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.

Picture1.jpg

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.

Forced Standpoint as Pedagogical Tool

The dissertation I’m working on now examines medieval literary texts for methods of education, in an attempt to define various ideologies of education, of childhood, and of literary genre. I’m currently in the process of examining a related concept which my WAC work (Writing Across the Curriculum) is helping me think through. I’ve been thinking about the methods of teaching favored by each discipline (though of course there is tremendous variation from teacher to teacher), and I’m attempting to draw conclusions about possibly unstated, underlying goals and ideologies, from each discipline’s stated goals and practiced methods.

For example, is memorization favored in this discipline? is summary favored? free-writing? creative writing? Are the exams all multiple-choice? short answers? in-class essays? prepared essays? Does the teacher usually lecture? ask questions? encourage students to ask questions? assign group work? assign silent in-class reading or writing time? All of these methods indicate what the teacher in particular, and the discipline in general, think about the meaning of “learning” or “education,” and what their goals are.

And now, as I stumble across various remnants of my past, I subject them to similar scrutiny. I recently found an old CD that was put together as a high school graduation celebration, including tracks of many songs from various events from the previous four years. Of course, they’re all varying levels of amusing and horrifying. But one in particular made me stop to analyze it the same way I’ve been thinking about the methods of education in college and in the Middle Ages.

(transcription at the end of this post.)

First, the context: The song was sung at a school Shabbos, a yearly school-wide weekend retreat in the mountains. There was a different theme each year, and the theme of this particular year was tznius, ie modesty. The whole shabbos itself was a disaster for many reasons, mostly because the main message was “every limb you leave uncovered will burn in hell,” and girls got terrified and wound up crying. (You can read about this on Tales Out of Bais Yaakov.) But this song is beautiful, not horrifying. I used to love this song, in fact.

The first thing that struck me as I listened this time around was the first-person narrative. And this is the method that reveals quite a bit about the ideologies and goals of education in Bais Yaakov: A first-person narrative in a didactic song forces the singer to adopt the entirety of the persona described in the song.

It’s far more powerful to sing “the palace is my place” than “the palace is a Jewish girl’s place.” Even though the singer is in fact a “Jewish girl,” an identity she cannot disavow with ease, the slight remove of third-person might allow the singer to dis-identify, or at least to not fully identify, with the character. But with the use of first-person pronouns, even if the singer is not consciously thinking, “yes, this describes me,” there is still an effect on her psyche that ties these statements to her identity.

Of course, many songs use first-person narratives. But two factors differentiate this kind of song from the first-person songs we may listen to on a regular basis: First, the context in which it is sung is a school event meant to inculcate ideas about modesty and how a Jewish girl should behave. Though of course, we were all free to choose whether or not to sing it, we were not (entirely) free to choose whether or not to attend the performance. Its context is completely didactic. Second, its first-person character is defined by one main feature: she is a Jewish girl. Everyone who sang the song and everyone who listened to the song shared that identity, one that cannot be disavowed with ease.

Other songs using first-person narratives lack these factors. There is always the potential for a non-identification since we are free to choose whether to listen to a particular song, and we often choose to listen to songs we identify with, songs we see ourselves in (or wish we could see ourselves in, but that’s another story entirely). Besides, there is almost always a slight remove since the lyrics imagine a specific context and character. Personally, I identify with many songs but often leave out some lines that don’t match my story exactly (or I twist the interpretation to make it match my story, but again – that’s another story entirely).

But in this song, everyone who sang it, all of the girls at the shabbos and all the girls in the Bais Yaakov school, were in fact Jewish girls and could not easily decide not to listen to or sing the song. When the choir sang during the weekend retreat, when any girl sang the beautiful song afterwards (as many of us did), they were in effect making statements about themselves: statements like “I follow the truth and need no more than that,” and “the palace is my place.”

Of course, the girls who wrote and sang this song already had years of socialization where they absorbed the ideas of a modest, dignified princess. But they are still teenagers, high school students, who are talking to their peers – and narrating themselves. It’s a reinforcement that they are what the song describes, and a denial that the girls singing and listening to the song could be anything else, or could want to be anything else.

