Lend Me Your Ears: Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar as a Comment on Rhetoric

This year’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar makes a pointed political commentary – but what is that commentary?

The outrage and backlash focuses on the admittedly stark image of a Trump-esque Caesar being attacked and assassinated. Sitting way off to the left side of the stage on Sunday, June 11, I stared at the bloody body lying onstage while the senators and Marc Antony argued and fought with each other. It was a long few minutes.

But that is not the point of the play.

There’s always outrage about violence in plays and movies, and rightfully so. It’s a conversation worth having, over and over. But the conversation cannot be about “violence” as if it exists in a vacuum. And the conversation here cannot be about “the assassination of a Trump-esque Caesar” as if it exists in a vacuum. Context, literary and theatrical interpretation, are important to figuring out what kind of work this production of Shakespeare’s play does in the contemporary moment.

Bank of America, a long-time sponsor of Shakespeare in the Park, saw fit to include a statement in the program:

“While Bank of America values the right of artistic expression, they do not condone this summer’s interpretation of Julius Caesar and its depiction of political violence in a modern context.”

They missed the point.

Caveat before I get into my analysis: I’m not well-versed in theatrical terms. My area of study is medieval literature, and I deal mostly with poetry and prose, not with drama. Forgive remarks like “sitting way off to the left side of the stage” – I know there are better theatrical terms for that, but I’m speaking merely as an audience member who is knowledgeable about literature and rhetoric.

One of the most amazing things to me as the past year’s events have unfolded has been the way simple rhetoric can galvanize people into action, even when they can’t always articulate the logical reasoning behind their decisions. Rallies and fiery speeches get people fired up, but they don’t always use logic and reason to persuade people. Sometimes they use complex oratory and rhetorical patterns to influence people’s minds.

I saw that moment most clearly in Julius Caesar when Marc Antony (played by Elizabeth Marvel) speaks to the crowd with Caesar’s body behind her. In this production, the coffin she mentions is in fact a gurney, and the body is covered by a sheet. In the scene before this, Brutus has felt empathy for Antony and says he will allow her to speak to the people. The other senators vehemently disagree, but Brutus checks with Antony, who swears that she will not praise Caesar, and she will not condemn Brutus et al.

And she doesn’t.

She says, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. / The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones; / So let it be with Caesar.” The subtle implication there, if the “good is oft interred with their bones,” is that in “burying” Caesar, she will talk about his good. But that’s too subtle, lost on a crowd yelling and chanting its displeasure.

She talks about Brutus. Over and over again, she calls him an “honourable man.” But by the end of the scene, the crowd has turned from hailing Brutus as a hero to condemning him as a murderer and traitor.


Because the twists and turns of her speech never come out and say “Brutus is a liar and a murderer.” No, the twists and turns instead lead her audience on a trail so that they can barely even point to the moment when they changed their minds. She contradicts Brutus’s claims even while continuing to pay honor to Brutus:

“Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.”

She claims not to be expert in oratory as Brutus is. And yet her speech is masterful.

She begins by gaining the trust of the crowd, portraying herself as merely a mourner, deep in grief for her beloved Caesar, even while honoring his assassins. They empathize with her. And they listen to her.

Their guard is down because they expect a personal, not a political, speech. And they go along with her opening remarks because they agree with her: Brutus is an honorable man. She never explicitly contradicts that.

And yet by the end of her speech, they have all rallied behind her against Brutus.

This scene, as I experienced it in Central Park with a sheet-covered body and a politician onstage, and with a crowd of actors interspersed in the audience, dressed as protesters holding signs and chanting slogans identical to those in recent protests – this scene was not about the body. The body fades into the background and is forgotten.

This scene was about the horror of how people can be swept up in the moment and not critically think about how rhetoric has been used to influence their thought patterns. How they have not evaluated the right and wrong of the situation but instead were manipulated by clever speeches, by someone who knows how to pull all the right strings, to lead her listeners down a path until they have no idea how they even got to where they are.

