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

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. 

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!

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

Note: This post is completely spoiler-free!

The feature image for this post has been taken from Wikipedia. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46687768.

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

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59882398 screenshot

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

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

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

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

Andrzej Sapowski. Taken from Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.