The Massachusetts Medievalist does a little pleaching to end the summer

This past weekend the Massachusetts Medievalist headed west to the Berkshires, where I learned an entirely new word (and did a number of other things, btw). Pleach: interlace, plait (Merriam-Webster). Etymology is from medieval French / Anglo-Norman.

“Pleach” came up during the garden tour at Edith Wharton’s stunning home The Mount, which was built in the first decade and restored in the last decade of the twentieth century (although the restoration is still somewhat ongoing). Here’s a shot of Wharton’s study, which she called her “boudoir,” a term I feel it would be best not to adopt in general discourse (as in, “come to my boudoir after class so we can talk about that some more”):

Edith Wharton's study

Our tour guide in the garden was spectacularly knowledgeable about everything: Wharton’s house, her life, her garden, her literary works, and her Pulitzer prize (1921 for Age of Innocence, in case you were wondering). He told us that some of the rows of trees in the main part of the garden (which looked like basic box hedges to my untrained eye, albeit hedges with trunks) were “pleached” to create the look of a box hedge on stilts. This image from The Mount’s website shows these pleached trees as a background to the French garden:

Image of Wharton's garden with pleached trees

The marvelous Oxford English Dictionary tells me that “pleach” can be both a noun and verb, although it’s been a verb for about 300 years longer—first recorded use in English c.1398 (by my man John Trevisa, whom most medievalists know as the Middle English translator of Higden’s Polychronicon). As a noun, its use is almost exclusively horticultural (“interlacing, intertwining…of tree boughs to form a lattice or hedge”), but as a verb it can provide a more metaphorical usage, with examples of pleached hair or even a pleached roof.

I’m more interested in the metaphorical use of this word, as I don’t plan on entwining any tree branches to form a hedge any time soon, but the idea of weaving together previously or seemingly separate items is enormously appealing right now. Perhaps we should start discussing pleached families or pleached communities, pleached musical genres and pleached child care solutions.

Please use the word “pleach” in casual conversation in the next week or so –

The Massachusetts Medievalist rhapsodizes about eagles and Joy Harjo, our new poet laureate

The Massachusetts Medievalist has been engaged in some restorative relaxation this past month or so, reading a lot of non-medieval-studies books and visiting a local eagle nest most days to check on the growing, demanding, almost-flying chicks (yes, we have two this year!).

So I was especially pleased to hear the important news that Joy Harjo will take over this fall as the newly-appointed Poet Laureate. Harjo is notable as the first Native American to hold the post; she is also intimidatingly, wonderfully multi-talented as a poet, memoirist, musician, and children’s book author.  I started with her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave, and then spent the bulk of my Fourth of July with How We Became Human, her 2004 collection of new and selected poems.  Throughout both, I was struck by the ways she blends genre smoothly and elegantly, forcing her readers to question our very categories of poetry, prose, fiction, or memoir.  Crazy Brave includes dream visions and poetry and mythologically-infused narratives as well as more straightforward prose – in this blending of genres, I was reminded of numerous medieval texts that similarly defy attempts to place them on an “appropriate” shelf in the library. The Library of Congress catalog numbering system is no match for human creativity (irony, considering that it’s the Librarian of Congress who names the Poet Laureate).

Cover of Crazy Brave

I hadn’t consciously planned to read our first Native American poet laureate on the Fourth of July, but when I sat down in the shade on the almost-too-hot summer Massachusetts afternoon, I realized it was the perfect way to deal with all the anger and frustration I’ve been feeling about the state of our nation. Like Crazy Brave, How We Became Human is a genre-bender, with prose poems, short lyrics, prayers, and episodic narratives.  Harjo’s voice consistently places her and her readers in her Creek worldview – spirits are real; time collapses in ancestral connections; stars and trees and animals are personified beings, living characters in her lyrics.  Numerous allusions to other poets and traditions pepper her songs; one of my favorites was her whispered homage to Adrienne Rich in “The Book of Myths”:

I did not imagine the fiery goddess in the middle of the island.
She is a sweet trick of flame,
had everyone dancing, laughing, and telling the stories
that unglue the talking spirit from the pages. (HWBH, 83)

The poem that spoke to me the most, in this my summer of two eagle chicks, was obviously “Eagle Poem,” part poem, part prayer, in which she celebrates an eagle that “Circled in blue sky / In Wind, swept our hearts clean / With Sacred Wings” (85).

I eagerly await Joy Harjo’s tenure as Poet Laureate.