What follows in the play is a series of tragedies. The comparison of Caesar’s Rome to contemporary politics doesn’t work completely in the entire play, and that’s okay.

Because the point about upheavals and how transfer of power comes to be and how it affects everything afterwards – that’s clear.

The crowd in support of Brutus is dressed as protesters, and Antony’s crowd as riot police. For a New York audience, there’s almost no doubt which side gets our sympathy. We’re rooting for the protesters, we’re rooting for the resistance.

Everything in the play until this moment has gotten us here – the rhetoric of the play has made us sympathetic to Brutus and his supporters, just as Antony’s rhetoric made the crowd sympathetic to her and her supporters.

And yet, in the final scene of the play, Antony and Octavius stand over the dead body of Brutus, and the stage floor is littered with the dead bodies of the protesters – of Brutus’s supporters – who have been killed by the riot police – by Antony’s supporters – a few scenes prior.

Their bodies remain on stage from the moment of their deaths through the end of the play: a visual reminder of the cost of resistance.

And with the play’s end, with what we know of history – that Antony and Octavius Augustus do in fact gain power and rule Rome – the resistance has failed. The assassination of Caesar has brought no good, only doom and tragedy and death.

So what’s the message of this production? That the contemporary Caesar should be assassinated? Or that resistance is futile and will only result in stricter and stronger policing, and in the deaths of any who dare to resist?

Neither. The message of this production, to me at least, was that we must be aware of how and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

As a teacher of freshman writing, my lessons have always been about critical reading as much as critical writing. In the last year, after watching incredulously as the most flimsy arguments were taken up and used as proof of one thing or another, I made sure that the connection between the rhetorical skills we learn and our ability to make sense of the world around us was crystal clear.

If we can’t strenuously and rigorously interrogate the rhetoric of arguments, we run the risk of being persuaded that Brutus must be killed by arguments that continue to claim that “Brutus is honorable.”



Little Big Girl: Feminism & Adolescence in “Little Red Riding Hood” Song


Syllabus prep led me to two versions of the song “Little Red Riding Hood,” by Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs, and the cover by Amanda Seyfried. I’ll be asking my students to analyze the two versions, as part of a close-reading/note-taking exercise for a freshman composition class. But I have many thoughts about aspects we likely won’t touch in class.

At first, I thought the song was irredeemably misogynist. I’m still pretty sure the original is. But after listening to the Amanda Seyfried version about a million times on repeat, I think it might actually have a positive feminist message, partly about adolescence.

When the singer is male, the song is disturbing enough (it’s using a disturbing fairy tale about female puberty, after all). It’s essentially the “nice-guy” trope – I’ll protect you until you trust me. Until you trust me enough that I can drop the nice guy act, that is, and be the bad wolf I am – until I can drop my sheep clothes.

Then again, there’s that line “bad wolves can be good” – perhaps a reference to BDSM? (Apparently there are some very dirty versions of this song. But I only found references to those, I didn’t find the songs themselves.) I kind of liked to think it is, but the addressee of the song is very clearly a young girl. That’s not okay.

50 Shades is only fine if Ana actually wanted it. If she was tricked or manipulated into wanting it, as the girl in this song might be, that’s a problem.

It does sound at times that he is a genuinely nice guy, not out to trick or manipulate Red into anything she might not want. He wants to hold her, “But you might think I’m a big bad wolf so I won’t.” That could go both ways. He’s really not a big bad wolf, because he doesn’t try to hold her.

But at the end he has to remind himself not to howl but to bleat, and he does hope that eventually Red will accept that a bad wolf isn’t bad. He gains her trust, and in his own mind he’s worthy of that trust. But he initiated contact because he noticed a pretty girl, he claims to be protecting her from others, and he plans to act differently once he’s gained that trust. That is classic nice-guy behavior.

