Literary Hindsight: Teaching Medieval Love and Violence

At a Kalamazoo ICMS roundtable titled “Teaching Violence and Trauma in the Premodern Classroom (A Roundtable),” the question arose: How do we get our students to understand that the violence and horrors depicted in the literary and historical texts are not necessarily representative of the realities of the time?

I was reminded of an exercise I had done with my students when we read Lanval, focusing on the literary representation of romantic love versus the reality. I mentioned it, and (omigod!!) Tara Mendola (one of the panelists) tweeted out my idea.

I had written up this lesson as a resource for the Pearl Kibre Medieval Study a while ago, so I’ve decided to post it now in this context. The lesson plan, with some notes, is below:


Lanval Lesson Plan

Pre-class: Transition from Anglo-Saxon, brief overview of Anglo-Norman language and culture, mention of term “courtly love”

Class session:

  1. Ten-minute writing exercise with two questions:
    1. “Describe “romantic love” according to medieval literature (using the text we’ve read so far, Lanval.)”
    2. “Describe “romantic love” according to your own (contemporary) understanding.”
      1. Note: I passed out half-papers with one question on each side. I did not direct the students to one question first, rather letting them decide which to answer first. Some didn’t realize there were two questions until their classmates told them to turn the paper over. I am curious what effect the order of questions has on the way students answer…
  2. PowerPoint: factual information about medieval marriage; explanation of the idealized system of courtly love; explanation of chivalry and its development; images from manuscripts depicting tournaments, chivalric behavior, etc.
  3. Group activity: class divided into three groups. Each one assigned a character (Lanval, Guinevere, fairy queen).
    1. Instructions: identify lines that describe their assigned character, copy out those lines, and then discuss the character.
  4. Full-class discussion: beginning with character analyses, moving into discussions of gender roles, loyalty, lordship, courtly love, etc.

Post-class: Blog post assignment:

Hindsight on modern romance: After we’ve read and discussed Marie de France’s Lanval in the context of courtly love and chivalry, you know now that love as portrayed in medieval literature often does not resemble the realities of medieval love. Choose a contemporary genre of literature or film (romance, Young Adult, erotica, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller), and think about how love and romance are portrayed in that genre. Imagine you’re a student of literature or film in the year 2500, studying the literature of the 21st century. What conclusions would you draw about love and romance based on the genre you’ve chosen to analyze? How does this match up with what you (the real you) know about love and romance in contemporary real life? (There’s no need to be personal, but you may use personal details.) 250-500 words.

An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews a Review of Disobedience

This weekend, I saw Disobedience twice. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since I saw the first clip of it, months ago. A story about two queer women, one who left the frum community and one who struggled to stay? Yes, please. Plus, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams! And the costumes looked so authentic! And it seemed like it was done with such sensitivity! I hadn’t read the book (I still haven’t, though I plan to now). So I didn’t know much about the story other than that it deals with Ronit’s return to the frum community after her father’s death and with the two women’s forbidden love.

On Thursday, April 26, I attended the 7pm screening at Angelika Film Center. I was anxious, my stomach unexpectedly roiling as I sat in my seat and waited for the movie to start. I became more and more anxious as I looked around and saw kippa-wearing men and skirt-wearing women, as I heard Hebrew being spoken all around me. I was here for a liberating movie – titled Disobedience, for fuck’s sake! – and I felt the same claustrophobia and mounting scream inside me as I felt when I had to attend frum events.

I cried a fair few times during the movie, and I stayed in my seat and sobbed for a bit after the movie was over. I wasn’t crying over the queer parts. I was crying over Ronit’s relationship with her father.

I walked out of the movie in a bit of a daze. I texted some friends about it, but they hadn’t seen it yet and didn’t want spoilers. In an effort to keep the experience going, I decided to look for reviews and other information about the film. I found a review by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, and I immediately became furious.

The title is “The Flesh Is Willing in ‘Disobedience’.” Wtf. Way to miss the point of the movie? (Also, really? You had to go to the New Testament to find a good title for a movie about ultra-Orthodox Jews?)

The content of the review is even worse. Now, Manohla Dargis is a respected movie critic. Her resume is quite extensive and impressive. And yet I feel perfectly comfortable saying – this review sounds like it was written by someone who does not understand film and storytelling.

Fired up, I decided to write my own review. I do have thoughts about the movie that go beyond Dargis’s points. But I’m going to start by quoting and reacting to some of her statements. If you want to just read my thoughts about the film more generally, wait for it – that’ll come in Part 2 😉

“In ‘Disobedience,’ the emotions are reserved, the palette muted, the rooms claustrophobic, the storytelling restrained.

True. So far so good.

It’s almost a surprise that Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a successful art photographer living in New York, can breathe, given how drained of oxygen this frustrating movie is.

Wait, what? Remove the word “frustrating,” and I would say this sentence hits it on the nose. The movie is (purposely, I would argue) drained of oxygen, because of the repressive environment of the frum community. And if Ronit seems unable to breathe – well, isn’t that the point? I can personally attest to the feeling of not being able to breathe, of gasping for air, when returning to frum environments. That Dargis felt that lack of oxygen and inability to breathe is proof of the film’s success, not of its failure.

It doesn’t seem especially airless at first, when Ronit is seen taking a portrait of a tattooed, bare-chested, much-older gent. They’re in a nice, roomy studio…

Exactly. It begins with openness and ease in Ronit’s whole persona, and that changes abruptly when she goes back to her childhood home. That’s the… whole point, Dargis. The whole point. You’ve just described a genius move of the movie, but your framing of it as a drawback is just so… not.

…and as he poses, she teasingly speaks to him about smiling, a nonchalant exchange that telegraphs some of this story’s larger concerns.

Okay, I disagree with this interpretation, but it is a valid one. I similarly disagree with Dargis’s interpretation of the beards on this tatted man and the rabbi as symbolic (in the following quote), but that’s a critical interpretation that’s at least valid.

Ronit lives in the modern age, in the here and now of groovy tattooed seniors, art photography and liberated women, but ‘Disobedience’ tracks her when she steps back in time after the death of her rabbi father (Anton Lesser), a revered religious figure in north London. Like Ronit’s portrait subject, the rabbi – seen early on delivering a sermon – is prodigiously bearded, though the other man’s body art underscores the divide separating these men and their realities. This in-between space is where Ronit now uneasily lives. She doesn’t cover her head and freely smokes, yet she also rends her clothes in mourning, ripping material with her teeth as the tears fall.

This is just… no. She does not live in the in-between, nor does she do it uneasily, at least not that we can see. Her life in NY, for all we know from the scene we’re shown, is completely separate from her previous life.

Why would she cover her head? Even if she were frum – she’s not married!

She smokes freely, yes – but in this moment it’s not an expression of her in-betweenness. Later in the film, the smoking becomes a motif that very much does carry symbolic weight, as Esti refuses a cigarette and then plucks Ronit’s lit cigarette from her hand to take a drag, charting her inner turmoil and re-blossoming disobedience. But here? It’s not a symbol of in-betweenness, just of living a secular, arty NY life.

And oh, dear lord, but way to take a really really poignant scene and reduce it to so little! She rips her shirt with her teeth, yes. It’s part of the rituals and rules surrounding mourning and grief. And her engagement with this practice is so powerful, not because she does it, but because of how long it takes her to do it, and what she does first.

