My co-editor Evelyn Meyer and I were delighted when our publisher agreed to use the image we selected for the cover of our forthcoming edited collection of essays, and we are absolutely thrilled with this stunning final cover design. Ethics in the Arthurian Legend, published by Boydell and Brewer, will be available for pre-order April 2023, with a publication date July 2023.
Here is the cover:
And here is the Table of Contents:
Jane Gilbert, “Foreword”
Melissa Ridley Elmes and Evelyn Meyer, “Introduction”
Melissa Ridley Elmes, “Arthurian Ethics before the Pentecostal Oath: In Search of Ethical Origins in Culhwch and Olwen”
Evelyn Meyer, “Too Quickly or Not Quickly Enough, Too Rash and Too Harshly: The Arthurian Court’s Lack of Ethics in Hartmann von Aue’s Erec and Iwein and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival”
Jonathan S. Martin, “The Ethics of Arthurian Marriage: Husband vs. Wife in Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein”
Joseph Derosier, “Arthurian Ethics and Ethical Reading in the Perlesvaus”
Christopher Jensen, “Translation Praxis and the Ethical Value of Chivalry in the Caligula Brut”
Nahir Otaño Gracia, “Imperial Ambitions and the Ethics of Power: Gender, Race, and the Riddarasögur”
David F. Johnson, “Lowland Ethics in the Arthur of the Dutch”
Steven Bruso, “Contesting Royal Power: The Ethics of Good Lordship, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the March of Wales”
Caitlin G. Watt, “‘As egir as any lyoun’: The Ethics of Knight-Horse Relationships in Lybeaus Desconus”
Matthew D. O’Donnell, “Malory’s Ethical Dinadan: Moderate Masculinity in a Crisis of Hypermasculine Chivalry”
Holly A. Crocker, “Virtus, Vertues, and Gender: Cultivating a Chivalric Habitus in Thomas Malory’s Tale of Sir Gareth”
Mikayla Hunter, “Kingly Disguise and (Im)Perception in Three Fifteenth-Century English Romances”
Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand, “‘Adventure? What is that?’ Arthurian Ethics in/and the Games We Play”
† Fiona Tolhurst and K. S. Whetter, “The Ethics of a New Edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur”
Nicole Evelina, “The Ethics of Writing Guinevere in Modern Historical Fiction”
Elizabeth Archibald, “Afterword”
The book will be available both hardbound and as an E-publication. Evelyn and I are excited to share these thought-provoking essays with the world!
Folks are posting their year-end wrap ups and roundups across the internet as we begin ringing in the New Year around the world, and so I, too, sit down at my keyboard for this final post of 2022, which has certainly been another roller coaster, though in my corner of the world, mostly good. Deeply sensitive to the ongoing pandemic’s cruel disruption of so many lives (including our own, as I, my husband, and my youngest child all succumbed to Covid at various points this past year) alongside the recent frigid polar vortex that ripped through my country leaving devastating conditions for people to navigate, yet I am on the whole grateful for 2022.
As a writer, I had an energizing year. I opened 2022 with the publication on January 2 of my poem, “Never Was a Princess Girl” in Star*Line 45.1, and the year unfolded with a steady stream of acceptances–17 poems, 4 stories, and 2 works of creative nonfiction, in some really nice venues I have long admired, including Star*Line, Spectral Realms, Illumen, Haven, Liquid Imagination, Black Fox, and Gyroscope Review–and several readings and a con appearance (virtually). I was deeply honored to see Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems receive a nomination for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Elgin Award for best book of speculative fiction, my poem “Riding Down a Dream” (Star*Line 44.4) nominated for the Dwarf Star award for best short speculative poem, and my poem “This Risky Business of Mortal Being” (Poetry South 14.9) nominated for the 2022 Pushcart Prize. To be nominated for one award is delightful; that my work received this level of attention was deeply humbling and I am greatly honored by the readers and editors who appreciated my work with these nominations. I closed the year out with ten submissions of further work and a chapbook under review. For 2023, I have a few projects up my sleeve I hope you’ll enjoy, and have set myself a goal of writing a story a day through January and a poem a day through April to jumpstart new work. I’m really excited about where my writing is taking me, and looking forward to sharing it with you in due course!