Then there’s the “blazon” – the cataloging of the girl’s features, obviously echoing Red’s own words in the tale “my, what big eyes you have.” But here it’s “the kind of eyes that drive wolves mad,” “what full lips you have, sure to lure someone bad.”

A girl can’t help her full lips (not counting the craziness of the Kylie Jenner challenge), but they’re apparently going to lure someone bad regardless of what she does.

“You’re everything a big bad wolf could want.” If that isn’t a life-long unshakable scare, I don’t know what is. It tells her she can do nothing, she just will always be attracting these big bad wolves simply because of physical features she has no control over. If she wants big bad wolves, good for her. If she doesn’t – well, too bad. It’ll happen anyway.

The only thing that can protect her is this guy escorting her – and he plans to become that big bad wolf driven mad eventually.

So what happens when the speaker is a woman?

First of all, Amanda Seyfried sings this far more seductively than the original. I’m not entirely sure yet what that does to it. Her tone could be interpreted as soothing and comforting rather than seductive.

It starts off sounding like the speaker might be someone like Red’s mother in the tale, who warns her about the dangers in the wood – an older wiser woman giving a young girl advice.

With that message of “you can’t help it, your body will always attract the wrong type of guy,” having a woman say it is troubling. Internalized misogyny, acceptance of patriarchal attitudes, female acceptance of their own inevitable sexualization and being at the mercy of anyone who wants to focus on and pursue them sexually.

But considering that the woman says the same words as the man (“maybe you’ll see things my way / before we get to grandma’s place”), the female speaker could be interested in the little girl sexually too. The problems are the same as with the man, but with a twist.

Assuming the wolf is still male, it’s an added problem of portraying an older lesbian woman telling a young girl that men are predators, and that a woman can protect her, only to become just as predatory as the men she’s warned the girl about.

Then again, maybe seeing things her way before she gets to grandma’s place isn’t referring to Red agreeing to have sex with the speaker. And here’s where the feminist reading kicks in.

Maybe the offer to escort her, keep her safe so she doesn’t get chased, is actually about ushering her through the time when she is a “little big girl,” vulnerable to society sexualizing her body. The speaker is then assuring her that she is not simply a sexual being – and maybe by the time she gets through these woods (adolescence? society in general?), she’ll understand that just because wolves chase her, that doesn’t mean that’s her identity.

Keeping her sheep suit on until Red knows she can be trusted might mean speaking and acting meekly as society has told Red a woman should. Ultimately, she can show Red that “even bad wolves can be good” – both that a vocal and angry feminist is not a bad thing, and also that “notallmen” – a full understanding of it all. “Grandma’s house” then refers to adulthood.

In this reading, the whole song is advocating for female mentorship of adolescent girls to both keep them safe in the moment and to teach them that society’s view of them (read: men’s sexualization of them) should not shape their own views of themselves, of sexuality, of men, of society.

Notably, Amanda Seyfried’s cover leaves out both the beginning howl of appreciation and the closing howl-to-bleat. The last lines in the original, before the howl-to-bleat, is a reminder that she’s everything a big bad wolf could want. The last lines in the cover is a repetition of “So until you get to grandma’s place / I think you ought to walk with me and be safe.” The male speaker reiterates the little big girl’s desirability; the female speaker reiterates the wish to keep the little big girl safe.

I love the Amanda Seyfried cover, despite its disturbing undertones. Partly because of its disturbing undertones. But mostly because within those disturbing undertones, I see the possibility for a really cool feminist reading of it.

Convergence of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic in a Medieval Hebrew-Italian Arthurian Romance

This is a revised version of the paper I presented at MLA 2016. It was part of a panel titled “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Jewish Children’s Literature.” The text I discuss here is not children’s literature and, unlike the texts in the other papers of the panel, was written well before the genre of Jewish children’s literature emerged. But the presentation of race and ethnicity in Jewish children’s literature, and in contemporary Jewish culture more broadly, may have its roots in some of the issues I discuss in relation to this Italian medieval Hebrew Arthurian romance. This romance represents an uneasy merging of the split between Ashkenazic and Sephardic sensibilities because of the geographic and temporal circumstances of its composition.

