Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Monster Classroom (Seven Theses)

by J J Cohen

Below you will find the draft of the afterword I was asked to compose for a new book edited by Adam Golub and Heather Richardson Hayton, Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching the Monstrous (forthcoming, McFarland). The volume contains some brilliant essays (including a terrific one by medievalist Asa Simon Mittman), an excellent introduction by Golub and Hayton, and a crisp, useful foreword by W. Scott Poole. Contributors represent varied disciplines (literature, philosophy, religion) and several essays end with a syllabus for the course they reflect upon.

My piece meditates on the project of the book as well as the ways in which my own monstrous work has been the product of the classroom. Let me know what you think.

[Edit: related, a little piece GW Today just did on me and my monstrous classroom]

Monster Classroom (7 Theses)

1. The Monster’s Body is a Pedagogical Body

Adam Golub and Heather Richardson Hayton invited me to compose an afterword to this rich, generous and timely book because of something I wrote more than twenty years ago, at a time when monsters were seldom discussed in college and high school classrooms – except, perhaps, as a foil to someone else’s heroism or an allegory for unthinkable vice. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” was first published in 1996. The essay introduced Monster Theory, a book that collects work by thirteen authors from a variety of disciplines, exploring what monsters reveal about the times and cultures they haunt: as demonstrations, as admonitions, as bodies feared and desired. The first collaborative project with the imprimatur of a well-respected university press to argue that monsters matter to critical theory and cultural studies, Monster Theory insists that its subject is more than a guilty pleasure or pop culture trifle. Its contributors examine intimate aliens without reducing them to psychological parables, or disembodied cultural metaphors. Among the creatures that populate the book are reanimated dinosaurs, sexy vampires, the undead of the Icelandic sagas, marauding Grendel, alluring hermaphrodites, conjoined twins, and demonized Muslims.

I wrote “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” to provide an overview of the trans-historical, shared endeavor of Monster Theory. Yet the essay is also the product of a lively classroom. The Experimental College at Tufts University offers a welcoming home to weird courses that fit nowhere else. The program’s director was intrigued when I proposed a class on “Reading Monsters,” but wondered what students would gain from examining texts not for their resplendent prose or participation in a canon of masterpieces but for the ability to trigger anxiety, an archive of fear. At the interview I explained that western literature has been monstrous from the start (as a medievalist it comes easily to me to explain in boring detail why things that seem contemporary are actually quite ancient).[1] Gilgamesh, the Torah, Homer’s Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Beowulf, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Shelley’s Frankenstein: these works offer a long chronicle of ghosts, dragons, cannibals, the misbegotten and the undead. I was hired – and allowed to design and teach my first monstrous course. Students enrolled simply because they were drawn to the topic. The class fulfilled no requirements, and was led by an unknown instructor (I had never taught at Tufts before). Thinking through with these young women and men the work of the monster across time was essential to composing “Monster Culture.” Born of pedagogical collaboration, the essay ruminates over the books and films we enjoyed together, from Arthurian myths and Interview with the Vampire to the Odyssey and The Werewolf of Paris. I owe the genesis of the essay to a program that had faith in nontraditional teaching at a time when academia was not all that hospitable to freaks, deviants, aliens, queers, and other unnatural things. “Monster Culture” is the record of a collective of learners eager to discover together where the errant tracks of the monster lead.

Now a familiar prod to high school and college writing assignments, the native domain of “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” remains, twenty years on, the classroom.[2]

2. The Monster Finds Strange Welcome

Just before I taught that class at Tufts, I completed a doctoral thesis on the ubiquitous giants of medieval literature. I was astonished that no scholar had yet written about these fascinating stories, with their cannibalism, decapitations, licentiousness, violence, surprising comedy and (sometimes) amity and affection. These narratives insist that monsters are not limit cases, but separated from the familiar only by weak and traversable boundaries. What is the ghastly giant after all but the human body writ large? Completing my dissertation had been an exercise in solitude, though: it turns out that little had yet been published on giants because most academics found monsters unworthy of serious attention. I assembled Monster Theory in an attempt to convene a community of scholars willing to accept the monster’s invitation to knowledge. While the manuscript was under consideration at the University of Minnesota Press, I used “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” as my job talk at the George Washington University. I framed monster theory as a way to teach cultural studies without the temporal segregations that structure most literature departments. The monster crosses history promiscuously, and makes a ruin of neat periodizations. Had I not been offered the GW job (and I was not at all certain I would be: it was my third and last year on the market, and a faculty member stormed out during the Q&A), then I likely would not have published the essay, nor made a career out of welcoming monsters into the classroom. My monstrous obsessions continue to guide the critical conversations that unfold when I teach – no matter if the text in question has been composed by Geoffrey Chaucer, Marie de France, Octavia Butler, or China Miéville.

Reading through the wonderful essays collected in Monsters in the Classroom has reminded me of how powerful a presence the monster asserts. These thoughtful pieces suggest numerous new ways of harnessing that power to provoke student engagement. Writing on what the grotesque enables in the classroom Nancy Hightower describes the monster as “a moment rather than an object, as an action rather than thing,” a description that well conveys the figure’s activity. Monsters are also an invitation to consider the previously unthought (even if, as Bernice M. Murphy points out in her essay, the invitation to the unfamiliar is often concealed within a “Trojan Horse” of familiarity). The uncanny, the abnormal, the impossible and the queer are especially intriguing to young people at that pivotal point in their intellectual development when they are critically evaluating their past and all things seem possible. As Jessica Elbert Decker emphasizes, students are trying to figure out what normal consists of, what belongings and what differences they may desire. Pamela Bedore describes how her capstone seminar addresses feminism, gender equality, queer sexuality through vampires. Kyle William Bishop vividly demonstrates what unfolds when we literally transport our students outside of comfortable and accustomed space, into a shared and experiential pedagogy. Phil Smith has his students zombie-walk. Heather Richardson Hayton goes farther, asking her students to participate in a zombie apocalypse, a “transformational learning exercise” that spurs some to realize they are the very creature they fear. Through Japanese monsters Charlotte Eubanks encourages her students to realize the limits of their American imagination, while through demons and ghosts Joshua Paddison invites his classroom to grapple with their own religious beliefs. Our students are often deciding how much family inheritance to carry forward, how much uncertainty and risk to embrace, how much affect (an essential component of learning to which these essays repeatedly return) to embrace and share. Brian Sweeney movingly details how the monster might be creatively deployed within the classroom to fight against the dreary forces of educational standardization, “fighting monsters with monsters.” To welcome the monster means treading strange byways rather than roads of predetermined destination.

3. The Monster Arrives in Crisis

Students depart our classrooms to difficult, attenuated futures. College graduates are frequently saddled with a decade of debt from loans that assisted in covering exorbitant tuition charges. They compete against friends for jobs that do not pay a sufficient wage. They discover that to the machinery propelling the US economy, young people are a resource for the extraction of labor at minimized cost. Though it might reward entrepreneurial drive and some forms of creativity, this system mandates compliance and cares little for the psychological and intellectual well being of those who sustain it -- and even less for the animals it reduces to products. Natural resources and what had been wilderness become territory and consumable commodities (Adam Golub gets at this process well in this book, writing about the classroom use of literature and film to think about monsters and the space of the natural). People who have benefited from this economy seem to feel little impulse to ensure the thriving of those who follow, rendering the road behind them narrow, steep, and lonely. The Earth meanwhile is rapidly losing species diversity, green space, and drinkable water while gaining an overheated climate and catastrophe-limned future. Economic disparity and environmental injustice flourish together.

Prospects are especially bleak for those who have studied to earn an advanced humanities degree. The number of permanent teaching positions is small and continues to dwindle. The life of the mind has always been an unreliable way to make a living, but in the course of the last decade a constricted market has only worsened. Precarious employment is the new academic norm. When I wrote “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” I was working as an adjunct instructor seeking a more stable job – preferably one that included health insurance and maybe sufficient salary to start repaying my student loans. Looking to supplement my income and attempt something new in the process, I applied to teach a night course on monsters at the Tufts Experimental College. I would like to think that experience assisted in my hiring by GW the following year, and acknowledge I was very fortunate to secure that position. Two of the early career contributors to Monster Theory never found permanent academic jobs, and eventually left the field. Two others lost positions that they had held for a while, the result of complicated tenure struggles. One suffered a breakdown. Those contributors already in established positions when Monster Theory was published have continued to have good careers, but like all of us within the university system have repeatedly had to fight against cost cutting measures that disproportionately impact the humanities as well as administrators and trustee boards who imagine that postsecondary education ought to be run like a profit-oriented business (where profit is numerical and easily assessable quantity rather than an intellectual and long term gain).

Each year I write a great many letters of recommendation for would-be teachers seeking positions at colleges, universities, high schools. Not enough are offered the stable, well supported positions they deserve. Many at the front of the classroom do not have the resources, remuneration or security they merit. Academic life is precarious, limned by the monsters we dream as well as the monsters we dread. Pamela Bedore observes in her essay that the classroom monster can make the teacher “sometimes feel vulnerable.” We are vulnerable. So are our students. And not just emotionally or rhetorically.

4. The Monster Stands at the Door

I am composing this afterword a few days before Halloween 2015. This year has so far seen fifty-two shootings on school grounds and twenty-three on college campuses. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 2012, at least 149 shootings have occurred at schools. Campus security is among the “one button dial contacts” on my cell phone, just in case an incident should unfold at GW. We have been told that we should be able to make such a call while sheltering behind a desk or table. My daughter’s middle school practices the protocols for an active shooter (Code Blue) once per quarter, just in case. While I was writing this essay I received email, text and voicemail alerts from her school that her classes had spent the morning in lockdown due to two unspecified threats. Emergency procedures for most schools and universities mostly entail remaining quietly in a locked or barricaded room with the lights off, and hoping.

