English’s Self-Inflicted Wounds – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education

And this is one reason I get ticked off that English departments hire five or seven “Postcolonialists” or “African-American Lit” specialists for every one person who specializes in anything from medieval to Victorian. If there’s no foundation in the canon, there’s no way to fully appreciate or understand what the non-canonical (or new canon) are doing or reacting to.

 

And I’ll say that I generally like Morrison, often enjoy Erdrich, and love O’Brien and that almost all of my previous research/writing focus has been non-canonical . . . but I have a reasonably strong canonical background (not the best it could be but, perhaps slightly better than average).

My Book

My Book

Now that there’s an official release date, my publisher would probably like it if I shamelessly self-promote the book.  🙂

Due out 30 June 2013.

Just FYI, it discusses the werewolves of Jack Williamson, Terry Pratchett (Discworld), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Charles de Lint (Newford, Wolfmoon), and Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood), with a miscellaneous chapter for a few others in relation to each other and Classical, medieval, and early modern werewolves.

(Sorry for all the edits to this, I’m still figuring out WordPress.)

 

Why Great Books? (Recycle)

 Two major questions come to mind with the phrase “great books” (beyond asking what “great books” means): 1) Why should we defend/preserve the literary canon?; and 2) Why should we care about “great books”?

 

Obviously, speaking as a medieval history/lit nut, my personal answer is easy: they’re fun and cool.

 

But, this answer is certainly not even quasi-scientific and probably won’t work for the larger audience that is western society.

 

First, a little history. For the last few decades, the traditional literary canon has been under attack, and with good reason. I definitely agree that we need to include certain “minority” authors who have been overlooked (though not all, Elizabeth Keckley, for instance, couldn’t write to save her life) and we need to make room for modern authors (hey, I’m also a sci-fi/fantasy geek). However, this inclusion doesn’t mean we should completely ignore canonical authors such as Chaucer, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Shakespeare, Spenser, Malory, and the rest.

 

Unfortunately, I got through four years as an undergrad English major with no opportunity to read Beowulf, Spenser, Malory, Dante, or Milton in a literature class. My experience with Beroul and Langland came in a history class. On the other hand, I read Ann Petry and Ed McBain for classes.

 

This still begs the question: why should we support/preserve the canon? My relatively simple answer is that the canon is the basis of much of western society’s modern literature and culture. For instance, Tolkien couldn’t have written Lord of the Rings without Beowulf, The Song of Roland, Celtic mythology, and the Arthurian romances; Lucas couldn’t have written Star Wars without knowledge of Roman legend, Malory, and Shakespeare; many of Pratchett’s best scenes would be nonsense without his (and the reader’s) knowledge of Shakespeare, John Webster, and Arthurian romances. Without at least a passing knowledge of “canonical” works, we as readers and viewers miss many layers of the texts we read/view every day.

 

This influence is not the only reason to preserve knowledge of the canon (nor is it the only influence on western literature/film). At a really simple level, canonical texts such as Chaucer, the Gawain-poet, Malory, Marie de France, Homer, Virgil, and Aristophanes are just fun to read. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Aristophanes, for instance, still make modern audiences laugh uproarously (see: “The Reeve’s Tale”, Much Ado About Nothing, and Lysistrata respectively as examples).

 

Additionally, these works tell us something about the periods in which they were written. Sometimes they show us that humanity hasn’t really changed all that much. Case in point, Aristophanes shows us that similar social issues were present in his day and the modern world, and that people laughed at similar events, even if we don’t get all his jokes. In this way, these pieces also tell us something about humanity/ourselves in psychological terms, or at least psychoanalytic terms. When we apply Jung, for instance, we find (through Joseph Campbell) that ancient heroes such as Aeneas and Odysseus go through the same cycle of growth and challenge as modern heroes like Conan, the Skywalkers, and Neo (even if modern heroes have worse actors playing them). This tells us something about humanity as a whole. The same goes for the other archetypal figures and events we see throughout early western literature in the canon.

 

Admittedly, I’m a bit biased on this, being a medievalist and focusing my research along Jungian lines, but I think the theory holds up pretty well. Constructive challenges are, as always, certainly welcome, though.

Literature, Fantasy, and Issues (Very Brief)

(Sort of dusting off an old blog post from a few years back and updating it.)

I think one of the major things that literature in general and the fantasy genre in particular asks us to do is question and/or redefine our views of how the world works and the definitions we use to make sense of things. This is especially true of an issue as broad and loaded as race and racism. For instance, if we look at Rowling’s work, she has been criticized by some individuals as painting a non-racially diverse world – in our “real world” sense of the term race. That is, some claim she does not make use of non-Caucasian characters. Of course, this is completely false since we can cite Kingsley Shacklebolt, Lee Jordan, Angelina Johnson, and Dean Thomas as being of African descent (the latter two dating Caucasian characters, one of the Weasley twins and Ginny respectively), the Patil twins of Indian descent, and Cho Chang of Asian descent. But it is true that Rowling doesn’t make a big deal about this. Their appearances are mentioned in “racial” terms once or twice and that’s it.

One obvious reason for this lack of concern is that British society/culture hasn’t had the same highly charged problems with racial issues that the U.S. has historically had, especially regarding those of African or Asian descent. As someone said on a message board regarding Dr. Who’s Rose and Micky, the odd thing would be not seeing inter-racial couples in a British show/book, these days. Of course, there are growing problems regarding relations with the other immigrant populations in Britain.

The important reason that Rowling in particular and the fantasy genre as a whole, doesn’t focus on these definitions of race is that they ask us to examine and move beyond such ephemeral definitions. When a society is confronted with even one other sentient, sapient species, definitions of race based on skin tone are thrown into question. These texts/shows then ask us to ponder what exactly “race” is: is it genotype (species)? Is it genetic purity as Rowling’s Voldemort or Dr. Who’s Daleks would have us believe? Is it phenotype (what the being looks like)? Is it something less obviously definable like behaviors or emotions? Is it even worth creating a solid definition?

But, unbeknownst to many, these questions have been asked for centuries. The authors/performers of the medieval romances and Breton lais asked these questions. The writers of medieval bestiaries asked these questions. Renaissance teratologists asked these questions. Even as far back as Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, and Petronius, these questions were being asked. In fact, the questions probably go back well beyond even ancient Mesopotamia, possibly as far back as the early days of shamanic religious practices.