July 2011

Books read in July:

  1. Lirael. Garth Nix.
  2. Sir Launfal. Thomas Chestre; ed. A. J. Bliss.
  3. The Alchemist. Paulo Coelho.
  4. Abhorsen. Garth Nix.
  5. Un Lun Dun. China Miéville.
  6. The Lais of Marie de France. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, trans.
  7. Le Morte Darthur. Thomas Malory. (33%)
  8. Fairies in Medieval Romance. James Wade.
  9. The Library of Shadows. Mikkel Birkegaard.

Best new read: Lirael/Abhorsen
Best (only) non-fiction: Fairies in Medieval Romance
Best Tube read: The Lais of Marie de France

Lirael and Abhorsen by Garth Nix really do have to be treated like one long book. I really enjoyed how that trilogy captured my imagination. I read The Lais of Marie de France both for pleasure and for work, and because the book was small and the stories quite short, the book was perfect for reading on the underground in London. And before you question why I only read one-third of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, allow me to point out that it is 700 pages of Middle English prose, so it’s going to take me longer than a month to work through the whole thing.

A disappointing read was The Library of Shadows. I enjoyed the premise and the first 200 or so pages of the book. Then the protagonist became a super super-hero and there were weird electricity things, and the female protagonist immediately morphed from being an interesting, strong character in her own right to being completely two-dimensional once she hopped into bed with the male protagonist. The treatment of Katherina was what bothered me most, actually. I had been quite pleased with how for the first half of the novel, Birkegaard actually had the two protagonists develop a working relationship and friendship. But then, instead of having that relationship shift naturally into a romantic one, the characters have sex and their characterizations become entirely clichéd, particularly Katherina. Basically, the second half felt like a completely different novel because all of the characters, plot, and even setting, changed.

On a positive note, if you like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, you might just also enjoy Un Lun Dun by China Miéville. It very fun to read about an alternate London — UnLondon — while staying in London. The chapters were really short, too, which were well suited for reading on the Tube. The reason this book didn’t make the ‘best Tube read’ though was because it’s quite a big book and made my bag heavy while I was reading it.

Our Garden, Part 7

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about the garden. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been in my garden. While Ros was kindly making dinner I went out to reacquaint myself. I am amazed at how things grew in the three weeks I’ve been away. I came back into the house with a marrow and four courgettes (a.k.a. zucchini), two of which Ros promptly added to our dinner.

One of the sunflowers has bloomed en masse: at least six heads, if not more. The other sunflowers are starting to bloom, too. The corn stalks are growing stoutly despite the Scottish climate, and the pumpkins are stretching out their long vines.The rhubarb has recovered from whatever it was suffering from last month and we now have a new supply of rhubarb. Most impressively, the courgettes have turned into a jungle.

Courgettes will now become a staple in our diet. Ros is dreaming of quiche and I’m thinking of zucchini bread. Yum. The blackcurrant bush is ripe and Ros harvested some to make crumble. Soon I will be making chutneys with our courgettes and blackcurrant jam.

Patience is a virtue

This post will not be as coherent as I would like it to be, but it is some collected thoughts I had from a rather interesting, and fun, session yesterday titled ‘Chicks in Chainmail: Arthurian Pedagogy for Girls’.

The first presentation was on William Byron Forbush’s female-equivalent to his fraternity The Knights of King Arthur, the Order of the Queens of Avalon. Both of these groups were created in the early 20th century to combat ‘the boy problem’ (the Boy Scouts of America was created around the same time for similar reasons). I won’t go into great detail about both groups, since you can read more on the links I provided. Basically, the Queens of Avalon was a reaction to flapperism and the ‘new woman’ of the 1920s, emphasising more the (Victorian) ideal of purity, loyalty, reverence, courtesy, etc. While the audience laughed at the descriptions of each degree in the order — pilgrim, lady, queen — and at the various ceremonies to mark advancement to each level, I was reminded of a much more modern analogue: Acteens. I remember having my own coronation ceremony when I achieved the rank of ‘Queen’ — complete with a white dress, a crown bearer, and a tiara. Unlike the Order of the Queens of Avalon, however, Acteens had five levels and Queen was the lowest: Queen, Queen with Scepter, Queen Regent, Queen Regent in Service, and Service Aide.

