academic

This page includes reviews of academic books published by a University Press, or academic essays of my own.

‘Monstrous Children’ in Post-Reformation England

In Early Modern England, children were not only in choirs, but they also participated in plays to entertain mayors, Queens, and Kings, in addition to travelling alongside acting guilds in larger cycle productions. There were, however, rare cases where deformed children or ‘monstrous chyldrn’ were paraded for a sum of money (payable to their owner) and for the entertainment of the crowd. One such record appears in the Norwich Record of Early English Drama for the 5th of June 1616 in the Mayors’ court Books XV.[1]

“Humfry Bromely hath libertie to shewe in some howse within this Citty A strange Child with two heads. And that by the space of two days and no more But he ys forbidden to sound any Drume of vse any other meanes to drawe company then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said Child.”

This record is a source of three informative points: deformed children would be on display, public announcements for such displays were regulated, and it became the business of the mayor’s court to keep a record of these showings. Though the Norwich 1616 record shows no sign of payment, an account from the 29th of November, 1637 (also a Saturday) at Coventry in the Chamberlains’ and Wardens’ Account Book III under the subheading of ‘Rewardes to players’ reads “paid given to Walter Neare that went about the shew a child borne without Armes ij s. vj d.” The two shillings and six pence, (or half a crown) would have the buying power today of about $28-30 Canadian Dollars. Thus, Mr. Neare got paid a decent sum from the town’s treasury to go around and show a child who did not have any arms, just as it can be assumed Mr. Bromely was also paid to show a child with two heads.

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Originally published/produced in John Awdeley: London, 1568 (British Library)

In the late Middle Ages/Early Modern Period deformed children would scarcely make it to adulthood, yet the parents found it necessary to place these children in monasteries, on the steps of Churches, or journey alongside them on pilgrimages in the hope of a miraculous cure. Most importantly, the prevailing belief was that these ‘changelings’ were mitigating “guilt-feelings by transference” and physically reflected the sins of their parents. One popular method of connecting these ‘monstrous chyldrn’ to Biblical damnation can be found in the late 1500s on broadside ballads printed in the newspapers. These ballads were a “broad cross-section of ‘news’ ballads, miraculous happenings [and] monstrous births…which sometimes made use of religious judgements, but which (like criminal last speeches) appealed to their audience primarily on other grounds.” What Tessa Watt is describing is the intrigue audiences found in crude humour and entertainment. In his book Mirth Making, Chris Holcomb sustains that “deformity and conformity divide the social world into those who laugh and those who are laughed at.” Though this may come across as ignorant and insensitive in 21st century North America, in the late Middle Ages deformity was a laughing matter and an entertainment act of its own.

These two deformed children accounted and paid for in Coventry and Norwich were an ‘embodiment’ of human sins, impending doom, and a source of cruel humour and entertainment. Their existence and presentation were physical appropriations of the broadside ballads confirming doubts and incredulity. The fact that Bromely was forbidden “to vse the drumme” did imply that this activity was not universally tolerated in 1616 Norwich. However, Neare being paid a half-crown implies that wonder overcame the sense of guilt, as crowds indulged in watching a circus-bound, ‘monstrous chylde’; this shame went only as far as preventing a boisterous form of advertising in Norwich. According to the introduction in the Norwich REED volume, “the mayor and alderman were the guardians for public morality, as we can read in the Court Books of fines for swearers, drunkards, unlicensed ale-house keepers, ballad sellers, [and] wife beaters” (xxiv). Hence, a person caught ‘swearing’ might have been in much more trouble with the ‘guardians for public morality’ than one showing a deformed child.

If one is to consider a play in performance as the appropriation of a written text transferred to a physical presence, then perhaps the ‘shewing of monstrous chyldern’ can be better understood in performance by closely reading a broadside ballad. In an article dedicated to the religious interpretation of these ballads entitled “Popular Hermeneutics: Monstrous Children in English Renaissance Broadside Ballads,” Helaine Razovksy concludes that the three widely found interpretations of such ballads were that:

  • the monstrous child embodies the sins of the parents (if unmarried), and constitutes a specific warning;
  • the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state and constitutes a general warning;
  • the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state) and constitutes a lesson about the practice of interpretation
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Originally published/produced in Thomas Marshe: London, 1562. (British Library).