Cover, How We Became Human

The Massachusetts Medievalist on medieval authorship (with reference to Anne Spear and the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium)

Last month, the Massachusetts Medievalist traveled to the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium, which featured blooming spring flowers and engaging conversations about the Middle Ages.  My role was to act as respondent to two fine papers in a session on Medieval Gender and Medieval Form; I want to focus here on my response to the second paper, Anne Spear’s “Anchoritic Affect: Gender and Form in þe wohunge of ure lauerd,” which won the conference’s award for best graduate student paper. (The wohunge appears only in British Library MS Cotton Titus D.18; open-access Middle English text here; unfortunately, it seems like there are no open-access Modern English translations, although I recommend Catherine Innes-Parker’s excellent 2015 edition and translation from Broadview.)

Spear’s paper made me think about our modern ideas about medieval authors, and about how we need to reconfigure those ideas, especially regarding anonymous texts that were made explicitly for women users. Herewith a version of part of my response to her work:

At Sewanee, Anne’s conclusions focused on how the Wohunge is ultimately “reflective of female experience” and she nuanced the distinction between what she termed the male author and the female voice of the text. In this distinction, she followed current scholarly consensus about the prayer’s authorship, although the Wohunge‘s first editor (Thompson, 1958) suggested that the author was probably female. Innes-Parker has discussed various manuscript evidences that show that the texts in the Wooing Group circulated independently from one another; Innes-Parker suggests copies on single sheets or in small booklets that would have been easy to handle and quick to copy among and for other potential users.

It could be my lack of familiarity with the critical traditions around the Wohunge group, but I have not been able to find any incontrovertible evidence that the “author” of this text is one person who is a man, or even one person who is a woman. From Innes-Parker’s presentation of the textual traditions, and from Spear’s excellent analysis of the female voice articulating its passions and desires, I suggest that we need to complicate our idea of authorship, especially for a text that obviously has a much more complicated history of transmission than its sole surviving manuscript witness.  To take just the Wohunge as a single example —  allow me to propose a narrative like the following:

In the English West Midlands in the first half of the thirteenth century, an aristocratic, professed religious woman asks her priest/confessor/scribe to create a prayer booklet for her that will allow her to read and recite as prayer texts some of the ideas he and she have been discussing in their conversations about her religious devotions and practices.  He does so. When he first brings it to her, she reads it enthusiastically and then, the next week, asks him to make a fresh copy incorporating some changes and additions she would like to see. She especially wants the addition of “huniter,” “honey-drop,” since it reminds her of the beehives behind the house where she spent her childhood.

A month or so later, she asks him to copy those now-revised texts and send the small booklet to one of her female relatives, whose religious devotion is also well-known among their community and social networks. That woman is very pleased to receive this important gift, and before she asks her scribe/confessor/priest to copy the booklet as a gift for the local abbess, she asks him to expand the reference to the crown of thorns, since the local abbess is known to be especially devoted to the crown among the instruments of Christ’s passion. Perhaps she even specifically dictates the expanded lines to him –or, dare I suggest, to her?

Multiply similar exchanges numerous times both before and after Scribe B creates the text that we know from Cotton Titus D.18. Such a narrative conforms more closely to that of the “writers’ room” model that guides much of our modern television and film writing than to a default Romantic model of a single, implicitly male author individually creating an entire text.

Another potentially useful modern concept here is our culture’s current wrestling with the implications of open access and creative commons publishing. A number of media scholars have thought about the implications of medieval literary cultures as pre-copyright, of course, especially when the primary goal of most manuscript copying was adherence to rather than expansion of the original primary text. I wonder if the Wohunge group as well was something of an open-access group effort, only one stage of which is represented in Titus D.18.

Ultimately, we need to question more radically the idea of presumed individual male authorship of a fixed, unchanging text of the Wohunge, thus understanding the text we have of the Wohunge prayer as a text composed, revised, re-written, and tweaked by a variety of authors and users along its way to the form we have. This process would then function as a useful model in further analysis of this female-voiced text and indeed in the many anonymous texts that form the bulk of extant medieval literature.

The Massachusetts Medievalist reviews Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc

Between watching the crocuses bloom and the robins feast, the Massachusetts Medievalist this past weekend spent some time with my colleague David Elliott’s brilliant and disturbing new book, Voices: the final hours of Joan of Arc.

Ostensibly a YA verse-novel, Voices is genre-defying.  It is indeed all poetry, but it’s not a novel (although it provides a narrative), it’s not a biography (although it relates the crucial events in the life of the historical woman we call Joan of Arc), and it’s not even really “YA” (whatever that amorphous term means).  Elliott has made a space to experiment with a variety of voices as he explores the life of Joan of Arc, probably the most recognizable medieval woman in our contemporary pop culture.

