Medieval literature should not be written off at UH
Too few people in the English department are well-versed in literature that has dragons, magic, family feuds, violent wars and romantic drama.
While the focus on modern and contemporary literature is wonderful, not every student is interested. But there are not enough professors who teach medieval literature — with a focus on medieval Norse and Celtic literature — on campus.
Despite the naysayers who think contemporary literature that deals with social issues is the only legitimate form of literature, the medieval literature class is always full and often has a waiting list. Most other classes that deal with “literary” issues don’t fill up all the way unless it’s a required course.
One of the reasons for this phenomenon is due to the popularity of fantasy literature, a genre that often gets its settings from pseudo-medieval traditions. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling borrow heavily from medieval literature.
If the English department offered more medieval literature classes and advertised to students outside of English, I bet that these classes will popularize the English major.
Another reason to offer courses in medieval Norse and Celtic literature is to revamp and expose readers to often ignored stories that never get covered in The Human Situation or any general Western literature course.
Virtually everyone knows Hercules, Achilles, King Arthur and Beowulf. But can anyone tell the story of Cúchulainn (pronounced like “koo-hoo-lin”), Finn MacCumhail or Sigurd? Who can name these pagan heroes and their gods?
These epics and sagas have largely been untapped in their potential to inspire and teach students about cultures besides Greeks and Romans. It will enrich and diversify the literature courses offered in the English department.
Our recently retired medievalist, John McNamara, offered such courses. I had the great opportunity to take his yearlong graduate seminar in Old English language and literature. The second-half of the seminar focused on translating “Beowulf” and learning the various methods of translation.
In the past, he offered courses in Old Norse and Early Irish literature. He also ran an Old Norse translation club. It is because of him that I found “The Táin,” an epic about the amazing hero Cúchulainn, and it inspired me to learn about my background.
Our current medievalist, Lorraine Stock, takes a fascinating approach to medieval studies. She takes texts of heroes such as King Arthur, Beowulf or Robin Hood and then compare them to their film adaptations.
Stock gets students to think about cultural adaptation and how heroes change over time throughout culture. This course showed me the joy of reading and studying medieval culture and it has influenced my thinking ever since.
Contemporary literature has its place, but if that’s all we focus on we will lose these great heroes and the voices of our ancestors. If we are to truly be a “diverse” campus, we need to offer these medieval literature courses for those who wish to study their cultural heritage.
Travis Kane is an English literature senior and can be reached at [email protected]