!

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

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