Thursday, 18 December 2014

Dr Aidan Byrne's masterclass on The Mabinogi, nation, and rewriting myth

Last week, it was a real pleasure to welcome a guest speaker to HM43021 Fundamentals: Myth and Drama. Dr Aidan Byrne, Senior Lecturer in English and Media at the University of Wolverhampton, held a session on rewriting The Mabinogi (read on), the cultural endurance of national myth, and how our need for mythic stories remains undiminished. Having read The Mabinogion for the previous week’s class (in English translation, of course) students considered Gwyneth Lewis’s contemporary version of the Fourth Branch, The Meat Tree (Seren, 2010), in which Lleu, Gronw and Bloddeuwedd play out their destinies as a virtual reality game. Campion, the wanderer, has to experience childbirth, and Nona, male sexual experience. Lewis’s version, like the medieval tales, experiments with shape-shifting, gender fluidity and power roles, and it’s as open-ended, though arguably more tragic.

Why does myth endure? Post-Enlightenment texts privilege the rational and the ‘real’ – the novel is an eighteenth-century product – pushing myth to the margins (folk tale, children’s stories, local legends). Resistant minorities, such as the Welsh, returned to myth as a form of resistance to the status quo; and resistant readings emerged both in high and low culture, from the literature of the Celtic revival (of which Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of The Mabinogi is a prime example) to fantasy and horror genres. Postmodernity has eroded our belief in the real and our stable sense of self; binary oppositions have vanished; genre has collapsed and we are prepared to embrace the uncanny. We have never needed myth as much as we do now.

Dr Aidan Byrne in HM4301 Fundamentals: Myth and Drama on 11 December, lecturing without notes, to our amazement. More pictures here.

Welsh culture has often returned to The Mabinogi as a source of national identity and resistance to English dominance, but to some extent ‘Welshness’ is an English construct. Matthew Arnold theorised the ancient inhabitants of Britain and their descendants as ‘undisciplinable, anarchical, and turbulent by nature’, the opposite of the ‘steadily obedient’ but unimaginative Anglo-Saxon (‘On the Study of Celtic Literature’, 1867). Even the title The Mabinogion is an Anglicisation of the Welsh word for ‘brothers’.


Alan Garner’s fine novel The Owl Service (1967) revisits The Mabinogi’s world, and Aidan played a clip from the 1969 ITV production. He concluded his session by discussing recent publishing ventures by Cannongate and Seren. Cannongate commissioned writers such as Margaret Atwood, Jeannette Winterson, Philip Pullman and A.S Byatt to create short novels based on Bible stories, Greek and Norse myths. Seren launched New Stories from the Mabinogion with contributions from Welsh writers such as Gwyneth Lewis and the remarkable Niall Griffiths.

In her introduction to The Meat Tree, Penny Thomas wrote that ‘some stories [...] just keep on going. Stir the pot, retell the tale and you draw out something new – there’s no right version.’ On her decision to transform The Fourth Branch into science fiction, Gwyneth Lewis remarked ‘I didn’t want to make the tale a parable about the folly of man’s tampering with nature because the life of the whole myth seemed to me to lie elsewhere. [...] Myths find a natural place [in science fiction].'

Although the material was new to them, students listened thoughtfully and contributed some really good responses to our conversation. We had some seasonal cheer to help us along (and on the subject of how capitalism works by illusion and absence, why were there no green triangles or purple caramels in our tin of Quality Street?) Aidan thanked them for the session. We thank Aidan in return for a rich and inspiring masterclass. It was a fabulous way to close the ‘myth’ side of Myth and Drama, with ideas that we’ll return to throughout the second semester, particularly in our sessions on modern drama.

Aidan also kindly made time for a couple of video interviews on subjects from Dr Who, Star Trek, the Cold War and psychogeography. Check them out on our sister blog



Monday, 15 December 2014

Professor Simon Dentith 1952-2014

Professor John Hughes remembers our friend and ex-colleague.

Former colleagues were immensely saddened to hear of the death of Simon Dentith, who was Reader then Professor of English, here from 1994 until he left to take up a Chair at Reading University in 2007. Simon had lived with his finally fatal illness for over a decade. For colleagues who did not know him, it is worth emphasising that Simon’s contribution to the development of this institution was enormous, perhaps even decisive. When he arrived in 1994, the award of University title was conditional on the kind of genuinely vital and extensive research culture that Simon, along with his great friend, Professor Peter Widdowson, rapidly established in English Literature.

