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.

Lusting for Love

I find myself perhaps disproportionately frustrated when my students come into a medieval literature class with the idea that “in the olden days, people got married for money, not for love.” I mean, it’s true to an extent, right? But it had mattered so much to me when I first started reading literature from “the olden days” and discovered that although marriages may have been based on economic and lineage concerns, people did indeed feel romantic love – though that romantic love may have been for someone other than their spouse…

Why does it matter so much to me? Well, remember when I confessed to that conversation I had with college friends where I claimed that Orthodox relationships are based on more than just physical lust, as if all non-Orthodox relationships are purely physical with no emotion? Yeah…. Okay, here’s some more about that.

I was always a bookworm. And I always reacted very viscerally to what I read. I identified strongly with characters, and I threw myself into the emotional turmoil and triumph of each story.

As I grew up and started reading more grown-up books, my mother grew concerned with my strong attachment to fiction (and fantasy). More than once, she told me quite clearly that romantic love as it’s portrayed in books and movies is a fiction of the modern age – that before the loss of all semblance of morality, people knew that love is based on mutual trust and working to make a marriage work. But with the loss of morality (beginning in about the late nineteenth century, with industrialization and… wait for it – America…), people wanted to indulge their lust. So they created a fiction called “romantic love” and whenever they felt lust, they called it love. And of course, that leads to the “revolving door” of sexual partners and the promiscuity and “sexual deviance” that is apparently the root cause of so many of society’s problems…

Which is why I was so excited when I began to read books and texts older than the nineteenth century and saw that in fact, these ideas of lust and romantic love being intricately intertwined existed long before industrialization and the “loss of morality…”

Last year, I took a graduate class on “Bastards, Kingship, and Kinship,” taught by a professor who studies the history of bastardy – ie when did the idea of a legal bastard develop, what were the practices associated with allowing a bastard to inherit, etc. And it turns out that’s a very important piece to understanding how the concept of marriage and love develops, influenced by economic, legal, and religious interference in emotional relationships… (Here’s a link to her book that’s been recently published, in case you want to check it out.)

The idea that lust and love are not necessarily two completely separate things (though they can be) is a revelation I’m going to cling to for quite a while still. I’ll never attempt to convince those who still think romantic love is just a fiction of the immoral world to allow them to indulge themselves. But I know for myself, and that’s enough.

Lend Me Your Ears: Shakespeare in the Park's Julius Caesar as a Comment on Rhetoric

This year’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar makes a pointed political commentary – but what is that commentary?

The outrage and backlash focuses on the admittedly stark image of a Trump-esque Caesar being attacked and assassinated. Sitting way off to the left side of the stage on Sunday, June 11, I stared at the bloody body lying onstage while the senators and Marc Antony argued and fought with each other. It was a long few minutes.

But that is not the point of the play.

There’s always outrage about violence in plays and movies, and rightfully so. It’s a conversation worth having, over and over. But the conversation cannot be about “violence” as if it exists in a vacuum. And the conversation here cannot be about “the assassination of a Trump-esque Caesar” as if it exists in a vacuum. Context, literary and theatrical interpretation, are important to figuring out what kind of work this production of Shakespeare’s play does in the contemporary moment.

Bank of America, a long-time sponsor of Shakespeare in the Park, saw fit to include a statement in the program:

“While Bank of America values the right of artistic expression, they do not condone this summer’s interpretation of Julius Caesar and its depiction of political violence in a modern context.”

They missed the point.

Caveat before I get into my analysis: I’m not well-versed in theatrical terms. My area of study is medieval literature, and I deal mostly with poetry and prose, not with drama. Forgive remarks like “sitting way off to the left side of the stage” – I know there are better theatrical terms for that, but I’m speaking merely as an audience member who is knowledgeable about literature and rhetoric.

One of the most amazing things to me as the past year’s events have unfolded has been the way simple rhetoric can galvanize people into action, even when they can’t always articulate the logical reasoning behind their decisions. Rallies and fiery speeches get people fired up, but they don’t always use logic and reason to persuade people. Sometimes they use complex oratory and rhetorical patterns to influence people’s minds.