The film cuts from Ronit in her studio being told she has a phone call to a close-up on her face as she walks along darkened streets. We’re left to infer that the phone call was about the man we just saw collapse and die in shul on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s no dialogue, just a quick series of shots:

Ronit walking along the night streets; Ronit dancing wildly to the pulsing music of a club; Ronit being fucked by a faceless man against the wall of the club’s bathroom, the pulsing music muted in the background – and she is being fucked, passively, as her expressionless face makes it clear she is not contributing much to the encounter other than her body; Ronit ice-skating in a rink, the camera following her face as the background music swells to fill the room and presumably her mind; Ronit sitting on a bench in the locker room, breathing deeply, exuding so much aching sadness that I began to cry before she did – and finally, Ronit grabbing her neckline, biting it, tearing it with teeth and hands, leaving her collarbone exposed and collapsing in utter exhaustion against the wall as her eyes well up with tears.

This is a brilliantly directed and acted sequence. Ronit has just found out that her father, whom she has not spoken to in years, is dead. She knows how to grieve according to Jewish rules, but she resists that and tries to deal with the overwhelming grief by drowning it in drink, dance, music, sex, the meditative rhythms of ice-skating – and none of it works.

Finally, she tears her shirt according to Jewish law – and cries.

Maybe I’m projecting, but those tears seem to me a result of both grief at her father’s death and pain at the limbo she finds herself in. That is the in-betweenness, that is the achingly painful part. Not the actions of smoking-and-tearing-clothes. But the feeling of wanting to alleviate grief, the need to deal with it somehow, the realization that the only way the grief might be alleviated is by following customs she has rejected, and the recognition that those customs will no longer work for her the way they would have if she had never left. She can find comfort in these rituals, but without the profound belief that they are divinely commanded, they are empty, hollow gestures.

Reising kriah was her last resort, and it enabled an emotional release despite her lack of belief in it. That is the in-betweenness.

Based on the novel of the same title by Naomi Alderman, ‘Disobedience’ delicately and far too bloodlessly charts the intricacies of Ronit’s return to a tight religious community that no longer wholly welcomes her.

Oh, sweetie pie. Bloodlessness is what allows a rigid community like that to survive. Emotions held in check, careful careful, don’t let them see, don’t let yourself see – the film’s bloodlessness perfectly matches the actual experience Ronit has as she returns to a tight religious community.

Besides, the entire movie is not bloodless. One of the most amazing things about the movie is the way the characters, especially Esti, become far less inhibited and rigid as the movie progresses. The movie brilliantly balances muted silence of sound, colors, body language, with bright vividness – to amazing effect.

One who does, though hesitantly, is Dovid (a very good Alessandro Nivola), a once-close comrade who is her father’s probable successor. Ronit also resumes her relationship with a former lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams), Dovid’s wife. The women’s reunion rapidly rekindles a passion that – with stolen kisses and progressively steamier intimacy – disturbs this world’s scrupulous order, a disruption that is more about hidebound tradition than about religious belief.

A mostly good summary of the plot. But that bit about the disruption being more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief” – let’s keep that in mind and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The director Sebastian Lelio should have been a good fit for this story if only because of the sensitivity he’s brought to female-driven movies like ‘Gloria.’ Although ‘Disobedience’ seems to offer him similar material – female desire up against the patriarchy – it defeats him.

Let’s just be clear here: the “female desire” of the film need not have been lesbian desire. Ronit could have been a man, and the story wouldn’t have changed very much. If Esti and “Rafi” had explored their hetero-sexuality with each other before marriage and been found out, the rav would have been horrified as well – perhaps a different kind of horrified, but still. “Rafi” may have left while Esti stayed and married someone else. With “Rafi’s” return, an old love between “Rafi” and Esti is rekindled, and Esti engages in extra-marital hetero-sex, and the storyline changes not all that much.

Yes, this is a wonderful queer story. But that’s not what it is mainly about. It is, as Dargis says, about “female desire up against the patriarchy.” But as to why it defeats Lelio:

He handles the story’s cloistered confines with visual intelligence, finding beauty in austerity though to an aestheticizing fault, as when Ronit walks amid a procession of mourners in which everyone seems arranged by height. The problem isn’t the scene, which is gracefully shot and staged. It’s that you notice the visual design but have no sense of – or feeling for – the faith binding these mourners.

First of all, I paid careful attention to this scene the second time I watched the movie, after I had read this review. That procession is not at all arranged by height… Dargis must have misremembered it? I don’t know. All I know is – that scene looks aesthetically exactly like small processions through the streets of Boro Park or Midwood or Williamsburg might look (except for the mixing of men and women). I didn’t notice the visual design of it, and I think Dargis was projecting some of her own biases onto her perception of that scene.

As to the lack of feeling for the faith binding these mourners – that’s because faith is not what binds them!

Remember how Dargis said earlier that the disruption is more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief”? She seems to have forgotten her excellent point here – this procession is not about belief or faith. It’s about adherence to ritual and custom. And hoo boy, do we get a sense of that in this scene!

That puts a heavy burden on Ms. McAdams, who with some cursory lines of dialogue, a lot of brooding dark looks and some behind-doors weeping needs to make a persuasive case for why Esti stayed in this world and with her husband. Ms. McAdams, who lets you see the eddies of emotion rippling over Esti’s face as she pulls off her wig, does some lovely work here to convey a woman agonizing over her existential situation.

I categorically disagree with the first part of this analysis.

She does not have “cursory lines of dialogue.” She has some of the most powerful lines of dialogue in the film. In the scene embedded in Dargis’s review, as Esti and Ronit walk together, you can even see how Lelio highlights one of her most anguished and poignant lines of dialogue: Ronit questions Esti about her life, and asks her “what about you?” Esti’s vehement response, “That is me!” is amazing. Lelio explains why he chose to cut to a close-up on Rachel McAdams then. Here’s my take on and reaction to that line:

Esti is expressing an internal struggle so beautifully, so painfully. She may not tell us why she stayed in this world, but as someone who stayed in that world far too long, I fully understood why Esti did as well.

On my second viewing, on Friday evening after I had read this review, I paid attention to whether the film lets the audience see this, or if I was just projecting my own experience onto Esti. I think the former, to some degree.

The film doesn’t hit us over the head with “here’s why she stayed.” I don’t think Esti is even meant to understand why she stayed.

And I don’t think the film wants to give us a tidy explanation for why Esti stayed. This is a complex, painful, multi-layered situation, and the film does a beautiful job of portraying that complete confusion, that lack of self-awareness, that repression of self-awareness in order to stay with the familiar.

Esti was heartbroken when Ronit left, after all. The movie never tells us how old they were, but one assumes they were seventeen or eighteen. And Esti did have a support system of sorts in the rav, who advised her to marry Dovid. It sounds like she didn’t believe what the rav did, that marriage would “cure” her, but I really don’t think that the movie needs to explicitly show or explain that staying with what’s comfortable and familiar is often the default.

Later in the film, as Ronit leaves to catch a flight, Esti says, “It’s always easier to leave, isn’t it?” That, combined with an earlier statement to Ronit about how she profoundly believes, and how the word of Hashem is her life, should be enough for the viewer to understand the intense internal struggle that led to Esti’s choice to stay.

The movie never tells us why Ronit left, either. I find it interesting that Dargis wants an explanation for why Esti stayed, but doesn’t ask the same of Ronit. All we know of Ronit’s departure is that her father caught her and Esti engaging in sexual activity, and Ronit abruptly left. Why did she cut off ties with Esti and Dovid, if they were so close? Why didn’t she take Esti with her? Or rather, why didn’t Ronit and Esti leave together? Dargis seems wholly unconcerned with these questions, focusing instead on one that is in fact answered in the film.

Yet even as she and the filmmakers – Mr. Lelio shares script credit with Rebecca Lenkiewicz – thicken the texture, adding realistic details that should energize the scenes, the movie insistently puts a secular frame around its story, leaving little room for the metaphysical.