Below: 1. an illumination from a medieval French Arthurian romance, showing Lancelot and Guinevere; 2. an illumination accompanying a Hebrew marriage blessing, showing couples dancing at an Italian Jewish wedding.

Arthurian legend was widely translated and adapted almost from its very beginnings in the early Middle Ages. Originally a hero representing the Celtic defense against the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain, King Arthur was used by cultures vastly different from the Celts – including the English themselves – to represent nationalism, national heroes, and cultural values. Arthurian scholarship has focused on that cultural adaptability for quite a while now.

It still surprises scholars, though, (including me when I first heard about it) that Jewish versions of Arthurian legend exist. While it is understandable that the legend could be adapted to fit cultures of the Celtic, English, Germanic, French, Spanish, etc., a Jewish adaptation is startling. As different as the other cultures may be, they all share some Christian framework, and Arthurian legend features Christian feasts and Christian values quite prominently. How – and why – would a Jewish author choose this as his writing material?

Curt Leviant, the most recent editor and translator of Hamelech Artus (King Arthur), draws parallels between Arthurian motifs and Jewish biblical and Talmudic stories, arguing, as do numerous other scholars, that Arthurian legend is in fact particularly suited for Jewish adaptation. His analysis is fairly convincing, though for reasons I won’t get into here, I don’t fully accept it. Even if we did accept it, though, the historical background of the medieval Jewish adaptations which Leviant and others provide continues to raise questions about the Jewish author’s motivation.

A brief overview of Arthurian legend: King Arthur holds court in Camelot, where the finest knights serve him and join him in many adventures and quests to prove their chivalry in arms and in love. The many medieval texts do not usually tell the entire story of King Arthur. Each one relates just one episode or a series of episodes. The underlying foundation of the legend is the same, but each translator, adapter, compiler – each person to touch the legend – adds or changes details based on historical, cultural, and sometimes personal factors.

There aren’t very many Jewish versions of medieval Arthurian legend. We only know of two, in fact. In 1279, an anonymous scribe in Northern Italy began – but never finished – a Hebrew translation of Arthurian legend, called by scholars today Hamelech Artus. This exists in only one manuscript, today housed in the Vatican.

The other medieval Jewish Arthurian text is an Old Yiddish translation of a Middle High German text, dating from the fifteenth century – two centuries after Hamelech Artus was composed. The Old Yiddish text is extant in three manuscripts from the sixteenth century, all presumably created in Northern Italy. It was adapted a few more times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in Amsterdam, Prague, and Frankfurt an der Oder.

The dates and locations of each adaptation are significant in the inquiry about a Jewish author’s choice to translate Arthurian legends, because medieval Ashkenazic and Sephardic attitudes toward secular literature (not only Arthurian literature) were vastly different and also varied over time.

Sephardic culture incorporates secular themes into its literature, (though Arthurian themes don’t appear until later in Iberia) sometimes writing in Arabic, sometimes in Romance languages, and sometimes in Hebrew.

Some of the great medieval Sephardic rabbis were known for their love poetry or their fighting songs, and most, such as Maimonides, had extensive knowledge not only of Torah and Talmud, but of medicine, Greek philosophy, mathematics, sciences, etc. Secular study was an integral part of education and no apology was made for tackling topics like love or erotic stories.

Ashkenazic culture, on the other hand, not only frowned upon such study but considered Greek philosophy and sciences based on secular understanding antithetical to Torah study. Reading or writing about love and war was almost sacrilegious, definitely if the holy Hebrew language was used.

The history of Italy’s Jewish community meant that thirteenth-century Italian Jewry embraced aspects of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic attitudes. In the eleventh century, Ashkenazic Jews escaping the First Crusade settled in Italy. In the early thirteenth century, Sephardic Jews from Provence immigrated to Italy. So when Hamelech Artus was written, the community comprised both Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews.