I saw that moment most clearly in Julius Caesar when Marc Antony (played by Elizabeth Marvel) speaks to the crowd with Caesar’s body behind her. In this production, the coffin she mentions is in fact a gurney, and the body is covered by a sheet. In the scene before this, Brutus has felt empathy for Antony and says he will allow her to speak to the people. The other senators vehemently disagree, but Brutus checks with Antony, who swears that she will not praise Caesar, and she will not condemn Brutus et al.

And she doesn’t.

She says, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. / The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones; / So let it be with Caesar.” The subtle implication there, if the “good is oft interred with their bones,” is that in “burying” Caesar, she will talk about his good. But that’s too subtle, lost on a crowd yelling and chanting its displeasure.

She talks about Brutus. Over and over again, she calls him an “honourable man.” But by the end of the scene, the crowd has turned from hailing Brutus as a hero to condemning him as a murderer and traitor.

How?

Because the twists and turns of her speech never come out and say “Brutus is a liar and a murderer.” No, the twists and turns instead lead her audience on a trail so that they can barely even point to the moment when they changed their minds. She contradicts Brutus’s claims even while continuing to pay honor to Brutus:

“Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.”

She claims not to be expert in oratory as Brutus is. And yet her speech is masterful.

She begins by gaining the trust of the crowd, portraying herself as merely a mourner, deep in grief for her beloved Caesar, even while honoring his assassins. They empathize with her. And they listen to her.

Their guard is down because they expect a personal, not a political, speech. And they go along with her opening remarks because they agree with her: Brutus is an honorable man. She never explicitly contradicts that.

And yet by the end of her speech, they have all rallied behind her against Brutus.

This scene, as I experienced it in Central Park with a sheet-covered body and a politician onstage, and with a crowd of actors interspersed in the audience, dressed as protesters holding signs and chanting slogans identical to those in recent protests – this scene was not about the body. The body fades into the background and is forgotten.

This scene was about the horror of how people can be swept up in the moment and not critically think about how rhetoric has been used to influence their thought patterns. How they have not evaluated the right and wrong of the situation but instead were manipulated by clever speeches, by someone who knows how to pull all the right strings, to lead her listeners down a path until they have no idea how they even got to where they are.

What follows in the play is a series of tragedies. The comparison of Caesar’s Rome to contemporary politics doesn’t work completely in the entire play, and that’s okay.

Because the point about upheavals and how transfer of power comes to be and how it affects everything afterwards – that’s clear.

The crowd in support of Brutus is dressed as protesters, and Antony’s crowd as riot police. For a New York audience, there’s almost no doubt which side gets our sympathy. We’re rooting for the protesters, we’re rooting for the resistance.

Everything in the play until this moment has gotten us here – the rhetoric of the play has made us sympathetic to Brutus and his supporters, just as Antony’s rhetoric made the crowd sympathetic to her and her supporters.

And yet, in the final scene of the play, Antony and Octavius stand over the dead body of Brutus, and the stage floor is littered with the dead bodies of the protesters – of Brutus’s supporters – who have been killed by the riot police – by Antony’s supporters – a few scenes prior.

Their bodies remain on stage from the moment of their deaths through the end of the play: a visual reminder of the cost of resistance.

And with the play’s end, with what we know of history – that Antony and Octavius Augustus do in fact gain power and rule Rome – the resistance has failed. The assassination of Caesar has brought no good, only doom and tragedy and death.

So what’s the message of this production? That the contemporary Caesar should be assassinated? Or that resistance is futile and will only result in stricter and stronger policing, and in the deaths of any who dare to resist?

Neither. The message of this production, to me at least, was that we must be aware of how and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

As a teacher of freshman writing, my lessons have always been about critical reading as much as critical writing. In the last year, after watching incredulously as the most flimsy arguments were taken up and used as proof of one thing or another, I made sure that the connection between the rhetorical skills we learn and our ability to make sense of the world around us was crystal clear.

If we can’t strenuously and rigorously interrogate the rhetoric of arguments, we run the risk of being persuaded that Brutus must be killed by arguments that continue to claim that “Brutus is honorable.”

 

Little Big Girl: Feminism & Adolescence in "Little Red Riding Hood" Song

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Syllabus prep led me to two versions of the song “Little Red Riding Hood,” by Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs, and the cover by Amanda Seyfried. I’ll be asking my students to analyze the two versions, as part of a close-reading/note-taking exercise for a freshman composition class. But I have many thoughts about aspects we likely won’t touch in class.