As a scholar, this year was one of my most productive yet. I published an essay I really love, “Female Friendship in Late-Medieval English Literature: Cultural Translation in Chaucer, Gower, and Malory,” in Women’s Friendship in Medieval Literature, edited by Karma Lochrie and Usha Vishnuvajjala and published with Ohio State University Press. I completed and submitted final drafts of four further articles and essays and a first draft of a fifth article, and completed two edited manuscript collections, one currently in production for a summer 2023 publication and one under review, and five book reviews. With two further book projects and a chapter under contract, my monograph requested by a press upon its completion next summer, and a journal special issue under development, 2023 is already completely full so far as research and scholarship are concerned, and I am working on some further developments that could take me in some new and exciting research directions I am very excited about. 2022 also brought back the in-person conference, and while I have truly appreciated remote conference options, which I believe firmly we should continue to support for those for whom in-person remains challenging, I have to be honest that there are few things I love so much as being in the same room as other people who share my intellectual and creative interests and having those face-to-face conversations, and few things I need so much as I do those couple of nights in a hotel room away from my everyday life to recharge and reset. Excited to be off to at least two conferences in 2023!
As a teacher, I taught the Introduction to Global Gender Studies course this Fall, and what a truly fantastic and overwhelmingly humbling experience this was for me. I inherited this course from a dearly beloved professor and colleague whom I admire greatly, and I knew I couldn’t possibly fill her shoes and shouldn’t even try, so I set out to craft a new syllabus that kept some of her incredible assignments but came from my point of view. I spent much of last spring researching introductory gender studies course syllabi and finding that the vast majority of them, even when they have “global” in their titles, really mainly focus on U.S. based scholars and concerns through an American lens. Of course, for our students this is important, but I really wanted the course to reflect that “global” context. So I went beyond gender studies to look at sociology, psychology, anthropology, and cultural studies syllabi as well, and developed a truly global and interdisciplinary course that I am tremendously proud of. The experience of teaching a course so immediately relevant to students’ lived experiences and interests and from which, based on their comments throughout the semester and on the final evaluations, they also learned a tremendous amount of information they found rewarding and important was revelatory, and I learned so much in developing and offering this course that I hope will transfer to how I approach developing and teaching all of my courses regardless of subject going forward. One of the greatest things about teaching is that you never stop learning, and this was definitely one of those experiences you simply never forget and that transforms your outlook. I’m so grateful for that! In 2023, I’m teaching another new course–The Medieval World–and I’m ready to innovate and experiment with it!
2022 was definitely not all work and no play (although I have to point out that a lot of my work is a form of play for me, as a creative.) With vaccinations and masking, we definitely took advantage of the ability to attend live concerts, performances, and events again. Our eldest child competed in their final year of Robotics, and our youngest, in her first year of competition dancing, so there was a lot of proud parenting at their competitions. I watched the Six Nations tourney live in a pub, like a proper fan, for the first time in two years and we attended a few Cardinals games (because, baseball!) We saw some great concerts, including Santana and Earth, Wind and Fire, the Black Keys, Train and Jewel, Korn and Evanescence, and The Head and the Heart. We went to the Festival of Nations and several mead, beer, and whiskey tastings; attended live outdoor performances of Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Saint Louis symphony at Forest Park, and I saw Rent, Riverdance, and resumed my annual tradition of seeing The Nutcracker performed live–I don’t mind sharing that I teared up at those performances and immediately vowed that there will be much, much more live theater, dance, and opera going forward. And maybe even a return to the stage for myself–I do miss performing.
And of course, our lives are immeasurably enriched by the continued presence and love of our pets. My Raven celebrated her 16th birthday this year (which Google tells me is the equivalent of 80 in human years). she isn’t as active as she used to be but she still eats, purrs, and snuggles with all the zest of a cat half her age. So grateful she is still with us as we close out 2022!
Korra, our beloved corgi, continues to thrive in her agility classes and make the world a better place just by existing. I am a complete convert–I can’t imagine life without a corgi in it now! I have it on good authority that we owe Korra to Tik Tok, as my youngest daughter pestered us for years to get a corgi because of Tik Tok videos with corgis in them, and we eventually capitulated–so, thank you Tik Tok! Which is a thing I never thought I would write.