Simon was impressively wide-ranging in his interests, and possessed a rare capacity for drawing together material from numerous disciplines and periods – literature, science, history, sociological and political thought, philosophy and literary theory... His reading was simply immense, as was the scope of his publications. However, for Simon intellectual life was not about displaying learning (though his recall was almost comically prodigious), but pre-eminently about employing it in the kind of vigorous and enabling debate in which he excelled. For Simon, each intervention in a seminar, or article or book (or over lunch in the cafeteria), was always part of an open-ended and collective dialogue, a view of intellectual mutuality rooted in the thinkers and writers he most admired. Perhaps above all, colleagues will remember Simon for his vitality: for the force and passion, and the outbursts of humour, and the openness and modesty, he brought to any exchange. With this in mind, if I had to say one thing to remember Simon it would be that he never sought the last word, but always the next one… 

Friday, 12 December 2014

We've posted some new videos on our other blog

Dr Aidan Byrne of the University of Wolverhampton gave a masterful guest lecture on Myth and Drama this week, as you will read shortly. In the meantime, Aidan kindly allowed us to book him for a couple of videos. Topics range from Dr Who to radical pedestrianism and literary theory. Check out our sister blog, Video Resources for English Literature at the University of Gloucestershire.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The winning essay: Poppy Crumpton, 'Is Fiction More Important than Fact?'

We are delighted to publish the winning entry in our first English Literature A level essay competition.  Poppy Crumpton is a student at Headington School. Her essay demonstrated range, confidence and rhetorical sophistication. Congratulations, Poppy.

A fact is ‘a thing that is known or proved to be true’, whereas fiction is ‘literature in the form of prose, especially novels that describe imaginary events and people’- as defined by the Oxford dictionary. With these definitions one could conclude, as Mr.Thomas Gradgrind does in the quote above, that as facts are by definition true, they are right and therefore should have more emphasis put on them than fiction. Despite this, even within this speech Gradgrind says ‘Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.’ Dickens’s ironic use of metaphor within a speech about facts helps to depict the notion that fiction and metaphor show truth, as much as facts and are accordingly, as, if not more important than facts. I will explore ways in which literature depicts truth, and how as a result fiction proves to be more important than fact. Other ways in which I will show that fiction is more important than fact will be to show its value in promoting the imagination and its use of escapism.  Literature types that I will focus on are: satire, social commentaries allegories, dystopian novels and etiological proverbs and fables.  

Thomas More’s Utopia, a sixteenth century criticism of European society that also includes many satirical asides, is a good example of how fiction can reveal truths about society, which is more important than the facts of the time. More questions the societal values of the time by inventing  an island that has opposing values, for example in Utopia children wear jewels, and give them up when they are mature- the opposite of society at the time in which you would earn money and get jewels when you’re ‘mature’. The contradiction shows how infantile the want of extravagant things to aggrandize your status in society is. A further example of More’s controversial statements of society is the significant modernization of a welfare state and ruling officials being promoted on a meritocracy, which contradicts the divine right to rule of the king and the lack of socialism in the country at the time. However, his naming of the place as a “utopia’ may be More claiming the perfect society he envisions is impossible because the etymology of the word come the Greek meaning ‘no-place-land’. Either way he importantly explores the decisions of the government and whether his improvements on society are good or bad cannot be distilled into facts. Additionally, in dystopian fiction works such as the recent bestseller The Hunger Games our society is explored by the exact opposite of the pleasant society that More creates. Collins creates a horrific society where people in the districts supply the capitol with primary goods, and then they give them back very little, as they starve; this directly reflects our own society where the core of North America and Europe exploit the periphery of West Africa and South America for its own gains. In this way More and Collins very similarly show that fiction can help us to question our own belief system, more than fact can- as countless facts have been given to society about how corrupt it is and yet the emotive portrayal of Katniss has led to a recent questioning of capitalism.

