Writing Through Lacunae: Generative Erasures, Medieval Multiverses

What follows is a presentation I gave at an academic conference last spring, in a session I organized around the somehow-still-radical-in-2022 idea of professors who work openly across critical/creative, professional/personal, and academic/public divides towards integrated and authentic practices and being. I share it here in hopes it helps others, especially prospective and current graduate students and early career researchers, nontraditional students, and people who are just interested in things I’ve written, think through their own relationships with what they do and who they are, how the one inextricably informs the other, and how figuring out what that looks like and how and why it matters to us can truly engage and lead to meaningful and powerful shifts in our perception of who we are, what we do, and where the value in our work truly lies.

Title page: Writing Through Lacunae: Generative Erasures, Medieval Multiverses, a talk given at the Sewanee Medieval Conference in Spring 2022

This paper occurs at the intersection of medieval and medievalism studies; of me-as-writer, me-as-scholar, and me-as-teacher; that is, at the intersection of my creativity, scholarship, and pedagogy. I have come recently to the conclusion that the effort I’ve expended to keep these parts of myself separate has been an irresponsible response to irresponsible expectations, an effort to work within the strange idea that we must be “scientific and objective” and “eschew identity scholarship” which permeates our field and permits pretense that some (white, male) scholars who “do not engage in identity scholarship” are more valid than other (non white, non male) scholars who ostensibly do. As I’ve written elsewhere, the idea that white men writing about Latinate Christianity, European medieval politics, and the Crusades, are objective and scientific researchers not engaged in personally invested inquiry, but that anyone who brings a visibly (because not white and heteronormatively male) or otherwise transparently subjective persona into their research and teaching is engaged in identity scholarship and thus, suspect in terms of their professional credibility is both absurd and false. And I have come to understand that, in fact, I am at my best both personally and professionally when I do NOT seek to compartmentalize these various aspects of myself but rather, engage them holistically. I came to this realization by chance during a years-ago classroom exercise in examining erasures in Beowulf and lacunae in the Historia Regum Britanniae which has since evolved into a foundational approach to writing, researching, and teaching that has been nothing short of transformational. By actively turning attention to the erasures and lacunae left on, in, and by my subjects of study and using these to help me better understand their contexts, influences, and impact, allowing myself along the way to think and write deeply into them and thus, participate actively in the multiverses they originated, I am continuously learning, re-learning, and helping my students and readers to learn, how to engage with my work, and with myself through that work, in generative and meaningful rather than artificially purposeful ways. That is, I enact a pedagogy of authenticity historically, culturally, and personally responsible not to an OBJECTIVE TRUTH we all know to be fiction masquerading as real, but to the things and people I seek to understand: medieval North Atlantic literatures and cultures, my students, my readers, and myself, in all our individual, local, and global contexts–the real multiverses reflected in our fictional ones.

Section heading page: I “The Nowell codex erasures, textual and psychological trauma, and feminist retellings of Beowulf”

As J.R. Hall demonstrated in a presentation at the Southeastern Medieval Association many years ago, the missing text in the Nowell codex, the sole extant medieval witness of the early English epic Beowulf, is not due to the damage sustained by the manuscript in the famous Ashburnham House fire of 1731, but rather to the effect of an owner of the manuscript’s application of a chemical agent intended to make the fading ink more legible, so it could be traced over and rendered more stable. Unfortunately, the chemical agent as applied erased those portions of the text entirely; the only saving grace in this situation being that the owner ceased his efforts as soon as he noted that unrecoverable damage occurring. These good-faith efforts at preservation resulted in unintended damage–can, in fact, be interpreted as a violent act which left visible trauma upon the object in the form of unrecoverable erasure. 

In turn, this physical erasure visible upon the object of study–the manuscript, itself–leads me into consideration of the subject erasures located within the text preserved in that object–the storyworld of Beowulf, and the real world that produced this epic and the stories embedded within it. Scholars have painstakingly worked to reclaim a significant portion of that world through a variety of approaches: archaeology, anthropology, philology, and comparative literary studies, to name but a few. More recently, interdisciplinary and nontraditional approaches including psychoanalytical, feminist, indigenous, and critical race theory have been applied to the text, and these have been met with skepticism if not downright derision on the part of certain prominent Beowulf scholars; claims of anachronism, reverse-engineering history, and subjectivity/ identity scholarship abound (as though all of these “issues” aren’t embedded in the text itself . . . ) 

images: damaged pages from the Beowulf ms and the notice of the Ashburnham House Fire