At first, I thought the song was irredeemably misogynist. I’m still pretty sure the original is. But after listening to the Amanda Seyfried version about a million times on repeat, I think it might actually have a positive feminist message, partly about adolescence.

When the singer is male, the song is disturbing enough (it’s using a disturbing fairy tale about female puberty, after all). It’s essentially the “nice-guy” trope – I’ll protect you until you trust me. Until you trust me enough that I can drop the nice guy act, that is, and be the bad wolf I am – until I can drop my sheep clothes.

Then again, there’s that line “bad wolves can be good” – perhaps a reference to BDSM? (Apparently there are some very dirty versions of this song. But I only found references to those, I didn’t find the songs themselves.) I kind of liked to think it is, but the addressee of the song is very clearly a young girl. That’s not okay.

50 Shades is only fine if Ana actually wanted it. If she was tricked or manipulated into wanting it, as the girl in this song might be, that’s a problem.

It does sound at times that he is a genuinely nice guy, not out to trick or manipulate Red into anything she might not want. He wants to hold her, “But you might think I’m a big bad wolf so I won’t.” That could go both ways. He’s really not a big bad wolf, because he doesn’t try to hold her.

But at the end he has to remind himself not to howl but to bleat, and he does hope that eventually Red will accept that a bad wolf isn’t bad. He gains her trust, and in his own mind he’s worthy of that trust. But he initiated contact because he noticed a pretty girl, he claims to be protecting her from others, and he plans to act differently once he’s gained that trust. That is classic nice-guy behavior.

Then there’s the “blazon” – the cataloging of the girl’s features, obviously echoing Red’s own words in the tale “my, what big eyes you have.” But here it’s “the kind of eyes that drive wolves mad,” “what full lips you have, sure to lure someone bad.”

A girl can’t help her full lips (not counting the craziness of the Kylie Jenner challenge), but they’re apparently going to lure someone bad regardless of what she does.

“You’re everything a big bad wolf could want.” If that isn’t a life-long unshakable scare, I don’t know what is. It tells her she can do nothing, she just will always be attracting these big bad wolves simply because of physical features she has no control over. If she wants big bad wolves, good for her. If she doesn’t – well, too bad. It’ll happen anyway.

The only thing that can protect her is this guy escorting her – and he plans to become that big bad wolf driven mad eventually.

So what happens when the speaker is a woman?

First of all, Amanda Seyfried sings this far more seductively than the original. I’m not entirely sure yet what that does to it. Her tone could be interpreted as soothing and comforting rather than seductive.

It starts off sounding like the speaker might be someone like Red’s mother in the tale, who warns her about the dangers in the wood – an older wiser woman giving a young girl advice.

With that message of “you can’t help it, your body will always attract the wrong type of guy,” having a woman say it is troubling. Internalized misogyny, acceptance of patriarchal attitudes, female acceptance of their own inevitable sexualization and being at the mercy of anyone who wants to focus on and pursue them sexually.

But considering that the woman says the same words as the man (“maybe you’ll see things my way / before we get to grandma’s place”), the female speaker could be interested in the little girl sexually too. The problems are the same as with the man, but with a twist.

Assuming the wolf is still male, it’s an added problem of portraying an older lesbian woman telling a young girl that men are predators, and that a woman can protect her, only to become just as predatory as the men she’s warned the girl about.

Then again, maybe seeing things her way before she gets to grandma’s place isn’t referring to Red agreeing to have sex with the speaker. And here’s where the feminist reading kicks in.

Maybe the offer to escort her, keep her safe so she doesn’t get chased, is actually about ushering her through the time when she is a “little big girl,” vulnerable to society sexualizing her body. The speaker is then assuring her that she is not simply a sexual being – and maybe by the time she gets through these woods (adolescence? society in general?), she’ll understand that just because wolves chase her, that doesn’t mean that’s her identity.

Keeping her sheep suit on until Red knows she can be trusted might mean speaking and acting meekly as society has told Red a woman should. Ultimately, she can show Red that “even bad wolves can be good” – both that a vocal and angry feminist is not a bad thing, and also that “notallmen” – a full understanding of it all. “Grandma’s house” then refers to adulthood.

In this reading, the whole song is advocating for female mentorship of adolescent girls to both keep them safe in the moment and to teach them that society’s view of them (read: men’s sexualization of them) should not shape their own views of themselves, of sexuality, of men, of society.