I’ve written before about the way Bais Yaakov and ultra-Orthodox Judaism don’t allow a child to be a child, don’t really allow for stages and development even when they claim that everyone is on their own path and goes at their own pace. The first-person method supports that ideology – in order to become a fully completed Jewish girl, in order to graduate from Bais Yaakov with all the proper chinuch (education), one must assume the identity of the completed Jewish girl, of the girl who is already perfect and has fully attained the goals of a Bais Yaakov education.

[Snarky side-notes:
– contradiction of needing to stay behind walls but then also since her beauty is inside, it doesn’t matter where she is;
– “confident leader” apparently means staying silent and hidden;
– mixed metaphors, and the whole seeds flourishing underground makes no sense because flowers and trees, and even bulbs do have above-ground elements, so the metaphor taken to its logical conclusion would actually be that an egg or a fetus needs to be “underground” (which it is, in the mother’s womb) and afterwards the child should sprout and live on the outside. or something like that]


Lyrics of the song:

I’ll tell you a story of true royalty
I’ll share with you a life of real majesty
I’m the daughter of the king – You ask, what does that mean?
Listen closely as I tell you of finest dignity

From the moment of birth till this day I have known
The privilege and pleasure one feels near the throne
I hold my head high for within the palace halls
A glorious lifestyle of inner beauty calls

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
My vision’s not clouded, that’s how I’ll be
A confident leader, bas melech ani.

My speech has an eloquence, words are genteel
With tones that are measured, each message is real
My clothing are worn with nobility and grace
My movements refined for the palace is my place.

My presence is rarely seen outside the gates
I bask in the glory of my own estates
Like the seeds of a plant only flourish underground
A princess can thrive when behind a wall she’s found.

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
My vision’s not clouded, that’s how I’ll be
A confident leader, bas melech ani.

Wherever you find me, whatever I’ll do
My dignified mien is apparent to you
It isn’t in the wealth nor the place where I reside
The beauty of a princess is coming from inside.

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
A princess I am and a princess I’ll be
Yes, I wear a crown for bas melech ani.

 

Being Able to Talk First

More than the content of the texts the students read, the goal of a literature class is to allow students to gain skills of critical thinking and analysis. The essays they write are a performance of this skill, while peer review, revisions, and conferences with the professor help students hone their skills.

Before they can even begin to apply these skills, though, they need to develop them in class discussions.

This semester, there are 29 students in my Survey of Early British Literature. All 29 are invested in and excited about the class (to varying degrees, of course), but five or six students tend to dominate the discussion. They raise their hands immediately when a question is posed, and it becomes difficult to regulate the balance of voices when the other students have come to rely on these five or six always having an answer.

Apart from the basic concern of encouraging participation from every student, this does not allow the quieter students to develop the skills they will need for their essays. Since they know others will provide answers if they remain quiet, they don’t use the wait-time I try to provide to really dig deep and allow themselves to form their own thoughts and interpretations. It also is detrimental to the students who never have to deal with criticism or pushback against their ideas from anyone but the professor.

As I became increasingly frustrated by this, I decided to manipulate the roles of each student in our first class on the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Using a group activity called “Leader, Skeptic, Scribe” (from The Pocket Instructor), I assigned each student a role directly opposite to their demonstrated classroom tendencies.

The five or six outspoken students became the Scribes, required to take notes on the group’s conversation and forbidden to talk. The quietest students became the Leaders, required to provide a preliminary answer to a set of questions. To prevent this from being a complete disaster with the quiet students being frozen and each group not getting any results, I made sure that each Skeptic had already demonstrated some critical ability and would be able to guide the group further, no matter what the Leader started off with. I also assigned at least two Skeptics to each group, to make sure that there would be enough critical analysis to be beneficial and allow the activity to work.

I handed out an assignment sheet to each group (image below), and talked them through it, stressing that although we call one member of each group the “Leader,” this is a mutually supportive group discussion. I gave a little speech about the benefits of this activity, pointing out that as we write essays, it’s difficult to be our own critics, and that this exercise allows us to practice those skills.

