Monday, December 26, 2011

I'm Dreaming of Green Christmas: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's Most Dangerous Christmas Game

In honor of the holidays I thought I would talk about my favorite Christmas story – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Much ink has been spilt about Gawain and his verdant foe, but I thought today I would try and pull a Christmas message – and maybe some cheer – out of the notoriously grim story. The poem, an anonymous fourteenth-century alliterative tale, begins, fittingly enough, with a Christmas party, and no tacky office party, but a feast to go down in the history books. In the spirit of the season, the Green Knight bursts in on the party. Unlike Santa, though, he chooses to come in while everyone's awake, and to use the front door rather than the chimney. And instead of toys for the good and coal for the bad, he brings with him a bow of holly and an axe. Holly, which blooms bright red amid the frozen winter landscape, is a fitting gift of this holiday, a reminder of the hope that comes with the cycle of the seasons. Spring will come again, and color will return to the land. The axe, however, is a far more chilling gift. Even more dangerous than a Red Ryder BB Gun, it's a violent offering in conjunction with a violent game. While the young knights and ladies of the court have been playing flirtatious games where the stakes are kisses, the stakes of the Green Knight's game are life and death, severed head for severed head. (Of course, the Green Knight's game turns out to be a kissing game, too, but one with serious repercussions.) The light, superficial tone of the opening celebration is shattered as the Green Knight confronts the court and asks to test their pride. He offers the axe to anyone who will play his beheading game. He'll take a blow from a Round Table knight this evening in return for a blow from him in one year at the mysterious Green Chapel. When Gawain takes the challenge, he has no way of knowing that the Green Knight can pick up his head and keep talking once the blow is given. When the Green Knight departs, however, severed head in hand, the court returns to its frivolous ways.

As the year passes between that Christmas and the one in which Gawain will need to seek out the Green Knight and fulfill his promise, the court maintains a polite, artificial veneer. They are thinking that Gawain doesn't stand a chance, but they tell him that he'll be fine. They continue with laughter and games as Gawain's journey looms near. And when the day arrives for Gawain to set out, they spend pages and pages arming him beautifully, setting up a hard and beautiful exterior meant to define him as a knight. Little do they know that the true test is an interior one, and that the armor will not help him at all for that. As if to hint that Gawain's preparation is faulty, barely a line is given to the great monsters and foes that Gawain meets on the road. He dispatches dragon and troll with ease, but finds the cold harder to bear (armor doesn't provide much protection from a blizzard). When his prayers are answered and a castle appears, he thinks of it as a welcome respite from his trials. He doesn't realize that the true test will occur within the safety and warmth of the castle walls. In fact, he moves ever more into the interior of the castle – first to a private chamber and then into a curtained bed – signifying his personal move toward the interior as the test continues. The lord of the castle greets him warmly, as does his lady wife, a mysterious old woman, and everyone else in the castle. They've heard stories of the courtly Gawain and are pleased to welcome him to their holiday celebrations. The host tells Gawain to rest up before his continued journey. The Green Chapel that he seeks is near, and he can sleep away the days until the new year. In fact, the host will add some Christmas cheer with a game. He will hunt each day for three days and exchange his winnings for whatever the knight can win inside the castle.