It is easy to think that the monster is an entity external to us rather than a creature of our own creation, the product of a contemporary love of destruction, explosion, violence, guns. All the firepower in the world will not stop the monsters we create, but fewer guns might at least mean more people act less monstrously. And more students remain alive.

5. The Monster Breaches the Borders of the Possible

Relieved to have Monster Theory placed under contract with a press, I did not think much about the future of the book or my essay. Two decades later, the volume sells well enough never to have gone out of print. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” has inspired conferences, museum exhibits, television shows (John Logan mentions the worlds the piece opened to him in his pitch to sell Penny Dreadful to Showtime). When Disney and Pixar were sued for copyright infringement after the release of Monsters, Inc., their legal counsel retained me as an expert witness on the history of monstrosity – mainly because a paralegal working for the firm had read the essay in a college writing class. Monster Culture and “Monster Theory” did not arrive out of nowhere. Many other scholars were working on monsters and abnormality at the same time (most visibly, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Jack Halberstam, and Jeffrey Weinstock). Monster Theory is only one participant within a collective scholarly endeavor that continues. W. Scott Poole makes this point eloquently in his excellent foreword to this book, tracing the long lineage of contemporary teratology.

Because “Monster Culture” is so historically promiscuous -- placing Dracula in the good company of revenants from Norse sagas, the creature from Alien and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park alongside Polyphemos and the biblical Nephilim, the American West with the Delta Quadrant – the essay has been repeatedly cited, contemplated, and taught, especially in first year writing programs. The downside to its popularity is that the piece really is twenty years old and more accessible, more vibrant and more nuanced work is widely available. When one text is too often returned to as source, the vitality of what came alongside and afterwards is easy to obscure. Much of this more recent work has refined, rethought, and at times rejected what is contained in “Monster Culture” – often through conversations scholars have staged in their own classrooms. Rick Godden gets at this collaborative nexus well in the rubric he composed for a composition course he teaches at Tulane that focuses on the monster: “Because of their inherent ambiguity, monsters encourage open-mindedness, productive questioning, careful scrutiny, and flexible research, all of which are the hallmarks of good scholarship.”[3] Because the field is lively – because the classroom is a dynamic habitat -- the monster endures.

6. Desire for the Monster is Desire for a Different World

Monsters in the Classroom demonstrates how these figures engage students and hone critical faculties. The pedagogical models this book offers are inspirational. Most invite students to think with the monster and thereby queer what passes itself off as natural, or to discover in the supernatural a realm that exists not at some impossible distance but intimately, alongside everything that appears ordinary. To romanticize monsters is dangerous, since these creatures frequently incarnate misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism. But the monster also offers alternatives to the everyday world, realms in which solid reality dissolves into possibility. As I composed this afterword I asked fellow teachers on social media to contemplate what the monster offers their classroom. Most stressed the esprit de corps that monstrous study engenders, so that students make lasting friendships through difficult but shared pedagogical endeavor. Though the monster is often inimical to collectives, a reminder of who has been left outside at the closing of the door, imagining the future through the monster paradoxically builds community.

7. The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Belonging
“Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” has been used to teach composition, cultural studies, American studies, religion, literature, philosophy and critical theory. Sometimes the essay has been a shared text in required Freshman writing classes (Columbia, Rutgers, Indiana University). Often the piece has found its way into a course on monsters. I have received as a result a thank you card signed by an entire class; the Seven Theses inscribed on cardboard tablets as if they were the Ten Commandments; and photographs of Halloween costumes inspired by the essay. Although I worry that the writing style is not a good example to emulate (when I read the essay now it seems to me rather stilted and precious), I am always pleased when a student who has been thinking with the essay writes to me on Twitter or Facebook or email to tell me what worlds they have opened for themselves through their classroom experience. Monsters in the Classroom is a record of how such lively and creative communities continue to be engendered through a variety of catalysts -- and this book will no doubt be a trigger to many more such collectives.

Twenty years after its publication the essays collected in Monster Theory have been joined by so many monstrous books, essays, and websites that call out for classroom conversation that it is difficult not to agree with Adam Golub and Heather Richardson Hayton that we live in “a peak moment of monster pedagogy.” The Fellowship of Monsters is always looking for new members. Sometimes (as Asa Mittman so well describes in his essay) that invitation is a trap, a call to swim dangerous waters. Yet if thinking through what a monster means and does (as character in a narrative as partner in the process of learning) invites a student to frame critically their own cultural moment, as well as perhaps the long histories behind that moment’s formation, then the monster classroom is in the end a good place in which to dwell.

[1] Not that this super power is reserved to medievalists: W. Scott Poole makes this point about the Western canon well in his introduction to this book.
[2] I want to thank Hope D. Swearingen for sending me a thorough description of how she uses “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” in her AP English class at Bastrop High School. I am also deeply grateful to the following scholars, who shared reflections on using the essay in the classroom with me, providing valuable material for what I have written in this afterword: Bonnie Jett Adams, Tracy Adams, Shaun Bryan, Brantley Bryant, Sakina Bryant, Kristi Janelle Castleberry, Melissa Ridley Elmes, Fen Farceau, Ted Geier, Rick Godden, Ana Grinberg, Simon Grüning, Brian Hardison, Jenny Howe, Beth Belgau Human, Dan Kline, Sally Livingston, Kathleen Long, Roberta Magnani, Lauryn Mayer, Asa Simon Mittman, Adam Roberts, Emily Schmidt, Corey Sparks, James K. Stanescu, Liza Strakhov, Hope D. Swearingen, Arngrímur Vídalín, Amy Vines, David Wallace, Jeffrey Weinstock and Helen Young.
[3] I am thankful to Rick Godden for sending me a detailed description of the three monsters courses he teaches, and for conversations about monsters in the classroom.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why the Humanities Prepare You for Most Any Future, Part the 1000th

by J J Cohen

Bachelor of Arts in Literature, McGill University (1994)

Bachelor of Education University of British Columbia (1998)

Teacher of Drama, French, English, Social Studies, and Math (1999-2002)

Prime Minister of Canada (2015)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Another world has always been possible: A Letter to Elysia Crampton @ DIS Magazine

by J J Cohen

ITM readers may be interested in this collaborative piece now up at DIS Magazine. I wrote it with Elysia Crampton while meditating on her latest album, American Drift (and lyrics from its songs drift throughout the letter I composed). You can read more about her work (including the importance of location, and being trans, and homes and belongings, and using sound as a fabric to create story) in an interview with Spin here and Fact here and Fader here. Elysia and I have been FB friends for a while, I think because we have Drew Daniel's friendship in common. She read my book and sent me a letter about doing something for DIS. I returned her note intercut with my own letter. She sent it back with her letter removed and a story told with images plus a soundtrack replacing her words. And thus the DIS piece. All of this was done by email: Elysia was moving from the Shenandoah to Santa Fe in the Yungas (a town her grandparents founded) and then to her farm in Rosario, Pacajes. I was in New Zealand, far from home.

I think this is my favorite line from what I wrote:
Another world has always been possible. Say fuck it and start.

But you'll see that is only one of many topics considered. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Premodern Disorder: A Graduate Student Conference @ GW (CFP)

Premodern Disorder

GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute 
Graduate Student Symposium


Keynote Speakers:

Sharon Kinoshita, Professor of World Literature & Cultural Studies at UC Santa Cruz

Drew Daniel, Associate Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University

Premodern Disorder invites graduate students of medieval and early modern literatures to examine failures of taxonomies, outbreaks of disorder, and manifestations of the incomprehensible. Topics under investigation may include:
  •   Affect, emotion, and humoral theory
  •   Translation, globalization, and cultural-contact
  •   Apocalypse and catastrophe; or premodern ecologies
  •   Taxonomies, animality, agentic objects
  •   Monstrosity and the body
  •   Economics, politics, and religion
  •   Waste and dirt; or cleanliness and the home
  •   Allegory and utopianism
Visit the conference website: for more information, as well as a complete Call for Papers. 

Abstract submissions and Panel Proposals by October 30, 2015 (note extended deadline) to

Monday, October 12, 2015


by J J Cohen

A quick rant, because ... enough. The University of Maryland has been plagued with financial troubles that have worsened the lives of its educators, staff and students. And yet its expenditures on football, in the past and into the future, remain insane.

Steven Salzberg writes at Forbes that the University of Maryland will "pay $4.7 million to buy out the current coach, Randy Edsall, hire a new football coach and pay him at least as much as the old coach," and meanwhile "continue to impose unpaid furloughs and pay freezes on academic staff across the board." UMD President Wallace Loh, what are you thinking? In what crazy world are sports coaches worth almost $5M in university funds while those who teach and run the place day to day see significant decreases to their quality of life? Aren't the students who attend the university and the teachers and researchers who are at the supposed heart of its mission the ones worth that money?
Calling upon universities to privatize or divest from sports, Salzberg also writes this, and I could not agree more:

Listen, sports fans: football is not the reason we have universities. Universities exist to provide education, no matter what the (sometimes rabid) football boosters may say. Some American universities do extremely well without having a team at all. Outside the U.S., universities have no major sports programs at all–the students enjoy sports, as all young people do, but the universities focus on what they do best ... The spectacle of U. Maryland spending $4.7 million simply to buy out its current football coach, when the university is desperately trying to save money for its core mission, demonstrates how corrupting the influence of football has become.
Professional sports disguised as college activities do not belong on college campuses. Knock down the stadiums. We need more classrooms, presses, libraries, museums, coffee houses, green space, scriptoria, gardens, ruins to contemplate, and other public declarations that the life of the mind is more important than a bunch of guys chasing an odd shaped ball while a crowd gets drunk and eats nachos. 