This interpretation of monstrous children creates a better understanding as to why the Mayors Court and the Wardens would pay for such displays—to maintain a sense of ‘morality’ by instilling fear, parading ‘proof’ all around. The Wardens of Coventry were in charge of rewarding travelling players and by doing so “they maintained the apparently unwritten agreement among civic officials in England that the names of the plays presented should not be mentioned” (xxxiii). Evidently, civic officials, though ‘indirectly,’ knew the presentation of deformed children and willing to pay a half-crown for it.

The same religious interpretation of deformed children that Razovsky presents, might have been the reason why Mr. Bromely in Norwich was “forbidden to vse any Drumme…then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said child.” The advertisement for the ‘strange child’ was like the presentation itself, one that was solely visual.

In addition, the records show that this display of deformed children was more frequent than one would think. In the same 1616 record, on June 15 (only 10 days later from the Humfry Bromely record) the Mayor’s Court listed a Mr. Abell Gary with a:

“warrant signed by his Maiestie & vnder his Maiesties signed Aucthorisinge the said Abell to shew a child…they haue leaue to shewe the same till Wednesday next at night & no longer…they are forbidden to use any Drumme…other than A Trumpet at the windows of the howse where they showe”

June 15 was a Wednesday in 1616, thus ‘till Wednesdays next’ implies that the showing of this child by Mr. Abell Gary would be for an entire week. The record itself was only 10 days after Humfry Bromely—who had shown a deformed child for two days—meaning only eight days had passed in Norwich since the crowd had seen a deformed child (or at least written down).

This frequent display emphasized that there was a pressing moral and religious matter that the Majesty himself wanted to instill in his people, or that these deformed children were sensationalized and the crowds simply loved to be entertained by seeing such ‘monstrous’ or ‘strange’ children. Subsequently, a rising demand for such performances was created. However, due to the regulated advertising noted in the Norwich records, the religious damnation associated with deformed children from the late 16th century, encountered in the broadside ballads, was still an underlying component influencing the reception of such a display.

[1] The court normally ‘met on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the Guildhall’ thus, simply because it was written down on the 5th of June (a Saturday) it does not mean that it is the exact day the account happened.

Works Cited:

Records of Early English Drama, University of Toronto Press. Toronto: Coventry (1981), Ecclesiastical London (2008), Newcastle Upon Tyne (1982), and Norwich 1540-1642 (1984)

Stories versus Tales

Short version: Story means “truth” and tale means “to tell a lie”

Elaborate explanation:

The interchangeable usage of story and tale as having the same semantic connotation is relatively new and pertains solely to Present Day English. Within the English vocabulary tale has evolved and progressed natively through Germanic, West Germanic, and Anglo-Frisian which resulted in the Old English tæl. In contrast story/storie is a loanword imposed on the English language post-Norman conquest from the French estoire which developed through the Italic and Latin branch. Within the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction however, the two words came from separate roots and were not used interchangeably (nor should they be now). What becomes apparent in the history of the two words is the ‘truth’ aspect present in a story and that a tale brings forth a lie. For the purpose of understanding how each word was being defined by lexicographers I have examined dictionaries as far back as 1678 and have found that tale has been used to define story and vice versa. At times both were being used in defining history. The concept “narrative” is however at the base of all three within all dictionaries at all historical points thus being the cohesive agent of all three.