While the lord's away hunting, the lady of the castle tempts our valiant hero in his bedroom, and the stakes of that temptation rise each day in conjunction with the stakes of the hunting going on outside the castle walls. The emotions Gawain feels during these scenes of temptation are many -- fear, anger, annoyance, lust. Yet he shows none of these. He remains diplomatic and polite, managing to refuse the lady without insulting her. Each day Gawain escapes with a chaste kiss (one more for each day), and passes those kisses on to his host in exchange for the fruits of the hunt. The last day, however, the lady manages to give him a gift as well, a green girdle. He refuses all her love tokens and rich offerings, but finally gives in when she tells him that the girdle will protect him from all violence. His love for his own life and fear of death win out, and he accepts the gift. He even promises not to tell anyone. That evening, when the lord asks him if he won anything besides kisses, seeing no way to honor both his word to the lady and the lord, he tells him that he did not. The next morning, he heads with a (terribly frightened) guide to the Green Chapel, which could perhaps be more aptly called a Green Mound, to meet the Green Knight. The Green Knight makes Gawain wait and listen while he sharpens the axe with which he'll behead him, and then comes to complete the year-long beheading game. He moves to strike Gawain with his axe, but stops when Gawain twitches. He moves to strike again, and stops again. He moves to strike a third time, and this time nicks Gawain on the neck. [SPOILER ALERT] Gawain is confused, but quick, and moves away to put shield and sword between himself and his giant opponent. Having fulfilled his obligation to the game, he'll not take another swing without a fight. But the Green Knight laughs and reveals himself to be the same man who has graciously hosted Gawain for the last three nights. The old lady in the Castle was Morgan La Fey, and she used her magic to transform him. The first two swings were for the first two days, in which Gawain resisted temptation and kept his word. The third swing, resulting in a cut, and a scar, was for the third day, in which Gawain failed just a little in not telling of his gift. A small cut for a small failing. Yet Gawain responds with shame and anger. His blush in response to the Green Knight's words is a physical response which can neither be hidden nor controlled. Its speaks of his shame in a way none of his carefully measured words could do. His angry outburst that follows his blush continues with the trend. Gawain finally has a completely honest communication, and though it's not pretty, it does signal a move to a new kind of authenticity.

When Gawain returns to his court, he wears the scar and the girdle as badges of his failing. Though he left as a representative of the court, his journey has taken him on an individual path that his fellow Round Table knights cannot fully understand. They all adopt the green girdle as a fashion statement, an act of seeming solidarity. But no one can truly comprehend what Gawain's been through. Maybe Gawain's too hard on himself, and maybe he misunderstands the lesson. It may even be that his attempt to render his newfound authenticity externally, the only way he knows how, is doomed to fail. The poem has been read as a social critique, as fatalistic, and even as apocalyptic. And it is all of these things. Yet there is something hopeful as well as dreadful in a story of one person's journey set against such a large backdrop. Seasons change, cities rise and fall, and yet amid all this we focus in on a single knight's struggle to know himself. Maybe he is too hard on himself, and maybe no one else in the court understands or learns anything. But Gawain learns. He learns some humility. He learns some honesty. He learns something about himself and about the kinds of battles that really matter in life. His is not a story of the knight in shining armor fighting a dragon, though that surely takes place on his journey, but rather the struggle of an individual to be a good person. Gawain grows introspective over the course of the poem. He reexamines his values and his intentions as well as his actions. Yes, this is a painful process, and he can't go through it for anyone else in the court, but it's a process that leaves him more aware of himself and the world. Perhaps we could all take some time this holiday season to be a little introspective, to take a moment's break from shiny wrapping paper and colored lights and think about what we've learned this year, what we've done well and what we could work on. And though Gawain doesn't seem to change the course of Camelot, perhaps his story can help make us think a little bit. And maybe that is the best gift of all.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Writing through Grief (or, How I got over critical distance and just started writing)

Kate's recent post on grief was inspiring and honest and brave, and the fact that it led to so much wonderful discussion, both in the blog comments and in other forums, indicates that others found it inspiring as well. Her ideas on grief specifically struck me, since grief has been a powerful force in my graduate career thus far, but I was also interested in her combination of the personal and the professional. I admire those people who admit their personal connection to their work, those people who admit that they have lives and loves and families and that those things don't just take away from their work but actually inform and influence it. Finding a way to do so can be tricky, and can also be scary, especially to grad students who are trying desperately to professionalize. However, I do think it's important and rewarding, so I will try it out here and see what people think.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In my second year of PhD work, my father died. The loss was crippling. I didn't know how to function in the world, no less to go on with my work. My dad had believed I was intelligent, capable of anything, but I didn't know how to be these things once he was gone. Yet I simply returned to my courses and my work and tried to understand how to exist in a world without my father. I had been writing a seminar paper on a 15th century play, the Digby Mary Magdalene, and, though I forced myself to continue with my coursework, I couldn't return to that paper right away. I took an incomplete (something I would warn other grad students to avoid at all costs), and focused on my other work. When I came back to that paper, I saw it in a new way. Near the play's opening, Mary's father dies suddenly. I had previously seen this plot point as a clumsy bit of writing. Right after a perfectly nice conversation with his children, the father is struck down by death with no warning and no explanation. Before, this seemed far-fetched. But after my own father's death, I suddenly understood. Death is sudden, inexplicable, and terrible. Even in cases of lingering illness, death itself rarely feels anything but shocking. The timing is seldom right. I had been writing vaguely about the positive way in which Mary Magdalene is depicted in the play, but I was now able to understand what was so different about this depiction of the saint.