The text opens with an apology, a kind of preface by the author, a feature typical of medieval texts. The author explicitly addresses the problem of a Jewish author writing in Hebrew and using secular romance as his material, citing two reasons.

First, he excuses this as an exercise to ease the melancholy of his mind, which leads him to a lengthy defense of using secular literature in this way:

“No intelligent person can rebuke me for this, for we have seen that some of our sages of blessed memory, such as Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, did not disdain the knowledge of fox-fables, washers’ parables or the speech of palm trees. And this is done so that a man who is steeped in Torah-study or in worldly pursuits may derive from the knowledge of these tales a measure of relaxation and relief…Moreover, it is possible to learn wisdom and ethics from these fables concerning a man’s conduct toward himself and towards his fellow man…The proof for this is that had they been profane talk Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai would not have studied them…Moreover, we find that on the eve of the Day of Atonement the tales of ancient kings would be read to an unscholarly High Priest throughout the night so that he would not fall asleep” (11-13).

The second reason, he says, is the “most important”: “that sinners will learn the paths of repentance and bear in mind their end and will return to the Name (ie God), as you will see at the conclusion” (13).

The manuscript ends mid-sentence and mid-page, so we never do get to the conclusion. But in the very first sentence of the apology, the author tells us that the story is of “the destruction of King Artus’ Round Table” – so we know the story ends in destruction. (The end of the Arthurian legend, as suggested by the many texts called some version of Le Morte D’Arthur, is always the death of Arthur with the Round Table brotherhood dissolved.)

The romance of Hamelech Artus itself begins with the story of Arthur’s conception and birth. This opening sequence is not a given for every romance – the fragmentary nature of Arthurian legend means starting at the start is actually a significant choice.

The story of Arthur’s birth in this Hebrew romance is essentially the same as in other medieval versions which narrate his birth. King Uther Pendragon desires the wife of a duke and, when she and her husband both refuse to allow it, Uther wages war against the duke, eventually enlisting the help of Merlin. Merlin uses his magic to give the king the appearance of the duke. When Uther goes into the duchess’ chambers, she thinks he is her husband. He sleeps with her during the night and leaves in the morning. As he leaves, word reaches the duchess that the duke was killed during the night. She has no idea now who she was sleeping with, but she knows it wasn’t her husband as she thought. Once the war is over, Uther marries the duchess and, in an act of kindness, forgives her for carrying a child whose father she cannot identify.

One of the first things people point out about this story is its resemblance to the David and Batsheva story (in Samuel I) – King David is on a rooftop and sees a naked woman, desires her, and sleeps with her. Her husband is away at war. When she tells David that she has become pregnant, David calls her husband, Uriah, back from war and tries to get him to go sleep with his wife so it will appear that the child is his. Uriah is zealous, however, and swears he will not have marital relations until the war is won. When David realizes that Uriah will not cooperate, he sends him with a letter to the general directing them into battle where Uriah will definitely be killed. All goes according to plan, Batsheva is a widow, David marries her, and though the child dies, their next son, Solomon, will become the next king of Israel.

The Rishonim, the early medieval Biblical commentators including Rashi, explain this by citing the Talmud which states that during the time of King David, soldiers all gave their wives a “get al t’nai” – a conditional divorce. If a woman’s husband does not return from battle but his death cannot be proven, rather than remaining an agunah and being unable to marry, she is able to use the get and marry someone else. Therefore, the Rishonim say, Uriah had given Batsheva a conditional divorce. Since he died, technically Batsheva was divorced when she became pregnant with David’s child.

The point of this explanation is, of course, to vindicate David from having sinned. But it’s also to ensure that no one dares to say that Solomon, who carries on the royal line, was a mamzer – illegitimate, the product of a strictly prohibited union, and according to Jewish law unable to rule and unable to even marry a Jewish woman and have Jewish children. (There are special provisions for who a mamzer can marry so that his children are ultimately not non-Jewish.)