What?? Secular?? Metaphysical?? Hang on, hang on…

Part of what makes Ms. McAdams and Ms. Weisz such appealing performers is how persuasively they convey the inner lives of the characters they play, which makes it easy to put yourself on their side. Yet ‘Disobedience’ is so emphatically on Ronit’s side from the get go that the character has no mystery, which in turn robs the audience of the very possibility of discovery or surprise. Ronit is an uncomplicated exile from patriarchy, and demonstrably ill at ease among the Orthodox. In this, she clearly serves as a proxy for the secular viewer, who in ‘Disobedience’ is invited to intimately witness the agony of faith but not its potentially more unfamiliar, more discomfiting ecstasy.

Okay, okay, so much wrong with this paragraph. Let’s start with the end and go backwards:

  1. Yes, indeed, this movie is about the agony of faith. It is not about the ecstasy. If you want to see a movie about the ecstasy of faith, that’s fine – but go see a different movie. That’s just not what this movie is about. It’s like watching Spotlight and saying “this movie doesn’t show how amazing a priest’s mentorship of young boys could be.” Well, no, because this movie is about how priests groom and then rape young boys…
  2. That Ronit serves as a proxy for the secular viewer is not a bad point. But there does need to be an entry point for viewers who do not understand the ultra-Orthodox world, after all. And having someone who left come back after years away is an excellent way of doing that – of having a focal character who knows the world and can therefore move in it semi-effectively, but to whom everything is strange – as strange as it is to the secular audience. At the same time, the non-secular audience and newly-secular audience (eg: moi) gets a different understanding of the film as we experience it through Ronit. Because we more viscerally understand the pain, the wild discomfort of being back in this community. It is a good thing that Ronit serves as a proxy, as a focal character, for the audience to experience this world. (Incidentally, in the Q&A with Rachel Wiesz, Alessandro Nivola, and Naomi Alderman that I attended on Friday night, Rachel and Naomi talked about how the book is written from Ronit’s point of view, and how that affects the way the story is told in the film.)
  3. Yes, the movie is emphatically on Ronit’s side against the oppressive frum patriarchy. Again, if Dargis wanted a movie that gives voice to both sides, she should have known that this is not the movie for it. This movie tells a story – obviously not the one Dargis wanted. Besides, Rachel Weisz does a wonderful job of showing us her interiority, and I found myself surprised and delighted by revelations of her character at times (most notably at the Friday night shabbos meal when she can no longer restrain herself and gets all snarky at the rebetzin – you go, girl!)

Okay, so that’s it for my “critique” of Manohla Dargis’s abysmal review. Next post will have some of my own thoughts, independent of this crap.

Can I Go Back & Rewrite My Adolescence?

A while ago, I posted about a song from my high school days. I examined the rhetoric of the song, arguing that the use of a first-person “I,” in the context of an inspirational shabbaton, forces the singer to assume the identity of the speaker.

One of the biggest points of critique I got about the post was that the song was, after all, composed and sung by the students, not the teachers or religious leaders.

So how could I argue that the rhetorical effects of the song were being imposed on us students by oppressive leaders? Isn’t this simply an indication that the teenage girls did in fact believe these things?

Well, no. It’s far more complicated than that.

As I continue sifting through the ephemera of my youth (because I am most definitely a masochist), I came across some high school student publications that I was involved in. One of my best friends was in charge of L’chu, the major student publication of Bais Yaakov High School, and I helped with editing, printing, collating, etc. – and I also contributed a fair number of written pieces.

These stories and articles I wrote are at times horrifying. I nearly cried a number of times as I read the words I wrote – the words I wrote! – when I was in twelfth grade.

I wish I could brush it off and say, “well, I was a high school teenager, what could I have known.” But as high school students all around the country today demonstrate, it’s quite possible for teenagers to have stronger moral fiber than adults.

The difference between these teenagers and my fellow BY-students and myself, I think, is that they are fighting against the wider world, but more often than not they have their parents’ and others’ support – their moral standpoints reflect their parents’ (though of course not always).

Us? We would have had to realize that what our parents and teachers were telling us was wrong.

In some ways, I think (or like to think) that I can see some stirrings of misgivings in the content and style of what I wrote.

There’s one story that is so disgustingly racist, but I can see an attempt on my part to be non-racist – I just didn’t know how to do it then. I was stuck in thought patterns that had been ingrained in me, and I hadn’t had a chance to learn how to break free of them yet.

lchu horribly racist

There’s one story that winds up arguing that everything is hashgacha pratis (divine providence) even when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for why things happen. But I can sense (or like to think I can sense) that it’s an attempt to grapple with the beginnings of disenchantment with the idea of god orchestrating everything and everything happening for a reason – I just didn’t know how to get there yet. I was stuck in thought patterns that had been ingrained in me, and I hadn’t had a chance to learn how to break free of them yet.

lchu hasgacha pratis

I’ve been worrying about publishing these on my blog, and I’ve been talking to some friends about the horror I feel when reading my own words (over ten years old by now, and yet still – my words).

Then I found this blog post, by a medievalist who published an excellent article about Beowulf in 2004. In light of recent neo-Nazi / white supremacist appropriations of medieval culture and symbolism, he worried that some of what he wrote could be used as fuel for the neo-Nazis’ fire.

So he wrote a blog post to explain how he went wrong over ten years ago, and pinned the link to it to the top of his Twitter account with the caption “Can you go back & rewrite your own scholarship?”

It’s not quite the same thing as what I’m doing, of course. His article is published, is being widely read, and is archived forever. My pieces exist only in print, and it’s more than likely that I have one of only three or four surviving copies.

But I think there is purpose to making those texts public, and working through them, analyzing them, reading them closely… They are important in showing how the Bais Yaakov / charedi education system works – especially when you consider that the person who wrote those things (me) is now horrified at them, and quite likely was uncomfortable with them even when I wrote them.

My plan is to post detailed critiques of pieces from these publications – coming soon! (That’s why the above images are so tiny – I’ll post better images and transcriptions when I write about each one.)

lchu cheshvan cover

Student-Teaching

One of the great things about engaging as a student in the very academic endeavor I teach is that one enriches the other. As I lead my students through the process of writing, I am engaged in the very same process under my own teacher’s guidance. And if I pay careful attention, I can see my frustrations and anxieties matching my students, and I can harness my experience with each perspective to inform and enrich the other.

This renewed realization (which is kind of a truism, isn’t it) was prompted most recently by a burst of inspiration I had as I was forced to write and produce pages for my dissertation workshop to read.

After my orals had been passed and my prospectus approved, it took me a long time to start writing the dissertation in any real way. Part of this was due to life events that I could not have predicted or prevented, but part of it was paralyzing fear of getting started.

I wanted a roadmap. I wanted to draw up a schedule, I wanted to know which chapter I would tackle first, I wanted to set myself deadlines.

My method of teaching the writing process to my students includes moments when I refuse to give them guidance.

I’ve previously written on this blog about my struggle to balance broad prompts (which invite imagination and passion) with specific prompts (which provide direction and clear expectations). But even when the prompts are very specific, students want to know where exactly to start, what exactly to write, how exactly to structure the essay. Up to a certain point, I of course provide that guidance. But eventually, if students continue to display anxiety and a desire for hand-holding, I stop answering their questions, and I say, “just start writing – the answers will come to you as you write.”

By this point in the writing/teaching process, I would have already discussed the concepts of writing-to-learn, of drafting, of finding out what you think by writing about it, etc. But the time always comes for them to dive in and explore, discover the joy (and/or nail-biting anxiety) of this all on their own.

Often students will say, “But I have so little to say about this! I can say everything I have to say in three sentences! I can’t write a full 3-page draft!” Start writing anyway, I tell them, feigning a lack of mercy.

I know that they will definitely get more than three sentences, and that when they give their draft to their classmates for peer review (and to me for comments), their readers will have questions and will point out where their “very obvious” statements need expansion and explanation.