But where the Queens of Avalon promoted submissiveness and defined the female according to her relationship to the male, Acteens promotes education about ministry and missions, leadership, and provides opportunities for both leading others and service.

Admittedly, I did find Acteens to be boring most of the time — if only because at my church it was simply a continuation of GA’s (Girls in Action, a kind of Baptist Girl Scouts for missions), and also because I was active in so many other things in high school. However, though the coronation ceremonies are rather silly, and while it is not necessarily in vogue in feminist discourse to encourage service, I do think there is a place in (post)modern society for service — and yes, even purity and courtesy. It just depends on how we are defining these terms.

Service: What can be more beneficial to society at large than a person who cares for others enough to act for the interest of others, instead of only out of self-interest? There are hardly ever enough altruistic people in this world. A person with a ‘servant’s heart’ is far from being a weak door-mat, for it is only someone who is truly confident in their own self who can sincerely serve others for the sake of serving others.

Purity: Granted, Forbush most likely had sexual/romantic purity in mind, but that is a very narrow definition of the word. Purity means ‘not mixed or adulterated with any other substance’ or ‘without any extraneous or unnecessary elements’. Can this not also be applied to one’s actions and behaviour? Purity can be a challenge to be sincere and genuine in one’s relationships — all relationships, not just romantic ones, for any bond between human beings is a relationship of some kind.

Courtesy: My idea of ‘courtesy’ comes naturally out of the above definition of purity. Courtesy is the belief and demonstration that all persons have inherent worth and are deserving of respect. This means being polite to others. This means responding with grace when one has been wronged. This means refraining from judgement or condemnation of others, for none of us are perfect. For me personally, this idea stems from the belief that all humans are made in the image of God and that Christ died for all; therefore all people are worthy of love and respect.

Notice that in my definitions I referred to ‘person’ not ‘girl’ or ‘woman’. Service, purity, and courtesy are qualities that every person can work on, not just women. Each of these three qualities refers back to the other. It would be a very admirable person indeed who can display all three qualities all of the time. But we all know this is not the case. It is for this reason that I consider ‘virtues’ (any virtue) not as states of being but as challenges, aspirations. To be courteous to others, pure and sincere in my behaviour, and compassionate are things I hope that I aspire to, not things I think once can ‘achieve’ and tick off of a list of things to do. And I hope to aspire to display such qualities in my life because I think that is what a female should do, but because I want to be a good person.

Good start

Day One of the XXIII Triennial Congress of the International Arthurian Society and I have new chapter for my thesis. Is there a difference between normal human romance heroines, heroines who use magic, and magical heroines (e.g., fairies)? I shall find out.

London recap

It’s hard to believe that nearly ten days have passed and I leave London tomorrow. London is busy busy busy and tiring. Fun, too, though. I’ve seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace; walked through St James’s and Regent’s parks; gone to the London Zoo; seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 in Kingston; went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street; gone to two Proms at the Royal Albert Hall; visited the Victoria & Albert Museum; went to Evensong at St Paul’s and at Westminster Abbey; spent a day in the British Library; geeked out in the ‘Out of This World’ science-fiction exhibition at the British Library; went to the ‘Treasures of Heaven’ exhibit at the British Museum; saw Arthur Darvill (a.k.a Rory from Doctor Who) play Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus at The Globe; and went to Oxford for a day during which I climbed the tower of Great St Mary’s and went to the King James Bible exhibition at the Bodleian. I’ve walked down the Strand, through Covent Garden, along Victoria Embankment, from Trafalgar Square to Westminster, across the Millennium Bridge and London Bridge, down Euston Road, around Bloomsbury, and have ridden bus, coach, tube, and train. I’ve spent time with friends from Oklahoma, a former housemate from Oxford, and my current housemate and her friends in London, who I can start to call my friends, too. I still haven’t been to the Natural History Museum or the Tate Modern, but I like to save things for next time. It’s been quite a holiday!