Notably, Amanda Seyfried’s cover leaves out both the beginning howl of appreciation and the closing howl-to-bleat. The last lines in the original, before the howl-to-bleat, is a reminder that she’s everything a big bad wolf could want. The last lines in the cover is a repetition of “So until you get to grandma’s place / I think you ought to walk with me and be safe.” The male speaker reiterates the little big girl’s desirability; the female speaker reiterates the wish to keep the little big girl safe.

I love the Amanda Seyfried cover, despite its disturbing undertones. Partly because of its disturbing undertones. But mostly because within those disturbing undertones, I see the possibility for a really cool feminist reading of it.

Convergence of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic in a Medieval Hebrew-Italian Arthurian Romance

This is a revised version of the paper I presented at MLA 2016. It was part of a panel titled “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Jewish Children’s Literature.” The text I discuss here is not children’s literature and, unlike the texts in the other papers of the panel, was written well before the genre of Jewish children’s literature emerged. But the presentation of race and ethnicity in Jewish children’s literature, and in contemporary Jewish culture more broadly, may have its roots in some of the issues I discuss in relation to this Italian medieval Hebrew Arthurian romance. This romance represents an uneasy merging of the split between Ashkenazic and Sephardic sensibilities because of the geographic and temporal circumstances of its composition.

Below: 1. an illumination from a medieval French Arthurian romance, showing Lancelot and Guinevere; 2. an illumination accompanying a Hebrew marriage blessing, showing couples dancing at an Italian Jewish wedding.


Arthurian legend was widely translated and adapted almost from its very beginnings in the early Middle Ages. Originally a hero representing the Celtic defense against the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain, King Arthur was used by cultures vastly different from the Celts – including the English themselves – to represent nationalism, national heroes, and cultural values. Arthurian scholarship has focused on that cultural adaptability for quite a while now.

It still surprises scholars, though, (including me when I first heard about it) that Jewish versions of Arthurian legend exist. While it is understandable that the legend could be adapted to fit cultures of the Celtic, English, Germanic, French, Spanish, etc., a Jewish adaptation is startling. As different as the other cultures may be, they all share some Christian framework, and Arthurian legend features Christian feasts and Christian values quite prominently. How – and why – would a Jewish author choose this as his writing material?

Curt Leviant, the most recent editor and translator of Hamelech Artus (King Arthur), draws parallels between Arthurian motifs and Jewish biblical and Talmudic stories, arguing, as do numerous other scholars, that Arthurian legend is in fact particularly suited for Jewish adaptation. His analysis is fairly convincing, though for reasons I won’t get into here, I don’t fully accept it. Even if we did accept it, though, the historical background of the medieval Jewish adaptations which Leviant and others provide continues to raise questions about the Jewish author’s motivation.

A brief overview of Arthurian legend: King Arthur holds court in Camelot, where the finest knights serve him and join him in many adventures and quests to prove their chivalry in arms and in love. The many medieval texts do not usually tell the entire story of King Arthur. Each one relates just one episode or a series of episodes. The underlying foundation of the legend is the same, but each translator, adapter, compiler – each person to touch the legend – adds or changes details based on historical, cultural, and sometimes personal factors.

There aren’t very many Jewish versions of medieval Arthurian legend. We only know of two, in fact. In 1279, an anonymous scribe in Northern Italy began – but never finished – a Hebrew translation of Arthurian legend, called by scholars today Hamelech Artus. This exists in only one manuscript, today housed in the Vatican.

The other medieval Jewish Arthurian text is an Old Yiddish translation of a Middle High German text, dating from the fifteenth century – two centuries after Hamelech Artus was composed. The Old Yiddish text is extant in three manuscripts from the sixteenth century, all presumably created in Northern Italy. It was adapted a few more times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in Amsterdam, Prague, and Frankfurt an der Oder.

The dates and locations of each adaptation are significant in the inquiry about a Jewish author’s choice to translate Arthurian legends, because medieval Ashkenazic and Sephardic attitudes toward secular literature (not only Arthurian literature) were vastly different and also varied over time.

Sephardic culture incorporates secular themes into its literature, (though Arthurian themes don’t appear until later in Iberia) sometimes writing in Arabic, sometimes in Romance languages, and sometimes in Hebrew.