Friday, October 09, 2015

On Being a Professor Who’s More Teacher than Scholar

a guest post by Arthur Bahr

To me, two of greatest things about BABEL are its members’ willingness to be radically open about what they most deeply believe and care about, and their ability to inspire others to be comparably open and honest. That sense of appreciation was renewed as I followed the How We Write posts several months ago—now brought to wonderful fruition!—and it inspired me to ask if I could share the following piece on this blog. 

A few words about what it is and how it came about. Lorna Gibson, a friend of mine in Materials Science and Engineering, asked me this summer if I would give a brief presentation this fall on how and why I became a professor, for a series she was organizing with Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart. The goal of the series is twofold: to demystify academia as a profession, especially for those who might be disinclined to think of it as “for them,” and to humanize MIT professors more generally. The first goal is important since fewer and fewer of our undergrads, whatever their background, are going on to grad school, and even those who do increasingly prefer industry to academia. The second goal is important since surveys suggest that a disturbingly large percentage of MIT undergrads graduate without knowing at least three professors well enough to feel comfortable asking them for a letter of recommendation. (My suspicion is that this problem afflicts many R1s, not just MIT, but that may be due to prejudices that I touch on more fully in the talk below!)

Since perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and fear of failure are real scourges among MIT students, and since I am lucky enough to have tenure and thus the ability to say what I please in official venues, I decided to be a bit radical in my talk, and come out as a teacher who happens to do scholarly work, rather than a scholar per se. And since figure skating has been on my mind a good deal, as some readers of this blog know, I decided to make that my metaphor. (Do watch the YouTube clips within the talk; they’re worth it!)

On Being a Professor Who’s More Teacher than Scholar

Today I’m going to talk about teaching, and figure skating, and scholarship, and imposter syndrome, because together they explain why I wanted to become a professor, why I almost left academia at various points (including after getting my job here at MIT), and why I’m really happy I didn’t.

I was a pretty serious figure skater as a kid, and when I started skating, in the late 80s, the sport had two very different components, only one of which most of you would recognize today: the jumping and spinning and music and costumes and all that. The other component consisted of using your blade to first draw and then retrace extremely precise patterns, or figures, onto a blank sheet of ice. This is how figure skating got its name: you literally skated figures. As part of an effort to demystify this rather strange-sounding practice, ABC aired this clip of Scott Hamilton skating a paragraph bracket at the 1984 Winter Olympics, and thanks to the magic of YouTube, here it is:

4:45-6:30 of

I was six years old when I saw that, and I was totally captivated. It was so weird and cool, this idea of trying to create those perfectly formed shapes on the ice. But as soon as I started staking seriously, I discovered that figures required a truly insane amount of work. Free skating came easy to me: I landed the first Axel I ever tried, and I got my double Lutz within a couples years of starting to skate, but with figures, my progress felt absolutely glacial. (See what I did there?) Instead of “I worked really hard at this jump and now I can rotate three times in the air instead of two,” it felt like, “I worked even harder at making my figures perfectly round and now instead of really ugly, bulgy circles I make very slightly less ugly, very slightly less bulgy circles.” This is not a very satisfying form of accomplishment—especially if you’re, say, twelve. As a result, I launched even more enthusiastically into my free skating, where I could express myself and play to the crowd (even if the crowd in question was just my mom drinking her thermos of coffee at 5 in the morning, God bless her).

So what has this got to do with my other topics? Well, I started teaching around the same time, when I was twelve and my little sister was six. That seemed the right moment for her to learn fractions, so I asked for a miniature blackboard for Christmas, and I set up a school for our legions of stuffed animals, and she helped them do their quizzes, and I graded them and I had office hours, and this is what I did for fun, mind you. And ever since, teaching has reminded me of free skating, since they’re both a kind of performance that tries to draw the audience in and make everyone in the room (or ice rink) feel like part of a shared experience. When you’re on, you’re both totally focused on what you’re doing in the moment and somehow going with a flow that’s bigger than you are and that you don’t totally understand. But of course you’re not always on: sometimes your grand pedagogical gambit is a flop, sometimes you fall on all five of your jumps, and sometimes it’s not a disaster, it all just feels sort of flat for no obvious reason. And those failures both sting and make you want to get back out there and nail it the next time.

Now I’m not breaking new ground here: any musician or athlete or actor will instantly recognize both kinds of feelings I just described, the “everything is clicking, this is awesome” and the “gah, that was awful … brood … I need to get out there and nail it next time” experiences. I go into this similarity between free skating and teaching because the other side of my job—of any professor’s job—is research, and research has always felt to me like compulsory figures. While they were sometimes rewarding, figures were not fun; they were work, grinding, repetitive labor. Any progress I made at them was nearly invisible to me and felt totally invisible to everyone else. And here it’s worth emphasizing how solitary, even lonely, research in the humanities can be. Unlike in engineering or the sciences, we generally don’t have labs or research groups: it’s just you, your books, and your thoughts, which is almost exactly how the famous figure skating coach Slavka Kohut described doing figures: “You’re alone with your thoughts, and you’re competing against yourself. It’s how you place your thoughts with your feet, and how the two work together.” This kind of isolated, introverted work is just not what I have ever felt like I’m best at. But it’s not even really a question of what you’re good at; it’s more about what’s exciting to you, what gets you up in the morning, how you self-identify. Sort of like are you a cat person or a dog person: are you a figures skater or a free skater? I’m a free skater; I’m a teacher.

And this is where we get to imposter syndrome. Whatever your academic discipline, teaching is a tiny, sometimes even nonexistent part of the training you get in a PhD program—and that right there tells you all you need to know about academia’s priorities. In my department at UC Berkeley, teaching was presented as the chore you had to do to get your ridiculously paltry stipend if you weren’t good enough at research (i.e., “smart enough”) to get a fellowship, and because of that, and gazillions of other cues given by your professors and fellow grad students, it was obvious that research is where it’s at. Which means that if you’re more inspired by teaching—if the reason you first wanted to become a professor is so that you could share your passion for the material with students—you quickly realize that you’re a cat person in a dog person’s world.

Now, it should surprise none of you to learn that when MIT hires professors, and when it considers them for raises and promotion and the all-important tenure, it cares above all about research. In this it is like every other R1 (which is professor shorthand for “first-tier research university”), and R1 jobs are the jobs that, as soon as you start grad school, you’re trained to believe that you should want, partly because by definition people get PhD’s at research universities, whose professors tend to absorb their institutions’ priorities and incentive structures into their own value systems.

So when I went on the job market and saw an assistant professorship in medieval literature at MIT, I didn’t for a moment think I would get the job. I didn’t even want the job. I wanted to end up at a small liberal arts college like the one I went to, so I could teach intimate seminars of smart, earnest English majors and have them over for dinner at the end of the semester to meet my boyfriend and my cats. I had it all planned out, and the only reason I even applied is that the academic job market in the humanities is so awful that you just apply for all the jobs and worry about happiness later, if at all. (Of course the notion that happiness is a second- or even third-order concern also says something pretty damning about academic culture. We can talk about that later if you want.) So when I actually did get the job, I was super excited but also sort of confused. It was as if I’d won the figures event at a competition—which I can assure you I never did—and I felt like saying to my soon-to-be colleauges, “I know you’re the judges and all, but how carefully did you actually look at my figures? Can I free skate for you? That’s what I’m actually good at.” And they were like, “No, we don’t actually need to see your free skating [my flyback had no teaching demonstration or interaction with students] since figures is what we really care about. In fact, as soon as you sign this offer letter, you’re going to be competing under a system in which figures are worth 95% of your score and free skating is worth 5%, or maybe it’s 90/10, or 98/2, I mean of course there isn’t a mathematical formula, we evaluate everyone on a holistic and case-by-case basis, etc. … BUT DON’T FORGET, figures are what really matter. Oh, also, if your figures aren’t good enough, after seven years we’ll fire you and you’ll probably never skate again.”

The reality of MIT’s tenure system, which I just translated into figure skating terms, didn’t sink in until I arrived here. And that’s when I really panicked, since I was sure that even though I’d somehow fooled them in my interview and my job talk, there was no way I could pretend to be a dog person for seven years. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, one of the judges was going to look at my tracings and get this tone of incredulous scorn in her voice as she said, “How did you even manage to pass your first figure test?” (That is a quote from a judge who failed me on a later, harder test.) And so I did what I did as a skater—as a kid: I threw myself into the stuff I already knew I was good at and kind of ignored my research for the first year and a half or two years I was here. (I do not advise doing this, by the way.) I looked for other jobs. I even talked to my senior faculty mentor about whether I could somehow convert my professorship to a lecturer position, which would have meant a huge cut in pay, prestige, and job security. (He talked me out of it, for which I will always be grateful to Noel Jackson.)

Underlying all this was an almost crippling fear of failure. I’d reached the seductive conclusion that if I didn’t really try, I couldn’t really fail. If I focused almost exclusively on my teaching, which I really enjoyed, and didn’t fully commit to the research that I knew MIT considered incalculably more important, then when I got fired I could say to myself and my family and my friends and my advisor and all the people I was sure to disappoint, “You know, it just wasn’t a good fit; I’m a cat person, they’re dog people; I’ll be so much happier at the University of Northeastern South Dakota” or whatever backwater I got consigned to. (For the record, my dad is from South Dakota, so I can make South Dakota jokes.) Imposter syndrome and fear of failure are both real scourges among students at MIT, so I want to go on the record and say that lots of your professors, like me, struggle with them, too.