Tomorrow I board another train. Next stop: Bristol!

Things Medieval

One of the goals for this holiday in London is to see things I haven’t before. I thought this meant I would finally get around to visiting the Tate Modern, but instead I found myself walking up the steps to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A could take me an entire week, if we take into account that I spent three hours in the medieval galleries alone. What can I say? I am a medievalist.

I love all things medieval. Literature, music, architecture, clothing, art. My favourite medieval art is personal devotional art pieces: folding altar pieces, diptychs and triptychs, whatever. I love the amount of detail and care and, yes, devotion is put into each relief carving of an ivory triptych. This no doubt is influenced by the triptych in the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, which I researched and curated when I worked there. Triptychs, diptychs, and folding shrines are worship aids for personal devotional use; they are made to be portable, the sides folding over the main part of the shine to protect the fragile carvings. The V&A had an absolutely beautiful fourteenth century French ivory folding shrine. There is evidence that it was once gilded and painted red, remnants peeking through in cracks and corners. Each side panel depicts a different episode from the Bible or a saint’s life (depending on the piece).

I knew I already loved carved ivory and stained glass, but my new favourite thing is medieval enameling. Enamel combines my love for small, portable religious pieces with the vibrant colours of stained glass, and the enamel altar pieces in the V&A simply took my breath away. Just look. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?

A fourteenth century English triptych depicting the life of St Edward.
Enamel on gold.

Master of the Louis XII triptych. Early sixteenth century, portraying King Louis XII on the left panel, kneeling in front of his patron St Louis, and Queen Anne of Bohemia on the right panel. The center panel shows the Annunciation.

And with a stroke of serendipity, I came across two beautiful cups: one, the Luck of Edenhall, a goblet believed to be have been left behind by the fairies, and the other the Meróde Cup, the plaque of which mentioning Jean, duc de Berry, none other than the patron of my beloved Melusine. The Luck of Edenhall goblet is actually an example of medieval Syrian glasswork, remarkably in pristine condition. It was probably back to England from pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It eventually became the talisman of the Musgrave family of Edenhall in Cumbria. Legend says that when the fairies left it behind, they cried, ‘If this cup should break or fall / Farewell the luck of Edenhall!’ What is particularly fascinating to me is that this goblet reinforces the connection between Fairy and the East in medieval literature.

The Meróde Cup did not belong to Jean duc de Berry, but there are descriptions of similar cups as having existed in his collection, and of his brother’s, King Charles V of France. The main body of the cup is gilded silver. The Meróde Cup is the only medieval example of plique-à-jour enamel. Stunning.

I had another moment of medieval delight this morning in the British Library. I had ordered, and the librarian handed over to me, the manuscript of Jean d’Arras’s Melusine. It was enormous. It is amazing. If cameras had been allowed into the reading room I would have taken a picture to post here. I had no real purpose in mind when I requested to see it, since I have already finished my chapter on Melusine, but, well, I wanted to see it. I spent the day leafing through it, taking notes as whatever I saw caught my fancy (fodder for an article or conference paper), and reading my favourite passages from the romance.

And, it seems as though London knew I would be in town this summer. The British Museum is having a special exhibition on none other than ‘Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’. I’ve already booked my ticket to see it.

Weekend in pictures

The weekend in pictures:


Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

A very bold squirrel that came up to me during lunch in Regent’s Park.

An Asiatic lion in the London Zoo. Isn’t he beautiful?

A Kestrel named Solo and his keeper.
Kestrels are the only falcons that can hover in mid-air.


A day spent in Surrey watching the final instalment of the Harry Potter films and hanging out with friends.

A view from outside the pub we went to for drinks after the film.

An enormous glowing fox outside the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

I seem to have acquired the habit of walking across London bridges at midnight.


Three guesses where I went on Sunday…

Dr. Watson in the sitting room at the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

Sunday afternoon and evening were spent promming at the Royal Albert Hall. Over a thousand performers coming together for Brian’s ‘The Gothic’, the longest symphony yet written. The choir alone consisted of over 800 singers. The phrase ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’ has entirely new meaning for me. It was epic.

Leeds IMC 2011

A report of Leeds International Medieval Congress, 2011:

I write this from London, where I have tiny yet cosy little room perched on the Strand. Just a stone’s throw from my building is the Waterloo Bridge with a magnificent view of the Thames, London Eye, and Houses of Parliament.

Arrived in the afternoon, heartened by how familiar the conference site was since I had been last year. I met up with Rebecca and we went out for a very nice dinner with our supervisor, the panelists, and moderators of the sessions Rebecca and I organised for the congress.

I presented my paper, ‘Fool’s Gold? The Permanence of Fairy Wealth and Fairy Mistresses’, as one of the first papers of the first sessions of the day. Our first session suffered from having an early time slot. It had an audience of only seven, but I was very pleased to see that the audience tripled for our second session. At lunch I happened to sit next to one of the members of the planning committee for the congress. While the others were ordering food he and I chatted about how to improve the first-time congress experience for postgraduates attending the congress. Though I didn’t mind that the audience for my paper was small, I was cheered that he had noticed my paper topic in the programme and asked how it went. He also said it had been very sensible of me to attend the congress the year before I was planning to present. More sessions in the afternoon: I attended sessions on medievalism and film and on medieval armour. The latter serendipitously discussed falchions, mentioning Sir Gowther. Afterward I went back to my room for a light dinner and knit while listening to the Six O’Clock News and Comedy time on Radio 4. Then a reception hosted by my university’s medieval institute, during which I surprised myself by staying past the scheduled two hours, and was shown off by both of my supervisors. It’s quite nice to be told that your supervisors are rather proud of you.

Day Two of sessions, and by lunchtime I was definitely getting tired. Even so, I surprised myself again by starting up conversations with the person I sat across from at breakfast (something I did the day before, also) and chatting with various people between sessions on falconry in French romances, women in Medieval Ireland, and the Bible and Middle English Romance. I rested a bit in the afternoon before going to an Important Meeting, which went very well. I chose to skip the apparently epic Leeds IMC dance because I chose not to be traumatised. Also, I was tired.

My final day at the conference. I had originally intended to visit the Royal Armouries Museum before catching my train to London in the afternoon, but I convinced  a conference friend  to skive off the morning sessions to go see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 instead. Unfortunately, it was not until we arrived at the theatre and picked up our tickets that we realised it was not, in fact, Friday, 15th of July. Disappointed, and bemused, we refunded our tickets and went to the Royal Armouries Museum after all. We were only interested in the medieval gallery and the gift shop, where I purchased a miniature knight on a magnificent black charger. Natalie kindly dropped me off at the rail station and I continued my travels. When I arrived in London, my first thought after getting settled in my room was dinner, specifically dinner at Wagamama’s. One must always go to Wagamama’s when one can. Oh yes.

Overall, it was a very good congress. I am elated that it was incredibly not like last year. I actually slept, meaning I didn’t have a migraine for four days. I was (am) confident in both my topic and myself and I initiated most of the conversations I had with people. Both my supervisors were there and were both verbally and visibly pleased with me. I made some very important contacts. This is what Leeds IMC is about — and I actually had fun, too. I might even come back next year.

Even though I am in London for both work and pleasure, I am on holiday and I am going to have fun. I have ten days to play in London. Yeah!

A pleasant journey

It seems to be my luck to arrive at the bus stop just after the bus has pulled away when I need to get to the rail station. Usually it is raining, too, and I’m out of breath from running with my bags. It is for this reason that I carry a taxi company’s business card in my purse.