As these sorts of posts typically come across as conveying perfect, ideal lives with nary an issue or problem in sight, let me be very honest with you that there were many roadbumps. One of our cars died and we bought a new one, only to learn after a heavy rain that the sunroof drains had not been connected, oopsy-do. It was a fun couple of days of scooping the water out of the footwells in the backseat and from the trunk, then wet-vacuuming the car, then putting charcoal into the car to soak up the rest, all the while hoping to heaven it wouldn’t wind up going all moldy and that we hadn’t fried the electric board in some way because we couldn’t figure out how extensive the flooding was until we were able to get it into the shop. Thankfully, it was salvageable and no further issues arose, because I promise you we barely had the funds to cover buying this car, much less a second one. Also, car insurance does not cover flooding. GAH. Then, despite being vaccinated and extremely careful with masking everywhere in public, only attending outdoor concerts, and otherwise not being in crowded places beyond my classrooms, I contracted Covid in July, and my husband and youngest daughter also contracted it (likely from me), leading to several weeks of quarantine in this tiny, three-bedroom apartment, a deeply unfun experience for all involved. My case was the worst, and to be honest I’m still not fully recovered–it definitely did a number on my stamina and blood pressure, both of which I am still navigating. And I had some other health things that so far have turned out not to be serious (knock on wood) but that have been worrying, leading to an uptick in doctor visits and tests, which of course sends me into anxiety overload. There have been many adrenaline baths this year.
But, in the end, we’re all still here, mostly healthy, and very happy.
We closed out the year, as has been our custom, at my parents-in-law’s home on top of a mountain in the Virginia Appalachians, and as usual, my happy place did not disappoint–despite the frigid temperatures, I was able to get out for a late-afternoon hike that definitely restored my rumpled spirit. This truly is a sacred place, and how fortunate I am that I can return year after year to its restorative and inspiring peace and beauty. I will never take this for granted.
So, while it was most definitely not all happiness and sunshine and glitter and rainbows, on the whole 2022 brought more positive than negative in our lives, for which I am grateful. I hope you have also had a more good than bad year, and that 2023 brings with it possibilities and promise, hope and enjoyment, and opportunities for as much happiness as you could want.
Hello all! Just popping in to let you know that Myth Mart is having a Black Friday sale through November 27. All titles are 40% off with the code blackfriday2022 . That means Arthurian Thingsis currently 40% off now through Sunday. If you’re looking for a stocking stuffer or Jolabokaflod gift for your King Arthur/ fantasy lover, consider this Elgin award nominated collection of poems!
If you’re not quite ready to let go of spooky season yet (or, like me, firmly believe every day is a good day for a good ghost story or tale of demonic possession–or hey, even better, why not both at once?!) check out the anthology Unwelcomed: Stories of Hauntings and Possessions, out now from Zombieworks Press. Between these covers my story “The Haunted and the Possessed” is a dark comedy among the spine-chilling tales of several talented writers brought together by Stephanie J. Bardy in this volume, now available: https://tinyurl.com/44vs4zd6
I’m really happy that the whole story is now published and out in the world. Hope someone has really enjoyed reading it, as well!
And if you’re an artist and you think this story would make a great graphic novel, now that all 3 parts have been published, developing a graphic novel edition of the story is definitely something I’d be up for . . . !
And there are several other things in the pipeline–stories, poetry, academic articles, book reviews. It’s been a busy year! But not too busy to stop me getting out once in a while; today, for example, was a perfect autumn day at Hunter Stadium, watching the Lindenwood Lions in action with husband, child #2, and some colleagues. Our stadium is really lovely this time of year, no?
Hope your October is going well, and that you’re able to get out and enjoy the weather, especially in the northern hemisphere where the trees are at the height of their autumn glory. Bliss.
About a year ago, I lost nearly 100 pages of drafting towards a project I had been trying to lay track for for many years, when the notebook I was writing it in went missing.
(I know, I know. In this day of The Cloud, why not just compose in Google docs? The simple answer is, often I do, but never for longform fiction. There is something deeply important for me as a writer in seeing the first draft of my own book-length fiction in my own hand. I handwrite the first draft, or large portions of it, and then type the second and subsequent revisions. Many writers share this approach. The hands have intelligence, the connection is important.)
But of course, sometimes that means a massive loss and setback on projects when the notebook goes AWOL. Usually, you mourn the loss, maybe cry a little, feel terrifically sorry for yourself, and then square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and start over. But in this case, I couldn’t bring myself to attempt to recreate what I had done. I was terrified I would screw it up, leave something out, starting all over again seemed so overwhelming. I just couldn’t find the heart even to try. Not across the board–I’ve been writing regularly ever since, completing several shorter projects without issue–but I was wholly blocked on this project.
And then, this past week, I had the sudden, intense urge to buy a new notebook and start again. The compulsion so strong, I just…had to. And this time, instead of warning me not to try because I would just screw it up, the little voice in my head acknowledged the truth of it, which is that you can’t screw up a first draft; the thing just needs to be written so you have something to work with. Or, as Anne Lamott so perfectly puts it, the first draft is merely the down draft–you get the writing down. The next and subsequent drafts are the up drafts, in which you fix up what you laid down in that “shitty first draft.”
So, here I go again. The second first page in this second attempt at a first draft for a new longform project.