Please note that I say “struggle,” in the present tense. These are not fights that you ever conclusively win. Grappling with imposter syndrome and fear of failure and perfectionism (yet another scourge) is more like learning to live with addiction: the shadows are always there, and you just have to develop coping mechanisms to make it through, partly by being open and honest about those struggles. So this talk doesn’t come with an inspirational conclusion about how I ultimately conquered my fears and became the consummate dog person I never realized I could be. I would still rather design a cool new class than write a scholarly article. I will always be happier and more alive in a classroom than I ever will be alone with my books. That’s who I am. Learning to say, “I am not a scholar, per se; I’m a teacher who happens to do scholarly work,” was incredibly liberating, not just because it was true, but also because it helped me separate the research part of my job from my sense of self. Scholarship was just that, a job, a job that I could learn to enjoy and be good at, but not some kind of calling or vocation, and that was fine. For other friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect, it’s the other way around, and that’s also fine. Teachers aren’t inherently nobler, any more than scholars are inherently smarter. All this helped mitigate the miasma of fear that surrounded my all-important “scholarly production,” and that was crucial, because in scholarship, just like in teaching (and figures, and free skating), fear cripples performance. Scholarship that’s afraid to fail, to be found out, to be seen to be stupid, is almost always boring, and I’d infinitely rather read an essay that I passionately disagree with or even hate than one that puts me to sleep.

As soon as I stopped feeling guilty about not passionately loving research, it was easier to believe that it did actually have value—and here I’m referring not to mine in particular, but rather to humanistic scholarship more generally. Guilty secret number whatever: it has always been really hard for me to feel like my scholarship matters, like, at all. I wrote a book about Chaucer and medieval manuscripts. Some people thought it was great and at least one very cranky reviewer thought it was awful, but fortunately enough people thought it was good enough that I got tenure. But even if everyone thought it was the most brilliant book about medieval manuscripts EVER, it still wouldn’t feel as significant to me as teaching a class in which a few of my students arrived at new ways of looking at the world. Like many clichés, the one about teachers changing lives is a cliché because it’s true, and it's hard for me to imagine anyone's life being changed by reading my book or, quite frankly, ANOYNE’S book about medieval literature. Here again, comparison with compulsory figures is instructive. Lots of skaters hated figures not just because they found them boring and lonely, but also because they felt useless. How on earth did etching perfect circles help us connect with an audience, communicate to others the joy of movement, or music, the way free skating did? Lots of brilliant figures skaters were terrible free skaters, just like lots of brilliant scholars are terrible teachers.

Partly because no one could articulate a compelling answer to these kinds of questions, compulsory figures were eliminated from international competition in 1991—with the result that, today, most of you have never heard of them. This initially made adolescent skating Arthur very happy, but the joy faded surprisingly quickly. Free skating somehow felt less fun, and ironically less free, when it was no longer the activity that I had to earn by diligently practicing my figures for an hour. As soon as I wasn’t doing them any more, I appreciated how complementary these two components of the sport really were. Not only did figures instill a truly ferocious degree of mental discipline and focus, they also forced you to be aware of every single part of your body, since they were so precise, the margin for error so tiny, that a single muscle out of place literally anywhere could mess up your turn at the top of the circle, or your change of edge, or any of the gazillion of other things that were there to be messed up. In this sense, figures were a bit like basic (as opposed to applied) research in the sciences: intense labor with no immediately obvious practical value, but with the potential to pay off in unanticipated ways down the road. (Case in point: I started rock climbing and bouldering last year, and when I was struggling, my best friend who’s a hard-core climber said, “Just remember, every part of your body matters, not just your arms,” and I was like, “oh, it’s figures,” and then I thought about each problem on the climbing wall like it was a figure, and it made a big difference!)

But let’s even concede a skeptic’s contention that skating compulsory figures, or deciphering the handwriting of medieval manuscripts, isn’t useful. They are nonetheless impressive, specialized skills. Our word technology comes from the Greek word techne, which means skill, art, or craft—your ability to make or do something as opposed to simply comprehend or contemplate it in the abstract. So etymologically, technology is our shared set of crafts, skills, and capacities. When one of those skills is forgotten, rendered obsolete by a more recent form of technology (or a changing economy), something of our shared heritage is lost. And this is why the demise of figures makes me so sad. Done well, both the activity and the results are very beautiful, as this short clip of Debi Thomas doing a paragraph loop at the 1988 Olympics shows:

1:03-1:47 of

But pretty soon, the coaches who knew how to teach figures start will dying off, and then this craft will no longer be part of our shared human technology. Now I’m not seriously proposing that we all go back to thatching the roofs of our kerosene-lit cottages, or that MIT become the Massachusetts Institute for the Preservation of Historically Significant and Inherently Beautiful but Obsolete Skill-Sets (although that would make us Miph-Si-Boss, which given our love of inscrutable acronyms seems quite appropriate). But I do think that it behooves all academics—and everyone contemplating an academic career, as I hope some of you are—to adopt a more capacious understanding of what’s worth learning and doing.

One of my colleagues in medieval studies calls the modern university the “brainforest” [shoutout to LeVostreGC!] and I think it’s a valuable pun because like the Amazon, the university is a complex ecosystem. Some parts are less obviously attractive or useful than others, but the depth, the richness, and even the utility of the whole are diminished when any particular constituent piece atrophies or is clear-cut out of existence. This is not just an exhortation to remember medieval literature when you’re an engineering professor—or rich alum—on some committee whose purse-strings control the fate of my future colleagues. It’s also a reminder to me, when I feel like my research doesn’t matter, that it actually does. Not in the same way as my teaching, but as part of an infinitely complicated universe of skills and modes of thinking and doing things with your brain. I wish that the skating community had appreciated figures enough to save them, but their loss inspires me to do my damnedest not to let the same thing happen to the practice of interpreting old poems that don’t get read that much any more. Most of the time I don’t love doing research—but I feel incredibly grateful that I have to. Most of the time I do love teaching—and I feel incredibly lucky that I get to. And that tension keeps both activities livelier and more vital than either would be by itself.


The conversation after the talk was quite wide-ranging. People had a lot of questions about the nitty-gritty of figure skating, so we spent a good deal of time on that, but a number of people also said they had experiences similar to mine, of feeling like a bad academic or even a bad person for valuing teaching over research. One said it’s why he left academia for biotech after getting his PhD in biology from Cornell. Another, a grad student in Mechanical Engineering at MIT, said that when she asked her advisor how she might get a more-teaching-than-research-oriented job, he said bluntly, “Those don’t exist.” And even at less research-intensive institutions than MIT, “scholarly production” (which is generally equated with “published peer-reviewed writing,” although it shouldn’t be) is often far more important than teaching for tenure and promotion. (Of course, how to fairly measure teaching effectiveness is a vexed question, but it’s not clear to me that measures of scholarly excellence are any less problematic; both are subjective, manipulable, inflected by unconscious bias, etc.)

As for what I’d like people to take away from all this: I’d encourage everyone working with graduate students to make sure those students know that there are lots of different ways of being a professor; that the version of “professor” their advisors chose to (or had to) embody in order to succeed at an R1 is not the only possible or admirable one. I suspect that most of us would agree with that proposition if pressed, but such a belief—in the legitimate diversity of values and goals within academia—often fails to make it through to grad students. Making sure we all convey that belief will help keep our profession attractive to the widest possible range of smart, committed people—and, in turn, give our profession a broad and diverse set of advocates for the challenging times we face now, and seem sure to face in the future. 

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Love of Life: Reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Close to Home

by J J Cohen

Below, my paper for the recent (and wonderful) Oecologies conference, "Engaging the World, From Here." My deepest gratitude to Vin Nardizzi and Tiffany Werth for inviting me and for pushing me to write beyond my comfort zone, and for all who attended and participated and made the event so memorable. From a joyous student staging of Gallathea to being lost in Stanley Park to superb presentations and a round table, truly among the very best eco-gatherings I've attended.

Let me know what you think of this piece, since in time it becomes a published essay. The footnotes at this point are fairly nonexistent. Manuscript images taken from the Cotton Nero A.x. Project' s Digital Facsimile.

With its Green Knight, Green Chapel, green garter, green holly, green horse, green axe, green everything, no wonder Carolyn Dinshaw describes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the “go-to text for ecocritical analysis of Middle English literature.”[1] Most attention centers upon its three enthralling hunts and the Green Knight as foliate intrusion, signaling that an eco-Sir Gawain has something in common with the anthropological approaches of the last century, when the traces of a pagan vegetation god were discerned in its Green Man and critics used to quote from The Golden Bough – but emphasis has moved from anthropocentric myths to human entanglement in an active, inhuman world. This shift to plants and animals has also entailed a quiet movement away from the groundbreaking, feminist reappraisals of the poem of the early 1990s, with their lingering over occluded stories, desires, lives. On the one hand, affiliating the ecological and the feminine risks repeating a binaristic and essentializing logic that aligns women and nature, to neither’s benefit. Yet environmental spaces medieval and modern too easily become the domain of vigorous, affluent white men having adventures (an expanse that queering or entangling into nature can paradoxically reinforce rather than undermine).[2] Can we shift the space of critical attention to a diversity and specificity of lives by engaging the romance’s worlds from multiple “heres,” manifold and thick? Can we displace the human from centrality without obliterating human difference?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an intricate romance, traversing time and space so swiftly they blur. Desire (or love) and vibrancy (or life) burgeon throughout, opening widest when we accept what the text has always insisted upon: Sir Gawain is not its protagonist – and his time, his history, are not always the poem’s. As the opening page of the manuscript makes clear, cutting something off will not extract it from enmeshment, will not flatten story into sequentiality, will not enable the solitary or the still. Around a linear and all too human, all too masculine narrative of blunder and supposed transcendence unfold tales of yearning and vitality: dormancy, season-change, lives glimpsed but not grasped, nonhuman tempos and durations, knotted structures of love and life to which a knight who thinks the world revolves around his adventuring remains blind, acephalic. The poem’s love of life entwines humans of all genders with nonhumans, creates a world not of static verities but repetitions with lively differences, sediments an enduring here inextricable from body, climate, atmosphere, season, plant, animal, stone.