Interestingly, in creative efforts at reclamation and engagement of this text and its world(s), such approaches are not only acceptable, but expected and praised, especially if undertaken by men. Tolkien’s fantasy The Hobbit, of course–beloved and hailed as a classic fantasy in its own right, and taught as the core of “Tolkien’s Middle Ages” courses emphasizing his use of medieval source texts as allegory for modern concerns; novelized versions of Beowulf, such as John Gardner’s Grendel or Michael Creighton’s Eaters of the Dead, hailed for their psychological depth and social critique and often taught alongside the original poem (or, as with Grendel, even in its place, for younger readers.)

Images of the covers of The Hobbit, Eaters of the Dead, and Grendel

However, we have our limits regarding translation and adaptation of the poem as a poem. Seamus Heaney’s1999 translation, widely acclaimed in popular view, has been dubbed “Heaneywolf” by the poem’s scholars for its staunch adherence to the poet’s sensibilities and Irish political lens. Roy Liuzza’s translation, on the other hand, is probably the most-taught in today’s classrooms and deservedly so, it’s an excellent translation by a deeply learned and engaged and wonderful scholar of Old English–but it is a translation, and also possesses characteristics and sensibilities of its maker. These, however, are more obfuscated by his position as a man who is also a recognized scholarly expert and not simply a poet. 

Images of the covers of Heaney’s Beowulf and Liuzza’s Beowulf, Second Edition

Meghan Purvis’s award-winning 2013 feminist translation of the poem was essentially ignored by medievalists upon publication and is rarely taught or written about from a critical perspective, Denis Ferhatović’s 2019 chapter in the edited collection Shapes of Early English Poetry a notable exception. The primary charge is that, being in part written through the distillation of certain moments and expansion or insertion of others within the missing words and lines, it is interesting, but not really Beowulf. Yet, scholars have been quick to point out that Beowulf, itself, is also not necessarily or even likely to be the poem as originally composed, a fact that in no way has dimmed our passion and enthusiasm for mining it for everything it can tell us.

Images: cover and sample pages of Purvis’s Beowulf

More recently, Maria Dahvana Headley’s brilliant revisionist translation has met with highly divided critical acclaim: while scholars invested in seeing the field diversify and open up to new perspectives have widely lauded it, the Venn diagram of scholars who treat the poem as a holy relic and scholars who hate her translation is a perfect circle. Where it occurs, criticism of her work typically begins with the first word: she translated HWAET as BRO. This demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the poem’s gravitas, detractor Beowulf-experts sniff. How could she desecrate the poem that way?

What is the difference, really, between HWAET! and LISTEN! and YO! and BRO! ?

Images, cover, first page, and Venn diagram of Headley’s Beowulf

Significantly, Headley also wrote a novel, The Mere Wife, which adapts Beowulf from a feminist perspective, Grendel’s Mother an Iraqi war veteran, and these same critics hated that, too: it’s not Beowulf! It’s too political. We can’t teach that book. (but Tolkien, Gardner, and Creighton are fine, to judge from the number of syllabi which have featured them . . . ?) Another Venn diagram: the perfect circle of those who find Headley’s work “too political” while staunchly defending Tolkien from charges of religious conservatism, classism, and racism in his texts. As a writer myself, I find it deeply troubling that instead of being read and considered on their own merit, with an effort to understand their relationship to Beowulf not as a 1:1 corollary but as an effort to find something that hasn’t been seen or understood within the poem or which the poem has brought to mind for them, these women’s works are continuously held up as “less than”, mere shadows rather than “faithful” modern renditions and “respectful” adaptations of the “original pure text”–something their authors never sought to accomplish. What, precisely, are we expecting them to be faithful and responsible to

Images: cover of Headley’s The Mere Wife and Venn diagram

I think you see where I’m going with this. Scholars of this poem agree that there are unrecoverable elements of both the manuscript-object and the text-subject of Beowulf. Likewise, we agree it is worth continuing to push for answers to the unanswered and unanswerable questions we ask of it. Where we diverge is in the idea of “responsible” approaches to this poem. There is a sense among some that “objectively” we should not do damage to this text through “irresponsible” scholarship. But realistically, what “objective” scholarship has ever been conducted on any medieval text? Who among us, even those who read Old English, has ever once read and understood Beowulf as its original author intended it to be received by its original audience? We know this is impossible and reading never works that way. We each come to this poem from a subject-position and a particular training and methodology. Realistically, the only limitations are those we opt to place upon the text, and ourselves engaging with the text. And realistically, “subjective” damage in the form of “irresponsible” scholarship leading to lasting trauma for this poem and its audience(s) has already been done–just look at the text’s centrality for the alt-right audience that views it as evidence of White Nationalist origins for today’s society–a view wholly developed and codified in the critical scholarly tradition that now and so actively seeks to preserve the poem’s purity as a cultural monument and relic and protect it from those who “don’t understand it”.