For those who need a refresher: Joan was a teenage peasant girl who followed the instructions she heard in her head from Saints Catherine, Michael, and Margaret to wear men’s clothes and lead the French king to victories in battle during the conflict known as the Hundred Years War. She was captured by the English in 1430, tried as a heretic, and then burned at the stake in 1431.

Cover image of Elliott's Voices

Elliott has given voice to a number of the inanimate objects that figure in Joan’s narrative: we hear the thoughts of the armor she wore, the church altar she prayed before, the sword she used, even the crossbow that wounded her in battle when she was captured.  As she stands bound to the stake of execution, Joan herself speaks her own narrative –  while the fire grows around her, she tells and reflects on her own story. The fire itself speaks as well, the most frequent narrator after Joan.

Elliott’s accomplishment here – and that of the editor and type-designer who supported him – is remarkable on a number of levels. Other than Joan, the characters and voices speak using late medieval poetic forms like the triolet or the rondeau (helpfully listed in the author’s note at the end of the text), forms that Joan and her communities would have known. Some of these poems are also presented as shape-poems: the sword’s episode is presented on the page in the shape of a sword, for example. Joan herself speaks in what Elliott calls “a kind of toned-down spoken word,” with varied line lengths, internal rhymes, and startling, individualized imagery and diction. Direct quotations (in Modern English, not French!) from the Joan trial transcripts are scattered throughout the text.  I can only imagine the consternation at the Houghton Mifflin marketing department: you want us to sell WHAT?

And yet it works. By the end, we know Joan, her thoughts, her dreams, her beliefs, and we dread the fire and the ending even as we know it is inevitable. While I’d recommend Voices to anyone, I especially want my colleagues in medieval studies to read it, to see the ways that contemporary authors continue to reshape the texts of the Middle Ages in exciting and provocative ways.

To whet that appetite, some lines spoken by Joan’s war horse (part of a rondel):

Many a knight had been cowed and outdone
by my spirit, left broken, unseated, unmade.
But she understood. Unbridled blood runs
molten and wild, unrestrained, unsurveyed.

And she was like me and so we were one.


And coda: my colleague Anthony Apesos has made a series of paintings loosely based on the Tarot deck, thematically appropriate in a week where I helped the sophomores struggle through T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  See his unsettling and beautiful “deck” here as well as his kickstarter page, where he explains the “suits” in his deck and some of his thinking behind the images. Enjoy!

For Henry D. B. F., born March 2019

In which the Massachusetts Medievalist realizes it is easy to write poetry when one is basically plagiarizing (with apologies to William Shakespeare and the Chorus that begins Act IV of Henry V):

O now, who will behold
The tired father of this new-come babe
Walking from room to room, from chair to chair,
Let him cry, ‘Praise and glory on his head!’
For forth he goes and cradles all his child,
Bids him good twilight with a sheepish smile
And calls him small one, sweet, and little lamb.
Upon his tired face there is no note
How dread sleeplessness hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of noyance
Unto the weary and all-watched night,
But bleary looks and semblant attention
With cheerful singings and incoherence;
That his own wife, glor’ous yet spent as well,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
The baby’s glow, universal like the sun,
Ruddy softness doth give to each of them,
Welding their bond. Mother and father both
Adore, as may fierce nurturance define,
Their little touch of Harry in the night.


The Massachusetts Medievalist returns to the Old English Exodus (and the startling African woman at its end)

The Massachusetts Medievalist took advantage this week of some bonus time to return to the semi-stalled project on the African woman of the Old English Exodus (all my students are reading and writing but as of this moment I have no student work to read). I blogged about her last spring during my initial burst of activity on this project, and I now face a deadline, since I’m giving a paper about her at Kalamazoo in May.

I’m still wrestling with the end of the poem, where the afrisc meowle (“African woman”) appears during the Israelites’s celebration after their crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army in the same waters. She is “easily-found, on the ocean’s shore, gold-adorned” (þa wæs eðfynde Afrisc meowle, / on geofones staðe golde geweorðod , ll.580-581). In April, I stated that I thought she was the “only woman of color in the Old English poetic corpus.” Today, I’m sure that she’s the only African woman in the entire Old English corpus, both poetry and prose. I’m still not quite sure exactly why that’s important, but I know it is.