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Tale evolved naturally into the English language. The Proto-Indo-European *del meaning “to recount/count” developed into the Germanic Talō which then separated into North Germanic and West Germanic talu (“*del”). North Germanic later divided into Old Norse/Old Icelandic which contains in its dictionary Tal as noun meaning “Talk, parley, conversation. 2. Speech, language. Tala 1. Discourse, speech 2. Tale, number and Tala as verb meaning to talk or speak. To record and to tell.” This shows the word had maintained its semantic value throughout this division. Anglo-Frisian tælu developed into the Old English tæl. In Joseph Bosworth’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary tæl appears as noun to be “a tale, number, series” but also “evil speaking, calumny, detraction…attack with blasphemy.” Interestingly enough “tale” as a number system finds its way into Portuguese as tæl coming from the Malay tahil meaning “any of several monetary units equal to the equivalent weight in silver.” This is quite amusing as it develops through a different branch and comes to a semantically-relevant homophonic word which in Old English is tæl. Another homophone of “tale” being “tail” maintains the same semantic value in Old Norse as it is tagl meaning the tail of an animal which at the same time in Old English was taegel also meaning tail. Tælan as a verb meant “to blame, rebuke, reprove, reproach, censure, accuse. To speak evil. To slander, to treat with contempt, scorn, insult, mock.” Throughout this division of language, the word brought along with it the implication that one would “recount” or “speak.” There is however a difference between speaking and telling. Elizabeth Closs Traugott writes in her work Regularity in Semantic Change that “tell primarily introduces a narrative…[and that] the reorganization of the lexicon occurred in Middle English with the introduction of talk (an early Frisian term) and the focusing of tell on verbal action (in OE tellan meant primarily ‘count’ or ‘recount; in sequence, i.e. ‘narrate’). Talk is the only word in English borrowed from Lithuanian, which has talkas for ‘talk’ and tulkot for ‘interpreter.’ Russian tolk meaning ‘sense’ and the verb tolkovant-‘to interpret.’ Thus tale as it became in Middle English, though it remained ‘an account’ it also brought along with it a trace of deceit and evil-speaking.

Story on the other hand, originated from the PIE root *wid-tor meaning “to know” or literally translated “to see.” This became in Latin historia which was a “narrative of past events, an account.” Istō/Istoc (root of historia) meant “to the place where you are, to the point you have reached, to this place.” The Latin equivalent for what we now use the word “story/tale” was narratio or fabulo, which we know to be ‘narrative’ or ‘fable’ (quite a different topic altogether). Historia divided into the Romance languages and in French became estoire which literally meant “a chronicle, a history.” The introduction of stoire/story into the English language occurred post-Norman Conquest in Middle English.

Looking at past lexicographers and how they defined story, tale or even history, it becomes apparent that all definitions contain “narrative” as a key concept of each word’s semantic connotation. Samuel Johnson in 1806, E. Cobham Brewer in 1882, and Rev. Walter W. Skeat in 1910 all use tale when defining story and vice versa. This brings to question why the merging of the two separate words occurred, and why the ‘deceit’ in what was previously known in OE tæl was no longer part of the definition of tale. Though the two separate are being used interchangeable tale did maintain the lie in other tangential words sprung from it up to Present Day English. Looking for instance at Johnson’s definition of storyteller and talebearer the distinction becomes much clearer. Johnson defines storyteller as “[story and tell] One who relates tales in conversation, a historian, in contempt” and yet he defines talebearing as “[tale and bear] The act of informing; officious or malignant intelligence.” Talebearing thus implies a gossip-like nature versus one delivering an informative speech.

The most interesting form in which the two words have appeared within a text together as “tale-story” was within Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England. It is the only text identified by the OED to have used the words together (hyphened). It is worth glancing at how Fuller used this hyphenated word and within what context (Fuller is speaking about Sutton of Salsbury and how he became wealthy based on an old pamphlet –advertising):

“Thus these mongrel pamphlets (part true, part false) do most mischief. Snakes are less dangerous than lampreys, seeing none will feed on what is known to be poison. But these books are most pernicious, where truth and falsehoods are blended tougher, and such a medley-cloth is the tale-story of this clothier.”

Mongrel, medley-cloth, and tale-story are used interchangeably by Fuller containing the same semantic implication. Mongrel he himself emphasizes to be “part true, part false” and medley-cloth was “a type of cloth woven with wool of different colours or shades mixed in the thread.” Thus, tale-story within this context is the mixture of a truth and a falsehood which means story remained a more reliable account and tale still brought along with it the ‘calumny’ and deceit encountered in the Old English even mid-17th century. Thomas Fuller wrote the book in the late 1650s and passed away in 1661. The book was published posthumously in 1662.