Some of the great medieval Sephardic rabbis were known for their love poetry or their fighting songs, and most, such as Maimonides, had extensive knowledge not only of Torah and Talmud, but of medicine, Greek philosophy, mathematics, sciences, etc. Secular study was an integral part of education and no apology was made for tackling topics like love or erotic stories.

Ashkenazic culture, on the other hand, not only frowned upon such study but considered Greek philosophy and sciences based on secular understanding antithetical to Torah study. Reading or writing about love and war was almost sacrilegious, definitely if the holy Hebrew language was used.

The history of Italy’s Jewish community meant that thirteenth-century Italian Jewry embraced aspects of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic attitudes. In the eleventh century, Ashkenazic Jews escaping the First Crusade settled in Italy. In the early thirteenth century, Sephardic Jews from Provence immigrated to Italy. So when Hamelech Artus was written, the community comprised both Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews.

The text opens with an apology, a kind of preface by the author, a feature typical of medieval texts. The author explicitly addresses the problem of a Jewish author writing in Hebrew and using secular romance as his material, citing two reasons.

First, he excuses this as an exercise to ease the melancholy of his mind, which leads him to a lengthy defense of using secular literature in this way:

“No intelligent person can rebuke me for this, for we have seen that some of our sages of blessed memory, such as Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, did not disdain the knowledge of fox-fables, washers’ parables or the speech of palm trees. And this is done so that a man who is steeped in Torah-study or in worldly pursuits may derive from the knowledge of these tales a measure of relaxation and relief…Moreover, it is possible to learn wisdom and ethics from these fables concerning a man’s conduct toward himself and towards his fellow man…The proof for this is that had they been profane talk Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai would not have studied them…Moreover, we find that on the eve of the Day of Atonement the tales of ancient kings would be read to an unscholarly High Priest throughout the night so that he would not fall asleep” (11-13).

The second reason, he says, is the “most important”: “that sinners will learn the paths of repentance and bear in mind their end and will return to the Name (ie God), as you will see at the conclusion” (13).

The manuscript ends mid-sentence and mid-page, so we never do get to the conclusion. But in the very first sentence of the apology, the author tells us that the story is of “the destruction of King Artus’ Round Table” – so we know the story ends in destruction. (The end of the Arthurian legend, as suggested by the many texts called some version of Le Morte D’Arthur, is always the death of Arthur with the Round Table brotherhood dissolved.)

The romance of Hamelech Artus itself begins with the story of Arthur’s conception and birth. This opening sequence is not a given for every romance – the fragmentary nature of Arthurian legend means starting at the start is actually a significant choice.

The story of Arthur’s birth in this Hebrew romance is essentially the same as in other medieval versions which narrate his birth. King Uther Pendragon desires the wife of a duke and, when she and her husband both refuse to allow it, Uther wages war against the duke, eventually enlisting the help of Merlin. Merlin uses his magic to give the king the appearance of the duke. When Uther goes into the duchess’ chambers, she thinks he is her husband. He sleeps with her during the night and leaves in the morning. As he leaves, word reaches the duchess that the duke was killed during the night. She has no idea now who she was sleeping with, but she knows it wasn’t her husband as she thought. Once the war is over, Uther marries the duchess and, in an act of kindness, forgives her for carrying a child whose father she cannot identify.

One of the first things people point out about this story is its resemblance to the David and Batsheva story (in Samuel I) – King David is on a rooftop and sees a naked woman, desires her, and sleeps with her. Her husband is away at war. When she tells David that she has become pregnant, David calls her husband, Uriah, back from war and tries to get him to go sleep with his wife so it will appear that the child is his. Uriah is zealous, however, and swears he will not have marital relations until the war is won. When David realizes that Uriah will not cooperate, he sends him with a letter to the general directing them into battle where Uriah will definitely be killed. All goes according to plan, Batsheva is a widow, David marries her, and though the child dies, their next son, Solomon, will become the next king of Israel.

The Rishonim, the early medieval Biblical commentators including Rashi, explain this by citing the Talmud which states that during the time of King David, soldiers all gave their wives a “get al t’nai” – a conditional divorce. If a woman’s husband does not return from battle but his death cannot be proven, rather than remaining an agunah and being unable to marry, she is able to use the get and marry someone else. Therefore, the Rishonim say, Uriah had given Batsheva a conditional divorce. Since he died, technically Batsheva was divorced when she became pregnant with David’s child.