Though Mary Magdalene is meant to represent the redemption possible to every sinner, many medieval sermons discussed her early life in a decidedly misogynist way. Her early sins (completely fabricated, by the way -- there's no mention in the Bible that she was a prostitute) were represented as evidence of female weakness and wickedness. Fathers and brothers and husbands were warned not to give their daughters and sisters and wives too much freedom. If the Magdalene was any example, an unchaperoned woman couldn't help but turn to sin. (For more information on these sermons, see The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages by Katherine Ludwig Jansen.) But that's not how it was depicted in this play. In the Digby play, Mary's a sweet but naive young woman, a dutiful daughter. She grows lost not because of female weakness but because of human grief. The playwright never denigrates Mary, something that I'd noticed in my initial readings of the play. Yet now I saw something more. Mary says that grief has wounded her. She's struck down by the loss of her father and no longer knows how to exist in the world. Most everyone in the audience would have experienced some kind of grief. Her heartache would have made sense, particularly at a time when the infant mortality rate was high and the Black Death was still in recent memory. Mary's fumbling to recover from her loss and reclaim her identity, perhaps making a few mistakes along the way, would have evoked sympathy, not derision. Her mistakes are not those of a wicked woman, but a grieving human. What I had written off as an awkward side note turned out to be the key to Mary's positive characterization. Anyone who has experienced any kind of heartache can recognize a bit of him or herself in Mary, a point I find crucial for the play's message.

This is not to discount rigorous research or careful examination of the evidence in the play, but rather to demonstrate how I could see important aspects of the play better when I approached it as a human who had experienced loss as well. My attempt at critical distance had blinded me to those features of the play meant for a very human audience. Combining my own personal response to my research and analysis brought me a much fuller picture of the play, and allowed me to clear up my incomplete. That paper has turned into several presentations, an article, and a dissertation chapter. I had discovered a new way to engage with my sources, and people seemed to be responding to it as well. I used a similar tactic when writing about Joan of Arc. My own horror at the sight of my father's ashes turned into an examination of the symbolism of Joan's execution. Joan was burned twice, and her ashes were thrown in the river, and I wondered what to make of this horrifying spectacle. I found a great deal to say about the way in which Joan's enemies attempted to annihilate Joan's body and keep peasants from making relics out of her. More to the point, I found a great deal of fascinating evidence. By the time I finished, I felt better about my father's ashes, and about my research. Joan was a real human who lived and who died, and it seemed right to take her death seriously (and even a bit emotionally). Instead of keeping me from doing careful scholarship, my human response to Joan aided me once again.