Even according to Christian law, where a child conceived out of wedlock could be legitimized if the parents are subsequently married, Arthur is unquestionably illegitimate. His mother was married to someone other than his father when he was conceived, so he is a product not just of premarital sex but of adultery. His parents’ subsequent marriage doesn’t help much.

The Hebrew author doesn’t address this (nor does any medieval Arthurian legend, really). Florence Sandler suggests that the naming of Arthur (“He will be called Artusin, that is, born through the power of art” [23]), which is unique to this text and echoes Biblical naming of children for events, is meant to give an aura of legitimacy to an infant conceived out of wedlock, but this seems out of step with the rest of the narrative. I don’t think the author wanted to legitimize Arthur at all.

The bulk of the text focuses on the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, though the text trails off before this episode concludes. The story itself is almost exactly the same as other medieval versions, and the love appears to be wonderful, beautiful, tragic.

Still, it is clear that the author intended to condemn Lancelot by the end of the narrative. Lancelot’s passion is introduced as: “this evil desire was the cause of the destruction of the Table, the death of King Artus, and the ruin of the entire Kingdom, as you will see further on” (29). In all Arthurian texts which narrate the end of the kingdom, Lancelot plays a large role, if not the only role, in bringing about the fall.

The Hebrew author may have intended to include the other big player as well, Mordred. Between the story of Arthur’s birth and the story of Lancelot’s affair, a brief family history is given, and the author tells us that “the evil traitor Mordred passed himself off as a nephew [of Arthur] for many years. Even the King conceded this. However, finally it became known that he was a bastard son, as you will see in the book of destruction” (23).

In Arthurian tradition, Arthur unknowingly conceives a child, Mordred, with his half-sister Morgana. In some adaptations, Mordred later tries to take over Arthur’s kingdom and has an affair with Arthur’s wife Guinevere, which leads to outright war, Arthur’s death, and the complete crumbling of the idealistic Arthurian world.

Although the Hebrew text is not complete, the parts which were written and the glimpses into what the author intended to include paint a very clear picture of the text’s purpose. All the episodes the author has chosen deal with adultery or promiscuity or sexual taboos in some way or another. This, then, is the “sin” that the author means when he says that his reason for undertaking such an inexplicable translation of Arthurian legend is “that sinners will learn the paths of repentance and bear in mind their end and will return to the Name (ie God).” It seems pretty clear and logical, no real question to be asked.

However, no other Arthurian text attempts to use these stories in this manner. This can perhaps be explained by the distinctly Jewish tone of Hamelech Artus as opposed to Christian texts. But Sephardic texts, though at this point none had yet used Arthurian material, did include stories of passionate love, and sometimes illicit love, with no apology and no such attempt for didactic purposes. Ashkenazic texts of the thirteenth century never told stories like this, but the later Yiddish Arthurian romances also made no such attempt at didacticism. So why the heavy emphasis here?

The answer lies with Italy’s unique position at this particular point, in the thirteenth century. Sandler suggests that the convergence of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in Northern Italy led the author to try to appeal to both audiences – the Sephardic who would appreciate a story of love and passion and chivalry, and the Ashkenazic who would “not countenance values which did not square with the moral teachings of the Talmud” (72).

I would modify that analysis a bit, because this assumes two communities in Northern Italy, one Ashkenazic retaining Ashkenazic values, and one Sephardic retaining Sephardic values. But the language and structure of the author’s introduction to Hamelech Artus suggests a tension between the two approaches within one person.

This text – its free use of Arthurian material but always with an apologetic tone and hastening to justify this free use – captures the moment when the two communities and their respective approaches to Torah learning and secular literature had only just begun to converge and to merge in this area. The later Yiddish romances in Northern Italy, with no attempt at didacticism and with a far more comic tone, are a reflection of the progression of this convergence, a result of Jewish migration in the “borderland” between Sephardic and Ashkenazic areas.