Feels good. Feels familiar. Feels happy.
What about you–have you ever lost an entire first draft of something? How did you handle it?
This was an exciting publication for me, as Black Fox is one of my favorite literary magazines.
Hope you enjoy these, and don’t forget to check out the other great writers in these issues!
Beyond these recent publications, I just inked a contract for my dark humor short story, “The Haunted and The Possessed”—featuring a late-night mugging endangering the life of the demon in possession of the mugged body now haunted by its former occupant—which will appear in the anthology Unwelcome: Tales of Hauntings and Possessions, forthcoming from Zombie Works Press. I’ve just completed the draft of a poetry chapbook. And I recently finished the third in seven planned stories for a collection of tales featuring Dr. John S. Watson, the amiable and anxiety-riddled great-grandson of Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame, who finds himself in the midst of chaotic mysteries after unwittingly taking on the family business of treating the supernatural beings who help solve unsolvable crimes.
And don’t worry . . . I’m also hard at work on the scholarly things! My co-editor and I submitted what I have affectionately nicknamed “The Beast”–an edited collection entitled Ethics in the Arthurian Legend, comprising 621 pages, 175,621 words, and eighteen contributors, now safely in the possession of our publisher and on its way to production. I completed revisions on and returned to the editors a teaching essay for an upcoming issue of Year’s Work in Medievalism, and I am working on revisions to another article and a proposal for another edited collection (already completed, just need a publisher). And I’ve submitted my monograph proposal to an interested university, press, so fingers crossed!
And here is what it looked like before my family wolfed it down and demanded I make a second one:
Let me spare you some grief if you decide to take my lead: make sure you get enough apples and have enough ingredients on hand for at least two tartes. You’ll need them. This thing is deeeeeeeeeeelish.
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.
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.
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 . . . )
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.)
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.
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.
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! ?
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?
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.
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:
“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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
I am beyond delighted to have placed my speculative eco-tale, “When the Elves Are Gone,” with World of Myth Magazine!
This long-ish short tale (it clocks in at a little over 7,000 words in total) has a long and sad tale of its own. It began as a writing prompt that took on a life of its own and moved into the double-digits in word count. Along the way, I found a narrative shape I liked that was nothing like the one I started with, but that let me experiment with making a story that was also intentionally and self-consciously a multi-dimensional think-piece about climate change, politics, genre, tropes, and readership and race in fantasy. It was then pruned into a shorter, polished final version and sent in for an anthology call, where it was promptly accepted within a week, with glowing praise from the editor–a paid anthology! Hurrah! My first industry fiction sale!
Then, Covid happened and the anthology folded. No publication. (This, sadly, is not unusual even without a pandemic blowing things up–never count your stories until they’re actually in print.)
Thus began a two-year odyssey of submitting it to pretty much every speculative pro-market for fiction for which it met submissions guidelines for length, and a lot of non-pro markets, both literary and speculative. I knew it was a weird little bird from the beginning, because it was designed that way–I never billed it as a traditional short story, because it’s just not. I wrote, in my cover letters, variations of, “This is a speculative story in every sense of the term–a fantasy tale, told in elevated literary style, as a featureless protagonist first-person/second-person hybrid monologue that doubles as a philosophical treatise on isolationist politics in a fictional world undergoing devastating climate change.”
Throughout this submission process, I kept getting feedback like, “I love the voice and second person is hard to pull off well, this is excellent in that regard, but it’s too long”; “There’s no story, it’s just a first-person POV monologue description of an abandoned city”; “It’s really well written and I love the voice, but I wanted more action”; “The writing’s good but story’s too academic”; “I couldn’t connect because nothing was really happening, you don’t get into the actual story of what happened to the elves until page 9 or so”; “This could use some dialogue to break it up”; “The description of the city is rich and we’re immersed in a fascinating world, but we never get to see the speaker, the author should include some description of the characters” …
Which, if you read the thing, you will see is not especially good feedback for this particular story, because taking this advice, for this tale, would turn it into something else entirely. Which is neither a bad nor a good thing, it just wasn’t my vision for this narrative.
I made my husband listen to me read it to him, and I made him read it, himself, to make sure I wasn’t just being precious about the thing. Honest feedback, I insisted, because you know what I was going for–did I miss the mark here? “No, it’s really good,” he said, “But I think you should try to turn it into a graphic novel! It would be an amazing atmospheric graphic novel.”
Well . . . okay, I agree with him, I think it could be a fabulous graphic novel–only, that would mean stripping the story into a script, and I wanted the story to be out there in the world in THIS form, at least at first.