I am not saying that I have any real answers. I'm still sometimes overwhelmed, confused, scared, sad. I'm still not sure how to write a dissertation. And I am not saying that my father died so that I could learn something or so that I could write better papers, but rather that the only way for me to survive the rush of emotion that flooded me in the wake of my father's death was to allow it to flow into my work. The texts I read were written by humans for other humans. I am, after all, in the humanities, and admitting that I was a human with all of my faults and feelings was a relief. Pretending to a kind of objectivity which I simply cannot (and don't really want to) have is neither honest nor productive. It's scary to admit my emotional connection to my work, but it feels right, too. It is not necessarily narcissistic to focus on one's own experiences. It may be self-centered to wallow indefinitely (though a little wallowing can be quite helpful), but I think that bringing personal emotions and experiences and traumas into a larger conversation is quite the opposite. It's a way that we can all connect and gain a greater understanding. We can't say that people or literature were just the same in the Middle Ages as they are now. We can't say that people around the world or even in our own neighborhoods experience anything in the same way as we do. Grief is particular, to be sure. Neither can traumas be compared. One child experiences war or genocide while another loses a beloved family pet. No, these situations cannot be equated. Yet anyone who has experienced heartache of any kind, from a first break-up to the death of a parent, has a share in human suffering. Such heartaches are soul-crushing, and yet they contain within them a gift: human empathy. All grief is different, and yet those who have experienced any grief can understand the depth of human emotion and therefore feel for others who suffer. Not everyone can accept this gift. Some turn inward and never look back out. Nor does this gift bring any final answers. But there's a beauty in caring for others. There's a beauty in bringing our own human vulnerabilities and offering them up to others and accepting their vulnerabilities in return. There's a beauty in caring about one's work enough to let it be emotional, imperfect, human.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Poetics of Grief: Considering Pearl and Wm. Paul Young's The Shack.

Grief has a funny way of choking out your perspective and balance. It's so easy to let that creeping vine take hold, and once you do, it's so very hard to wrench yourself free.  Grief can become, during our darker moments, a trickster-friend. You get so used to its presence that you forget how to live without it, insidious though the relationship might be.

Having spent the better part of this Fall attempting to journey forward after an intensely personal and awful loss (I miscarried right before the start of the term), I've found myself thinking a lot about how humans grieve, and on the literature that has been born out of these moments of agony. So much has been written on this topic, but for me, poetic works and their explorations of how we suffer and grapple with loss have always moved me the most and have helped to transport me (or at least begin the journey) out of those dark spaces.  The journey to a place of peace and balance after experiencing a profound loss is always a difficult one, and I have grown fascinated with, and taken considerable comfort from, those who have written about their own journeys through grief as a result.

Given that most of what I study these days is medieval, I have found myself thinking a lot about Pearl of late. The poem has been one of my favorites ever since I first encountered it as an undergraduate.  Nearly a decade later and particularly in light of my most recent loss, I have returned to the poem with a fuller awareness of the grief that gives Pearl its initial fuel and momentum.

Simultaneously, I've found myself thinking as well about a far more recent work: The Shack. The novel is, at its core, a framed dream vision. The first eighty pages or so chronicle the protagonist's (Mac's) loss of his youngest daughter, Missy. This portion of the novel is agonizing, and it ends in the very place where the authorities find clear evidence of Missy's murder – a dilapidated shack in the wilds of Oregon. Mac returns to the shack after receiving a cryptic invitation from "Papa" – the name that his wife, Nan, uses for God.  He falls asleep in the shack after a fit of rage and an ensuing mental breakdown, and when he "wakes" he enters into a dream vision in which he finds the comfort he's been searching for and his release from grief and anger.   

What strikes me the most about both of these works is the candor with which they recount the deeply personal and awful grief that comes with the loss of a child (or any loved one). Both Mac and the narrator of Pearl are angry, lost, and utterly encased in their grief at the outset of these works.  As I returned to them both over the past few weeks, I immediately identified with these characters because of that. Their questions, their hurt, but most of all, their journeys through grief to a place of balance felt so deeply familiar and so strangely comforting.

As I kept thinking about these two works (largely in isolation at first), I began to realize just how much they actually share. Granted, there are NUMEROUS differences (cultural, structural, and theological) that separate them, but I found certain aspects profoundly intertwined nonetheless. For starters, both the Pearl narrator and Mac have — as I mentioned earlier — allowed their grief to consume all aspects of their lives by the time that we're introduced to them. Take, for instance, stanza five of Pearl:

Bifore that spot my honde I spenned
For care ful colde that to me caght.
A deuely dele in my hert denned
Thagh resoun sette myselven saght.
I playned my perle that ther was penned
Wyth fyrce skylles that faste faght.
Thagh kynde of Kryst me comfort kenned,
My wreched wylle in wo ay wraghte.
I felle upon that floury flaght -
Suche odour to my hernes schot,
I slode upon a slepyng-slaghte
On that precios perle wythouten spot. (49-56)

Before that spot my hands I clasped / For care full cold that seized upon me / A desolating grief in my heart lay deep / Though reason would have reconciled me. / I mourned my pearl that there was trapped / With fierce arguments that fast contended, / My wretched will in woe nature wrought . . .