Thinking this was a rather inauspicious beginning to my summer travels, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that I had booked a first class ticket down to York. This renders my carefully packed lunch redundant, as I will likely be served lunch (I will eat both anyway, because over the past couple of weeks I have developed an appetite). I was greeted with a cup of tea, a croissant, and free wi-fi. And so I sit on the sea-side of the train, watching the silver sea pass by outside. I am glad I had the foresight to organise a comfortable journey south to begin my first week of conferences.

I’m quite pleased with my packing skills: three weeks’ of clothes, including conference gear and three pairs of shoes; computer, camera, and mobile along with necessary chargers and cables; toiletries, hair dryer; a towel; my apothecary and basic first aid; six books; three notebooks; my current knitting project; dried fruit and granola bars; a travel spice kit; lunch.

Lost in a good book

My housemate is bereft now that it is summer. She wanders around the house in the evenings not knowing what to do with herself. I hadn’t noticed this was what she was doing until she asked yesterday, ‘You don’t even notice that it’s summer, do you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. Of course I knew it was July. She said I didn’t notice that ‘people’ were gone. I thought she was referring to the lack of undergraduates and answered, ‘But it’s nice.’

No, she had meant people as in people to do things with. Again, I shook my head, because most of the people I would usually do something with were still around because they were postgraduates. She sighed. She is used to rehearsals nearly every day of the week, sometimes multiple rehearsals in a day.

Apparently I had said we would watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 last night, but I had spent the entire day pining after Abhorsen by Garth Nix that after dinner I sat on my chair and dove into my book… and didn’t move until three hours later. During this time Ros wandered around the house, practised her cello, before ending up in her chair across from mine. When I finished the book she asked, ‘Weren’t we going to watch Harry Potter tonight?’

I blinked at her, coming back a long way from Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom. I looked at her, looked at the clock that said it was now past 10 PM, and said, ‘Oh.’

She looked at me with bafflement, then asked how it was that I could spend all day reading at work to come home and read for three hours. ‘But it’s different,’ I said.

Then she asked why I looked so crestfallen. Looking down at my book I said, ‘Because it’s finished. There aren’t any more after this one.’* Although she isn’t a fantasy or science fiction fan, I tried describing the book to her, and the world Garth Nix created, how innovative and imaginative it was, and how even though there were bits of the plot I didn’t like I still very much enjoyed the trilogy.

Reading fiction is different, for me. We have determined already that I am a visual reader and she is definitely not. So when I sit down to read, everything else around me fades; is forgotten. Only a small part of my mind is aware that I am reading words, but otherwise I see and hear and experience what is happening in the story. This is how I can sit for hours on end and not realise it until after I’ve finished reading, how I can literally not hear sometimes when someone is speaking to me while I am reading. How when I read I see and hear things so vividly that occasionally scenes come back to me the same way that memories do, forcing me to pause and trace back the ‘memory’ to its source. Discussing this again with Ros last night, she observed, ‘That’s how you can come home and read the evenings.’

Yes, in part it is. But also because the stories and the worlds in the books I read are so very different from what I do during the day that I don’t even think of them as being the same type of reading. Unless I am reading a medieval romance for the first time, or reacquainting myself with it, I don’t read my work ‘for fun’ — I read it critically, contextually, finding relevant passages and relating them back to my thesis and discarding arguments that don’t. Yes, I can read Middle English ‘for fun’ — in fact, that’s what I’m planning to do with Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur — but that is only because the texts that I read are also stories. It’s more difficult to read, being in Middle English and not following modern grammatical conventions (run-on sentences galore!), but I don’t do this often. It is not quite the same as picking up a story about the Old Kingdom, or about Attolia, or Urras and Anarres — worlds that are so imaginative and different from this one.

Eventually I want to write up my thoughts about the Old Kingdom trilogy, but no promises. Simply put, I have no idea why it took me over a decade to read them. At least now I have.

* Actually, there is a novella called ‘The Creature of the Case’ that is in Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and other stories. I want it.