The Leader, I said, would have to defend or change their original arguments in the face of pushback. We often forget to do this when we write our own essays, because our arguments seem so clear to us. Having others attack our arguments helps our own critical thinking. The Skeptics would have to analyze the Leaders’s argument and look for inconsistencies or lack of evidence. Looking at an argument from the perspective of “what’s wrong with this” or “how can this be improved” is an important skill in our own writing, as well. Attacking someone else’s argument helps our own critical thinking. And the Scribes would have to pay careful attention to the twists and turns of the entire debate, which allows them to be more aware of how interpretations and textual evidence work together in an argument.

The activity started off quiet and slow, as most group activities do, since each group has to settle down and make sure they understand the activity. It soon got loud and intense and involved, with the Scribes scribbling furiously and the Leaders and Skeptics turning pages, marking lines, reading aloud in Middle English… As I continually made my rounds to each group, I realized most groups would only get to one character out of the three assigned to them. But in large part that was because their discussions were far more intense and detailed than I had anticipated.

The results were incredible.

First of all, the eager and talkative students actually listened to their classmates, some for the first time all semester. Though none of them said this outright, I did notice in at least two of them a new respect for their classmates that I had not seen before. In the following class, two students began explaining something they had discussed in their group, and the more talkative student (who had been the Scribe) deferred to the quieter student (who had been a Skeptic) by saying “no, you say it, you’re smarter than me.”

The most egregious talker had tended not to listen to any part of the conversation in the days before this activity. They would offer answers to my questions, they would offer detailed and lengthy explanations and interpretations of points in the text – but almost never did those comments engage with their classmates’ comments or respond to other points made in the course of the discussion. In the class following this activity, they were almost entirely silent, and their few comments directly responded to what others had said.

That in itself would have been enough for me to consider the activity a resounding success. Having the overly-vocal students quiet down would automatically create room for the more hesitant students to participate and contribute, and to use class discussion as a place to develop critical skills. But a comment from one of the quieter, less confident students told me the activity had also been successful in a more direct way.

In the class following this activity, I asked my students to take a few minutes and answer a few questions about how things are going in terms of the reading, writing, and class discussions. This is a method I’ve observed some of my colleagues doing, and they always talk about how helpful it is to allow students to provide this feedback and evaluation halfway through the semester rather than waiting until the end.

One student directly addressed the previous class’s “Leader, Skeptic, Scribe” activity. They are one of the quietest students in class, always attentive and listening intently to the discussion, but never raising their hand and declining to contribute when I cold-call them. I had, of course, assigned them to be the Leader in their group.

Here’s what they wrote in response to my question about discussions:

I like all discussions and group work. I just prefer not to be a leader but it wasn’t so bad, being able to talk first was great.

And with that, I felt the activity was a success. I could not have asked for a better response. Of course, as I mentioned above, I had deliberately chosen students who were already more comfortable with voicing thoughts to be the Skeptics.

But allowing the hesitant students to be Leaders, forcing the students who tend to think that their thoughts and interpretations of the text are not worth sharing, to not only contribute to the conversation but to actually begin it – there’s a sense of power they might gain from that. It gives them the opportunity to critically think about a question before anyone gives them a possible answer, which is in itself important, and it shows them that they can do it, too.

“Being able to talk first” does not simply mean having their voice heard before anyone else’s. It also means contemplating an issue or a question based on their own mind and their own interpretation of the text – allowing themself to figure out what they think without the clutter of everyone else’ voices in their head. Of course, the others’ ideas will then engage with their own. But in terms of development of both critical skills and confidence, “being able to talk first” is no small thing.

This student will almost certainly not magically begin to spontaneously offer opinions and insights from now on. Maybe they will reach deeper for an answer when I cold-call them. Maybe not. But for one day, for one class session, they stepped out of their comfort zone (okay, they were forced out of their comfort zone…) and discovered that “being able to talk first” is quite nice.

Image: a screenshot of the activity sheet I handed out in class.

leader skeptic scribe

Tiny Tweaks, Powerful Payoffs

I know that one of my great teaching weaknesses is my tendency to historicize heavily, sometimes at the expense of the literature I’m supposed to be teaching. The main criticism I got from the chair of my department when she observed my literature class last year was this – that I spent too much time and energy on the historical context and not enough time on discussion and analysis of the literature.

With this feedback in mind, I’ve begun a new practice in my literature course this semester. Every class session begins with a list of topics on the board, as I began to do last year. But now I add a ten- to fifteen-minute writing assignment at the start of class:

For each topic listed on the board, find one quote in the text and copy it onto a separate sheet of paper.

Once in a while, I’ll ask them to reflect on a topic as well and I’ll collect that as a low-stakes writing assignment. More often than not, I plan to simply ask them to pull these quotes out for use in the class discussion.

It’s been three weeks, and I can already see the effects of this new practice. While I still veer off into historicism during lecture and when intervening in discussion, my students constantly refer to the quotes they’ve written down, constantly direct their classmates to the appropriate lines, and take notes on each other’s chosen quotes as well. In their Blackboard assignments, I included no language about quoting and citing the text and yet every single post so far includes at least two quotations with the proper citation.

They’re working on their first essays now, due next week, and I am looking forward to grading a more literature-based batch of essays than I’ve received the last two times I taught this class.

Lullabies

My mother used to sing us to sleep with a wordless lullaby. We called it “ay-lee-loo-lee,” because those were the sounds she used to sing the melody. When my younger sisters were babies, I would stand near their crib, one arm reaching through the bars to rhythmically pat their backs, and sing them this same wordless lullaby.

My mother did tell us once that there are actually words to this song. She told us two lines: “a yingele vus vaxed a talmid chacham / zul liggen azoi nas vi in a teich” – a little boy who will grow up to be a great scholar / should lie so wet like in a puddle. Her explanation was that the speaker is a mother, looking at her child and wondering aloud – how could it be, that this son of mine, who will become steeped in Torah later  in his life, is lying in a puddle of his own urine now (ie in his diaper)?

[Side note: was she criticizing herself for not changing her baby’s diaper soon enough? Okay, and back to serious…]

A while ago, I found this video on YouTube. The full song includes a version of those lines, but it also includes many other observations about the child as he is now and the man he will grow up to be. (Continued after the video.)

Lyrics:
Sleep, sleep, Yankele, my handsome son.
Close your little black eyes. 
My little one, now that you have all your teeth – 
must you make your mother sing you to sleep?
The little boy who has all his teeth
and who, God permitting, will soon go to kheyder
And learn Torah and Talmud –
must he cry when his mama rocks him to sleep?
The little boy who will learn Talmud –
and how glad and proud in his heart your father is
The little boy who will grow into a scholar –
must he make his mother stay awake all night?
[two lines untranslated in the comments and I don’t know these words]
The little boy, a clever bridegroom,
must he lie so wet as in a puddle?
Sleep then, my little one,
my clever one who will be a bridegroom yet.

Sleep while you are still in your cradle by my side.
It will cost your mother many tears
to make a man of you.

And now, approaching this song with the perspective of the dissertation I’m in the midst of writing, my discomfort with it became clearer. The song does not allow the mother to see the child as a child. The song does not allow the child to be a child.

True, it ends with a reassurance (to the child? to the mother?) that the child can sleep now in the cradle as long as he’s a child – but the mother is still thinking of the man this child will be, and she is already crying because she will have to work so hard to change these childish behaviors into adult goals.

This is something I had begun to notice and be able to articulate about Bais Yaakov schooling as well. Teachers would tell us that each girl is at a different spiritual level and we each need to strive higher, but whatever level we’re at right now, it’s okay – but the rest of their behavior toward us told us that we ought to have gotten to the end point by now. The stages, the “child,” was not given room to simply be.

She always had to have an eye on the future, on what she will become – and she was expected to behave like the result, not like the stages. It’s what I used to call the “Jewish fake it till you make it” idea – although our teachers expressed it more as “the outside actions will influence the inner feelings and motivation” (the chitzoniyus will lead to the pnimiyus…).

In a way, then, Orthodox Jewish education has no concept of adolescence. Education means becoming the person you should be as soon as you enter the beginning of that process.

Interestingly enough, most people think the Middle Ages had no concept of childhood or adolescence. And yet my reading and research shows me that in fact they had more of a concept of the “in-between” stages, of the “becoming an adult” stage, than contemporary Orthodox Judaism does.