The poem contrasts large environs swiftly traversed with small spaces of lingering. The immensity of the wilderness traveled and a plot unfolding over the course of more than a year contrast with the feasting chamber of the Arthurian court, the bedroom of Sir Bertilak’s castle and its surrounding hunting park (a space that can seem immense but amounts to no more than two enclosed miles [Crane]), and the ruins of the Green Chapel, not far distant. Building upon feminist re-readings of the poem that emphasize its knots, absent narratives, contradictions, and temporal intricacies over a masculine straightforwardness, I’m going to ask us to pause today within some time-spaces that Sir Gawain barely beholds on his travels, so hellbent is he to culminate a story he thinks his own. We won’t spend much time in the bedroom with Gawain and the Lady, nor at the chapel with the Green Knight. I’m interested in desire here, but desires that exceed the confines of Human subjectivities without leaving particular humans behind.[3] On the day she provides the green girdle that will supposedly keep Gawain safe, the Lady’s first act in entering his bedchamber is to throw open the window (1743), fresh air for the knight’s heavy, troubled sleep (dre3 droupyng of dreme, 1750). Might we allow our eyes to tarry at the vista she opens, perhaps feel the change in atmosphere an unlatched window enables? Can we gaze out towards the nearby hills and forest without transcending the feminine agency through which that portal opens? The Arthurian knight in restless sleep or atop his relentless steed embodies only one narrative trajectory. The desires of the poem’s four women entwine the poem with alternative stories, some of which challenge the relegation of the feminine to private and domestic space while men adventure outdoors.[4] So does the vivacity and precarity of the poem’s nonhumans, and an abiding love for their flourishing.

It’s easy to forget that SGGK exists in a single manuscript of unknown authorship, unclear scribal history, and lost context.[5] The history of this anonymous alliterative poem of the late 14th century is discontinuous. We possess no evidence of medieval readers. Modern canonicity came about only after Frederic Madden rescued the poem from obscurity through his edition of 1839. Jesse L. Weston translated SGGK into comfortably modern English in 1898, enabling wide public access.[6] Its female characters were ignored or disparaged into the 1990s, even though the plot derives from their agency. In the long wake of its domestication into the Brit Lit Survey syllabus, as well as its mediation through multiple translations and remediation through new sites of representation (including film and blogs), we’ve lost a sense of the romance’s strangeness, its desire to estrange. Much remains dormant, awaiting its season, so close to home as to remain unseen.

How might turning to the past with a full sense of inhabited ecologies, medieval and modern, renew our acquaintance with a poem that has become too well known? How might love and life bring together a world of humans and nonhumans in which particularities (of gender, body, desire, ability, tempo, thriving) are not transcended or surpassed? Plunging through the wilds of Wales atop his horse, Gawain’s mammalian rapidity contrasts with the unhurried thriving of trees, the leisure of stone, incessant cyclicality of weather and botanical yearning, the pulse of climate and season. I use the term eco-temps to designate a HERE that is at once a place, a temporality, and a climate – ephemeral expanses that through repetition endure to bequeath across time a multisensory archive.

Few medieval texts are more alert to climate change than SGGK, in the many senses of the word: location, atmosphere, inclination, affect. Climat is passion and psychology in place, feeling close to home. The poem is arranged around recurring but not necessarily straightforward rotation, what in Middle English is called “sesoun” [season]. The tempo of lived geography, sesoun is composed of cyclical “eco-temps” or “time-spaces” “now-heres” “weather-worlds”  that knot the disparate in shared liveliness, that include but are not culminated by decay, violence, death. Season derives from sowing (Latin serere), the casting of dormant seed on bare earth in uncertain hope, in the trust even within long cold of some green futurity.

With its brief days darkly edged, its affection for Christmas and New Years revels, SGGK is a winter-loving poem. Most of its action unfolds within two iterations of that season of short days and chill nights, of frost and hearthbound fire.

Unlike some Arthurian tales, this romance opens with disaster rather than culminate in flames. The first stanza (to which the last circles back) describes the burning of the city of Troy “to brondez and askez” (2), detailing the transcontinental dispersal of its refugee population. Because they founded so many futures it is easy to forget that the Trojans were exiles and migrants, displaced from home by war. Burnt to brands and ashes: these dispersed peoples possess no city to which to return.[7] The smoldering of home must haunt what follows [Stephanie Trigg]. Camelot is a refuge built against fire and ice.

The poem begins in wandering but moves quickly to the construction of new habitations. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story that its author tells us he first “in toun herde” (31). “Toun” is usually glossed as “court,” but the word primarily means a gathering of edifices into permanent settlement, as in “London toun” (MED), the kind of fortified place reduced to embers at poem’s opening. Toun also designates the community such buildings enable. A toun domesticates fire and banishes life-taking winter to its exterior. The Arthurian court is a shelter after catastrophe. Like Troy, it won’t last.

Festive and snug, Camelot knows the inevitability of intrusion. Expectation hangs heavy in the air. Although Arthur’s court has gathered to celebrate the holiday, the king will not be seated at the Yule repast until some wonder arrives. SGGK was composed when the mania for tales of Camelot was already centuries old, but the eager knights and ladies depicted here are young: “For al watz þis fayre folk in her first age” (54). This story is set in the early days of Arthur’s flourishing, before the treachery and infidelity and sheer viciousness that will someday rend its community, ruin everything achieved.

As readers and Arthur fans, we know what is coming. Lancelot and Guenevere will betray their king. Agravain will betray the two lovers. Mordred will betray everyone. Yet when we realize that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a prequel we can suspend our knowledge, ignore the approach of that calamitous future for a bit. The story is limned with darkness, harsh environments, and loss, but its narrative also holds vibrancy, promise, and unexpected life, even within what seems dead or forgotten. It’s a story of “boþe blysse and blunder” (18): beginning anew, trading culmination for multiplicity, linear time for seasonal modes, inevitable futures for the awakening of dormancies.

Camelot is built against a human world that loves to incinerate and a natural world aligned with chill; against story tellers who culminate their tales in devastation; against flame that will gladly ally itself with human hands to consume structures (of dwelling, of meaning, of remembrance); against an icy climate in which life is precarious and pained. And yet the court knows it cannot keep these forces at its exterior. The marvel is awaited. The outside must enter, or reveal itself as having always been within.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between an ally and an enemy, a host and a guest, protagonist and prey, a parasite and a symbiont, the fecundity of decay and the silent thriving of life, the death drive and cyclicality, between things which contradict and things that are simply entwined.

“Þer hales in at þe halle dor an aghlich mayster” (136). The awesome [“aue-lich”] Green Knight hurtles into the hall. He is sudden, flamboyant, immense -- and so very green. We will learn later in the poem that he is intimate to a story long unfolding at the heart of Camelot-toun. An emissary from Morgan la Fée, the Green Knight is sent to probe the court and frighten Guenevere (2456-60). Morgan does not much like her half-brother Arthur, an animus that tells a story close to home, lying dormant, springing to life only retroactively next winter. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem that demands to be read at least twice before it is possible to know how full its story is with alternative narratives from the very start, seeds lying dormant the first time through, awaiting a second season.

A little history. When first glimpsed in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (c. 1150) Morgan rules the Isle of Apples (Avalon), the enchanted place to which Arthur is taken to have his mortal wounds tended. Geoffrey may have taken this story, as he takes so many of the tales he tells, from a combination of Welsh, Irish and Breton tales, underscoring the roiled British archipelago that Arthur’s eventual translation into a placid English king obscures. Geoffrey describes Morgan as wise in medicinal botany, astrology, and shape changing (she can fly through the air like Daedelus, and so is an intimate of birds).[8] In time elaborate mythologies developed around Morgan and her relation to Arthur. She studies with Merlin and masters much of his lore. She is married against her will. She is called le Fay (the Fairy) in recognition of her learning and power.[9] Because she was disparaged by Thomas Malory, and because we too easily assume that any medieval secular woman who exerts her own agency must have been reviled by her contemporaries, Morgan is often described now as sinister, evil. Yet she may also simply be an immensely learned woman whose stories and desires are not fully knowable.[10]

Despite all the founding fathers, stories of Troy depend upon women: Dido, Cassandra, Briseyde, Hecuba, Ignoge, Lavinia, Helen.[11] Feminist re-interpreters of SGGK taught us decades ago to take the words of the Green Knight seriously when he reveals that he is Morgan’s subordinate and stop making the poem about its male characters. Geraldine Heng pointed out in 1991 that Morgan tends to be noticed only to diminish her back into the masculine story, a proclivity that remains true today.[12] Heng, Gayle Margherita, and Elizabeth Scala (among many others) have demonstrated cogently how the poem enacts and is enlivened by feminine desires, stories with women as protagonists that have always been there, dormant until noticed by readers not content to follow only Gawain through the text. While most of the narrative is spent in that knight’s company, the ending of the romance makes us wonder if it ought to have been.

The poem diverts us from its intricacies then rebukes us for having been so distracted. “Oueral enker grene” (150). The magnificent, utterly intense [enker] greenness of the knight who intrudes on the Christmas court is overwhelming: verdancy of coat, mantle, hose, trim, gems, flowing hair and beard; his horse’s bit, stirrups, and saddle; even the horse itself. Yet the Green Knight is an ecotone of vegetal and animal, leaf and silk, tendril and embroidery, the work of nature and artisans. Viridescent glare can blind us to how much gold is woven into the ornamentation, precious substance and entangling thread. The Green Knight bears along with his tremendous axe a bob of holly “Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare” (207). This holly would presumably shimmer with red berries, a speckled crimson that will return later when we behold Gawain’s blood on the Green Chapel snow. As the green aura shimmers it is easy not to notice details like the fierce Knight’s clothing embroidered “wyth bryddes and fly3es” (167), with birds and butterflies, a sartorial ecosystem. Sir Gawain will dress in rather similar clothing later in the poem, when he sets off in search of this stranger. The atmospheric birds and butterflies on these clothes are the labor and narrative of women’s hands.