Is there not then a possibility that studying the application of a chemical agent to the physical manuscript and its effects upon the object, and studying the application of a theoretical lens and its effects upon the story, and studying the application of a translational approach and its effects upon the poem, and studying the critical historiography of and its effects upon the poem, and studying creative responses and their effects upon the poem, can equally yield important new insights into how we understand Beowulf now, its original presentation and audience, and our own efforts at recovering the unrecoverable on and within this text object? What if, instead of disdaining those who approach it in ways that we find unfamiliar or that we disagree with, we actually put on our critical thinking caps and engage in good faith with their efforts, trying to learn from them, allowing ourselves to be inspired by them? And what if, rather than insisting on some fictive objective truth of Beowulf as a subject of inquiry, as though there is only one true text, on which the last word worth writing has already been written and we can only memorize and regurgitate the work of those critics, we teach our students such an approach, the approach taken by Purvis and Headley and yes, Tolkien and Heaney as well–to be open and attentive to what we don’t and can’t know, and open and attentive to the many ways of knowing available to us; to critically engage with what is there and imaginatively engage with what isn’t, to read the poem aware of their subject position as its reader, and to consider what they could bring into its understanding? What might they teach us, or teach us to ask, that we don’t already know? 

I suspect–quite a lot. I suspect the poem could and should be far less white, male, sexist, and racist. I note that based on their works Gardner, Creighton, Heaney, and Liuzza do not disagree with this conclusion nearly so vehemently as those who hold them up as the poem’s better adapters appear to. And I find as a feminist writer/scholar myself that when my own students have engaged with Toni Morrison’s essay on Grendel’s Mother, Maria Devhana Headley’s representation of Grendel’s Mother in the Mere Wife, and Meghan Purvis’s expansion of the women’s presence in the story, they are far better equipped, and more interested, to engage with Beowulf on its own terms regarding what is and is not present in the poem as object/subject, and, most importantly, why that matters for them as its readers. 

In fact, that is precisely WHY we have the works of Tolkien, Gardner, Creighton, Heaney, Purvis, Headley, countless others, in the first place–these are creative responses to the questions they asked the poem. There are so many more questions that can still be asked, as many questions as there are readers, and for me, those Nowell codex erasures are the way in: directing my students’ attention to the various erasures and gaps, asking them what they think is missing and why, and then simply supporting them in their investigation. The one, extant physical copy of the poem has already yielded countless editions, translations, adaptations, and critical studies; it can produce countless more. While some things are unrecoverable, every new product, whether creative, critical, or hybrid, is a recovery of something by/for someone out of the ruins of the original storyworld, and this is a hopeful act we should embrace and encourage. 

Section heading page: “II Finding (more) time for romance: Historia Regum Britanniae, ArthurTime, and entering the multiverse from wherever you are”

In 1994, Ad Putter published an article in Medium Aevum which has subsequently only been cited 52 times by other scholars but which wholly changed the field and unlocked the convergent creative/critical/pedagogical possibilities of the Arthurian multiverse for at least one medieval/ism/ist – me. In “Finding Time for Romance,” Putter hypothesized that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “authoritative” History of the Kings of Britain provided an origin site for the medieval romanciers of the Arthurian legend in establishing a chronology for Arthur’s reign. Among the many “historic” deeds in the Arthurian section such as the break with Rome, the ridding of the menace of the Giant of Mont Saint Michel, and the unifying of the North Atlantic world under Arthur’s rule, are two easily-overlooked spans of time: 12 years, and 9 years, respectively. Of these, Geoffrey writes simply: 

Image: quoted passages cited in the paragraph below

“The winter passed and Arthur returned to Britain. He established the whole of his kingdom in a state of lasting peace and then remained there for the next twelve years” (222) and “Nine years passed” (225). Putter argued that because Arthur’s reign was thus fixed chronologically, writers who wanted their work to be taken seriously had to locate plausible space within that reign in which to insert their tales and that, beginning with Wace, they did so within these two spans of uncharted time–that is, that Arthurian romanciers and alternative historians located their Otherworlds and multiverse offerings within these textual lacunae providing uncharted temporalities, exploiting what Jane Gilbert later termed “Arthurtime”–the span of time and space locatable within those empty spaces left by Geoffrey of Monmouth and infinitely customizable by later writers seeking to insert themselves into the Arthurian world. 

