My apologies

I am sorry, dear readers, I have been remiss: I did not forewarn you that I would be away for some days. I am still away – photos and stories upon my return, of course – but let me leave you with a tantalizing glimpse of what I’ve been up to:

I am a pro at taking clandestine photographs in libraries.

Fairies done right

Considering that I study fairies for my PhD, I read fantasy novels, and even write fantasy novels about fairies, it should come as no surprise that I’ve begun compiling a list of novels that “do fairies right”. That is, none of this Victorian, butterfly-winged Tinkerbell nonsense. I’ve thrown in a couple of medieval texts (with translation) to demonstrate how these modern (20th and 21st century) texts stay true to the spirit and form of romance.

  1. Anderson, Poul. Three Hearts and Three Lions. (1961)
  2. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. (1968)
  3. Burgess, Glyn S. and Keith Busby, trans. The Lais of Marie de France. (Late 12th c.)
  4. Clarke, Susanna. The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and other stories. (2006)
  5. Colum, Padraic. The King of Ireland’s Son. (1916)
  6. Dunsay, Lord. The King of Elfland’s Daughter. (1924)
  7. Gaiman, Neil. Stardust. (1998)
  8. Marillier, Juliet. Wildwood Dancing. (2006)
  9. Pope, Elizabeth Marie. The Perilous Gard. (1971)
  10. Troyes, Chrétien de. The Knight with the Lion (Yvain). (Late 12th c.)
  11. Warner, Silvia Townsend. Kingdoms of Elfin. (1977)

This is, of course, a work in progress…

In the family

To take a break from writing a conference paper (of which I wrote half of this morning), I decided to scroll through the huge family ancestry chart my brother sent me ages ago. It’s fun to look at all of the names and dates and guessing what was going on in the world when various ancestors lived. I knew we had some American Revolutionaries in our family, but I didn’t know that some ancestors immigrated to the New World as early as the 1630s. We might even have had some relatives at the ‘First Thanksgiving’!

I skipped back to the medieval period and became indignant at the treatment of my somethingth-great-grandmother, Mary Bruce (the English locked her in a cage!). I find my relation to her slightly more believable than our supposed connection with Harold Haldrada (of 1066 fame) or better yet, Priam of Troy (as awesome as that may be). As an Academic of Very Old Things it is my job to be skeptical of information we don’t have any physical documentation of. The farther back in time it goes, the less verifiable it gets. Even so, it is fun to skim through, and this medievalist finds it more than a little entertaining to think that Robert the Bruce was an uncle at some point in the distant past. It’s a pity I can’t claim family relations in order to get a better visa for the UK…

I am back to writing about Thomas of Erceldoune, who is not, alas, in my family history, even if there is archival evidence of his actual existence.

Word count: 12,007

NaNoWriMo Prep, 1

NaNoWriMo is only twelve (12) days away. Have you signed up? Do you have a title? A character? Better yet, do you have a story? Don’t worry if you don’t. I have heard from a very high authority that, ‘No plot? No problem!’ works for November.

This is my 8th WriMo (my 5th NaNoWriMo), and this year I am writing the fourth installment in my Pooka series, my retellings of fairy tale and Greek myth. Writing a series has its ups and downs. I did most of the world building with the first novel, which means I more or less have a ready-made setting. Each subsequent book, however, takes place in a different kingdom with a new cast of characters — only the Pooka is consistent. Prince Silas from Book 1 is the father of Prince Linus (Book 2), the grandfather of Princess Agnes (Book 3), and the great-grandfather of Prince Lukas (Book 4). So despite having new characters for each book, I also have to stay true to their family history and adventures.

So how do I go about coming up with a story? Book 1, The Faerie King, was perhaps the easiest of all. I didn’t know I was going to be writing a series then. I knew I wanted to retell Sir Orfeo, one of my favourite medieval romances. It is a 14th-century Middle English retelling of the Orpheus & Eurydice myth, set in Celtic Britain instead of in Greece. Eurydice is kidnapped by the King of Fairy instead of Hades, and it has a different ending. I was rereading it for fun while working as a dramaturg for OBU’s production of Sleeping Beauty by Charles Way; the play sets the fairy tale in medieval Wales. The Greek myth, fairy tale, and medieval Celtic/British setting fused together so well that I decided to write it into a novel. And I did.

With each subsequent book, I have tried to follow the same pattern. I try to find a well-known fairy tale, usually French or German in origin. I’ve read a lot of fairy tales over the past couple of years! Meanwhile, I’m also reading Greek myths, brushing up on my Olympian gods and heroes, hoping that I will find a narrative that can easily be woven alongside a fairy tale. I also relentlessly talk through fairy tales and myths with my friends: it was Sarah’s suggestion that I look into the Cupid & Psyche myth. That myth ended up being the myth I used for The Harpy (Book 2), combined with ‘Beauty and the Beast’. The clue that linked them together in my mind? Both had enchanted palaces with invisible servants. The Harpy was also heavily influenced by the medieval romance Melusine, which I had been reading at the time.

The Golden Crab (Book 3) was more difficult, because I was writing about a princess instead of a prince. Most princesses in fairy tales tend to be quite passive, and that wasn’t what I wanted. The Golden Crab ended up having a blend of lots of fairy tale elements — Thumbelina, The Snow Queen, and The Black Bull of Norroway — but the overarching story was the Greek myth of Persephone.

By the end of each novel I know who my next protagonist is, because the narrator neatly ties up the strings in the last chapter. The Golden Crab ends with the announcement of the birth of two of Agnes’s nephews, so I knew that Book 4 would be about either Tobias or Lukas. The more I thought about it and the overarching narrative of the narrator (because the narrator has a story, too), I knew it was going to be about Prince Lukas of Marschon.