Sometime in the last few months, I stumbled upon the following wisdom from one of our Nobel laureates:

“Imaginary Africa was a cornucopia of imponderables that, like the monstrous Grendel in Beowulf, resisted explanation” Toni Morrison, Origin of Others (104).

Morrison’s latest essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, also includes a version of this sentence (as well as, separately, a full essay about Grendel and his mother). I’m interested here in her point that “Imaginary Africa….resisted explanation” — voicing for me the way the afrisc meowle has resisted the patristic explanations imposed upon her by critics in the last 50 years, as I discussed in April. I’ve also discovered that a number of early editors wanted to eliminate her entirely, emending the very clear text in the manuscript to remove her disturbing presence that “resists explanation” by changing afrisc to [h]ebrisc or meowle to neowle (or both).

Thanks to limited but free access for individuals to the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, I was able to find myriad references to journeys in Africa londe, a reference to a probably fictional author named Africanus, and a mention of a general’s victory ofer þa Africanas in Carthage, but no other women, no other individuals, described as African. So the afrisc meowle is multiply-unusual: she appears in a poem, she is female, she is individually distinct. She is also gold-adorned, a not-unusual descriptor for high-status women in Old English poetry (think of Wealhtheow in Beowulf, passing the cup in the hall).

The two lines describing her do little more than break up the otherwise seamless narrative of the Israelites’ celebration on the shore of the Red Sea. Before the description of her, they sing victory songs; after it, they divide the treasure that has washed up after the destruction of the Egyptians.  There’s no narrative reason in the poem for her appearance, and there’s no Biblical reason either — the narrative from the Hebrew Bible moves from the songs of celebration to the departure from the shore, with no distribution of treasure and no haunting, disruptive reference to a gold-adorned African woman.

So more research has led simply to more questions: I stand by my earlier rejection of patristic “explanations” for her presence and need to think more — and more quickly!– about her increasingly unsettling, Othered presence at the end of the OE Exodus. I’m sure she will resist any explanation of her that I propose as well.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about ART’s Othello

The current production of Othello at the American Repertory Theater forces the audience to see the play’s importance to our cultural moment. Bill Rauch’s direction does not allow us to rationalize Othello as different – in another language, from another era, about other people. The show, originally created at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, shows us the misogyny and violence and racism in our own time, and the stunning acting ensures that we cannot look away.

I had the good fortune to see this Othello with Christina Tucker, a former student who is now a colleague and friend (check out @C_GraceT for her wisdom on theater, books, and all things pop culture).  As we thought out loud about the play during intermission and after the show, she noted that the setting was very specifically contemporary  to our moment– this is not some vaguely “modern” production with actors in chronologically ambiguous suits. Brabantio has a smart phone. Othello, Iago, Emilia, and Desdemona work out in a gym festooned with a bank of TV screens showing different cable channels. The military part of the cast wore authentic US Navy uniforms, complete with embroidered name tags (Othello is now an “admiral” rather than the “general” of the original text, btw). Part of the brilliance of the production is that it doesn’t seem odd at all that these very-2019 Americans are communicating in Early Modern English Poetry.

conversation between Othello and Iago set in a 21st-century gym
Chris Butler as Othello and Danforth Comins as Iago

As I walked through Cambridge in some thematically appropriate snow and sleet after the show, I was thinking about that contemporaneity, and specifically about Danforth Comins as Iago.  As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever fully answered the crucial question about this play: Why does Iago ruin all these lives? Various answers include his suspicion of his own cuckoldry; his anger at not being promoted; his racism; his enjoyment in his role of puppeteer; or his sexual desires for Desdemona, Othello, or Cassio.  And yes, all of these are factors, but Comins has provided an answer to that question unique to this production, this moment of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and our culture’s interrogations of structural racism and sexism.

In this Othello, Comins as Iago embodies patriarchy firmly planted in the 2019 United States. He is a walking, talking, fighting personification of an ingrained system of privileged power.  His entitlement as a handsome, articulate, powerful white man allows him to obey no boundaries other than his own desires and expectations. The most frightening part of his performance was not his murder of his wife (although a number of audience members gasped when he drove the knife into Emilia), but his soliloquies to the audience about his plots and his exultation at their unfolding.

When Iago spoke to us, the lights in the house went up a bit, weakening even more the separation between the actor and audience. One conventional critique of Iago is that these speeches make the audience complicit in his crimes; in this theater, the lighting design made that complicity painfully explicit.  Comins’s Iago as a personification of patriarchy thus answers that “why?” question, if only for this moment: Iago ruins all these lives because oppression and sexism and racism ruin lives, and we, his audience, are complict in that ruin.