When it comes to my own writing, I don’t have the audacity to ask my advisor to lay out the roadmap for me. But I wanted to ask for that.

So instead, I drew up plans and went to his office, and presented them to him in hopes that he would revise the plan for me and tell me what I should read and which specific parts I should start with… He didn’t. (My advisor, by the way, has legendary amounts of patience.)

So I spent time wondering: Should I start with the introduction, because that will set up the framework for the whole project? Maybe I should start with the chapter on fables, because that genre is the most didactic (of the genres I’m working with) and that would allow me to dive into the historical documents about education as well? Or maybe I should start with the chapter on romance, because that’s the genre I’m most familiar with and can knock out a first draft fairly quickly? Or, maybe the opposite – I should start with dream visions, because I know least about them, so the bulk of work I need to do would be at the beginning of my writing, and I could get to romance at the end, when I just want to finish already?

(As it happens, it’s a good thing I didn’t start with dream visions, because they are gone from the dissertation, cut after the chapters on fable and romance expanded into two separate chapters for each, kind of like an amoeba growing so big and then splitting into two amoebas through asexual reproduction / binary fission – hello, ninth grade biology! – and you can’t tell which is the parent and which is the child. Ooh, I like that!)

Eventually, I had to write something to hand in to the workshop. So I wrote some pages for the chapter on romance. I presented them to the group, got feedback, and had some new ideas about the overall project.

For my next submission, I did some writing that would be part of the introduction. It was full of half-formed ideas, I didn’t include the citations and references I needed (I wrote down things like “add Orme’s thing here,” but I didn’t take the time at this point to actually go check what Orme says about it).

Again, the feedback from the dissertation workshop caused my mind to go wild with explosions of ideas and possibilities, and I revised half of those pages for my third submission, expanding on some ideas that I hadn’t fully explored in the previous draft. And yet again, the feedback from the group helped me rethink the structure of the introduction, which helped me rethink the overall structure of the entire dissertation, and now I’m roaring to go again…

And it hit me: I had been acting exactly like my students, dragging my feet because I couldn’t see how the end product would come from the material and ideas I had in the moment. And the methods that worked were exactly the same as the advice I give my students: just start writing the damn thing.

An amazing aspect of the dissertation workshop is also getting to see others’ works-in-progress, to watch their drafts becoming light-years clearer with each revision. We often don’t see that on a graduate or professional level – we’ll look over friends’ and colleagues’ drafts when they’re confident enough to share it, but not before that. In this workshop format, though, we by necessity share drafts that are, as Anne Lamott says, shitty. We all expect our undergraduate students to produce shitty first drafts, and we encourage that as part of the writing process. But it is so good to see graduate-level versions of shitty first drafts! (Sorry, friends, but you get to see my shitty first drafts too, so…)

I’m not teaching any college courses this semester, but I plan to take this renewed realization with me when I plan my next composition syllabus.

Image: the first and last page of my latest draft, with comments from the workshop scribbled all over them (deliberately blurred!)

IMG_20180323_175722

Race and Religion in The King of Tars: An Undergraduate Lesson

This is a pretty cut-and-dry account of a lesson I planned  and how it went. I’m sharing because 1) I’m proud of it; 2) I think it might be useful to others to see the overall lesson and the twists and turns of my reasoning for each step; and 3) it’s a good way to force myself to actually take notes on what I do… 

After what’s been described by some as the garbage-fire summer of medieval studies, I decided to switch out one text on my syllabus for The King of Tars, a medieval text about a Christian princess who is forced to marry a Saracen sultan. I usually mention race in medieval texts when we talk about Marie de France’s description of the fairy queen in Lanval, and in reference to some lines in Chaucer. But I wanted to foreground discussions of racial and religious in/tolerance more clearly, and this text was the way to do it.

I prefaced the two-day discussion with a heads-up about what we’ll focus on in the text, but I gave no further direction than that. I had switched the text after the semester had already started, so my students were aware of the change and they knew why I had made the change.

[The King of Tars is not available from any publisher in undergrad-friendly text, but thankfully a colleague had painstakingly translated and glossed the entire text for her students and graciously allowed me to use her translation. I have relied on the Norton Anthology for this class until now, but I intend to “resist the canon” a lot more in future sections I teach.]

On the first day discussing the text, I began class with a few slides to ground the discussion in the urgency the field medieval studies feels now: to directly address race, namely the alt-right / Nazis’ coopting of medieval symbols and imagery and the inaccuracy of the claim to a “pure” white past.

I showed them screenshots of Twitter posts, beginning with this, which delighted them:

I also gave them a brief overview, explaining that the idea of “race” developed long after the Middle Ages. So although the text definitely refers to whiteness and blackness, we need to dig into the text to figure out how it’s being portrayed and viewed, rather than relying on contemporary ideas about race.

After this presentation, we reviewed major plot points, and then moved into group work.

From the start of the semester, I’d begun each class with a ten-minute writing exercise in which I asked students to write down: one quote from the text; one comment about the text; one question about the text.

This time, I asked them to pair up and to find four quotes from the text, one in each of the following categories: race; religion; women; children. I acknowledged that these are broad categories, and I said that I’m not giving any further explanation for them because I want each pair to interpret the four topics as they see fit.

As I rotated among the pairs, many asked me to help them figure out which category a specific quote belonged to. “We want to quote this line, but it could fit into either the women category or the race category,” etc. I told them to think about which category they want to put it in – what interests them about this quote? Of course, there will be overlap among categories, but I want them each to choose one category for each quote.

Once each pair had chosen four quotes, I asked them to write one of their quotes (with line citations) on the board. I had written the four categories on the board and drawn lines separating them into columns. I stood back as they each chose one quote and wrote it in the appropriate category.

The Result: When everyone was done writing on the board, there were two quotes each for the categories of women, children, and race. Under religion, there were ten quotes. (With 29 students in the class, this means at least a few pairs wrote more than one quote, but I’m not complaining!)

I asked the class to look at the board and think about what this text is about, based on the quotes they focused on: is it about race, or is it about religion? Of course, they all agreed that this text is about religion.

We moved into an intense discussion about representations of race and religion in the text, particularly the way the sultan becomes white when he converts.

A few students asked about the confusing portrayal of Islam in the text (Mohammed as a god or saint rather than a prophet, Juipter and Apollo and idols as part of what appears to be a pantheon of gods), and we talked about how the text calls the sultan a “pagan,” a “heathen,” a “Saracen,” and the way the text uses these terms to refer to both non-Christians and non-whites without really allowing for the possibility of a black Christian or a white non-Christian. We discussed the text’s focus on presenting the sultan as different, as non-Christian, not on presenting an accurate portrayal of Islam.

We left off by the end of class with a number of questions that students posed about the text as they began to think in these terms, not least of which was: Aren’t the Christians as bad as the Saracens by the end, when they kill everyone?

Before wrapping up for the day, I handed out copies of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s chapter “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” (recommended by a few colleagues – thanks!) We read the introduction together, wading past references to de Man and Foucault to get to the undergrad-comprehensible part. After making sure everyone understood what to expect from the essay, I asked them all to read it for the following class, when we would discuss it and apply it to The King of Tars.

Day 2:

I reviewed the concept of differentiating between the medieval text and contemporary interpretation by dividing the board in half and asking students to review what we had discussed in the previous session. As they spoke, I took notes, placing each idea in the appropriate column.

We then returned to discussion of the questions we’d been left with at the end of the previous session, using the two columns on the board to keep the medieval and contemporary sensibilities from getting jumbled together. I particularly wanted them to keep this distinction in mind when asking “aren’t the Christians just as bad?”