Images of website screen captures on “the real King Arthur”

A lot of ink has been spilled seeking to locate “the real historical King Arthur,” to somehow legitimize and claim him as the property of one group of people over another (and again, the Venn diagram between these folks and the Beowulf purists is a perfect circle.) Not only is this not especially interesting, it’s also “historically irresponsible” scholarship because for Geoffrey of Monmouth, it didn’t matter whether Arthur was “real” or not, all that mattered was that he SHOULD be, and so he was entered into the historical record as the son of a fictive king. Arthur is there because he was needed to complete Geoffrey’s history, and what is or should be interesting to scholars and critics is not Arthur’s historicity, which is wholly in doubt if not at this point thoroughly debunked, but HRB’s lasting significance as an origin site for the Arthurian multiverse (though really, the Welsh triads should have that honor.) 

Images from medieval Arthurian manuscripts

Anything can happen in Arthurtime and space. Literally anything. The origin stories of the various knights of the Round Table; their journeys and adventures; alternate histories–there’s room in there for anyone and everyone. And they’re all “legitimate” because they occur in the lacunae of Arthur’s reign, in the uncharted and unclaimed spaces: who’s to say what went on there? Absolutely no one, that’s who. Medieval writers got that point from the beginning; certain modern scholars seem to struggle with it. One of the arguments we see over and over again, generally from the same people who get their knickers in a knot over the need to respect and preserve Beowulf as a monument of White Culture, is that you can’t make an Arthurian knight black, or a woman, or trans, or queer, because it’s inaccurate or anachronistic. Oh, you dear sweet summer children–haven’t you heard of Palomedes? Of Silence? Medieval romanciers already covered that ground and plenty more besides. And just take a quick look at Edmund Spenser’s manspreading in Arthurtime and space in the Fairie Queene for queer alternate Arthurian history . . . I’ll wait . . . 

But those are EXCEPTIONS, we sometimes hear. And yet–they are not exceptions. The historiography of the Arthurian legend presents a truly a global enterprise featuring knights, ladies, and adventures from around the world, from its origins through the present day. Objectively, there are hardly any exceptions in material at this point–and that’s important.

Images: covers of Once and Future and Legendborn, and Venn diagram

Recently, modern writers like Cori McCarthy and A.R. Capetta with their queer Arthurian space opera Once and Future, and Tracy Deonn with Legendborn, her truly outstanding black girl magic Arthurian novel, have been hailed and reviled in equal measure for redefining the Arthurian canon–but have they really? To single them out as somehow different, exceptional, or otherwise a rupture in, rather than part of an ongoing development of, the Arthurian multiverse does them, and ourselves, and our students, deep disservice and, in my view, actually serves the purposes of their detractors by insisting there’s a “pure” Arthurian legend and then . . . aberrations. (As I’m sure you have already surmised, the Venn diagram between people who think Tracy Deonn has taken liberties by inserting a black woman protagonist into the Arthurian legend and those who think we should worship at the altar of “pure” Beowulf and King Arthur is, again, a perfect circle.)

What can happen if instead of accepting the Arthurian legend as a fixed enterprise with exceptions and aberrations here and there, we begin with the understanding it is a sprawling, untamable, largely unknowable (because far too vast) multiverse? What if we follow Putter, and everyone before and since Putter writing Arthuriana creatively, into Geoffrey’s lacunae asking not what’s there, but what could be there? What if instead of arguing about “what’s really Arthurian” we help our students ask “what have I not seen yet?” Here, as with Beowulf, we surely would find that this multiverse has space and a place for everyone and that there are plenty more discoveries and explorations and additions and expansions to be made, if we allow for it.

Section heading page: “III The (un)recoverable pasts in the classroom: honoring and rescripting the narratives passed down to us”

I’m almost done, I promise. Just one, final point.