#OthelloOSF plays at American Repertory Theater through 9 February 2019

The Massachusetts Medievalist roadtrips to Worcester Art Museum for Indian and Iranian manuscript art

The middle of Massachusetts can tend to get lost: Boston is an obvious destination for long-distance tourists and day-trippers, and western Massachusetts boasts various museums and performing arts venues, complemented by lots of lovely outdoor spaces. In the center of the state, Worcester Art Museum (WAM) is a relatively hidden gem in the revitalizing city of Worcester (soon to get its own minor league Red Sox team).  The museum beckons for a medievalist road trip to its “Preserved Pages” exhibit before it closes 6 January 2019.

WAM’s manageability is just one of the many reasons to love it, and like most of the galleries and exhibits, “Preserved Pages” occupies a relatively small space that is intellectually and emotionally accessible (as opposed to the somewhat overwhelming experiences of more gargantuan museums like the Met).  The items on display are all single-leaf illustrations that came from more substantial books or albums; they are divided into a number of sections (women at court, illustrations from the “Book of Kings”).

The medievalist in me gravitated to the earlier works, of course, although the exhibit as whole forces westerners to question the very periodization that divides “medieval” from “early modern.”

This watercolor from the early fourteenth century, Bahram Gur Hunting Onagers (wild ass), shows Chinese stylistic influence on Persian visual arts; it also depicts a universally recognized heroic king. I love the fur tails (lynx? gray leopard?) attached to the king’s hunting gear – and the museum has thoughtfully provided hand held magnifiers to allow visitors to study detail like the intricate patterns of the king’s robe and boots.

Watercolor of a king riding a horse, hunting herd animals

My favorite item in the exhibit, however, dates somewhat later: the c.1580 “Conversation between a man and a woman,” a watercolor from the Mughal period. The gold-flecked paper frame is exquisite, and the image itself finely detailed (thanks again to those magnifiers!).

A man and a woman gesturing and talking to each other in a gold-flecked frame

The figures sit in a beatifully enclosed architectural space. They look at and gesture to each other — the viewer becomes voyeur to this intimate and thoughtful moment. This conversation is peaceful and positive; the expressions on both faces are welcoming and empathetic.  The artist has shown us here the moment before the couple’s hands touch, as they are about to make physical the connection already established by their eyes and their faces.

WAM obtained many of these items through purchase in the first half of the twentieth century.  They are rarely on display, because of their fragile nature and also because of the highly specialized expertise needed to create an exhibit like this one (which is co-guest-curated by a Harvard graduate student in art history and a Harvard professor of Islamic art). WAM has provided a rare and important opportunity to see these intrinsically beautiful works that also productively disrupt Euro-centric notions of history and art. As I said: the exhibit closes 6 January.

The Massachusetts Medievalist on Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad

After a two-month hiatus in which the Massachusetts Medievalist recovered from the summer’s engagement with Homer, I’m back to the blog with some thoughts about Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Underground Railroad. Whitehead will speak at Lesley this coming Tuesday (7pm on 30 October in Washburn Auditorium). Note that I was very careful to cut any spoilers from what follows: read on with confidence whether or not you have read the novel.

Lesley University sponsored a symposium on The Underground Railroad last week, and I was thrilled to share the stage with Dr. Tatiana Cruz, who spoke on modern misconceptions and myths about the historical underground railroad, and with Dr. Clara Ronderos, who spoke about the novel’s connections to magical realism and the possibility of Whitehead having invented a new genre altogether, one we haven’t named yet.

I tried to point out connections between the novel and various literary traditions; even as Whitehead is doing something new, he’s also very aware of the ways he draws on texts and themes of the past. Many readers will see, and Whitehead has mentioned in interviews, his debts to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs), Beloved (Toni Morrison), Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift), 100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Cover image of the novel

More thematically, Whitehead uses the common trope of the Journey, which happens both physically and psychologically. Cora is literally journeying away from the Randall plantation towards freedom, but she also journeys toward a knowledge of herself and her own identity, towards an intellectual and emotional freedom as well as a physical freedom.

The feminist in me applauded Cora as a female protagonist on her journey to freedom — too often, the woman’s journey is a journey to heterosexual Love, as if the masculinist author can’t imagine a woman’s goal to be anything other than a man. Whitehead, the reader, and Cora herself know that she cannot even think about romantic love until she begins to have a sense of herself as a force in the world around her.