Joint words like tall-tale and fairy-tale emphasize the different aspects of a lie a tale contains. For instance the word tall is a figurative word within the English language which stands for something being exaggerated and has been widely used. Yet one rarely encounters “tall-stories” or “fairy-stories” because the implication would be that one had been there and the content of the account is based in a truth or a biographical occurrence that had once happened and simply been retold. Should one recount a truth with exaggeration it would no longer be a story, rather it would become a “tall-tale” and he/she would be Johnson’s talebearer rather than his storyteller.

living_to_tell_the_talealcie muThis semantic property of ‘truth’ to story remains in Present Day English yet within narrower contexts. Authors like Alice Munro who publish a collection of short narrative accounts are not summed up by publishers as ‘short tales’ nor do they write that on the cover or on the title page. Rather, due to the mature content and the respect attributed to the content, the collected works would be referred to as Short Stories thus implying that parts of these narratives are true and have been appropriated for publication. Tales on the other hand are encountered within texts intended for children (beyond fairy tales) or within contexts where the lie is known to be there. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote his autobiography Living To Tell the Tale, with clear hindsight of what has been professed about his art. Magical Realism has been treated as “the truth of a five-year-old” or “telling a lie with a brick face” (as my English professor, Nick Mount, used to say). Evidently, even in present day narrative content with a more deceitful tone or intended for children is more likely to be labelled as a tale rather than a story.

Thus, by looking at the two words individually and tracing them to their reconstructed Indo-European root in addition to examining how they have been defined by lexicographers at various historical points it becomes evident that story and tale cannot always be used interchangeably (or at least they shouldn’t). The two are not only different but they are contradictory in meaning for one means “truth/to know” while the other means “a lie/to deceive.” The credibility attached to stories has remained through to Present Day English and the exaggerated (somewhat derogatory) connotation remains attached to tales. The possibility that idioms within the English language have contributed to the semantic property of a tale leaves much room for exploration on this topic.

Works Cited: Fuller, Thomas D.D. The History of the Worthies of England (1840), “*del” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English LanguageDerocquigny, Jules. A Contribution to the Study of the French Element in English (1904),“Isto/Istoc” Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary (2005), “Medley-cloth” The OED OnlineNick, Mount “Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Magical Realism” (Lecture, 2011), Lemon, Rev. George William. English Etymology or A derivative dictionary of the English language: in two alphabets (1783), Murray, James A.H. “Oxford English Dictionary.” X, XI. (1969-70), Philips, Edward. The New World of Words (1684), Skeat, Rev. Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1910), “storyteller” n.f. Def 1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), “tael” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “taelan” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “talebearing”n.f. Def.1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. Regularity in Semantic Change (2005), Tulloch, Alexander R. Word Routes: Journeys Through Etymology (2005), “*wid-tor” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2013), Zoega, Geir T. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (1926)

Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother

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Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:

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Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)

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Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.

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I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istavan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. a Summary, Discussion, and Review

“…science fiction is more than a literary genre or a social passion. It is a way of organizing the mind to include the contemporary world…SF is an art that delights in vision, intelligence, and the infinite possibilities of change.”

5925031My overall impression of this book was that it was trying so hard to be exclusive and elite that it almost became nonsensical. Yes, I understand that it contributes to a larger conversation. However, if you look at Joanna Russ’s discourse on feminist science fiction, or Sterling’s, LeGuin’s, and Atwood’s nonfiction writing as a writer-critic, or even Auerbach, Marx, and Bakhtin (all names with whom Csicsery-Ronay Jr claims to be ‘in conversation’) they are still trying to reach the public and actually have a discourse. When you purposely make yourself so inaccessible, you might as well be ranting in a dark room, in solitary confinement. It was clear to me that he wanted to fit into the ‘philosophy’ department more than the literary analysis and criticism department, or the literary studies in general. In some sections, he over-complicates topics that are so simple with his verbose and restrictive writing style. For instance, in the section on fictive neology, the entire passage sounds like an anthropology paper on humans as an overview. “Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration.” Yeah…we know. You’d find yourself reading pages upon pages of just common sense knowledge told in a restrictive style. I also found this work to be limited by the few sci-fi works that Csicsery-Ronay has read. While he references certain things here and there from a wider range, he goes into detailed discussion on only a few works (but almost the same ones in every chapter). You can tell he’s definitely (properly) read Solaris, the Kim Stanley Robinson books, few works by Ursula K. LeGuin (if not one) and some of the 19th century classics…but there are so many other works to consider (especially when this was published in 2008). I think he barely dips into science fiction works, extracts a very superficially well-known theme and then starts ranting about it in a way only Philosophy students would understand. This becomes crystal clear the moment you encounter chapters dedicated to Kant, Adorno, and Burke.  Sometimes he just name-drops titles without even discussing them, to get them to fit into his ‘totally-unrelated-to-sf’ thesis.