Similarly, social commentaries question society more directly as they don’t create a fictional world, but fictional events within the society of the time. Examples of social commentaries are David Copperfield and To Kill a Mockingbird. David Copperfield contrasts the so called ‘better’ upper class with the ‘less humane’ lower class, as Emily says to young David Copperfield ‘your father was a gentleman and your mother is a lady; and my father was a fisherman and my mother was a fisherman’s daughter, and my uncle Dan is a fisherman’ – the word ‘gentlemen’ connotes a better an than a ‘fisherman’ but later on in the novel Steerforth, a ‘gentleman’, takes advantage of Emily and they run away together leaving Emily in disgrace and Steerforth with no reprimand. Yet, Ham a ‘fisherman’ who was engaged to Emily at the time of her discrepancy, dies trying to save Steerforth showing a much greater moral integrity and gentleness. This ironic contrast of the two classes again shows the importance of fiction, as facts about both classes would have shown the better hygiene of the upper class leading one to believe perhaps that they were more humane however Dickens depicts the opposite. Correspondingly, Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird contrasts Tom Robinson and Bob Ewell in the first of the two climaxes of the novel. Ewell is described in the beginning of the novel as ‘the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations’ likewise Tom Robinson’s death is described as ‘typical of nigger’s mentality to have no plan’, showing they are held in equal contempt by society and yet Tom Robinson ‘was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.’. The questioning of prejudice is seen throughout the novel, but the theme of empathy is seen even more so because after at the trial when Bob Ewell assures the death of Tom, Atticus empathizes with him saying ‘I destroyed his last shred of credibility’ and Scout in retrospect says that he was born a Ewell, and therefore didn’t know any better. This again shows the importance of fiction because the facts would tell you, according to the court, Tom Robinson was guilty or even if you took the truth of Bob Ewell being guilty, you would fail to empathize with both of their situations and the fiction helped to depict this making it more important than the facts.

Fiction is also more important than fact because within fiction you can discuss morality, whereas facts cannot cover this because the question of good or evil cannot be verified. The medieval play Everyman, although not a work of fiction, does display fictitious events and uses allegorical characters to examine the question of whether you should go to heaven or hell. Everyman represents all of mankind and his anonymity allows the question to be directed toward the audience, as they realize that the characters of Goods, Knowledge and Fellowship (each abstract ideas personified into characters that Everyman summons in order to prove his worth to go to heaven) he realizes that he has not been a good person. This discussion of good versus evil cannot be valued in facts, Everyman realizes that he is alone in death and cannot take earthly goods with him. Accordingly, Harry Potter faces similar questions of good and evil in the Philosophers Stone. At the climax of the novel Professor Quirrell says ‘There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it’. This shows a very similar character to everyman someone who justifies the actions he makes, by saying that they make him more powerful but as Death says to Everyman ‘Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God;/ In worldly riches is all their mind,’, so the riches are what both Quirrell and Everyman seek but as he finds out at the end and as Harry shows the only thing you’re left with is good deeds like holding onto the Philosophers Stone and staying true to your parents. Harry Potter also shows another essential part of fiction which is escapism, this is important in using your imagination and relieving stress from people’s everyday lives. Society evidently values this because millions of books are sold every year for this reason; other escapist fantasy books include The Hobbit and Game of Thrones.

To conclude, fiction is more important than fact because it shows the truth in allegorical situations, it shows empathy, it encourages people to use their imagination (which even Einstein said was a truer sign of intelligence than knowledge), it can discuss questions that don’t have definitive answers like morality, it provides escapism and finally in stories such as Aesop’s fables it can teach us lessons. To counter my arguments many would say, as Gradgrind would initially argue, that fiction is essentially lies and therefore cannot be more important than the truth of facts, and that fiction manipulates truth. However, I would argue that in modern society the line between fact and fiction is drawing ever closer as spin doctors manipulate facts for propaganda, previously accepted facts change because of scientific discovery and religion is some people’s fact and others fiction. Only through imagination can new discoveries and inventions be made. Also through fiction we can explore moral dilemmas facing our generation such as getting involved in uprisings in the Arab world.  I think the answer to the question is best summarized in the dedication of IT by Stephen King in which he says ‘Fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists’.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Announcing the Winners of English Literature A level Competition

We are delighted to announce the winners of our first English Literature Essay competition for A level and sixth-form students. There were some strong entries and it was hard to choose the winners, but here they are:
First prize of an iPad: Poppy Crumpton (Headington School) for her essay on ‘Is fiction better than fact?’

Four writers receive a £20 book token each: 

Ella Shelvey (Tendring Technology College) for her essay on ‘The Book in the Bottle’

Alex Matraxia (Mill Hill School) for her essay on ‘The Book in the Bottle’

Catriona Cayley (Headington School Oxford) on ‘The Book in the Bottle’

Ian James Simpson (The Bishop Wand C of E School) for his essay on ‘Is fiction better than fact?’
Congratulations to Poppy, Ella, Alex, Catriona and Ian. And a special thanks to everyone who took the time to enter the competition.
Poppy's essay will be published on the blog shortly.