The fierce guest challenges the court to a beheading game (possibly the least fun game ever invented). Noble Gawain volunteers to take the axe, sparing his king that perilous duty. Once severed from its body the head remains alive, a survival beyond death that declares green entanglement within a world exceeding and frustrating the human. The severed head commands Gawain to receive his promised return blow at the mysterious Green Chapel within a year. Unlike this uncanny visitor, Gawain has no reason to suspect that he will survive the return stroke: twelve months as terminus, not the restarting of a cycle. Can we blame him if he hesitates at Camelot while the seasons change? And they change rapidly. Within three brisk but beautiful stanzas winter will yield and return.

“And vche sesoun serlepes sued after oþer, / After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun” (“And each season in turn followed the other / After Christmas came difficult Lent” 501-2). We expect winter to be hard, but more difficult still are the earliest arousals of spring.

Lenten thoughts, for that austere time of year when the first stirrings of plants yield little nourishment, when winter is almost gone but the ground is brown and the trees stripped still of ornament. “Crabbed” means angry, ill-tempered, backward-moving, sour, unconvivial. A time of “fode more simple,” early spring tests the flesh in part for religious reasons, in part because the growing season is just starting while winter stores have neared depletion. You could starve to death at Lent.[13]

“Early spring is, famously, cruel,” observes Holly Dugan. “The bite of winter is still sharp.”[14] Spring’s ecological archive, she notes, is olfactory – and thereby fleeting. But not irrecoverable. Poetry records well the vernal balance of promise with “an indolic hint of decay and desolation.”[15] Memory with desire. To call this liminal season “crabbed” is not an instance of the Pathetic Fallacy so much as proof that the Pathetic Fallacy is true. The human body is an environmental mesh. Subjectivity is a material, multiensory extension into time, atmosphere and eco-temps. Affect is shared macrocosmically. Climate is weather and mood together, the human as meteorological interface, the ephemeral made flesh and feeling, the impress of an environing.

The seasons pass swiftly as Gawain lingers at Camelot. Lush thoughts intrude. Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez (“But then the weather of the world contends with winter,” 504): cold sinks down, clouds uplift; rain topples, flowers swell. “Softe somer” combines what are for us two separate seasons, riotous spring and summer’s green fecundity.

Like that intruding knight at Christmas court, the world wears green clothing (“boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez” [“both ground and groves are clothed green,” 508]). The soundtrack to this glorious greening is birdsong, as these creatures build their houses with industry (509). Later in the poem we will see and hear such birds in the depths of winter, as Gawain moves through a tangled forest, half frozen, no prospect of the Green Chapel at all. Let’s fast forward for a moment.

Into a forest ful dep, þat ferly watz wylde,
Hi3e hillez on vche a halue, and holtwodez vnder
Of hore okez ful hoge a hundreth togeder;
Þe hasel and þe ha3þorne were harled al samen,
With ro3e raged mosse rayled aywhere,
With mony bryddez vnblyþe vpon bare twyges,
Þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde.
Wandering a wild forest of entangled oak, hazel, hawthorn, Gawain beholds unhappy birds complaining against the chill. Maybe they are just allegories for how he feels. But maybe this is another moment when we might behold the human weather report, and wonder why Gawain does not apprehend in these miserable creatures a shared pain, a shared precarity.

Those lines create a microclimate, a winter environing in which life and death intertwine, where misery is shared even when that atmospheric interpenetration goes unrecognized. Trees are entangled, oak with hazel, hung with moss. Unhappy birds perch in their bows, their soundtrack a reduction to bare life, to creaturely misery. Pain of the cold. Sure, they’re just birds – and they will soon give way to frosty earth lit by a beautifully ruddy rising sun when Gawain is snug in the castle (1694-96) and to “wyldge wederer of þe worlde” that harasses the exposed (“þe naked to tene”) once he departs in search of the Green Knight (2000-2). Again, though, these are not instances of weather in the poem obeying “psychological rather than natural laws” but assertions that the Pathetic Fallacy is not so false.[16] Lesley Kordecki finds in Chaucer’s speaking avians an “ecofeminist subjectivity” that interrogates and undercuts the human.[17] In this poem the birds, filled with bliss in summer, distress in winter, do not speak. Yet they palpably communicate: create a feeling, an atmosphere, sorrow in a bitter climate, joy in a warmer one. They are the animals that fly on the embroidered garments of both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he seeks. They are the animals that share in the bounty of the butchered deer after the hunt, when the ravens receive “þe corbeles fee” (1355). They are a story of nature, of course, but a story conveyed also in clothing, the labor of women, birdsong that is also art. And a protest against a world too cold.

Back to summer. Zephirus blows us, softly and warmly, deep into the year (516). Time passes at such a clip that it is easy not to see how animated this world observed by no one in the poem has become. But let’s linger, and spin some quick lines into longer intimacies.[18]

Blossumez bolne to blowe (Blossoms bulge to bloom, 512), while the hedgerows are “rych” and “ronke” (luxurious, libidinous 513). Leaf and stem are flourishing, becoming overgrown. Isn’t that how the Green Chapel was swallowed into ruin, reuse, rebirth?

Let’s pause in this vegetal profusion, catch our breath, smell the evening’s fleeting perfume -- or at least note that the poem is now green with inhuman desire. “Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes” (“very lovely is the plant that grows”), dripping dew from its leaves, eagerly awaiting the joyful gleam of the sun (“To bide a blysful blusch of þe bry3t sunne” 520).

Yes it’s just personification and we should not take anthropomorphism too seriously. The growing plants and the soundtrack of birdsong that accompany their yearning simply set the mood for the human actors: expectancy, possibility, lushness, desire. Move on. 

In its rapid season-change and narrative hurtling forward, the poem offers what Rick Godden describes as a beautiful yet unnerving time-lapse.[19] We are inhabiting for a few months-as-minutes a vegetal temporality, a medieval version of sLowLife, plants revealed as motile and desiring.[20] Tim Morton describes the quickened apprehension that “speeding up the world” yields as making “things that seem natural reveal something monstrous or artificial, an uncanny, morphing flow” (The Ecological Thought 43). We sense how every green thing lives, burgeons, respires, maybe even feels. What a green climate in which to dwell, once temporal flow is estranged from human time keeping, from anthropocentric pulse, season over denouement, dormancy over death, climate over climax.
Yet vines and flowers are closer to our own heartbeat than much of the world (even if we are probably too much like hummingbirds as far as trees are concerned). When we inhabit a botanical tempo through poetry and other methods of sustained observation, we behold how plants live, witness what they love. We also realize their anxieties, those same intimations of mortality the court felt at Lent. Autumn is coming in a rush (“Bot þen hy3es heruest” 521). A changing climate signals nearing winter, with harsh weather, desolation, and rot (“Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype” 522).

Time to provide against the nearing devastation, or perish, or go dormant.

“And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere” (527): and the grass turns all grey that had been green. Verdancy recedes, and so does distributed liveliness. Chill returns. But here’s something to glean before the cycle completes and we find ourselves in Gawain’s company. Arthur had a half sister and we know at least in retrospect that she sets the story in motion. Her life is difficult to excavate and filled with contradictions, but one thing is clear: she wanted a world with more possibility than was given to her. She wanted a future of her own determination, a plot that did not terminate in someone else’s denouement. As we’ve dallied in the change of seasons I have been trying to honor what she loved in life, her intimacies and her knowledge. My hunch is that Morgan likewise lingered among birds and plants and knew well their vibrancy. I am also going to hazard that she had a deep regard for stones.

“Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon first” (528): Then everything ripens and rots that in the beginning grew. Arthurian literature has a way of obliterating the things it loves, just as the cycle of seasons turns spring plants to compost and soil to mud. Let’s turn our thoughts to the passing of swift things like blossoms, lost narratives, and flesh and contemplate the abiding earth. But not as grave.

Green is vegetal, seasonal, rapid, brief: a shade for plant life and botanic desire. A green sky may presage tornado, or dance as distant aurora. Green may be the last flash of the setting sun, le rayon vert, an opening of possibility even when the world dims. But green is more than that, if we can slow these rapidly turning seasons even more. Green is swift … but green also opens the text to durations that far exceed the momentary or the seasonal. Green is holly, springtime, leaf – but also gem, enamel, armor and pigment.

Think back to last winter, which might now seem a long time ago (but it was only three stanzas). The Green Knight’s hue at Camelot is “grene as þe gres” (235). Gift of chlorophyll and sunshine, green is the color of nature, as ecological a shade as can be had, as well as a promise of burgeoning, primavera within snow. Green is the color here of the close at hand, the immediate, the ephemeral: nearby trees and grass, the seasonal impress of holly and ivy. But green constantly intermixes other shades, other things. The knight’s color is also compared to “grene aumayl on golde glowande” (“green enamel glowing on gold,” 236). Green hue is the work of nature and of human craft, a radiance that arrives through alliance with earthbound and enduring substances, time long passed and time about to emerge.

The illustrations in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knightmanuscript are a symphony of mineral verdancies. Here in close up Sir Gawain faces the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. Sometimes the color was created by painting indigo over orpiment (blue over yellow). Malachite and verdigris were the most popular minerals for creating verdant hues – and remember that next to Sir Gawain in this picture is cave-like entrance to the Green Chapel, an entrance perhaps to this mineral world of green. These earthy substances that dye the animal skin on which the poem is inscribed resonate with the green gems said to sparkle on the Green Knight’s clothing, accouterments, and horse. They convey a materiality and a temporality that far outlasts the human – and yet to which the human is intimately, materially bound.