Those two frustrations aside, the book gets good once you get used to his use of language about mid-end of chapter one. Once he begins to engage with science fiction works (though few) I actually really enjoyed it.

The title for this work is inspired by the medieval Persian allegorical romance The Haft Paykar—a tale of mystical love and moral enlightenment, in which a prince falls in love with seven beauties and upon visiting each of them in a week, each bride tells him a new allegorical story. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. appropriates the seven beauties to the form of “categories” found in science fiction (which he calls science-fictionality)—of which one work may contain several.

This work is not expository or historical. It is a theoretical model of criticism and responding to a rich discourse about the genre. While there are many literary critical lenses through which to examine sf works (feminist, Marxist, etc) Csicsery-Ronay Jr. approaches sf as (what he ‘simply’ describes as):

“a product of the convergence of social-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and as an institution of ideological expression on one hand, and on the other, the ludic framework in a culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted.”

The author explains that he wanted to interact with sf works and read closely while trying to not to border on the banal by using popular works, nor slip into obscurity by addressing texts that deserve a wider audience. A great difficulty arises when he wanted to be inclusive of non-Anglo sf works, while the SF genre is predominantly an Anglo-American genre. These are the seven ‘beauties’ or categories he discusses at length (I am paraphrasing some from the way Csicsery-Ronay Jr introduced them, with some examples that were memorable to me):

  1. Fictive Neology: new worlds, variations and combinations based on the actual process of lexicogenesis (ways words are coined) experienced in social life. Imply linguistic-symbolic models of technological transformation. They engage audiences to use them as clues and triggers to construct the logic of science fictional worlds. In this chapter he looks at the way language is used to construct a novelty but also how the absence of it can also achieve the same results. For instance, he uses the example of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical compound of which we never get to know the name. “By refusing to give his novum a scientific name Stevenson kept his tale from engaging with the discourse of science.” He also examines ways in which Tolkien’s well-constructed Elvish gives the fantasy epic a scientific foundations, while other ‘languages’ referenced in sci-fi with few words here and there and a name do not. Parseltongue isn’t a language, Elvish and Klingon are (in a scientific way).
  2. Fictive Novums: coined by Darko Suvin, the term refers to a historically unprecedented and unpredictable ‘new thing’ that intervenes in the routine course of social life and changes the trajectory of history. According to Csicsery-Ronay Jr., every sf text supplies fictive novums and responses to them, and thus engages the sense of real inhabitants of technorevolutionary societies. Here we learn about negative apocalypse predictions, or we find that something we knew in the past or present to be true, in the future it won’t be so. For instance Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Vinland the dream” contains the idea that the Vikings’ landing in North America is a recent hoax. This chapter has a deeper study of Lem’s Solairs.
  3. Future History: most sf is set in the future, though it does not need to be. The genre relies on the techniques of realism. Maintaining a sense of connection between the present and future, sf constructs micromyths of the historical process, establishing the audience’s present as the future-oriented ‘prehistory of the future.’
  4. Imaginary Science: introducing technoscientific ideas and events among the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life. “We make science of our metaphors.”
  5. The Science-fictional Sublime: here Csicsery-Ronay Jr. explores several branches of the sublime like the Kantian sublime of temporal and special infinitude of the mathematical, the sense of overwhelming physical power of the dynamic sublime, David E. Nye’s coined American technological sublime where it’s the sense of access to, and control of, the powers of nature that typified the Americanpopulace’s responses to the monumental engineering projects of the nineteenth century, and last the technoscientific sublime, popularized post-WWII which entails a sense of awe and dread in response to human technological projects that exceed the power of their human creators.
  6. The Science-Fictional grotesque: the inversion of the technosublimeàcollapse of ontological categories. This is the domain of monstrous aliens. The grotesque is implosive, accompanied by fascination and horror at the prospect of intimate category-violating phenomena discovered by human science.
  7. Technologiade: transforms popular cultural materials by reorienting their concerns toward its characteristic horizon: the transformation of human societies as a result of innovations attending technoscientific projects. This chapter is similar to Jung’s models of the archetype, only he appropriates it here for the Gothic vs. Adventure. What I found interesting in this chapter was the presentation or idea of the Gothic as a mere inversion of the adventure tale.