Finally, we moved to the most intense part of the lesson. The class divided themselves into groups of three, which meant we had nine groups. I assigned each group one of Cohen’s theses, with two groups working on Thesis II and two on Thesis IV. I asked them to 1) review Cohen’s points and make sure everyone in the group understood the arguments, and 2) apply these arguments to The King of Tars, looking at specific lines or moments in the text which either support or refute Cohen’s claims about “monster culture.”

Since this is a 200-level class, I expected students to struggle with many of the ideas (a 300-level class would likely struggle too!). I sat with each group for a while, helping them work through the ideas and doing mini-lectures about each group’s assigned thesis. The small group was ideal, as students got to ask specific questions of me and of each other, and I was able to ascertain that all three students understood before I moved on to the next group. [Side-note: at one point, I thought “if this is what the UK tutorial model is like, sign me up right now!”]

The ideas that resulted from this group discussion were amazing. Students at first identified almost every character as a monster, but then they revised and edited, carefully differentiating between the perspectives of the medieval reader and our contemporary class. They questioned themselves and each other as they worked, forcing themselves to really think deeply about Cohen’s assertions and the text – on a level I would expect from an upper-level literature class. They worked through ideas about “pure body” and “pure culture,” they looked up lots of words they had never encountered before and might not ever encounter again.

They at times circled around to previous notions of monsters (violent, feared, hated) but caught themselves and each other and went back to wrapping their minds around the idea of a monster as a symbol and manifestation of cultural fears, anxieties, desires, and fantasies, etc.

For the wrap-up, each group presented an explanation of Cohen’s thesis and an analysis of The King of Tars through that lens. Again, I took notes on the board as they spoke (see image below).

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(Note: “princess” should have been crossed out by the end of the lesson, I just forgot to do it on the board! Also note the distinction between medieval and contemporary views under Thesis II.)

We didn’t come to any hard-and-fast conclusions about what the text does in regard to medieval portrayals of race, but we did begin to dig into the development of monstrosity and difference in the Middle Ages, and to put it in context with our contemporary perceptions. And since I tend to leave many discussions like that (“so what’s the answer? whatever you can provide evidence for”), my students by then understood the benefit of simply raising questions about a text.

Some of them chose to return to these questions in their papers, which I may write about at another point…

I'm Published!

This post isn’t going to say much – I just finally got my copy of the book in which my essay appears, and I am ecstatic and want to share the news 😉 (I am also reminded of my parents’ chasidish neighbor, who always sincerely said that she wants to read my work when I publish it, and am wondering whether I want to contact her and say “here, look!”)

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Narrow vs. Broad Writing Prompts [or] Full-Class vs. Individual Writing Instruction

In my first few semesters of teaching Freshman Composition, I wanted to assign papers that weren’t just boring, fill-in-the-requirements topics. I wanted to give my students the opportunity to explore topics they were interested in themselves.

After all, I reasoned, although I organize my syllabus around a specific topic (usually language, although I’ve done fairy tales a couple of times), this is first and foremost a writing class. It’s a class designed to prepare students for writing throughout the rest of their college years.

It makes sense, I argued to myself, to allow a class with diverse majors to each choose a topic that will interest them and benefit their future writing.

As I quickly discovered, providing a very open-ended essay prompt leads nowhere useful. I’m equal parts amused and horrified at this assignment prompt (look how cute I was, trying to run a 20-student class as a small intimate group):

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In a later semester, I provided a list of topic ideas, based on the syllabus and what we’d been discussing all semester long.

(Note: The assignment below was for English 111, which has no research component. The assignment above was for English 121, the second semester of Freshman Composition, which does include a research requirement.)

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This is a lot better than what I had started out with. But it still resulted in frustration on my part and my students.

They wanted more direct instructions. I wanted them to tap into their own interests and areas of knowledge.

They wanted to know how to get a good grade. I wanted them to delight in the process of research and discovery.

For the next few semesters, I continued tweaking the assignment prompt, trying to find the balance between providing specific, narrow, limiting, boring prompts and broad, exciting, open-ended prompts.

This semester, I think I finally got it right.

After each small addition and change over the past few semesters, I am satisfied with the process.

My students were excited about the research process (okay, most of them were , not all!), and they were not frustrated with having to come up with their own specific topic; I enjoyed their process of discovery, and I was not frustrated by their focus on grades or the inevitable bore of grading 25 papers on the same topic…

The key, I found, lies not in the assignment prompt itself, but in the way we work on the paper.

Last fall, I discovered that my school has a laptop cart that I could reserve for a class, allowing each student to have their own laptop. I used the laptops for peer review and group work, and loved it. And I realized that this is actually essential to teaching writing (at least the way I want to teach it).

In the past, when I walked my students through the research process, it was via one computer screen that was projected to the board at the front of the class. I would ask for one or two volunteers to explain their topics or research questions, and we would use keywords to search the library website, we would open some links, skim some abstracts and articles.

I would try to model how a research question could change as you discover more information and sources, and how you could modify your searches if you’re not getting anything relevant, etc.

And then I would tell my students to go home, and come back for next class with two tentative sources.

But when every student has a laptop in front of them, when they each settle into their own head-space and the room goes quiet except for the tapping of keys and scratching of pencils, a number of good things happen:

1) students are working in a quiet environment, which (by their own admission) doesn’t happen very often;

2) students are spending more than fifteen minutes scrambling for any random sources they can find before class;

3) I am able to circulate among the students and spend time with each one.

Of course, the third is the most important, although the first two benefits are nothing to sneeze at.

My process this semester:

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Part 1:

I assigned the paper, and we read through each prompt as a class. I asked if anyone had ideas about what they want to write about. A few students, who had been laser-focused on a specific topic all semester long (and from whose papers I had drawn some of the details of each prompt) had ideas. The rest did not.

I then asked each student to take out a sheet of paper (or open a new document on their laptops) and to write “Pygamlion / My Fair Lady” at the top of one side, “Language and Science” halfway down the page, and “Language and History” at the top of the second side.

I gave them these instructions: “For each broad topic, we’ll do a five-minute free-write. Let your thoughts about each topic flow – and if you don’t really understand the topic or prompt, write about your lack of understanding! Ask yourself questions, talk about some things you already know about this topic, wonder about some details you might already know but want to know more about…”

After fifteen minutes, during which they wrote about each topic for five minutes, I asked them to look over what they wrote and take any additional notes that come to mind as they reread their scribbles.

I then randomly called on a few students to read what they had written for each prompt. Most prefaced their comments with “but I don’t know if I want to write about this,” and I emphasized again and again that that’s fine – we’re at the stage of exploring possibilities now. No one needs to settle on a topic just yet.

After we heard rambling thoughts from a few students for each topic, I asked the class to look over their notes one more time. By this point, about half were able to say they were leaning toward one topic or another. More than a few students pointed out that their classmates’ thoughts had sparked ideas about their own notes, and had shown them how they might think about their own potential topics from a new angle.

For the last half hour of this class, I asked a few students who had clear ideas about potential topics to allow me to use their ideas while I modeled how to look for sources online, as I did for the first research paper they wrote earlier in the semester. The assignment for the next class session was to continue thinking about their topics.

But I did not ask them to have sources ready for next class.

Part 2:

I couldn’t get the laptop cart for this class… But I had told my students that they should bring their own laptops if possible, and that they should use their phones if that wasn’t possible.

We went around the room and each student briefly told us what their chosen topic was. A number of students were still unsure what exactly they wanted to write about, and a few had multiple possibilities. I responded with guided questions, sometimes leading students to think more broadly about their topics and sometimes more narrowly, and at times asking whether the multiple possibilities were not in fact two prongs of a larger argument…

After a brief review of the skills we had discussed in the previous class, I let my students settle in and begin to look for their own sources. I did not take questions for the first fifteen minutes (because there were a few students in this class who relied on my guidance too much, who were so anxious about getting it right that they didn’t see how much they can do on their own).