The point of this explanation is, of course, to vindicate David from having sinned. But it’s also to ensure that no one dares to say that Solomon, who carries on the royal line, was a mamzer – illegitimate, the product of a strictly prohibited union, and according to Jewish law unable to rule and unable to even marry a Jewish woman and have Jewish children. (There are special provisions for who a mamzer can marry so that his children are ultimately not non-Jewish.)

Even according to Christian law, where a child conceived out of wedlock could be legitimized if the parents are subsequently married, Arthur is unquestionably illegitimate. His mother was married to someone other than his father when he was conceived, so he is a product not just of premarital sex but of adultery. His parents’ subsequent marriage doesn’t help much.

The Hebrew author doesn’t address this (nor does any medieval Arthurian legend, really). Florence Sandler suggests that the naming of Arthur (“He will be called Artusin, that is, born through the power of art” [23]), which is unique to this text and echoes Biblical naming of children for events, is meant to give an aura of legitimacy to an infant conceived out of wedlock, but this seems out of step with the rest of the narrative. I don’t think the author wanted to legitimize Arthur at all.

The bulk of the text focuses on the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, though the text trails off before this episode concludes. The story itself is almost exactly the same as other medieval versions, and the love appears to be wonderful, beautiful, tragic.

Still, it is clear that the author intended to condemn Lancelot by the end of the narrative. Lancelot’s passion is introduced as: “this evil desire was the cause of the destruction of the Table, the death of King Artus, and the ruin of the entire Kingdom, as you will see further on” (29). In all Arthurian texts which narrate the end of the kingdom, Lancelot plays a large role, if not the only role, in bringing about the fall.

The Hebrew author may have intended to include the other big player as well, Mordred. Between the story of Arthur’s birth and the story of Lancelot’s affair, a brief family history is given, and the author tells us that “the evil traitor Mordred passed himself off as a nephew [of Arthur] for many years. Even the King conceded this. However, finally it became known that he was a bastard son, as you will see in the book of destruction” (23).

In Arthurian tradition, Arthur unknowingly conceives a child, Mordred, with his half-sister Morgana. In some adaptations, Mordred later tries to take over Arthur’s kingdom and has an affair with Arthur’s wife Guinevere, which leads to outright war, Arthur’s death, and the complete crumbling of the idealistic Arthurian world.

Although the Hebrew text is not complete, the parts which were written and the glimpses into what the author intended to include paint a very clear picture of the text’s purpose. All the episodes the author has chosen deal with adultery or promiscuity or sexual taboos in some way or another. This, then, is the “sin” that the author means when he says that his reason for undertaking such an inexplicable translation of Arthurian legend is “that sinners will learn the paths of repentance and bear in mind their end and will return to the Name (ie God).” It seems pretty clear and logical, no real question to be asked.

However, no other Arthurian text attempts to use these stories in this manner. This can perhaps be explained by the distinctly Jewish tone of Hamelech Artus as opposed to Christian texts. But Sephardic texts, though at this point none had yet used Arthurian material, did include stories of passionate love, and sometimes illicit love, with no apology and no such attempt for didactic purposes. Ashkenazic texts of the thirteenth century never told stories like this, but the later Yiddish Arthurian romances also made no such attempt at didacticism. So why the heavy emphasis here?

The answer lies with Italy’s unique position at this particular point, in the thirteenth century. Sandler suggests that the convergence of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in Northern Italy led the author to try to appeal to both audiences – the Sephardic who would appreciate a story of love and passion and chivalry, and the Ashkenazic who would “not countenance values which did not square with the moral teachings of the Talmud” (72).

I would modify that analysis a bit, because this assumes two communities in Northern Italy, one Ashkenazic retaining Ashkenazic values, and one Sephardic retaining Sephardic values. But the language and structure of the author’s introduction to Hamelech Artus suggests a tension between the two approaches within one person.

This text – its free use of Arthurian material but always with an apologetic tone and hastening to justify this free use – captures the moment when the two communities and their respective approaches to Torah learning and secular literature had only just begun to converge and to merge in this area. The later Yiddish romances in Northern Italy, with no attempt at didacticism and with a far more comic tone, are a reflection of the progression of this convergence, a result of Jewish migration in the “borderland” between Sephardic and Ashkenazic areas.