He writes:

“Where modern adventure narrates the projection of discovery and invention further and further away from the home base, the metropole and the ‘motherland,’ into exotic venues, the Gothic imagines the subject position of the victim of these cognitive interests…the field of values is reversed…the Gothic inverts the dream world of thrilling travels among wonders into nightmares of abduction, imprisonment, and victimization by barely controllable archaic passions.”

I recommend this  book to people interested in philosophical discourse, rather than people interested in the history, analysis, or in-depth study of science fiction literature/film.

Literary Titans Revisited | Review

“Their writing explores themes in our society…the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice.” —Anne Urbancic

32841205Professor Anne Urbancic (at Victoria College, University of Toronto) assigns her first-year students to explore in depth a library’s archive, write a detailed essay, and present it to the class. One of her students, Griffin Kelly, discovered in her search a series of compact discs in the Victoria University Archive at the E.J. Pratt Library. What she found were 16 interviews conducted by Earle Toppings with some of Canada’s top novelists and poets who were leading figures in the emergence of Canadian identity in literature. Kelly brought Mr. Earle Topping—an editor turned radio host who still resided in Toronto at the time—to speak to the class. Thus began the project that has now been turned into the book Literary Titans Revisited. Urbancic called upon four students, including Griffin Kelly herself, Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Vpasha Shaik, and the E.J. Pratt Library’s leading Reader Services librarians Agatha Barc, and Colin Deinhardt to collaborate on transcribing the interviews.

Urbancic notes in the introduction that:

“While Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets… they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century.”

The topic of Canadian identity in literature is still relatively new compared to its English and American fellows, and resources on Canlit authors are still being pieced together. What Urbancic created with Literary Titans Revisited is an excellent primary source for future Canlit students. Each writer’s interview with Earle Topping is preceded by a brief introduction including biographical material, a portrait, relevant and major contributions, as well as a brief analysis of their overall influence on Canadian literature and culture. The first section ‘Prose’ includes interviews with six novelists including Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Sinclair Ross. The second section ‘Poetry’ contains the remaining ten interviews—among which are Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Irving Layton—to name a few. Lastly, the seventeenth chapter contains an interview with Earle Toppings who discloses his interviewing process, the composition of his questions, and the experience of interviewing the sixteen authors. Finding how he came up with the project and the recording devices he used at the time is an inspiring reminder of how much one can do with minimal resources.

IMG_7685

Statue of Al Purdy in Queen’s Park (unveiled in 2008).

The authors shared personal anecdotes, life struggles, and their creative process. Some poets read aloud to Toppings some of their newly composed poems which are not necessarily the ones that later on appeared in print. When it comes to transcribing the poems, this collection stays true to the recordings rather than what was finalized in print. What I found particularly interesting was how at the moment Canadian writers were asked how some of their life experiences connect to their artwork, they began by discussing either a British or American author as an example of how that can happen. Morley Callaghann speaks of Conrad and Joyce, Hugh Garner of Fitzgerald, Hugh Maclennan of Hemingway, and Mordecai Richler of several authors like George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. While trying to find the Canadian voice, these Canadian authors were still using American and British identities as a crutch even in the late sixties.  These interviews are a clear depiction of the search for a unique voice. Simultaneously, some keep in perspective the problematic consequences of Canadian history. Urbancic emphasizes that Al Purdy for instance:

“points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations.”

This book has been published by Dundurn Press and is currently available for purchase (click here) and at your public library (click here). I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in Canadian Literature, wants to be in the presence of Canadian literary titans, and interested in aspects of the creative process. Lastly, I would hope that all libraries will have this book in their collection. This collaborative project supplemented with the editorial work of Anne Urbancic is a new excellent primary source in Canadian scholarship.

Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry

34889267I received this work from Columbia University Press. It’s an academic book scheduled for publication on November 28. The work itself is a translation and presentation by Peter France of Konstantin Batyushkov’s writings. France interweaves Batyushkov’s own writings with his biography presenting to readers the life of a poet and his career as a soldier with his subsequent decline into mental illness at the age of thirty-four. A mixture of depression and PTSD from his life as a soldier made Batyushkov unable to write poetry any longer in the last few years of his life. Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855) was one of Russia’s greatest poets. France makes it known on page one of the introduction that even though:

“To most non-Russian readers his name is hardly known… for Russians he is a classic.”