The speaker here kneels over the very spot where he "lost" his pearl — which is often interpreted as a young daughter — and laments that the awareness of this loss "does nothing but pierce my heart sharply, / Swell and burn my breast painfully" (17-18).

Mac's grief after Missy's abduction and and murder is similarly all-consuming:

Little distractions like the ice storm were a welcome although brief respite from the haunting presence of his constant companion: The Great Sadness, as he referred to it. Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack's shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt.  The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders. Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair, and he had somehow become part of it. He ate, worked, loved, dreamed, and played in this garment of heaviness, weighed down as if he were wearing a leaden bathrobe – trudging daily through the murky despondency that sucked the color out of everything.

At times he could feel The Great Sadness slowly tightening around his chest and heart like the crushing coils of a constructor, squeezing liquid from his eyes until he thought there no longer remained a reservoir. Other times he would dream that his feet were stuck in cloying mud as he caught brief glimpses of Missy running down the wooded path ahead of him, her red cotton summer dress gilded with wildflowers flashing through the trees. She was completely oblivious to the dark shadow tracking her from behind. Although he frantically tried to scream warnings to her, no sound emerged and he was always too late and too impotent to save her. He would bolt upright in bed, sweat dripping from his tortured body, while waves of nausea and guilt and regret rolled over him like some surreal tidal flood.  (27)

Both protagonists find themselves utterly consumed by their awareness of what they have lost. It dominates their thoughts and oppresses any capacity for joy.  Seeking (whether they realize it or not) an end to their suffering, both journey to origin point of their pain: to the places where they lost their beloved children.  The Pearl narrator moves into a garden (often interpreted as a graveyard) where his pearl "sprang away" from him, while Mac journeys to the shack where they found Missy's dress and an awful blood-stain, clear evidence of her murder.

It is through this return to a place of complete pain that their dream visions occur. The dreamer in Pearl "awakens" to find himself in a transcendent and beautiful landscape, where he soon encounters the Pearl Maiden — a figure who both represents the child he lost and the Divine Wisdom he so desperately needs. Mac, in turn, wakes from his despair-induced slumber inside the shack and exits in complete frustration, only to find the landscape slowly transform itself from Winter to Spring and the desolate shack reshape itself into a warm and inviting log cabin, with clear signs of life inside. Mac is soon greeted by three humans, each of whom is revealed as an aspect of the Trinitarian God. 

From here, The Shack diverges markedly from Pearl in a number manner of ways, but a pivotal moment in the second half of the novel shares much with the medieval dream vision as well.  In this particular episode, Mac finds himself and his outlook — overshadowed as it is by The Great Sadness — challenged and questioned by Sophia.  Just as the Pearl Maiden challenges the narrator's misguided, grief-stricken perceptions, chiding him at one point for having misinterpreted and incorrectly contextualized his loss (5.265-76), Sophia forces Mac to face his destructive worldview in a similarly blunt and masterful way.  At the end of their dialogue — which proves as cathartic and transformative as the dialogue between the Pearl narrator and the Pearl Maiden — Mac is given a glimpse of Missy in the afterlife. He sees her playing with his other children (who are, themselves, experiencing dream visions of their own), and she eventually runs directly towards him. An invisible force (represented by a waterfall) separates them, but Mac is told that she knows that he is there "on the other side of the waterfall." Mac tries desperately to get to her, but the invisible force won't let him move. Once he stops, however, and simply gazes on her, taking in "every detail of her expression and hair and hands" she smiles at him and mouths "It's okay, I . . . love you." Sophia tells him at this point that while Missy cannot see him, she knows that he is there, and that she herself chose for their meeting to be this way. Eventually "the water roared down from above, directly in front of him, and obliterated all the sights and sounds of his children" and he finds himself in a grotto behind a waterfall (exactly where he had entered to talk with Sophia). Like the Pearl narrator, then, Mac is challenged in this portion of the narrative by a female counselor who speaks with Divine authority.  His resulting vision of his daughter, in turn, challenges his attachment to The Great Sadness and affirms what he has learned from Sophia. Just as the Pearl Maiden chides the narrator for becoming too attached to his limited perception of the world, Mac learns that he cannot – in the end – be the world's, or God's, judge, and that the more he accepts the limitations of his perception, the more free and more joyful he will become. The Great Sadness, then, loses its power because it can only hang over him so long as he convinces himself that his perceptions are wholly accurate. 

The water imagery in this scene, I should add, also parallels Pearl, because in both the protagonists meet their lost children but are separated from them by an impassable body of water. The water prevents the dreamer from completely accessing the afterlife and those within it.  Both Mac and the Pearl narrator try frantically to cross these bodies of water at certain points and rejoin their beloved children, only to realize that their reunion cannot come to pass while they are both alive. Both find their attempts to ford the barrier to be in vain — the Pearl narrator is held back initially by the maiden's words, and eventually wakes up because he tries to ford the stream. Mac, in turn, tries repeatedly to force his way through the invisible barrier, but to no avail, and Sophia eventually explains that the barrier is truly impenetrable. The fact that they want so desperately to experience the physical presence of their lost ones speaks, rather poignantly, to their reliance upon their limited sensory perceptions.  What they learn — in no small part through these vain attempts — is that true vision and wisdom lie in a state beyond the senses. They learn, as a little prince once said, that "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye."

As Pearl winds its way to a close, as the narrator comes to discover a world and a worldview much larger than his grief, the word "delyt" appears frequently, suggesting that the narrator has begun to move forward from the place of grief that brought him into the dream vision. Mac too finds a way to reclaim his life from The Great Sadness and to live in joy not in spite of his loss, but because of it. Both works, in their own way, explore the ways in which we can locate a sense of purpose in the midst of these awful losses. And this isn't to say, as Mac mistakenly observes, that these events come to pass for the benefit of our souls and psyches, but rather that "grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors" (The Shack, 188).

Ultimately, I'm not seeking to argue here that the author of The Shack drew inspiration from Pearl. Rather, my point in drawing out this comparison is to suggest that both of these works — separated as they are by centuries, by theological nuance, by culture — tap into the same mysteries of loss in uncannily similar ways, and that these similarities can — if we let them — remind us that we are never truly alone in our grief, deeply and intensely personal as those experiences always are. Considering these works alongside each other can offer us the deep and abiding comfort of knowing that when we experience the intensity of loss and grief, that we are entering into a strange and beautiful communion with all who have (and all who will) endure the same. This may seem terribly bleak at first, but it's actually — in my mind at least — quite beautiful to know that even with full knowledge of the pain that will come with the loss of our beloved "pearles," that we can never quite keep ourselves away from love. That we are always invited and drawn back into relationship with others and with ourselves because of these risks. Pearls of great price, indeed.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou Art Translated!"

Hi everyone! I'm excited to join In Romaunce as We Rede, and I thought I would start with some musings I had thanks to teaching. As so often happens, the collective process of discovery in class has led me to see a text I've read many times in a fresh way. I've been teaching A Midsummer Night's Dream, and my students have been especially interested in the mythological background of Theseus (probably because they were excited to connect Ariadne to Inception). While we were talking about the minotaur, labyrinth, etc, it occurred to me that I could look at Bottom's transformation as a kind of perversion of the minotaur image. Instead of a frightening bull-man, Bottom becomes a silly mechanical with an ass's head. He's been attempting to play every role in one Ovid story, and has somehow found himself in a different Ovid story altogether. Translation here means transformation, certainly, but I also think that Bottom's transformation becomes synecdochic for the multiple kinds of translation that are going on here (linguistic, cultural, generic, chronological, imagistic, etc.). His hybrid body, part man and part ass (and I do think it's important that the animal aspect is his head, traditionally the seat of reason) is both man and beast, as the stories he performs mingle tragedy and comedy, literal and metaphorical, etc. In each case, the story Bottom represents becomes ridiculous with him as the protagonist, and he is the butt of our jokes throughout.

Yet if Bottom is a sort of ridiculous stand-in for the minotaur, that seems to increase both his centrality to the play and his alterity. He has certainly fascinated audiences, and most of the artistic representation of the play I've seen have been of Bottom and Titania in her bower. Such an image, indeed, often adorns the cover of editions of the play. Bottom therefore becomes an image for the play itself. He's a defining figure, at the center of the labyrinthesque dreamscape of the play. His freakish aspects and eagerness to take on every role make him an object of fun and pity. And it may be with some anxiety that we realize that he is, for Titania, a representative of mortality, of those creatures who connect with the earth itself, unlike her ethereal and supernatural immortality. A creature, therefore, very much like us. My students found the play-within-the-play, often performed to such hilarious effect, troublesome. They pointed out the class problems with the play; they lamented the fact that the mechanicals, who had worked so hard and been so excited when their play was chosen, were mercilessly and unanimously ridiculed. Perhaps they, as new college students whose work is being judged constantly, who work hard without always understanding what the end result should be, who are eager to please and to learn a variety of subjects, perhaps they saw something of themselves in Bottom and the mechanicals. Bottom attempts to be a learned man, a man of authority, and yet is unaware that everyone can see his ass's head. As a graduate student, this may encapsulate my own fears as well.

Many critics, from what I have seen thus far, find Bottom's transformation to be a literalization of what he already is -- a visual pun on the fact that he's an ass (and the play's use of dramatic irony when he claims that the others are trying to make an ass of him backs up such a reading). With some supernatural intervention, his physical form does grow to match his behavior. And in a play the ass's head must be performed literally -- an animal head is actually placed on the actor's body. It is such a literal rendering, however, that I find both fascinating and troubling. It may be a joke about Bottom playing an ass's role, but it also indicates that he is not quite human, not quite worthy of the noble class's empathy. We are meant to laugh along with the Duke and Duchess as Bottom plays the fool (and I have often done exactly that when I've seen the play performed). Like the minotaur, he's not as human as we are; he's both at the center of the puzzle and permanently marginalized. And the fact that my students stepped back and worried about what he was thinking and feeling made me proud as an instructor. Far from being only concerned with their own experiences, they were able to empathize even when to do so was to read against the text of the play.

I'd like to know what others think about this play, about Bottom's hybridity, about moments in teaching or reading that bring hope or empathy like this one did for me. So, what do you think?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Introducing . . . Kristi!

  As promised in my previous post, big changes to In Romaunce have been in the works.  After giving things a lot of thought, I realized that having a cohort with whom I could share this space would make the blog come alive in new, exciting, and (hopefully!) more frequent ways. I'm very happy to say that my colleague and dear friend, Kristi Castleberry, has agreed to come on board as a co-author.

Our goal for ourselves is to have at least one post published per week. They'll range from the professional, to the contemplative, to the absurd, and we hope you enjoy the ride!

Two beleaguered (but still excited!) ABD's

Kristi and Kate (NYC, 2011)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Changes on the way!

The past few months have been intense and have resulted in another regrettable hiatus from the blogosphere. I've been hard at work on a number of projects: the summer saw me send off two articles for review and consideration, drafting a chapter on Gandalf for a book, and researching the topic of my fourth chapter. Oh yeah, and teaching American Literature (of all things!). The Fall has proven equally busy, but fruitful! The fourth chapter -- which focuses on the A-versions of Richard Coer de Lion is now completely drafted, one of the articles has gotten the green light from the reviewers, and I have finally been able to get my poetry-writing underway again.

In the midst of it all, I've arrived at a solution to the infrequent posts.   Plans are in the works, and all shall be revealed once we get everything finalized. . . I'm very excited about the new directions the blog will be taking from here, and my hope is that the changes, once implemented, will guarantee weekly posts at the very least!

In the meantime, I'll share a link to a wonderful website I uncovered yesterday: Where has this site been all of my medievalist life?! It is a thing of glory for anyone interested in Malory, or Arthurian literature more broadly. Enjoy!