Whitehead also draws upon the motif of the missing mother, so common in fairy tales (and Disney movies). As the only slave to have escaped from the Randall plantation, Cora’s missing mother Mabel symbolizes a myriad of ideas to many different people throughout the novel.  To most of the remaining slaves, Mabel is a beacon of hope – all of the others who attempted escape were caught.  For Ridgeway, the diabolic slave catcher, Mabel represents anger and vengeance – she eluded him and he collected no reward. Cora herself feels resentment and hopelessness and loss towards Mabel; she wonders how her mother could have left her in slavery, could have abandoned her only child in hell. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the revelation about Mabel towards the end of the novel is incredibly emotional and exhausting and beautiful.

Finally, I’m wondering about one of the minor characters in the novel. Maybe it’s just because I have Homer on the brain because of last summer’s Odyssey odyssey, but I’m still very troubled about the minor character of Homer who haunts the end of the novel. Homer is a free black teenager who works for Ridgeway, the slave catcher. Each night before he goes to sleep he chains himself to Ridgeway’s wagon; each day, he helps Ridgeway to brutalize the enslaved men and women they capture. This character is unsettling in many ways, one of which is that he’s named after the poet who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two great originary epics of western civilization. If the opportunity presents itself, I plan to ask Whitehead about his Homer, and I’ll tweet or blog about his response.

The Massachusetts Medievalist on archetypal moments and problematic episodes (Odyssey, Books 21-24)

There are so many iconic literary moments at the end of The Odyssey that it’s hard to do more than simply touch on them (and inevitably leave some out). But here’s a starter list:

The bow that seems to know its true owner (just like “the wand knows the wizard”?)

The test of military skill with specific weapons (think Excalibur or Luke’s light-saber)

The choice to let the bard/poet live during the battle so he can sing immortal songs afterward (think about the various bards that appear during Beowulf)

The test of the bed that can’t be moved (with the special satisfaction of knowing that Odysseus, the wily hero, is now being tested himself by his perhaps equally wily wife)

Athena holding back the dawn so that Odysseus and Penelope can catch up a bit (we have all wanted this skill at some point, if not for this specific reason)

The imposition of peace from the gods to end the action (not technically a “deus ex machina” but pretty darn close)

Each of these moments defines a trope or archetype that is then repeated throughout narrative traditions — sometimes intentionally (think about the preparations for the fight between Hector and Achille in Walcott’s Omeros), sometimes unintentionally (think about the courtroom scene at the end of My Cousin Vinny). The parallels with the Ramayana‘s scene with the bow are so striking that they have led to much critical discussion about whether the original compositors of the Ramayana knew a form of the Odyssey.

But there are also some problems with the end of The Odyssey, all of which tie into Wilson’s description of Odysseus as a “complicated man.” Foremost is the issue of the slaughter of the slave girls in Book XXII – Odysseus orders Telemachus to murder them for their sexual infidelity to his house.  Numerous feminist critics have pointed out that these “maidservants” (see last week’s post for references to translation choices around these and other enslaved characters) had no choice in the matter, as female slaves were assumed to be sexually available to male guests.  Both Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller have provided fictional redress to this problem as part of their novels that re-tell (some of) the events of The Odyssey from the points of view of female characters. (Side note: fanfic is an entry at Merriam-Webster but only a “draft addition” in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

For me this time around, Odysseus’s test of his father in Book XXIV was especially infuriating.  He’s back, he’s beaten the suitors, he’s reunited with Penelope, he has the adulation of his young adult son….but he still needs to make up one more lie, one more fake back story for Laertes to see if he can fool him. He can’t just give the old guy a break, announce his identity, show his scar, and get on with the important point that he’s just killed a lot of the young male population of Ithaca and surrounding districts.  The peace at the end of the epic is a divinely-imposed peace which seems very precarious to me right now (August 2018); the humans in the narrative have agreed to peace only under duress, and the violence under the surface has not been eradicated or dealt with but merely suppressed.  It seems like the end of any epic sequence (Beowulf, the Ramayana, Star Wars, Harry Potter…..) in that the ending isn’t really an ending but more of a pause. Homer didn’t compose a sequel — the Telemachy of books I-IV did not presage a separate epic of the heroic deeds of Telemachus — but he has definitely left wide open the door of opportunity to continue to think about what could happen next. Many of the authors in global literary traditions have walked, consciously or unconsciously, through that door.

So here ends the Lesley summer reading group 2018, though I’ll be monitoring comments here and on twitter through the month of August – I have very much enjoyed this chance to revisit one of the cornerstones of literary tradition!