He emerged in the 1820s in a literary grouping of what was later known as the Golden Age or the Pushkin Pléiade. The introduction to this work tells us that Pushkin himself regarded Batyushkov as a master.

In terms of where in the canon one might place or discuss Batyushkov, France tells us that:

“One might see in this divided soul an expression of Batyushkov’s intermediary historical position—between the urbane sociability of Enlightenment Russia, and the rebellious Romantic sensibility that is embodied in Pushkin’s Eugin Onegin.”

Konstantin_Batyushkov_portrait

Portrait of Batyushkov

This work is relatively short but quite dense. Peter France focuses on each section of Batyushkov’s life by adding an introduction with biographical information. He then selects the corresponding poems that fit in with that time in Batyushkov’s life and illuminate his feelings, reflections, and own self-documentation. France also adds passages of close reading and analysis to Batyshkov’s poems supporting the connection to his biographical passages by adding letters Batyushkov sent to his family and friends.

Reading this work was refreshing because it felt like I was reading something completely new, but somehow reading a classic as well. I found it absolutely crucial that someone should introduce Batyushkov to the West after reading his poems. France did an excellent job not only presenting/introducing Batyushkov but also in translating his poems. I would strongly recommend this book to readers fond of Russian literature, poetry, and semi-academic works. I didn’t find it exclusive by any means, it was accessible and interesting.

Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid | Book Review

32828220This book is a part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series published by the University of Illinois Press. Earlier works included Gerry Canavan’s book on Octavia E. Bulter (2016), Jad Smith’s close reading of Alfred Bester (2016), and many others. This work on Banks is scheduled for publication on May 30 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

This book is an academic work, and I can say with confidence that Paul Kincaid is Iain M. Banks’s biggest fan. This book has been written with so much passion. Kincaid writes an in-depth analysis as a product of very detailed close reading. Kincaid is a life-long critic of science fiction. He has reviewed hundreds of science fiction works, been featured in sci-fi magazines, and has contributed to critical anthologies. In addition, he has been the administrator for the Arthur C. Clarke Award from 1995 to 2006 following up this prestigious position with an anthology he edited on each of the first 18 award winners, The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology (anth 2006).

This non-fiction book is divided in five sections (or long chapters). It begins with an introduction to Banks and a biographical piece on him—which is quite necessary considering thus far no biography of Banks exists. What particularly pulled at my heart strings and got my immediate attention was that Kincaid started with Banks’s public post after finding out he has a late stage of gall bladder cancer giving him a limited time.

The biographical chapter is followed by three comprehensive chapters on the history, theory, and philosophy of Banks’s works. Kincaid situates Banks in both the science fiction community as well as in a larger cultural spectrum. He takes apart the Culture Series and examines the ways Banks was influenced by historical and political events, and how he in turn influenced others. Kincaid brings in works by other theorists, other writers (H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, and J.R.R. Tolkien among them) who have influenced Banks, and subsequently the ways his own works predicted 9/11 and the dominant fear/anxieties after.  Lastly, Kincaid examines the aftermath of Banks’s death in 2013 and his last work written: The Quarry, which was published posthumously, and the new and emerging sci-fi writers, that he himself influenced, like China Miéville.

The last section of this book is an extended interview via email correspondence between Iain M. Banks and Jude Roberts who was working on a Ph.D. thesis. The interview occurred between April-June of 2010 and even though a copy of it appeared in Strange Horizons in 2014, this copy is an extended version. In this interview Banks gives his opinion of writers he enjoyed growing up, theorists, women sci-fi writers who influenced him, and the general reception and process of writing his own works.

What I particularly enjoyed about this work was that Kincaid left no stone unturned. Every article, epitaph, critical essay, previous academic work, and/or interview that exists with or about Iain M. Banks, has been acknowledged in this work in one form or another.

I would highly recommend this book on Iain M. Banks (and Iain Banks as Kincaid discusses the difference between the two publication names of the author) to academic universities with courses in Science Fiction as a thorough and comprehensive study of Banks’s work. I would also recommend this book to fans of Banks, particularly those who have read a majority of his works. If you want to know more about Banks and how others have interpreted his works I would also recommend this book, with the suggestion that you read at least The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas, as those two works are the most discussed two in this academic book.

Many thanks to the University of Illinois Press for sending me an ARC of this book for review.