The people of the Middle Ages did not have quite the same sense of deep time that we are forever congratulating ourselves for having developed. They did, however, understand temporal immensity. Stone perpetually brought medieval writers and thinkers to such unseasonal, geologic contemplation, the awakening from dormancy of dreams of a world that holds a tempo nothing like that whirl of seasons preoccupying quick humans and other biological life.

Plants and minerals are lively, but their indigenous temporality renders human access to their thriving difficult to maintain long. Stare at them too long, and you can even lose sight of how specific human lives matter. The story can become too large. Or, as with Sir Gawain, too small. He forgets so easily how capacious the world is through which he moves, how full of creatures like the birds who like him love life and want to endure against a cold clime.

I could never possess a mind of winter. I can never not think of the misery in a cold wind. Here we are again. Perhaps we’ve lingered too long before arriving: we have completed a rotation of the seasons, and yet arrive only a few hundred lines into the poem, when a knight is just about to start his adventure.

A swift story of winter, Lent, summer, and harvest returns to winter and to Gawain. We lost of track of him, didn’t we? We were so intent on the poem’s plants, climate, season, and stones. We became stuck on what a medieval writer would call the “virtus” that these various ecomaterialities hold: their vibrancy and power as described in medieval botanical manuals, natural histories, encyclopedias and lapidaries, their ability to interrupt human stories and trigger wonder. In this lingering I have attempted to take seriously the presence of a woman “bi craftes wel lerned” (2447) who acquired her “maystrés” (arts, 2448) from Merlin. Her “koyntyse of clergye” (skill in scholarship) likely involved an intimacy with the herbs and gems that through proper alliance produce desire, eventuation, and magic. I hesitated in the seasonal stanzas in honor of Morgan la Fay – and it is worth exploring what that strange honorific signifies. The prose Lancelot (c. 1214-27) describes les fees as those women in the British histories who know “les forches des paroles et des pieres et des erbes” (the powers of words and stones and plants).[21] Magic is not the gift of demons, but of comprehension of natural law, acquirable “by all who applied themselves to the right books, or who were admitted to study with an acknowledged master, such as Merlin.”[22] Literacy is essential to magic and in many versions of the Morgan story her title of fée is bestowed in recognition of her wide learning and achievements in medicine and astronomy.[23] The Green Knight describes “Morgne la Faye” as a deeply learned women who once had “drwry” (love-dealings) with Merlin, the very initiator of the Arthurian court (2446-48). He says nothing negative about their relationship (their love was “dere”) and stresses the depths of her knowledge – so much so that she is also “Morgne þe goddess.” She earns her two titles not because she is somehow closer to plants and animals than men (the familiar troping of the feminine as the natural). She is goddess and fairy because she is an expert (“clergye”) in words, stones, magnetism, stellar influence, herbs – in what the Middle Ages called “magik natural,” a discipline today that we would call natural science.[24] SGGK is remarkably neutral towards Morgan. Gawain overlooks her during his time in the castle because she is advanced in age and thereby unattractive -- but the text never implies that her elderly body offers a moral allegory. Although described in terms that are physically unflattering when she is glimpsed from Gawain’s point of view (Bertilak more objectively calls her “þe auncian lady,” 2463), in her home she is clearly revered (“And he3ly honowred with haþelez aboute” 949). No negative adjectives cluster around her in the text – though plenty are to be found in critical discussion of her presence (including “evil” “dangerous” “aggressive” and “lascivious”). She is praised by Bertilak, her liegeman, for being so learned, and for her ability to tame the proud (“Weldez non so hy3e hawtesse / Þat ho ne con make ful tame,” 2454-55) – a talent she was practicing against with the Arthurian court. True, she also wanted to scare Guenevere to death, and that is not very nice, but no textual rebuke is given for that attempt. The poem offers only a story of a desire too quickly glimpsed.[25] As we have seen by tarrying in the change of seasons with Morgan’s interests in mind, SGGK is a poem of such stories and desires swiftly witnessed. Bertilak seems quite joyful to be under Morgan’s sovereignty. Bertilak’s castle, which is Morgan’s castle, seems a place of eternal spring. Because of the bedroom scenes and the tempting and the testing, critics typically describe it as a perilous place – and maybe it is, from Gawain’s point of view. Maybe. But after the business with the head chopping concludes at the Green Chapel, His request that Gawain accompany him back to the castle for a celebratory feast that includes his aunt appears to be sincere (“Þerfore I eþe þe, haþel, to com to þyn aunt, / Make myry in my hous” (2467-68). Once Morgan’s story awakens from dormancy, is important not to enact that violence against her again, that her life as Morgan the Goddess – who is also Morgan the Scientist -- be recorded, acknowledged, lingered over. Patricia Ingham writes that the lines of forgiveness from the Green Knight that free Gawain for his fault “reverberate with a compassionate understanding of a knight’s desire to survive.”[26] The lines she is referencing are the ones from which I have taken my paper’s title: “Bot for 3e lufed your lyf þe lasse I yow blame” (“But because you loved your life, the less I blame you,” 2368). The Green Knight serves Morgan, so why not see in these words a shared ethos of Hautdesert, one that reverberates with a compassion for all things that want to survive and flourish, all things that love life?

In the castle of Bertilak Gawain encounters Morgan but fails to recognize her. She is just a woman to him, all the more below attention because she is not young. Thus does he look at learned scholar and his own aunt and behold a crone. Gawain is not very attentive. We know this from the green girdle he will accept from Bertilak’s wife and then attempt to hide. Yet without Morgan the poem would not possess its plot. Scholars typically classify Morgan as either a supernatural being (in Geoffrey of Monmouth and a few early sources; hypothesized in her fairy or enchantress form as being a memory of a Celtic goddess) or as fully human, a woman who uses her craft in the petty ways the medieval misogynist imagination expects women to act. But a text cannot be a closed or total world. Narratives are porous ecosystems, always disrupted by the foundations (full of so many dormant things) on which they are built – dormancies that change the climate when they spring to life, ephemeral perhaps in their thrivings but through cyclicality and season more enduring than you might think.

The daily testing of Gawain in his bed is eerily analogous to the hunting of deer, boar and fox. Peril limns life and winter is difficult to tell from spring. The green of growth, eco-temps, and inhuman tempos and the white of chill, pain, precarity and perishing flesh are entangled. Circles entangle rather than flow. Dormancy and season give the lie to death. If Lady Bertilak had narrated the poem’s plot, how different would it be? We discover as the narrative moves towards its close that she comes each morning to tempt Gawain to physical intimacy because her husband asked her to do so: his game not hers. “I sende hir to asay þe” (2362) the Green Knight tells Gawain, robbing the wooing scenes in retrospect of tension and pleasure. We will never know her story, her desires, her pleasures. But when Gawain narrates human history as a long chronicle of men betrayed by women, from Adam onwards, it is hard not to wonder about Lady Bertilak’s ill fit with the tale he tells. She was working with her husband, and the green girdle she gave him seems to be a story about men from which she is excluded. Though it is useful to pause and think about who wove the garment.

Something worth contemplating as well, speaking of weaving or interweaving: when Gawain enters Bertilak’s castle, he departs harsh winter for a verdant season, cold birds for greenery and revel. But winter and summer end up being the same place, the same liminal zone. Bertilak’s Castle is the Green Chapel, just as jovial Bertilak is the fierce Green Knight. This forbidding monster excuses Gawain completely for having take the green girdle from lady Bertilak to protect himself: “Bot for 3e lufed your lyf; þe lasse I yow blame” (because you loved your life, the less I blame you, 2368). The love of life engenders sympathetic inclination, and a great deal of laughter (the Green Knight chortles his way through his last scenes). Gawain is invited back to Bertilak’s house to make merry with him, to make merry with his own aunt, “Morgne la Faye.”

Within the poem’s cycle of seasons temporal ripples flow within the narrative’s geographical bubbles. In the middle of the poem, in the middle of its recurrence of winter, Gawain discovers the home of Bertilak le Hautdesert, a park-like enclosure where everything is green as spring. For a while. The poem will return to white snow and biting ice, but even here will be found a verdant figure who seems menacing but in the end offers convivial invitations and sober lessons in how stories work. Invited to celebration with his aunt Morgan, the fairy-goddess-scientist, Gawain will refuse both offer and knowledge, will return to the Arthurian court where the action started, changed but not really changed. He tells a sad, heroic story about his nick in his neck and the green garter that it is the reader’s duty to ignore. Intensely attentive to the creaturely affects of the animal, human and vegetal denizens of its mixed ecologies, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight displays a recurring interest in culture’s becoming weather and climate’s linguistic and emotional impress. Identifications against (the monstrous, the animal, the inhuman) are constantly tripped up by recognitions and sympathy crossing ontological lines. Traditional readings of the poem resolve such tensions by turning to the theological, but they do not take seriously the Green Knight’s reason for excusing Gawain for his fault, based on a principle of the love of life: “but for 3e lufed your lyf.” In this pardon inheres a secular ethics of shared precariousness, an enlarging of the here of the poem that widens but refuses to transcend sense of place.

My place is here, close to home. I’ve been showing you some scenes of writing and thinking that form my own here when I think about place and the medieval poem.

An archive of ten years’ duration, the images I have used to retell the story of SGGK were taken in an urban park near my house. The abandoned terminus of a streetcar system that once linked NW and central DC, Willard Avenue Park (as it is unpoetically named) is a space I pass through every day as I move from home to work and back. At some point long before I lived in DC the area was landscaped into an urban park, but by the time I knew it most of the area seemed abandoned: overgrown with kudzu and bamboo, full of rotted and arsenic-cured wooden equipment, a place urban wildlife loved and humans ignored. Last winter a new playground was installed, a drainage system added, areas resurfaced and made accessible, and some invasive species removed.
My path today was given by the poem itself and this intimate space of writing and thinking bookended by a subway station and my home. I followed a series of interwoven ecological strands in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to emphasize a here that is temporally thick, eco-temps traversed by rhythms swift and slow, that pulse within the poem but require some attentive lingering over climate and season. I thought through much of my argument with Willard Avenue Park.

The park is not nearly so lovely nor so lively as my images suggest. One end terminates in high rise apartment buildings that during times of heavy rain dump sewage into the stream that flows through the woods. 

A street traversed by buses, fire engines, and trucks can be heard through the trees.But I know from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there is no such thing as a preserve of nature, a space where purities abide. Even a subway is an ecosystem. Some of the stories that I have not dwelt upon enough in this essay include the fact that this area was for a time part of a plantation. When Little Falls Stream watered fields, they were worked by enslaved humans who had been kidnapped from Africa and sold as if livestock. Before that the land belonged to the Piscataway, Anacostank, Pamunkey, Mattapanient, Nangemeick, and Tauxehent. Although it is known that an Indian trading post was established near the park by the early colonists, and suspected that the deer trails nearby may once have been hunting paths, indigenous history has mainly been obliterated. These vanished traces open SGGK to stories that arrive from prehistory (the Green Chapel is thought to be a Neolithic site, but we do not know exactly where) and postcoloniality (the Wales through which Gawain treks was being aggressively colonized at the time the poem was written, Arthurian myth was snatched from the Welsh, who are the wodwos and etaynez Gawain fights against in the wilderness, and might they not have a story of their own to speak?)

I took this picture coming home one evening after a storm. I’d cut through Willard Avenue Park as I always do, and paused in the darkness to listen to the birds quieting for the evening, the purling of the stream, the steady rumble of cars. In the bamboo that has not been cleared away yet I saw a deer, then a fox, urban wildlife well adapted to constricted expanses.

I think I was a little drunk – I’d met a friend for drinks in Foggy Bottom, and we lingered until the storm broke. I crossed a busy road and was almost home, then looked down into a puddle. Time, for a moment, slowed. Water became sky, the ground close to home disclosed a deeper story. I knew at that moment that I had to take this picture to bring this “here” to you.

[1] Carolyn Dinshaw, “Ecology,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, ed. Marion Turner (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2013) 347-62; quotation at 359. Dinshaw ascribes its ecocritical popularity to “its vegetal villain, geographical realism, precise picture of the seasons, and detailed account of the hunting animals” (359). In fact, however, ecocritical readings of medieval literature remains thin on the ground, and the “green” bibliography for SGGK is not extensive: see work by Gillian Rudd and Susan Crane.
[2] Postcolonial readings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have carefully built upon this feminist tradition in a way that ecocritical readings so far have not. Such analyses tend to be attentive to environmental justice in their probing of what happens when one people’s land becomes someone else’s territory – but they typically have little to say about nonhuman lives. See for example Patricia Ingham.
[3] For an analysis that brings these expanses together well see Mark Miller’s recent, illuminating examination of death drive, stillness and desire in the poem, “The Ends of Excitement in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Teleology, Ethics, and the Death Drive,” Studies in the Ages of Chaucer 32 (2010): 215-56. I am interested in bringing this objectless desire into a realm that includes nonhumans as participants in what Miller calls the “field of aliveness” rather than symbols or displacements for human stories, and so focus not on death but decay, dormancy, and tempos that are alien to human subjectivity.
[4] On the gendering of the public and the private in the poem and its relation to a split between nature and culture, see Margherita 140-41. Geraldine Heng writes: “Like each constituent of the pentangle, the path of every woman in the poem is articulated with that of every other, so that each approximately "vmbelappez and loukez in oþer," "vchone ... in oþer, þat non ende hade" (628, 657), a knitting together that reproduces the shadow of a different "endeles knot"in the poem - a knot of the feminine and the figure of another desire and its text” (“Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” PMLA 106.3 [1991]: 500-514, at 503).
[5] Elizabeth Scala gets at the precarity of the story’s survival well when she writes that “its canonical position as a superlative late Middle English romance and the gem of the so-called alliterative revival belies its chance survival from an era before the introduction of the printing press. The critical attention the poem has enjoyed in the last century often obscures the fact that it was lost to readers of literature for centuries and had practically no effect on the formation of the English poetic canon” (Absent Narratives, Manuscript Textuality, and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002]) 38.
[6] Good, short histories of the manuscript’s coming to public attention maybe found in the two handbooks dedicated to the poem’s author: Ad Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet (London: Longman, 1996), esp. 1-4 and John M. Bowers, An Introduction to the Gawain Poet (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012).
[7] I’m thinking here of Steve Mentz’s suggestion that “The poetics of exile and migrancy overflow premodern literary culture. What are Odysseus and Aeneas but violently displaced migrants who eventually make it to old or new homes?” See
[8] See Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. Basil Clark (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973) ll.908-38.
[9] The first time she is called Morgan la fee is in Chrétien de Troyes Erec et Enide (c. 1170). James Wade explores her development in Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 9-38. Carolyne Larrington gives a thorough overview of the development of the Morgan legends, stressing her role as learned enchantress rather than fairy, in King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (London: Taurus, 2006). See also Stephen Knight, Merlin: Knowledge and Power through the Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009) 39-40, 77-83.
[10] On the inscrutability of fairy motivation see Wade. Even defenders of Morgan’s point of view in SGGK describe her more negatively than the poem does: Margherita for example calls her a “sinister maternal figure” (141).
[11] On the relation of the Troy opening to the unfolding of the plot of SGGK – and especially to the romance’s interest in Morgan, digression and delay, and the active forgetting of alternative, feminine histories – see Gayle Margherita, The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994) 129-51.
[12] “Morgan's responsibility for the plot mechanism has been resurrected, debated, minimized, multiplied, classified, and reimagined-only to be reappropriated once again (albeit with difficulty) to serve the masculine narrative, whose priority customarily goes unchallenged” (“Feminine Knots” 501). For two (of many) examples of insisting that Morgan is not nearly so important as the Green Knight declares her to be, see Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1965) and 34 and Albert B. Friedman, “Morgan la Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,Speculum 35 (1960):260-74. Mark Miller writes that when Morgan’s agency is revealed, her intention is something “no one cares about” and “ludicrous” (“The Ends of Excitement” 234; see n.31 for his fullest argument). Margherita gets at the supposed danger of dallying with Morgan well when she connects it to a fear of lingering with (feminist) theory: “’theory’ itself is often spoken of in our field as a kind of rhetorical dalliance, a fetishistic deferral of the medievalist’s linear and epic journey back into the past … If we stay at Carthage with Dido, we’ll never get to Italy and build a legacy for our sons. Worse, yet, we may realize that what seemed a momentary dalliance was in fact the raison d’être for the whole narrative, and find ourselves, like Gawain, hopelessly alienated from the community as a whole” (Romance of Origins 150).
[13] I am grateful to Kathleen E. Kennedy (@TheMedievalDrK) for a twitter conversation on this topic. See especially: “spring also a traditional famine season, as early crops aren't ready and what is, isn't always enough to fill in dpltd stores” (September 10, 2015).
[14] See Holly Dugan, “Spring Smells of Lilacs,” JHU Press Blog
[15] ibid. Dugan notes that indole is an aromatic compound that may be found in flowers (such as lilacs) as well as feces.
[16] The quote is from Ad Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet, 53.
[17] Lesley Kordecki, Ecofeminist Subjectivities: Chaucer’s Talking Birds (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
[18] I am inspired here by Chris Piuma’s use of “intimacies” to describe how the works of the Pearl poet spin into new texts or “dystranslations”: “The Task of the Dystranslator: An introduction to a Dystranslation of the Works of the ‘Pearl’ Poet,“ postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2015) 6, 120–126.
[19] See “Neighboring Wastelands in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,”
[21] Lancelot: Roman en prose de XIII Siècle, ed. Alexandre Micha, 9 vols. (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1978-83), 7.38; Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, ed. Norris J. Lacy, 5 vols. (New York: Garland, 1993-96), 2.11. The passage is speaking specifically about the Lady of the Lake rather than Morgan, and speaks of how such enchantresses use their powers to remain young and beautiful. SGGK departs from this tradition by rendering Morgan an old woman, but I think that aging is part of the poet’s strategy of calling attention to how Gawain does not see the powers that are shaping his world and story. Wade examines the passage from the Lancelot as an instance of rationalizing the Otherworldly figure of the fairy into a human in Fairies in Medieval Romance p. 11.
[22] Thus Carolyne Larrington argues is the dominant mode of understanding magic from the twelfth century onwards: King Arthur’s Enchantress 10. Helen Cooper makes the good point that enchantment is a learned skill available to both men and women, that witchcraft “was taken to be an act, not a state” and did not necessarily convey opprobrium: The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 160; see also 184-85. Corinne Saunders makes some similar observations in noting the negative depiction of Morgan in Malory; see Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010) 247.
[23] See Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantress 14-15.
[24] See the entry for “magyk” in the Middle English Dictionary. Larrington compares the study of natural magic to the university curriculum after the introduction of Aristotle, and argues that magic is often a learnedness that seems marvelous only to those who do not comprehend the natural laws behind its operation (King Arthur’s Enchantress 10).
[25] While I agree with Larrington that the poem “deliberately gives us too little information to decide about Morgan” (King Arthur’s Enchantress 68), I do not find her resolving the Guenevere story through the “Val sans retour” episode in the Lancelot convincing: the point of the story is in part its incompletion.
[26] Patricia Ingham, Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) 134. This sentence also seems profoundly true to me: “We might, thus, view Gawain’s ‘failure’ with more sympathy than he does himself, and remain attentive to the poignant resistances within it” (1350).