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.

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.