And then I began circulating, spending time with each student as if it were a session in the writing center.

First of all, I absolutely loved being a writing tutor as an undergraduate, and I jump at every opportunity to sit and work with someone individually on their papers.

But it was also really useful to my students, because the kind of guidance I can give about narrowing one’s topic or using sources to refine one’s argument, etc., is limited when it’s in a full-class setting. When I get to sit individually with each student, on the other hand, I can teach these skills much more usefully.

For the last fifteen minutes of class, we did another round-the-room, where I asked students to read the titles and authors of at least two potential sources they had found. This was partly to make sure they wrote down the titles and authors, so that when we discussed proper citation in a future class, they would have that information available. It was also to see how their topics may have changed.

That was perhaps the most rewarding exercise of this whole process.

I joked a few times about how clear it was that the writing process is a learning process, that “do you see now why I kept telling you that if you start with a rigid thesis, your research will be frustrating but if you go into it with a semi-question, it will be rewarding?”

They groaned at my ridiculous cheeriness, but they did see.

Part 3:

The papers they wrote were varied in topic, with theses that were quite obviously unique and specific to them. Many wrote about the language histories of their own backgrounds and cultures (the politics of why the same island speaks both French and Spanish; the development of Californian-Spanish from the early twentieth century to now, based on demographic changes and political events; the extinction and survival indigenous languages in the Dominican Republic; the history of Mixtec), or about biological or psychological issues they care about (a number of students in this class are psych majors – they wrote about effects of parent-child language patterns, about the effects of hearing loss, about sign language versus cochlear implants), or about aspects of Pygmalion and / or My Fair Lady that got them fired up (one student who is passionate about fashion wrote about the clothing styles and how the fabrics and cuts of Eliza’s dress signify class difference). A few wrote about topics obviously chosen just to fulfill the assignment, and that’s fine too.

The best part of all this is that the papers themselves are more than just the five-paragraph essay, that they are researched well with far more effort than I’ve ever seen before, and that they are written with a combination of personal passion and “objective” argumentation.

My conclusions:

  1. the assignment prompt itself needs to be balanced between broad and narrow (duh);
  2. and even in a fairly large class, when students don’t have time to come to office hours, it is still possible to provide individualized writing instruction.

Shakespeare Shenanigans

Last semester when I taught Twelfth Night, I led my students in creating a “relationship map” on the board. We delighted  in the ridiculous web of relationships and interactions, and we then went on to discuss what the play suggests about love, identity, attraction, adoration, etc.

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This semester, I decided to expand that activity a bit. After they read Acts I-III for today, I asked my students to work in groups and create their own maps on paper (or laptops). One member from each group then came up to the board to draw their maps in one of five squares. The sixth square was reserved for me.

Once they had all drawn their maps, I asked them to crowd around the board and peruse their classmates’ maps. I stood at a distance behind them and let them comment and exclaim without my interference. (Except for when one student said “What’s with that one, it’s mad confusing,” and another said “that’s the professor’s!” and I laughed out loud…)

Finally, I asked them to sit down again and free-write for five minutes about “relationships, connections, interactions, identity, and / or love,” based on their process of creating the map and based on their observations of each other’s maps.

Pretty much every topic and observation I wanted to highlight was raised by their reflections. (They raised themes of disguise, pretense, gender, sexuality, status, and emotion in addition to the ones I had listed.)

We’ll continue the discussion next class, after they’ve finished reading the final two acts of the play. They’ll be reading these final two acts with a clearer idea of what some events might mean, and with the question firmly in their mind: “What does this play suggest about all these themes?”

I did almost no lecture for this class, though I will do some next class, when we watch clips from various productions and I provide a bit more background on some of the relevant context.

Pacing in a Literature Class: A Bit of Luck

My class is usually really lively and loud. We dive into texts and argue about interpretations, and I allow (and encourage!) a lot of outraged / shocked / delighted exclamations. After all, one of the goals of the class (as stated on the syllabus) is to learn how to enjoy and appreciate older texts.

On the day before we read John Donne, I realized I needed to change tack. I gave a brief overview of Donne’s life, and then a quick summary of what to expect when reading “The Flea,” and I realized that the atmosphere of fun would quickly lead to inappropriate comments when talking about a very sexy / erotic / graphic poem.

I immediately took on a serious demeanor and asked my class to please be serious: “We can have fun with it afterwards,” I said, “but let’s first get the actual ideas down.” They quieted down for the next couple of minutes until the end of class.

As it happened, I was fighting the last days of a cold the next week, as we dug into Donne, so my pace was naturally slower and quieter. It worked well.

It meant that while we talked about the Early Modern idea of semen being produced when the blood churns and froths, students exclaimed in surprise – but we stayed on track. I may have overemphasized the philosophical parts of the poem at the expense of the really fun parts… But it was necessary, and I don’t regret it.

What I discovered, accidentally, was something very valuable about pacing.

First: My own strengths lie in medieval literature, towards the beginning of the semester. When we get to the early modern texts, I can teach them of course – but I haven’t engaged with them in my own scholarship the way I have with medieval texts. The slower pace was very useful for me, as I couldn’t pull random facts out in middle of class as easily, and I couldn’t make exciting connections as much as I had until that point. I could do a solid job with the early modern – but nothing as flashy as what I can do with medieval.

Second: Early modern texts tend to be in shorter pieces, (sonnets, or epic poems easily broken into chunks) and therefore easier to focus on for intense close readings. They’re also slightly more difficult to read than the translated Middle English texts we’d been using (other than Chaucer, which we read in the original ME with lots of glosses). So the slower pace, where we read poems line by line rather than discussing sweeping plots, worked very well.

Third: Early modern poetry felt more “real” to some students than the medieval texts, and they had a harder time keeping track of the historical context. A number of them kept slipping into anachronism, interpreting poems about love or death according to their contemporary understanding and disregarding the poem’s original context. Reading the poems slowly and carefully together helped me head this off each time it happened, before the misunderstandings and misinterpretations had a chance to snowball beyond possibility of correction.

And finally: It was a great way to bring together all the skills students had been honing all semester through class discussion and papers, as they are now more confident in their abilities and excited about the literature. I very much like that at the beginning of the semester, with the loud and lively atmosphere, students felt emboldened to make wild assertions about the texts, always reigned in by the question they started asking each other after getting sick of hearing it from me: “can you find evidence for that in the text?”

But I had been getting the feeling, for a few weeks, that students felt frustrated and unable to see just how much their skills had grown since the beginning of the semester. After a few sessions of intense in-class reading and discussion of shorter poems, in which I made sure to point out critical skills we’ve been practicing and they now use with a fair amount of ease, I can see that they do realize how much they’ve learned.

I didn’t plan to slow down the pace of each class session toward the end of the semester. But I am really glad it worked out that way.

Fighting the Past: Medieval Dragons in Children’s and YA Literature

I presented this paper at the Pearl Kibre Medieval Society’s conference on “Pre-Modernisms” at the CUNY Graduate Center in October 2016. This is essentially the same paper, cleaned up slightly for written publication as opposed to oral presentation.


In the fields of children’s and Young Adult literature, there’s a lot of discussion about the appearance of dragons. Some focus on their playfulness, some on their uncanniness, some on the facets of Eastern versus Western dragons. In this paper, I’m focusing on a narrower set of dragons – defined first by their appearance in children’s or Young Adult texts, and next by their relevance or resemblance to medieval dragons.

From the very broad survey I did of children’s and YA texts, I found that in almost every case where the Middle Ages are evoked explicitly or via “medieval-feel” details, the dragons serve a similar symbolic function as their medieval counterparts. In the medieval texts, the dragons were themselves symbolic of something that needed to be eradicated. In contemporary texts, the dragon often functions as a character within a narrative about an unwanted social reality or ideology that must be eradicated.