For a long time now, we’ve been gaslighted. We’ve been told only “responsible” and “objective” approaches to scholarship are acceptable. We’ve been conditioned to stay in our lane as scholars–and we didn’t realize that lane was, in fact, a lane custom-built for us or, if we did, we weren’t able to locate a way out of it that would permit us to stay on the road. But do we want to stay on that road, or is it only because we didn’t see another way forward that we agreed to these terms? Is it not, perhaps, because we didn’t know to look in the erasures and lacunae for other possibilities? And can we perhaps make that clearer, sooner, for our own students, equipping them with the most important map of all–the one that charts a course not to where we know to look, but where there isn’t yet anything to see because it’s up to us to discover, recover, and uncover?

Images: cover and representative pages from Arthurian Things

 For most of my adult life, I set aside my creative writing based on medieval source materials because I was conditioned to, counseled that I would not be taken seriously as a scholar if I wrote poetry and fiction rather than or even in addition to critical scholarship. This was an erasure I performed upon myself. I did so in response to critics telling me that personal approaches to my subjects of study were “irresponsible” and I needed to be “objective” in my approach, especially as a teacher of medieval literature. I see many of my colleagues who are scholars of color being told similarly that they must commit erasures to be taken seriously, that “identity scholarship” has no place in “responsible” approaches to the study of medieval subjects. This is, in my informed critical opinion, horseshit. If Tolkien can be appreciated and even lionized for both creative and critical approaches to his source texts, the blending of personal and professional that led to his whole oeuvre of scholarship and story, so can we. And so can our students. But this is only possible if we take the first step of being honest and authentic, of openly acknowledging who we are as readers and interpreters, what we know and don’t know, what is good, bad, and ugly in our field’s history, and what the possibilities are in our writing, scholarship, teaching and learning. By being courageous in facing our own erasures through the study of those in our text-objects, and exploring our own lacunae as we consider what’s going on in the empty spaces between the lines of our text-subjects, we become the best possible guides for our students taking their first steps into these medieval multiverses.

Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems, happened at a crossroad in my life and career. I was dealing with professional burnout. I was struggling to get my critical work past reviewer 2 in journal publications. I was overwhelmed with the demands of a family. And I was in despair over the state of the world following Donald Trump’s election and the subsequent fluorescing of sexist and racist acts in our society. I needed an escape, a way to channel my heightened emotional state into something–anything–not tied to any of my responsibilities or obligations or the concerns I’d begun to harbor that my work was meaningless and worse, useless in the face of world problems. I asked a question: what about me or my work even matters? What’s missing? A niggling voice from deep inside whispered: you used to love to write. That’s missing.

So, I took an MFA in Writing degree, just for myself. My thesis was a modern translation and queering of two fitts from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it was glorious fun–but I couldn’t publish that or even share it–what would my colleagues in the field think?! So I looked for something else, and settled on a premise so “out there” I was sure no one would hold it against me as a confusion of my personal investment in and critical responsibilities to my subject: What if I look at the Arthurian world through the eyes of its non-human denizens? The collection sprang from the deep well of my reading and study of medieval Arthurian literature and scholarship. It also sprang from everything I was dealing with–work, betrayal, gossip, slander, #MeToo, Imposter syndrome  . . . it was simultaneously the most critically and research-informed creative work, and the most personal and creatively-informed research work, I’ve ever done. And it clearly resonated with readers in meaningful ways, winning the Open Contract Challenge manuscript competition that led to its publication.

I’ve come to realize, through writing and publishing Arthurian Things, and now in speaking about it with classes where it’s being taught by other professors and in public-facing craft talks and readings; as an Army brat who never had one, single home base; as a writer without a “home genre”; as a creative critic and critical creative; as a professor who teaches through hybrid creative and critical approaches to medieval texts; as a person who has committed violent erasure upon herself in pursuit of scholarly respectability and a scholar who has learned to reclaim herself as a person through the study of erasures in texts–that my place and sphere of engagement and influence, personally and professionally, in the classroom and publicly, as writer/scholar/ and, especially, as teacher, really is in the unanswered and unanswerable, unrecovered and unrecoverable, erasures and lacunae–all those empty and blank spaces where opportunity lies just waiting to be discovered. This is how I best honor the texts I love to study, best serve the students I love to study them with, and best serve the readers who enter into them through my creative work.

And you are always welcome to come explore them with me. Thank you.

About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in Academia, Arthurian Things, Conferences and Professional Development Opportunities, Research and Scholarship, Teaching, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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