So, at last, I broke it into 3 parts (because it’s much too long for the venue) and sent it to Stephanie J. Bardy, who snapped it right up for World of Myth. Hurrah! Even more hurrah–it’s the Featured Story this month! Double-hurrah!
And THIS is what it means when people tell you to “find your readers.” Your weird little darlings can and will find a home and readership somewhere, if you persevere.
I also wanted to share this story for fellow writers still relatively new to submitting and publishing, because it’s a good example of reframing your thinking about what constitutes “success” in submitting our work. The reality is that I submitted this story and it was accepted for a paid publication outlet on the first submission–that is the very definition of a successful submission. That the outlet folded and the story was subsequently unable to find a home for two years, then found one in an unpaid market, does not diminish that success. Sometimes (really, very often!) it is the market, not you or your story! Keep going and believe in your work.
Coming out at the other end of the academic teaching year, a summer course, and a bout of Covid, I am (finally and gratefully!) emerging from the accumulated mental fog and physical exhaustion. I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to be in 2022, until this past week when I’ve been able to re-establish something like a regular routine, but I have been writing semi-steadily, and there are things out there for you to read that were written by me and published by very nice folks alongside the work of many other wonderful writers, if you are interested. As usual, they span multiple genres and forms. I’m never going to be “Melissa, who writes X.” I’m always going to be “Melissa, who writes across the alphabet unapologetically and with great zest and vim and verve and joy.” This makes it almost impossible to “brand” me for the modern publishing landscape, but we might go with the lovely French saying “Melissa, she writes un peu de tout“–a little of everything.
Many scholars who write creatively, and writers who produce scholarship, and writers who write across genres and forms, keep these things distinct, either publishing across several noms de plume, or using one name for scholarly work and another for creative work, or maintaining different digital and social media spaces for their scholarship and their creative work, or not discussing them together, or only publishing in an area or two they’ve become known for. There are a lot of valid and wise reasons for taking one or more of these approaches, but I don’t, and won’t. You could view this as a failure to be serious and create a personal brand as a scholar (I don’t), or you could view this as a failure to be serious and create a personal brand as a writer (I don’t), or you could view this as a success in writing what I need and want to write and trusting whatever I’ve written will find its readership (I do). If you’re here for the scholarship, you’ll find it. If you’re here for the poetry, you’ll find it. If you’re here for the personal anecdotes and slice-of-life stuff, you’ll find it. If you’re here for craft essays, you’ll find it. If you’re here for pedagogical things, you’ll find it. If you’re here for flash stories, you’ll find it. If you’re here for speculative and weird things, I’ve got you covered! In short, if you have read something I’ve written and are looking for more of that, whatever that is for you as a reader of my writing, you will find more of what you are looking for. And hey–as long as you’re here, why not try something you ordinarily might not read, if it’s something I also write in addition to something I’ve written that you already know you like? You never know . . . maybe you hate scholarly essays and think academic writing is boring, but you love my weird poems, so you check out a scholarly essay I’ve written and I sway you into appreciating scholarship as an art form? Or, maybe you only read realistic “literary” fiction, but go ahead and check out a few of my poems and get hooked on speculative poetry!
Or, maybe not. But at least you have the option of trying, because I’ll keep writing un peu de tout.
So, without further ado, here is a roundup of recent things I’ve written across several genres and forms; I hope you find something or even several somethings here that you enjoy, but if not there will be more coming soon!
First up, a work of scholarship I’m proud of and really loved working on, published in a new collection of essays on female friendship in the Middle Ages out this month from Ohio University Press’s New Medieval Cultures series. My essay in this collection, “Female Friendship in Late-Medieval English Literature: Cultural Translation in Chaucer, Gower, and Malory,” examines alterations these three writers made to their continental source materials, arguing that their changes to the representation of women in their stories both render women more positive agents and mirror the networks of patronage and influence developed through women’s relationships, specifically women’s friendships with one another, in their own time. The far more negative tone of the earlier continental writers of women, together with the absence of such representation of women’s relationships in the earlier versions of these stories and its incorporation across several English writers’ work, points to a clear shift in the representation of women in late-medieval English literature. I am deeply grateful to the volume editors, Karma Lockrie and Usha Vishnuvajjala, for including my essay in this excellent collection, and definitely recommend the whole volume to anyone interested in historical women’s studies, medieval women, and medieval literature and culture. Also, you should absolutely judge this book by its cover because it is gorgeous:
“Dragons and Drams,” an apocalyptic poem featuring two of my favorite things, dragons and whiskey, was published at Liquid Imagination and can be accessed both in written form and as an audio file here: