Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mongolian Chaucer

If you follow this blog, or have ever chatted with me in person, you probably know that I harbor a not-so-minor fascination with the way in which the Mongols are represented in Medieval (specifically, Middle English) literature. The fourth chapter of my dissertation focuses squarely on the subject, and I'm just days away from sending off an article version of that chapter for review. Middle English Mongols -- at least as it stands right now -- will occupy not one but two chapters in the book.

You can imagine, then, my delight and fascination when I learned from a friend (who visited Mongolia while her sister lived there for a time) that contemporary Mongolians apparently hold Geoffrey Chaucer in high esteem due to his largely favorable portrayal of Genghis Khan in The Squire' Tale. This anecdote piqued my curiosity, and I finally made some headway today and discovered, thanks to Jack Weatherford (anthropologist and author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World), that the Squire's Tale has, in fact, been translated into Mongolian. I don't know much more than that for the time being, save that it's available in bookstores in Mongolia.

Needless to say, my detective work has only just begun! Among other things, I want to figure out whether this is a strict translation or more of an adaptation, the date of the first and any subsequent translations (and/or editions of the translation), the identity of the translator and his/her background and interests in medieval literature (and, if possible, their goals in extracting The Squire's Tale and translating into Mongolian). I also want to learn more about contemporary perceptions of Chaucer in Mongolia and how much of an impact this translation may have had on said perceptions.

I'm going to keep putting feelers in hopes that a) I can get my hands on a copy of this translation and b) I can find someone fluent in Mongolian who can help me answer these and other questions. In the meantime though, I just couldn't resist sharing the news that a translation exists!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Join us at NCS 2016 in London

Good news!

Kristi and I recently had a roundtable session approved for the upcoming New Chaucer Society Congress (London, 2016). If you work on representations of waterways in medieval literature and/or are intrigued by the ways in which waterways serve as conduits of narratives, please consider submitting a paper proposal to the two of us. The deadline for submissions is April 15th, and -- as is the way with deadlines -- it'll be here before you know it!

Here's our official description, which you can also find on the NCS website:

Session Title: Narrative Conduits
From the watery borders of the Celtic Otherworld, to the vibrant matrices of transmission in the Mediterranean, to the Thames as meeting point of king and poet in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, rivers and other bodies of water commonly serve as thresholds, starting points, narrative conduits. The wide-ranging sources we find in Chaucer’s work show us that narratives and texts (and even poets) made their way back and forth across the English Channel. This session welcomes papers that explore how navigable bodies of water like the Thames are represented in medieval literature and how they function as transmitters of narratives themselves. 

We're looking to have five speakers, each of whom will talk for 5-7 minutes. Rousing conversation will hopefully ensue! If you have any questions, please feel free to either post them here or email Kristi (kristi dot castleberry at gmail dot com) or myself (lknorako at stanford dot edu).

Hope to see you in London!

Monday, February 9, 2015

On Obama's Crusades "Controversy"

I ended my latest blog post by commenting on the alarming convergences between stories that promote a modern, militant Christianity and the crusades romances I study. Watching American Sniper only affirmed in my mind the fact that fantasies of Christian (in this case American Christian) superiority have gone nowhere, and that we need to forge bridges between the past and present instead of building walls between the two in an attempt to praise ourselves for being “evolved” in some way. I think the popularity of crusades narratives in late 14th and 15th century England has a lot to offer to a conversation about contemporary narratives of Christian triumphalism. As a result, I have been following the “controversy” surrounding Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech rather closely. The fact that it even IS a controversy is embarrassing to say the least, and as Ta-Nehisi Coates observes so well, says a lot about the “limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism” or, I’d add, militant Christianity, “in our politics.”

David Perry has already posted an excellent list of responses to the controversy, so I won’t repeat that effort here. As many have observed, all Obama did in those comments is remind us that we are not, in fact, at war with Islam itself and that the extremists like those of ISIS do not speak for the majority of Muslims. He calls, as Perry points out, for humility — for Americans to take a longer view and for us to approach our present with a rueful awareness of our cultures’ and religions’ pasts. Sadly, too many failed to understand and internalize that aspect of Obama’s speech and, instead, have produced an array of knee-jerk responses that only – in the end – reveal that the kind of humility called for in the POTUS' speech is sorely lacking in our culture at the moment. Obama points to the fact (I repeat, FACT) that all religions can be and have been used to justify violence, that none are immune from that potential fate. That's apparently something many in this country do not want to hear, because to hear it -- as others have already articulated/suggested – would be to acknowledge the fact that Christianity and/or America is not always in the right.

I expect these kinds of knee-jerk reactions from extremely conservative pundits. I expect them, in other words, to do exactly what American Sniper does so well: to elide inconvenient historical details in order to paint a portrait of easy Christian/American superiority. I like to think, however, that scholars would know all too well the dangers and risks that come with oversimplifying the past, especially when writing an op-ed piece accusing someone else of doing just that. And so, I was more than a little dismayed to detect similar tactics in Thomas Madden’s recent piece in the National Review. Many have pointed out that Madden’s post -- especially in its refusal to say anything about the pogroms against the Jews related to crusading efforts -- paints a deeply flawed portrait of the crusades as strictly defensive wars. His op-ed promulgates, in other words, exactly the view of the Islam that the conservative Right wants: a view that endorses the notion that we are in a religious war and that Islam is/was always, already an aggressive enemy of Christianity.

For the record, there are many things about Madden’s work that I have admired and appreciated over the years and that I continue to admire. His first edition of The Concise History of the Crusades was the textbook for Phillip Daileader’s brilliant course on the subject — a class I eagerly took as a senior at William and Mary. I devoured that book and the lectures, and it is no exaggeration to say that my current work on crusades literature is inspired by all that I read and learned during that semester. The final essay that I wrote for the class, in fact, was the one I submitted with my graduate school applications. I have always admired Madden’s effortless and approachable writing style, too – which I have often used as an example of effective writing for my students over the years. And, on a more personal note, I’ve enjoyed more than one conversation with him over the years about the need to write works accessible to folks outside of academia as well as within it, something that has directly impacted the kind of writing style I chose to cultivate over the years.

This last point, perhaps, is why I found his editorial so disconcerting. Because it actually seems to argue against that very ideal. He seems to be saying/suggesting that only medieval historians (and, I worry, only historians who agree with his thesis that the crusades were “defensive”) have a right to discuss the crusades, and that seems to completely defeat the purpose of writing to those outside of the ivory tower in the first place. I could understand his frustrations with Obama's reference to the crusades if it was in any way inaccurate. I could understand said frustrations if Obama had in any way ventured into what Perry calls the "simplistic rhetoric of atrocity as applied to the crusades." The thing is though, Obama didn't really do that at all. As many have observed already, while his comments might have been generalizing, they were hardly untrue. Again, all he spoke of is the (very real) tendency for religious belief to give way to violence and how we owe it to ourselves to be aware of that historic tendency and strive to be better. In other words, instead of Christians automatically labeling themselves as "more evolved" (as I've heard at least a few conservative pundits express over the past few days) Obama asks them in this speech to pay careful attention to history and endeavor to avoid repeating it. Hardly a radical idea at all. 

I do think there are fruitful debates to be had about the historical crusades and the motivations behind them, and I more than agree with the importance of recognizing the crusades as an incredibly complex and shifting concept and practice. I also agree that the crusades are all too often misunderstood in popular culture. But what I cannot understand or accept, in the end, is the argument that the President has no right to talk about the crusades in the first place. Madden closes his piece by saying that the President can/should just focus on the here and now — as if we live in some kind of vacuum where the past, and our varied interpretations of that past, have no bearing on the present. In the end, I'll gladly accept the POTUS cautioning against crusades -- however generally -- than (accidentally?) calling for them. Because in the end, as Perry put it so well in his recent post, the history of religious violence -- in all of its permutations -- warns again and again of the dangers of binary worldviews, especially when they lead one to believe that one's "violent acts are necessary" and good. 

On that note, I think I’ll close by quoting Eileen Joy, who cautions against this distancing of the medieval from the modern far more eloquently than I ever could. Certainly food for thought and an inspiration to keep forging meaningful bridges with care:  
The alterity of history, and of different times, events, persons, texts and other artifacts in history, will always obtain and thereby, will always remain as a proper object of medieval historiography [as well as a caution against the exhaustion of any historical method — by which I mean, we never exhaust history’s alterity by any one method, but rather, work to make its alterity more complex by a variety of methods and approaches, which is a good thing, in my mind]. At the same time, to say that only those events most proximate in chronological time have the most to say to us about our present situation [whatever that present situation might be], strikes me as an altogether too impoverished view of what history can do and say in the present, and also of where it is we think we are in time — on some island called modernity, floating in open space, completely untethered from “the medieval”?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

American Sniper: A 21st-Century Crusades Romance?

I’ve always considered myself a bit of an odd duck in the various circles in which I run, in part because I inhabit several of them, and not all of them mesh in easy ways. I am, on the one hand, a left-of-center feminist scholar who regularly harbors mixed feelings about the recent wars our country has waged and who regularly takes issue with the way in which Muslims are depicted in Europe and America. By the same token, I am a proud member of a large military family. I have seen my brother go off to war, and I spent time every night while he was gone pleading with the powers that be for his safe return. And I now live for the opportunities I can get to Skype with him and with my sister (also in the military), both of whom are stationed far away from me. As a little one, I saw my father get called up for yet another deployment when I was not quite four, my sister was not quite two, and my mother was five months pregnant with my brother. She gave birth via c-section while my father was at sea. He found out my brother was born, and that he had a son, via a brief morse code message that contained little aside from my brother’s name. I remember vividly my father coming home a couple of months early and the way we ceremoniously clipped each one of the cardboard paper links in the chain we’d created to mark the time he was away. The chain had a different color for each month, and I don’t think I’d ever been so excited to take a pair of scissors to so much paper. And truly, I doubt I would be the scholar that I am today were it not for my father’s service. The time we spent in Europe instilled in me a deep fascination with the Middle Ages, and it is no exaggeration to say that it contributed in a large way to my decision to make a career out of studying that time period.

It can be hard to explain – to both family and to my friends -- how I can simultaneously be deeply proud of (and grateful for) my family’s service while taking issue with the very conflicts in which they have fought. What I know, however, is that these wars are far from simple: that the people who fight in them are not the same people who launch them, and that those on the ground – more often than not – are people like my family members. Smart, capable, and good people who do their jobs thoughtfully and with the very best of intentions. I also know, both from the family in which I was raised and from the many accounts I’ve read, that servicepersons  harbor complex and varied feelings about the recent conflicts in the Middle East, and that the damage that those wars have wreaked is immeasurable. 

The reason I’m telling you this before I get to my thoughts on American Sniper is rather simple: I wish, as someone who has grown up in and around military families, that the film had focused squarely on that kind of damage. As a member of a large military family, I went to the theater hoping to see a film that would shed light on the struggles that servicewomen and men – especially those who see combat – face when they try to reintegrate into civilian life. I know, from all of the stories I’ve heard over the years, this issue is a hugely important one, and based on what both Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper had expressed in recent interviews — namely that they hoped the film would encourage people to sympathize with contemporary vets — I was optimistic that the film would be focused on those struggles. Sadly, while certain parts of the film gestured in that area, it was not. Parts of the film do examine Chris Kyle’s actual experiences abroad and his actual struggles at home, but in large part the film seems invested in creating a hero that can easily be read as infallible. As Brian Turner has said so well, that’s just not the kind of war film we need. 

Since I saw the film, I’ve found myself struggling to come to terms with it. On the one hand, I all but forgot that I was watching Bradley Cooper playing Chris Kyle — he thoroughly gave himself up to that role, and I was beyond impressed with his convincing performance. And to be fair, the parts of the film that focus on Kyle’s struggles — even inability — to reintegrate struck me as both sincere and incredibly well-wrought. And for the record, I DO think that those involved with the film were sincere in their attempts to address the quieter tragedies of war, especially PTSD. Hall explains as much in a recent interview and says, in the end that he was only trying to promote discussion:
To me, the point of art is to promote discussion — and this film is doing that. It's time that we had this discussion, that we understand the sacrifice of these warriors. We didn't set out to explore the archetype of war; we set out to explore the archetype of the warrior. We did that from one man's point of view. While the movie is being criticized for not providing a larger context, this point was to explore war through the eyes of this person. That's the POV we used. It's a character study.

Fair enough. But as I always stress to my students, your intentions and the way in which your actions/writing/speech are interpreted will not always be mutually inclusive, and as a result it’s your responsibility — if you're trying to make a particular point — to make sure you’re being as transparent as possible. I can certainly agree with Hall that making a film about a single person's experience all but guarantees that you can't widen the lens overmuch. But if he really wanted to do a character study, as he says above, why the insistence on white-washing so much of said character and fictionalizing a good deal as well? Why resort to tired stereotypes of the enemy? Why try so hard to ensure that audiences resist questioning Kyle and his worldview?

The film had so many chances to be self-reflective in ways that Kyle’s autobiography — given his insistence on his own worldview, one that cannot seem to allow for or conceive of an enemy more complex than a two-dimensional, intrinsically evil Other — cannot be. It had so many opportunities to point out the limitations of his worldview and, to a certain extent, its tragic inevitability. As Suzanne Akbari observed in a recent Facebook conversation — and as I’ve heard more than one serviceperson express, and not without some ruefulness — the belief that your enemy is simply evil is a tempting one to espouse when in combat. How else can you possibly pull the trigger if you don’t at some level dehumanize the person in your crosshairs? How else do you live with yourself afterwards?

But instead of taking a reflective approach and trying to encourage an audience to problematize Kyle’s worldview, the film seemed to be trying to endorse it instead. Rather than sticking closely (or at least close enough) to accounts of Kyle’s actual experiences on his four tours, Eastwood and Hall felt the need to impose a more dramatic/cinematic narrative on Kyle’s tours in Iraq and their respective motivations. Whereas his reasons for going to war and returning to war were on the more predictable/mundane side according to his autobiography, in the film he feels compelled to enlist because of terrorist attacks on American embassies and his first tour in Iraq appears to be directly tied to the events on 9/11 (even though, as many have observed, the terrorist attacks had no bearing on his decision to enlist and the complex “connections” between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq are completely white-washed in the film). And while in his autobiography he does admit to feeling pressure to return to war, in the film Kyle is drawn back to Iraq because of the continued presence of two specific villains: a child-torturing insurgent known as “The Butcher” (who is only loosely based on an actual person who, as it turns out, Kyle never encountered during any of his four tours) and a Syrian marksman/sniper. The sniper, at least, is described briefly in Kyle’s autobiography, but Kyle never hunted him down and/or fixated on him in the way that he does in the film. 

It’s one thing simply to acknowledge that Kyle views his enemies as two-dimensional savages, but it is another thing entirely to validate that worldview (however accidentally) through the construction of fictional, stereotyped villains. The film reaches its low point in this regard in the child-torture scene, where The Butcher takes a power drill to an Iraqi child’s leg and head in full view of his family and Kyle (because the father of that family had talked to the Americans and helped them). The scene is beyond disturbing, not only because of its content but because of its obvious attempt to force audiences to see the Iraqis as, at best, nameless collateral damage and, at worst, as the savages Kyle believes them to be. I remember scribbling angrily in my notebook as I watched the scene that I needed to find out whether or not this had even happened during any of Kyle’s tours.

It hadn’t.

This kind of revelation happened again and again as I researched the differences between the film and the actual events of Kyle's life. In this way, the film's persistent rewriting of history continuously reminded me of the narrative mechanics of the crusades romances I study. Richard Coer de Lion (RCL) kept coming to mind in particular because it, like, American Sniper, focuses on an actual warrior — a warrior who reached legendary status in his own lifetime, no less (Kyle was, after all, nicknamed “Legend” during the course of his four tours in Iraq). Both stories elide crucial historical details in order to tell a very particular, and consistently flattering, story about a Christian hero. 

Compare, for instance the way in which Richard in RCL has near-supernatural power and authority. He wields a virtually magical (and, as Akbari has observed, very “English”) battle-ax, capable of cleaving a massive chain in two – which allows his fleet entry into a Levantine harbor. He consistently proves himself superior even to his own men on the killing fields, and regularly kills multiple men with single blows. Chris Kyle enjoys similar prestige in American Sniper. One of his fellow soldiers in the film half-jokingly praises him for killing a hundred men in a single blow, and he is repeatedly reminded (far more somberly/seriously) of the courage he gives to the men whenever they know he’s hidden somewhere above them with his rifle and his scope. As one soldier quipped, they feel invincible when they know he’s watching out for them. Kyle also carries a bible that takes on near reliquary status. Someone even asks him at one point — again half-jokingly — whether it’s bullet-proof. At the end, in the (completely fictional) final firefight of his military career, he barely escapes with his life and (accidentally?) leaves both his bullet and the fabled bible in the dust, signifying perhaps, that he’s done his duty to both God and Country and that Family (which had always been third on his list of priorities) might finally get a somewhat higher billing. But I had to wonder, given that his Bible becomes a sort of talisman, whether or not its loss is the first cinematic “hint” at Kyle’s tragic death. Regardless, it struck me that the film version of Kyle and the Richard of RCL are indelibly tied to and defined by their faith, and are imbued with near impossible amounts of strength and charisma. 

In the film, Kyle’s identity as a Christian —and as an unapologetically martial Christian at that— is also made clear in his decision to have a crusader cross tattooed on his arm. The actual Kyle did so as well, and he describes his motivations behind it in his autobiography:
On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I'd been fighting. I always will. They've taken so much from me. (American Sniper, Kindle edition)
In the film, no such explanation for the choice of tattoo is provided by Kyle or anyone else, and I noticed that the film makes this kind of move repeatedly – offering up clearly controversial/polarizing aspects of Kyle, his life, and his story (whether fictional or actual) and refusing to provide any kind of clear interpretation of them. Now, I’m not saying that a film necessarily needs to do so, or that it even should, but I do think that this refusal to explain (which happens on multiple occasions) points, at least in part, to why the film is so divisive. It is incredibly easy to come to wildly different conclusions about the implications of, say, this crusader cross tattoo (i.e. is the film saying it’s praiseworthy? Worthy of critique? Is it even aware of its implications?), when you aren’t getting clear clues from the film about its intentions in emphasizing it. 

This same problem crops up in the representation of the Iraqis in the film. Both the insurgents and the civilians are repeatedly referred to as “savages,” a term that Kyle himself uses regularly in his book. Interestingly, Kyle never uses that term in the film – it’s a term uttered only by those around him. I found this curious, because it seemed to suggest 
a)    that the creators of the film knew that having Kyle refer to them as such would risk problematizing him 
b)   they still felt a need to emphasize – and depict – Iraqi “savagery” (however hyperbolized/fictionalized). 
This is another instance, then, where the creators of the film elide history for the sake of the narrative they’re trying to construct. Kyle, based on the first few pages of his book alone, makes it clear that he views any and all of his enemies as savages, and he is unwilling/unable to see them any other way. Consider this excerpt from the prologue to his book, entitled "Evil in the Crosshairs," where he describes the female insurgent he shoots and kills:
It was clear that not only did she want to kill them, but she didn't care about anybody else nearby who would have been blown up by the grenade or killed in the firefight. Children on the street, people in the houses, maybe her child . . .  She was too blinded by evil to consider them.
My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were worth clearly more than that woman's twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day. 
 Savage, despicable evil. That's what we're fighting in Iraq. That's why a lot of people, myself included, call the enemy "savages." There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there. (American Sniper, Kindle edition).
Here, it's a bit difficult to tell whether Kyle sees the people as inherently evil, or whether he is trying to class only their actions as evil. What is clear, however, is that Kyle has created a stark hierarchy where Iraqis are "lesser" and, in the vast majority of cases, eventually outed as savages who need to be killed. He elaborates somewhat on this perspective in a later section of the book, entitled "Evil":
I had never known that much about Islam. Raised as a Christian, obviously I knew there had been religious conflicts for centuries. I knew about the Crusades, and I knew that there had been fighting and atrocities forever.
But I also knew that Christianity had evolved from the Middle Ages. We don't kill people because they're a different religion.
The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam's army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren't Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we'd just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did. 
Isn't religion supposed to teach tolerance?  (American Sniper, Kindle edition)
Here, then, Chris Kyle attempts to distance himself from the idea of holy war, implying that he and his fellow Christians have "evolved" while his Muslim enemies are still stuck in the Middle Ages. And this move is certainly a bit of a head-scratcher given his red-cross tattoo which, as he said in the quote above, he got so that everyone would know him to be a Christian. I was reminded, as I read these wildly conflicting passages, of Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes" ("Song of Myself," 51). As those lines suggest so well, our identities are rarely stable and coherent, and part of what struck me so much about Kyle's autobiography is its authenticity in that regard — how very clearly you can see him trying to make sense of himself and his ideals and not always succeeding in that endeavor.

The film, however, tries to solve that "problem" by erasing any of these inconsistencies and, in the process, any aspect of Kyle that might seem distasteful. He rarely uses the word "evil" (I can only recall a single instance), and -- as I mentioned previously -- he never refers to the Iraqi insurgents as "savages." The film keeps him from using that problematic language while still trying to ensure that an audience becomes comfortable with its usage, and it does so by resorting to gross stereotypes. Medieval crusades romances do so with aplomb as well. Take, for instance, Sir Isumbras (the text I just can’t quit, no matter how hard I try!); the Saracens in that text are always, already villainous, guaranteed – even when they seem peaceable – to betray and/or malign and/or threaten the Christian heroes. The Sultan captures Isumbras’ wife and brutalizes Isumbras, and the Saracens over whom Isumbras eventually rules predictably betray him almost as soon as he comes to power, which requires their complete annihilation. American Sniper seems to proffer the same kind of message. Consider, for instance, the scene where they find guns in the house of the Iraqi family with whom they’re eating dinner. Consider, for instance, the (completely fictional) scene where they find guns in the house of the Iraqi family with whom they’re eating dinner. It starts off promisingly enough, with the family and the U.S. soldiers sharing a meal, conversing, etc. But Kyle eventually grows suspicious because of a bruise on his host’s elbow (?!?!?!) and eventually uncovers a weapons stash, which proves that the family supported the insurgents all along. To be clear, I am by NO means saying that this scenario isn’t believable or that similar ones never happened or could not have happened throughout the course of the war. But the fact that the scene in the film is fictional means that it was created to serve a point, namely that Iraqis (like the Saracens of crusades romances) can never be trusted, nor can they change. And like the Saracen, if they prove intractable they have to be destroyed. And that is exactly what happens to virtually all of the Iraqis we see on the screen in the film. We are given no other perspective. Now, some -- Jason Hall included -- have argued/suggested that we only see the Iraqis in the film this way because, as a film about one man’s experiences and perspectives on the war, to do anything else would be inauthentic. The thing is, though, the film is ALREADY wildly inauthentic, which makes it hard to legitimize that kind of stance. 

To make matters worse, the film seems to suggest (deliberately or indeliberately) that harboring any kind of ambivalence, uncertainty, or critical thoughts about the war is wrong and will at best make you weak and at worst get you killed. This worldview is established early on in the film, with Kyle’s father explaining that the world is made up of wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs (who must protect the sheep given their inability to believe that evil – i.e. wolves – exist). And it comes full circle with Kyle criticizing a dead comrade-in-arms for his criticism of the war. Marc Lee had written a letter shortly before his death warning against the dangers of glory and how it can lead one to launch an “ill-advised crusade.” In the film, the letter is read by Lee's mother at his funeral. But rather than allowing this to lead to a reflection/commentary on the war, the ensuing scene involves a conversation between Kyle and his wife Taya, in which he explains that the ideas in that letter are what killed his friend — that the letter “killed him and he paid the price for it.” As Courtney Duckworth points out in her Slate article, this is one instance when the actual Chris Kyle comes out looking more compassionate (in his autobiography, he has nothing but kind things to say about Lee and his letter, which does not seem to have contained any of the aforementioned criticism). And were it not for the fact that this conversation between Kyle and Taya seems obviously fabricated, I could believe the arguments that it’s attempting to achieve some measure of authenticity in its depiction of Kyle and his worldview. But since the scene is a fiction – like the aforementioned scenes with The Butcher and the Iraqi family – it seems instead to be crafted aspects of a "morality tale" (as Duckworth calls the film) that lionizes a black-and-white view of the world.

One of the tragedies of this film, then, is the very likely possibility that neither Clint Eastwood nor Jason Hall intended to create an anti-nuance morality tale in the first place. Eastwood himself has been open about his criticism of the Iraq war (however garbled/incoherent), and I believe Cooper when he’s spoken about his hope that the film would draw attention to the plight of vets in America. The film, however, did not need to strip away the complexities of the Iraq war and/or systematically open up opportunities for critical reflection only to shut them down in order to tell that kind of story. But by fabricating so many scenes pivotal to the narrative arc of American Sniper, those involved in the process created (however intentionally/unintentionally) a film that, at best, presents a wildly inaccurate account of Kyle’s experiences as a SEAL and at worst, promulgates a tragically simplistic ideology by failing to fully interrogate its limitations on screen. 

For these reasons, I am all but set on drawing American Sniper into the conclusion of my book. I certainly plan to teach it alongside Richard Coer de Lion and other crusades romances whenever I have the opportunity. Because, given all of the problems I’ve outlined above, it is alarming indeed to realize that these kinds of stories continue to be so enduringly popular.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Report from The Word Hoard*: Getting To Work on THE BOOK

I've begun working in earnest on my book project, and as I mentioned on Facebook the other day, I've found myself fighting the paralysis that comes with lots of unstructured time, much like Mitchell in Modern Family who, once he quits his job, remarks -- while nearly hyperventilating -- that he "feels the weight of endless possibilities just sitting on [his] chest." Finding the time and resources to do this kind of work has been an immense challenge since I graduated and Rochester back in 2012, and I find myself inordinately grateful to finally have the institutional support and the time to finally make some headway. All the same, the task is a daunting one, especially since -- much like the dissertation writing itself -- it's a large and complex endeavor for which I have little context. Given the precariousness of my future in academia though -- especially given the dismal market and the fact that I have, at most, two and a half years left in my current postdoctoral position -- 2015 really does need to be The Year of the Book.

To generate some momentum, I decided to start revising the first chapter of the dissertation. It is, in certain ways, the most cohesive of the four— the most "book-like" — and my sensing was that by getting this one into shape first, I'll be able to do the hard work (i.e splitting my behemoth fourth chapter in two!) with more confidence and enthusiasm.

Happily, that strategy seems to have worked out so far. I just finished overhauling the chapter a couple days ago and, as I quipped on Twitter, tended -- at least on most occasions -- to find the process more energizing than agonizing:

Maintaining a sense of humor is key, I think. And I've also found that the time I've spent away from the dissertation has made it a lot easier to be ruthless in the editing and revision process. Definitely a "physician, heal thyself" experience, considering how much I stress the value of such distance to my students on a near daily basis! At the same time, I'm trying mix in some kindness with all the ruthlessness. Again, I know all too well the importance of honest, but humane, feedback from all of my teaching, and so -- in opposition to my subliminal, but incessant worry that being too kind to myself will result in my turning into some sort of hopeless slacker (my head is SUCH a fun place to be sometimes, I know) -- I'm trying to see how things go when I write comments to myself that are as humane as the ones I always try to write to my students. And you know? It really made the past couple of weeks a lot more energizing and -- dare I say it? -- fun. 

As with the dissertation itself, I've avoided the temptation to start with the introduction. Surprisingly, and despite my penchant for discursive and non-linear thinking (not to mention procrastinating, but that's another post entirely . . . ), I've always tended to write in a very linear way. The process of finishing the dissertation, however, really showed me the value of waiting to introduce your material until, well, you've actually gotten to know what you're introducing. And so, while I did read over my original introduction before rolling up my sleeves and getting to work on Chapter 1, I'm letting it be for now.

I am, however, keeping an eye out -- both as I do the hard editing work and as read secondary scholarship with which the book needs to engage -- for things I might want to include. And the other day, perhaps because of the lingering Christmas season, I found myself remembering Carl Sandburg's "Star-Silver." In particular, what I kept coming back to is that repeated question in the poem: "Why does this story never wear out?" I remembered, in the end, that if my book is trying to do anything, it's trying to answer that very question. Why are these fantasies of crusades-that-can-never-be so popular in the late Middle Ages? What lies behind their pervasiveness? And what does it say about us that similar narratives continue to enjoy popularity even today?  Certainly something to tuck away for (potential) future use and to keep in mind as I try to ensure that each chapter "speaks" to the others in direct enough ways. 

For now though, I'm finishing up the revisions on my Mongol article and, starting next week, will likely begin the process of tackling my much-more-difficult Richard Coer de Lion chapter. Onwards! 

*The affectionate name I've given to my office/lair/hobbit-hole. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Musings on Eyrbyggja saga

As promised in my last blog post, I've decided to post brief reflections after I finish reading a given saga. I was midway through Eyrbyggja saga when I started this particular reading challenge, and I finished it right before the quarter started at Stanford. I had every intention to write about it immediately, but the past six weeks have been a blur (however innervating), and my saga reading and blogging have taken a bit of a nose-dive in the process. With the start of National Academic Writing Month (or #AcWriMo), however, I've vowed to publish at least three times here at In Romaunce (in addition to tying the bow on a couple of projects). And so, without further ado, I'll offer up a few speculative musings on this particular saga.

It's rapidly become a favorite of mine for a few reasons:

1) It's packed to the gills with vengeful draugr. Thorolf Lame-foot, for instance, haunts the hills around Hvamm, causing -- among other things -- cows to "moo" themselves to death. He kills so many livestock (and people, but the text spends far more time describing the cows) that his son Arnkel has him reinterred at a place eventually dubbed Lame-foot hill, and said son builds a wall around the cairn so high that only birds can fly over it. The narrator tells us, at this point, that he rests in peace for the rest of Arnkel's life.

2) It includes perhaps the greatest scatological kenning in the history of kennings: álfrek, which means "elf-frighteners."

3) It includes a seal revenant. And yes. You did read that correctly. The episode is so spectacularly odd that I feel absolutely compelled to share it with you here:
During the winter just before Yule, Thorodd the farmer went out to Nes to fetch his dried fish. There were six men altogether in the ten-oared boat, and they spent the night out there. The same night that Thorodd had left, when the people at Froda came up to the fireside that evening, they saw a seal's head coming up out of the fireplace. One of the servants saw it first when she came in. She took a club that was inside the doorway and struck the seal on the head. But the seal rose up with the blow and reared up towards Thorgunna's bed-curtains. Then one of Thorodd's men went up and started beating the seal, but with every blow it rose up further until its flippers appeared, and then the man fell down unconscious. Everyone else who was present became very frightened.
     Then the boy Kjartan rushed forward and lifted up an iron sledgehammer and brought it down on the seal's head. It was a tremendous blow, but the seal just shook its head and looked around. Kjartan kept going, with blow after blow, and the seal went back down as if he were driving a nail. He kept beating until the seal went so far down that he hammered the floor over its head. And so it went on throughout the winter, with all the revenants fearing Kjartan the most. (Chapter 53). 
4) The fact that everyone (seriously, EVERYONE) is named after Thor. This is fascinating given that the saga begins with Thorolf Moster-beard relocating from Norway to Iceland and, once he settles on the Snaefellsness peninsula, rebuilds the temple to Thor (which he had overseen in his homeland) on Helgafell. This description of a pagan temple is a rarity in Old Norse literature, and the frequency with which Thor is evoked in this saga (mainly through nomenclature) certainly indicates his sustained popularity among this particular group of settlers. But it also makes it damned near impossible to keep everyone straight. Case in point:
He married Astrid, who was the daughter of Hrolf the hersir and the sister of Steinold the Short, and they had three children. Their son was Thorgrim the Godi and their daughter Gerd was married to Thormod the Godi, the son of Odd the Bold . . . . In his old age, Thorolf Moster-beard married a woman named Unn. Some people say she was the daughter of Thorstein the Red, but Ari Thorgilsson the Learned does not count her among his children. Thorolf and Unn had a son named Stein, whom Thorolf dedicated to his friend Thor, calling him Thorstein. The boy matured very quickly. Hallstein Thorolfsson married Osk, the daughter of Thorstein the Red. Their son was also named Thorstein, and he was fostered by Thorolf. Thorolf called him Thorstein Surt (Black) and his own son Thorstein Cod-biter. . . . (Chapter 7)
I rest my case.

5) The tendency of the characters to burst in to magnificently gory skaldic verse. Case in point:
I had to defend myself
against the valkyrie's derision:
the dart-of-wounds was driven,
and the raven delighted in gore.
When the sword of my father's son
rang against helmets in the field,
gashes spurted blood
and wound-streams ran. (Chapter 19.8)
Every time I read a saga, a not-so-small part of me wishes I lived in a world where bursting into opaquely metaphorical poetry was a perfectly normal way of expressing oneself.

All mirth and snark aside,  I plan to keep musing and writing on these aspects in the weeks and months ahead. This saga has, for instance, inspired a deep fascination with the way in which draugr function in Old Icelandic sagas, and once I surface from my current deluge of projects, I vow to do some research to figure out what fellow scholars have said about them. I have a feeling someone has to have done work in this area already, but I was particularly struck by how a draugr's presence seems to parallel/mirror the bloody conflicts that permeate a good deal of the saga's narrative action.

For now though, I want to spend a bit of time musing on the way in which ice functions in the text.
As I read the saga, I found myself fascinated by the persistent presence of ice in the saga, and the role it seems to play in anticipating, facilitating, and ultimately halting, the violence and feuding at the heart of this particular story.

The first significant reference to ice occurs in Chapter 40. Thorodd and Thorgrima Magic-Cheek attempt to thwart Bjorn's affair with Froda because Thorodd fears the dangers of Bjorn's continued association with her:
. . . but when he left to go home that evenings, the sky was overcast and it had started to rain, and he was rather late getting going. By the time he came up to the heath, the weather had turned very cold and there were snowdrifts. It was so dark that he could not see the path in front of him. After that a blizzard blew up with so much force that he could hardly stand up. His clothes, which were soaked through, began to freeze, and he had completely lost his bearings and did not know which way he was going. He came upon a cave jutting out of the land, and went into it to shelter for the night, but it was a cold campsite. (146)
Bjorn spends three miserable days in the cave — even composing an angsty poem about his experience — and decides to spend the rest of the winter at home after the storm abates. By implication then, Thorodd successfully halts Bjorn's pursuit of Thurid (at least for a time), one that would have easily led to feuding had it continued.

Another vivid description of ice occurs in Chapter 45, where a pivotal battle between Steinthor and his men and the Thorbrandssons occur Hofstadir bay, which had frozen over:
Hofstadir bay was completely frozen over right out to Bakki the Greater, so they walked across the ice and on over the isthmus to Vigrafjord, which was also entirely iced over. In that fjord the water ebbed all the way out until it was dry, so that the ice rested on mud at low-tide, and the rocks in the fjord jutted up out of the ice, which was broken up around them. There were a lot of uneven ice floes past the rocks, and powdery snow had fallen over the ice, making it very slippery. (Chapter 45)
The battle that ensues is brutal to say the least, and the narrator describes in detail how the iced-over bay makes for an environment by turns ideal and treacherous. Ice-sheets pushed up near a large rock make for good cover, for instance, but the ice's slipperiness makes for a difficult and slower battle. Interestingly, this battle serves as a follow-up to a major skirmish at Alftafjord. After this battle on the ice, the wounds and deaths from both sides are tallied up and -- given the roughly equal number of wounds and deaths on each side -- a settlement is reached that lasts for as long as Steinthor and Snorri the Godi live. This battle on the ice, by implication, ultimately allows for a crucial truce to occur.  Ice, then, acts in a strange way as an agent of circuitous/indirect peace-making.

Ice plays a final, significant role in Chapter 61, where another frozen bay forces Snorri to hold off on retaliating against Ospak (a marauding Norseman) and his band. But while it prevents Snorri from waging open war, it doesn't prevent him from summoning a supernatural ally, Thrand. Described as a former heathen and shape-shifter, Thrand makes his way through the snowy and icy terrain at a preternaturally fast pace once he receives Snorri's summons, and he proves a pivotal member of the band that eventually defeats Ospak and his men. In this passage, then, treacherous and icy landscapes force Snorri into the role of strategist rather than retaliator, and the waiting Snorri has to do seems to contribute rather directly to his victory.

Moving forward, I'm curious to see how ice and snow are represented in other sagas. The vividness of these rimy landscapes struck me unusual, because the sagas (at least in my current understanding) tend to leave a surprising amount unsaid when it comes to describing the landscapes in which these narratives occur. There's nary a mention of a volcano, for instance, and references to glaciers seem to be relatively few and far between as well. Like the draugr that populate the narrative, these landscapes -- when they are described in any detail -- seem to offer up some kind of tacit commentary on the feuding that takes place upon them. The kind of ice described, after all, is impermanent and seasonal, and so too, the saga narrator implies, are the resolutions and truces that are made in the snow or on the ice. Perhaps the harsh, hibernal setting emphasizes this point (one that the saga makes again and again) — and this possibility leaves me wondering how other saga landscapes might be made to reflect and anticipate the events that take place upon them. On a related note, I'm likewise intrigued by the frequency with which violent encounters take place on or around Yule in this saga (yet another thing to research and explore further), and I wonder whether the linkage is unique to this saga or whether it's part of a broader tradition (and, if it is, what that might signify/suggest). Certainly things to keep investigating in the weeks and months ahead!

Next up on the reading list: Gísla saga and Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, given that both occur on or near to the Snaefellsness Peninsula as well.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A year (and a half) of saga reading begins . . . NOW.

My parents (who know me so very, very well) recently sent this incredibly thoughtful and generous gift to me for my birthday: 

Since traveling to Iceland in 2006, I've acquired an ever-increasing interest in the country and its literature. I have vivid memories of wandering around the Culture House during that initial visit, marveling over the stunning manuscripts on display and by the fact that modern Icelandic is in many ways merely an upgraded version of the language in which the sagas were written (I was told, at the time, that there exists a greater difference between Shakespearean English and modern English -- quite remarkable, given the centuries that lie between the composition of these sagas and today). And when I visited Iceland again in 2009 (the Snaefellsness peninsula in particular), I was struck by the way in which the sagas are evoked. It seemed that everywhere I looked, I found placards retelling or quoting passages from sagas that took place in those particular areas. I don't know when I've seen a nation's literature etched so lovingly into its terrain. 

I've read several sagas over the years, but have always found myself amazed by their vast quantity and the sheer number of them I have yet to explore. I've also become increasingly drawn to the sagas of Icelanders specifically because of my burgeoning interest in world-building; as I mentioned a while back, I had the immense privilege of organizing a roundtable on medieval world-building as one of BABEL's sessions at this past Kalamazoo. To my delight, the session was very well-received, and I am now in the process of assembling a special volume on the topic for postmedieval (due out in early 2018). As the editor of the volume, I'll be writing a general introduction, and I'm leaning towards using the Icelandic sagas as a starting point. Because, as the editors of this collection point out:
. . . the world of the sagas and the tales is a unified whole in several senses. They belong to the same geographical setting and tell of a particular period in history. They also share a recognizable narrative technique, although individual sagas often differ sharply in style and content. Each saga highlights various aspects of this common world and presents it from an individual perspective. (1.xv)
Needless to say, I'm especially eager to explore more of the Icelandic sagas in light of this project. I want to see firsthand how world-building occurs in these narratives and how the aforementioned consistency can be born out of the work of numerous (almost entirely anonymous) authors and copyists. I was, as a result, beyond thrilled to receive this gift. It feels like it weighs a good ten pounds more than my daughter, and it contains all of the sagas that focus predominately on Icelanders. When I opened the gift and promptly called my parents to thank them, I learned that my dad had also purchased a copy for himself; we all traveled to Iceland together so that they could do some sight-seeing and also help out and visit with their grandbaby while I attended the NCS conference, and my dad and I had an array of wonderful conversations about medieval Iceland and saga literature while there.

So, upon learning that he has a copy of his own, I issued the following challenge: that we would read the collection in its entirety by Christmas 2015. He enthusiastically accepted the challenge, so the game is on! 

All of which is to say that you, oh intrepid readers, will be hearing a lot about medieval Iceland between now and December of next year. My plan, at least as it stands right now, is to write at least a brief entry on each saga as I finish them. Currently up: Eyrbyggja saga, which includes tales of cow-killing revenants, witches, and "elf-frighteners." More on all of that later!