I. The Anglo-Saxon Dragon as Pagan

In Anglo-Saxon literature, the dragon existed outside of society. It tended to live in prehistoric burial mounds, hoard treasure, and lead a solitary existence. In a discussion of the dragon in Beowulf, Sarah Semple argues that the fear of dragons and their imagined home in old burial mounds are due to the fear of a pagan past, and a desire to create distance between that pagan past and the Anglo-Saxon Christian present.

While early Anglo-Saxon culture included the creation of burial mounds, these were mostly reserved for victims of execution – goodness was not associated with burial mounds.

There’s other textual evidence that burial mounds were feared – like Aelfric’s warning against witches raising the dead near burial mounds, based on the pagan idea that the spirits of those buried there were always nearby.

The Anglo-Saxon dragon became associated with the fear of Britain’s own pagan past.

Of the contemporary texts I looked at, the dragon in Robin McKinley’s book The Hero and the Crown most closely fits this symbolism. One of the underlying themes of the novel is about separating oneself from one’s past, and recognizing one’s own goodness despite a terrible lineage.

Picture5To briefly outline the plot: Aerin is a princess of Damar, but there are rumors about her mother being a witch from “the North.” Northerners are known to Damarians all along as evil, and later in the book they’re revealed to be not quite human. Aerin grapples with this suspicion of having evil origins for a significant portion of the book. The form of the novel very much follows a typical adventure story, and as she embarks on her quest, she learns that the evil threatening Damar is actually her own uncle, a Northerner. But she also learns that Damarians came from the North too – they migrated south before the Northerners used their magic to become demonic and less than human.

Although Aerin is more closely related to the North than the rest of  her Damarian compatriots, they all have a connection to this evil – their own past contains the potential for the same evil, and they must continually prove that they have chosen a different path.

When the novel opens, dragons are a threat, but there are only smaller dragons who are mostly annoyances and not any real threat. The big, monstrous dragons of the past have been eliminated – though there is a legend that one or two of the old dragons are still alive, just sleeping, biding their time.

When the North begins to be a problem for Damar, the old dragon Maur wakes up. Later, it becomes clear that the Northerners actually used their magic to awaken the dragon. Thus Aerin’s fight with this great dragon, and her subsequent fights against humans and demonic Northerners, are representative of her fighting the past – her own more immediate demonic past, as well as Damar’s distant past potential for evil.

She has to go so far as get rid of the dragon’s skull, which had been kept as a trophy in the palace. Even the merest presence of a reminder of all this, weakens her people, puts them into a mood of despair. Only when she shoves the huge skull out of the city gates do the people regain hope and optimism.

II. The Anglo-Saxon Dragon as Anti-Social

The second reason to fear an Anglo-Saxon dragon, beyond its association with a pagan past, was its anti-social hoarding behavior. Anglo-Saxon society depended on the exchange of treasure and goods in order to create and maintain social bonds. We see this in Beowulf when Hrothgar distributes treasure to his men, and in the symbolism of Beowulf’s treasure being buried with him and not distributed to his men, who had been too cowardly to support him in his final battle against the dragon.

As a hoarder of treasure, the dragon was not just selfish or greedy – it was negating the methods of interaction essential to maintaining a well-functioning society. If one individual were to amass wealth and sit on it – literally, as the dragon does – the fabric of social bonds would be torn, and society would fall apart.

Picture7.jpgC.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia features a dragon like this. Eustace Scrubb accidentally winds up in Narnia with his cousins, the Pevensies, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a pretty terrible little boy, and everybody hates him. He undergoes a character transformation by the end of the novel, but there’s one point where he physically transforms into a dragon. Lewis explicitly draws a connection between Eustace’s character and this physical transformation.

Eustace is reluctant to join the others in an expedition, but he goes along because he’s in a strange land and has no hope of surviving on his own. But at one point he wanders away from the traveling group – a selfish act, because they can’t leave him there, so they can’t move on until they find him and bring him back. He comes across a dragon’s hoard, plays with the gold and puts on an armlet, and then falls asleep atop the pile of treasure.

As a result of sleeping on a dragon’s hoard and being filled with “greedy, dragonish thoughts,” Eustace changes into an actual dragon. This wouldn’t happen when any individual sleeps on the dragon’s hoard, of course. It only happens because Eustace has already proven himself to be greedy, selfish, whiny, and generally intolerable. He does not know how to behave as a member of society, so he’s the perfect candidate for turning into a dragon.

His time as a dragon, ironically, helps him learn to become a better-behaved member of society, and everyone likes him by the end, after he’s been turned back into a human. Interestingly, Eustace winds up attempting to bravely attack a sea serpent on their way back – and of course, serpents and dragons are closely related: Anglo-Saxon “wyrm,” used in Beowulf, translates to both serpent and dragon. It seems that once Eustace has shed his dragon-like anti-social tendencies, he can join the others in eradicating that threat.

III. The Middle English Dragon as Synchronic Other

Lewis was a medievalist, though he was not an Anglo-Saxonist – and this dragon is decidedly Anglo-Saxon. The Middle English dragon doesn’t lose the characteristic of being a hoarder or the symbolism of being somehow apart from society, though the stark connection to the pagan past and to anti-social greediness is muted.

The threat the Middle English dragon tends to symbolize is a synchronic Other rather than a diachronic Other or an anti-social member of one’s own society – not our own past or our own misfits, but our contemporaries who are “not like us.”

This is a very broad generalization, of course, and the dragon as symbolic of a pagan past doesn’t immediately fade away – versions of Guy de Warwick use the dragon to various degrees as explicitly symbolic of a pagan past. But this could be, as Rosalind Fields suggests, simply because the story is already set in the past (the Anglo-Saxon Athelston is king in Guy de Warwick). The versions which evoke the Anglo-Saxon symbolism of the dragon, she says, are capitalizing on the setting of the tale, not the period when the text itself was written.

But Middle English dragons tend to follow the pattern of St. George’s dragon – a knight rescues a princess from a marauding dragon.

The threat of the dragon was often symbolic of the Saracens. While medieval Europe was fighting the Crusades, the contemporary Saracen Other became more of a threat than the past pagan Other. The trend of dragons as religiously the opposite of Christianity continued into the Renaissance with Spenser and Milton. This is the dragon we know most familiarly from children’s and YA literature, which associate dragons with locked-up princesses, being rescued by brave knights.

But before I get to that, I want to trace the history of dragons a bit further.

After Spenser and Milton, use of dragons in literature peters out. By the nineteenth century, there’s a severe paucity of dragons in literature. According to some critics, dragons were too closely tied to themes of Christianity to allow for their use in secular literature. Another way of looking at this same analysis: their association with pure evil had rendered them useless for literary purposes. They were stock characters, and too flat, too tied up with pure unadulterated evil, to be of any interest to writers of secular fiction.

IV. The Children’s Dragon

When these dragons start showing up in children’s literature in the twentieth century, they’re more often than not parodies rather than serious stories about a knight rescuing a princess from a dragon. There’s E. Nesbit’s The Last Dragon and Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, both often credited with igniting the rebirth of literary dragonsBoth of these take the basic framework of a dragon-princess-savior story and turn it on its head.

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In Grahame’s story, a boy finds a dragon and befriends it, but is told by the adults that he must call on St. George to come take care of the dragon. The boy is reluctant to do so, but he does – because that’s what the adults said he should do. St. George comes, but is reluctant to fight the dragon. Still, he prepared to do so because that’s what he’s supposed to do. But when he goes to fight the dragon, the dragon is reluctant to fight back.