So I’ve spent the last few weeks reading fairy tales and Greek myths, trying to find a story I haven’t told before. Before I knew anything else, I knew that Lukas was called ‘The Knight of the Swan’. The fairy tale I’ve chosen is The Six Swans, the mythology elements will come from Perseus’s adventures, with some inspiration from the medieval romance of the same title, The Knight of the Swan.

Now, to weave them together? Thank goodness — I have 12 days to think of a plot!

September 2011

Books read this month:

  1. Peter Pan. J. M. Barrie.
  2. The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver.
  3. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories: Modern Tales for Our Life & Times. James Finn Garner.
  4. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Alan Bradley.
  5. Od Magic. Patricia A. McKillip.
  6. Love in the Time of Cholera. Gabriel García Márquez.
  7. Ywain and Gawain. Stephen H. A. Shepherd, ed. *
  8. Lybeaus Desconus. Thomas Chestre; ed. M. Mills. *
  9. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm. Nancy Farmer.
  10. Partonope of Blois. A. Trampe Bodtker, ed. *

Best new read: Od Magic.
Best medieval romance: Partonope of Blois.
Best (only) sci-fi: The Ear, the Eye and the Arm.

Quite a month! I’m not sure where to begin on my commentary for the books I’ve read this month, except to say that I enjoyed 95% of what I read. If you want to know more, leave a comment about which book you want to know about…

* indicates in Middle English.

The Saint John’s Bible

Coventry Cathedral

It recently came to my attention that the first handwritten Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery in more than 500 Years was completed: The Saint John’s Bible, named after the abbey that commissioned it. As a medievalist and a Christian, I find this wonderfully exciting. Having had the privilege of working with medieval illuminated manuscripts, I believe that illuminated texts, especially the Bible, are precious works of art.

The Saint John’s Bible is digitized, and you can leaf through its pages online. I love it. I love the modern, abstract illustrations, the artist’s interpretation of marginal glosses, the cover page for each book. The illustrations somewhat remind me of Coventry Cathedral. The medieval cathedral in Coventry was destroyed by an air raid during WWII, and after the war, a new cathedral was rebuilt beside the ruins. The new cathedral keeps the design and structure of a cathedral, but the art is all modern. It certainly takes a visitor by surprise, but by the end of my visit, I came to like it. Together, the old cathedral and new serve as a testimony to the endurance of faith and of the community.

The style of art works even better on the page. In The Saint John’s Bible, we have again a medieval work of art reinterpreted into our (post)modern context. Click on the image of Genesis above and go explore the Bible. Someday I hope to be able to own a reprint of one of the volumes, possibly Psalms.

Vague pacifists

The Vague Activist Fairy has made a convert:

The Valiant Knight only jousts and fights in tournaments — none of this crusading or ravaging the land business. Only where there are, you know, rules and codes of honour. He’s not a complete pacifist after all — only a vague one.

(I did introduce him to the Wonky Dragon when I first brought him into the office, but that didn’t go down very well. He wasn’t a vague pacifist yet and, well, the dragon can be quite incendiary. The Wonky Dragon has a pile of books all to himself now.)

(Yes, I am a very serious PhD student. Most of the time.)

Giants, dragons, & bears…

A friend of mine asked to hear more about my creative writing and another asked me to write about how powerful medieval literature is. Here is an attempt to answer both, quoting the illustrious Helen Cooper:

‘[Romance motifs’] quality as memes, with their generous capacity to latch onto the mind and replicate, is wonderfully caught by one of the last authors to use medieval texts in an unbroken line of transmission, John Bunyan, in the later seventeenth century. He misspent his youth reading cheap prints of romances, not least the perennial favourite Bevis of Hamtoun: a work that owed much of its popularity to its density of the simplest and most colourful of such motifs, dragons and giants and grim prisons and healing balms. […] Bunyan realized that a good story composed of motifs that are already familiar is the most mind-engaging form there is, and that romances are the very best such stories. It is no coincidence that the authors who kick-started the modern equivalent of the romance, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, were two of the leading medieval scholars of the mid-twentieth century.’ (The English Romance in Time, pp. 3-4)

As I continue to read The English Romance in Time I find more and more quotes I would like to use from Cooper, but I shall refrain. The romance genre — not to be confused with the modern romance novel — was the most popular form of secular literature for at least five hundred years. Though there is family resemblance across these texts, no one definition fits all of them. But their popularity lies in their appeal to the imagination and to entertain, their relevance to current society whilst being placed ‘far far away, long long ago’, and their use of familiar motifs and ideas — and not only the faithfulness to various motifs, but their adaptation of them. The beautiful woman met beside a fountain might very well be expected to be a fairy, but in the case of Melusine, the fairy becomes all the more compelling because she loves her husband, raises many sons, and desires a mortal, Christian life instead of a life with other fairies. Romances were not only used to entertain, but also to educate, and opened themselves consciously, and sometimes not so subtly, to debate the actions, motivations, and morality of the characters. In short, medieval romance is exciting to not only read but also study because in addition to the giants, dragons, quests and adventures, they are also mirrors through which we can glimpse the preoccupations, concerns, desires, and ideals of medieval society, albeit darkly.

And so it should come as no surprise that I find myself writing ‘modern medieval romances’, fairy tale retellings in the mode of medieval romance. The Pooka novels make use of motifs found in fairy and folk tales, Classical myths, and medieval romance. The knights and princess go on quests, encounter strange creatures, and have many adventures along the way. Like my medieval predecessors, it is not only the appearance of standard fantasy and fairy tale motifs, such as dragons, a damsel in a tower, etc., that make my stories fun to read (or so I hope), but the reworking of those motifs, the blending and reinterpretation of them into something familiar, yet unique.

This is, of course, a rather poor answer for a very rich subject, and yet I hope it has proven interesting…

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.