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.
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.