Everyone is reluctant in this story – none of the main characters wants to fulfill their literary roles. St. George and the dragon agree to stage a fight, which satisfies the townspeople, and then St. George announces that the dragon is no longer a “bad dragon” or a danger to anyone.

The story is obviously a critique of the expectations embedded in this traditional tale of slaying dragons.

Picture4.jpgNesbit’s story features a prince and princess, and parodies the concept even more than Grahame. Not only is the dragon reluctant to fight, the whole setup of the dragon threatening a princess is arranged by the princess’s parents in order to allow the prince to rescue her and thus have a respectable betrothal. The princess at first tries to convince her parents to tie up the prince and let her rescue him. Her parents don’t agree, because that’s not what’s done. But her prince isn’t exactly interested in fighting dragons either, so they team up and go to fight the dragon together, only to discover that the dragon doesn’t either want to fight – he hates that they tie up princesses near him as if he’s a threat, he doesn’t even like eating princesses!

Nesbit critiques the narrative expectations just as Grahame does. She also explicitly critiques gender expectations – why can’t the princess rescue the prince? – and she critiques the image of the dragon as threatening. Everyone assumes it’s a dangerous threat, it will eat princesses if the prince doesn’t rescue her in time (after her parents left her in that position, of course…) But in fact, the figure taken for granted as a threat is just as tired of the whole charade as the hero and heroine.

These are the trends that take hold after this point: using the dragon as a critique of ingrained assumptions and expectations. And in a way, this is simply a continuation of the Anglo-Saxon dragon’s symbolic importance – it allows us to have tales about fighting our past.

By now, the past we are fighting is not pagan but is built upon expectations about gender and about “monsters” that the present has moved away from.

One of the most defining features of folklore is its ability not to simply reflect the past but to express changes in social attitudes and ideas. The figure of the dragon is a part of this – it can be used to reflect values which are in fact medieval, as McKinley’s dragon reflects the theme of breaking from an evil past and Lewis’s dragon reflects the theme of greed as anti-social.

But then the dragon is perfectly situated to also express changes in social attitudes and ideas, as Nesbit and Grahame’s dragons scoff at numerous expectations.

Ruth Berman claims that the comic dragons of Nesbit and Grahame helped dragons lose their Satanic identification, and this released a flood of dragons in literature, especially children’s literature. But she argues that the comedy of the dragons is dependent on the softening of their evil to a more amusing naughtiness, which allows for their comedic taming.

And that’s partly true – but although humor does dominate in children’s texts about dragons, the dragon is not always merely naughty – sometimes it is evil, even if its evilness is funny. And the dragon is not always tamed – sometimes it’s killed, sometimes it doesn’t need to be tamed because it wasn’t naughty or evil in the first place!

As an example, I’ll take a look now at The Dragon Book, a collection of dragon stories from E. Nesbit, and The Dragon Slayers’ Academy, a currently ongoing Middle Grade series by Kate McMullan. (Middle Grade is sort of “older children’s literature” – not teen literature, but not picture books. It’s aimed at children about 8-13 years old.)

Both texts feature children who use ingenious methods to conquer dragons – Wiglaf kills his first dragon in Dragon Slayers Academy by telling terrible jokes. Nesbit’s characters use similar humorous methods in a few stories. The comedy is not dependent on dragons being less evil and more naughty – the humor is dependent on the methods the children use to slay the dragons.

Picture3.jpgIn Nesbit’s book, the dragons are threats that need to be eradicated. But in McMullan’s series, the dragons aren’t even really a threat – the boys slay dragons for the simple goal of gaining gold for their headmaster and parents. The whole series is about a group of children who are being taken advantage of by the adults.

Everything is funny in this series, and there’s clearly an attempt to make the atmosphere medieval – but the pejorative “medieval” here is about how the adults take advantage of the children, and how the kids use their wits to navigate this world and to survive and thrive.

These parodies are not explicitly critiquing expectations, although they’re a fascinating subset of how dragons are used in children’s literature – as a kind of marker between children and adults.

Picture8.jpgKate Klimo’s Dragon Keeper series, which begins with The Dragon in the Sock Drawer, makes a clear connection between dragons, imagination, and children or childlike qualities. The adults can’t adjust their already-formed ideas about what constitutes a threat or a monster, but as with Grahame and Nesbit, the children can take the time to interact with the dragon long enough to know it’s not actually a threat. These texts use the medieval symbolism of a threatening Other to critique what we label as threatening and Other.

And then there are parodies which don’t necessarily trivialize the evil of the dragon, but they do critique social expectations.

Picture2.jpgRobert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess features a dragon who kidnaps a prince, burns down everything in sight, and leaves the princess with nothing to wear but a paper bag. In this story, the prince and princess don’t protest their gender roles – they’re forced into this reversal by the dragon snatching the prince rather than the princess. But Princess Elizabeth takes charge of her life when Prince Ronald is disgusted by her lack of fine clothes and cleanliness – after she’s just defeated a dragon to rescue him, he might have been a little forgiving of her stinking… So she calls off the wedding.

It’s again a critique of expectations – Nesbit’s The Last Dragon did so by allowing the prince and princess to express their own distaste with the roles expected of them. Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess executes the critique by putting the prince and princess in reversed roles and only pointing out the sexist assumptions at the end of the story.

All of the texts I’ve mentioned here so far – Grahame, both of Nesbit’s, McMullan’s Dragon Slayers Academy, Klimo’s Dragon Keepers – are children’s or Middle Grade texts. The only Young Adult text I mentioned was Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, which uses medieval dragon tropes authentically, not as a critical parody.

The novel, as I mentioned earlier, is in fact a typical adventure story. Of course, Aerin is a female dragon-slayer/adventurer, but the book doesn’t use medieval tropes in order to demonstrate how a girl can be a hero too. In fact, one of the criticisms of McKinley is that although she claims to write books in which girls can see themselves as heroes “just like boys can be,” her heroines are basically just boys – they’re not feminine heroines.

Kara Keeling and Marsha Sprague write about “Dragon-Slayer vs Dragon-Sayer,” and discuss fantasy texts in which female heroines are nurturers of dragons rather than slayers of dragons. The books they discuss don’t fit my criteria of featuring authentic medieval connections – although books like Eragon and Dragons of Pern have that “medieval feel,” they don’t draw on medieval symbolism.

Picture6.jpgPatricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons both draws on medieval symbolism and features a nurturing heroine. There’s the dragon-princess-savior trope of Middle English: Princess Cimorene becomes the “captive” cook and caretaker for the dragon Kazul. But she does this voluntarily, in order to escape a marriage she has no interest in, and is annoyed that she continuously has to beat off princes and knights who want to rescue her – she doesn’t need to be rescued, because although she’s technically a captive, she’s a volunteer captive.

The rest of the series has Cimorene and Kazul working together, as Kazul becomes king of the dragons and Cimorene becomes queen, and even has a baby. Wrede’s series very skillfully portrays a feminist character who follows the supposedly sexist narrative arc of marriage and babies. Cimorene is an adventurer, absolutely – but she’s also a nurturing woman, someone who enjoys taking care of other people, and who isn’t chafing against her ultimate role as queen and mother.

The series uses humor and a parody of the expectations of the dragon story to critique both gender role expectations and monstrosity or Otherness.

V. Conclusions

The medieval dragon began as a symbol of the past, and the hero’s slaying of the dragon was representative of fighting his own past. When contemporary children’s and Young Adult books evoke the medieval dragon specifically, they tend to follow that symbolism of fighting the past – although that past is now the very root of this symbolism.  Contemporary texts use the dragon for the same underlying purpose as the medieval texts, but in order to critique elements of the dragon’s very origins as a symbol of danger, threats, and Otherness. In other words, contemporary children’s and YA texts fight the past by using the past’s very own tools.