“Minstrels get about and so do students”: The Role of Emotional Attachment and Historical Accuracy in the Impact of Young Adult Fiction

This is a revised version of a paper I delivered at the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.


I was sitting in an undergraduate survey class of early British literature. The reading for that day had been a mystery play – I forget which one exactly it was. I had enjoyed the play – I knew then already that I’d be focusing on medieval literature – but I hadn’t thought much more about this play than any other texts we had read.

As the class session went on and we discussed how these plays were performed, I started reading the whole play with a slightly different view, more attentive, as it became more real to me. It wasn’t that I was gaining tools to imagine real actors performing these lines – I was, of course. But I actually did see a complete image in my mind of the performance – not of the play as it was meant to be experienced by an audience, but as if I had a birds-eye view of the staging, the behind-the-scenes. I felt the excitement of watching a play and the thrill of seeing the inner workings which I wasn’t supposed to see.

And it wasn’t only that I was hearing these details in class. I realized that the image I had in my mind was of Adam Quartermayne, sitting on a wall and watching a mystery play.

He had attempted to watch the play as a regular audience member but was too far back and too short to see anything, so he had raced around the churchyard wall and perched himself on top of the wall. From there, he could see not only the play as it was meant to be seen but also things like Adam and Eve changing from their elegant pre-Fall clothing to rough green clothes. These details were hidden from the audience on the proper level by a curtain but visible to Adam from his perch on the wall.

The details of that vivid scene from the historical novel all matched up with what was being described in an academic context.

The same thing happened again in a Spring 2014 graduate class as we discussed medieval hunting laws and I saw very clearly Adam running from the authorities during a hue and cry after he’d inadvertently gotten himself mixed up with poachers. I felt like I knew the facts being talked about, and I felt excited about the new details as they took up their places within the personal story of the adolescent Adam.

The excitement I felt when these memories were stirred during academic discussions didn’t cause me to study these things. I was already studying medieval literature and I don’t specialize in mystery plays or medieval law. But the recognition I felt did bring the Middle Ages to life for me in specific ways.

I felt like I knew a person who experienced these things. They weren’t random facts but were attached to a character whose personality and individual reactions to these situations I already knew. The new facts I learned clarified some points that my adolescent reading mind hadn’t necessarily thought to question, and the details I’d read about in the book gave me a framework within which to place the new facts.

Since I’m going to return to Adam of the Road a few times now, I’ll provide a brief summary here:

Adam Quartermayne is a young boy in 1294 whose father is a minstrel. The book opens with Adam at an Abbey school waiting for his father to return from a year in France learning new songs and music. When he does return, Adam leaves his friend Perkins,  who comforts Adam about their parting by saying they’re sure to see each other again because “minstrels get about and so do students.” Adam accompanies his father to his lord’s household and on the lord’s travels, and then on personal travels from town to town without the lord. Eventually, Adam’s dog Nick is stolen, and when he tries to find Nick, he is separated from his father. The rest of the book is Adam chasing clues about Nick as the dog’s abductor rides across England. By the end, Adam finds his dog and returns to the Abbey to wait for his father again. Adam has grown tremendously in maturity by that point, and his father recognizes and honors that by giving him a new set of minstrel clothes and inviting him along as a minstrel in his own right, not just as his son.

It’s not exactly a new idea to say that historical fiction is more useful than history textbooks in engaging young readers in a specific historical period or moment. I want to address how educators talk about the mechanics of this utility and about harnessing that utility in the classroom.

One idea I came across was that textbooks provide knowledge of the history while fiction provides understanding. Textbooks can give the facts and details of what exactly happened, but fiction uses a more easily understood and subjective narrative to demonstrate the consequences and implications of human behavior on an individual decision-making level.

But the assumption that the child reader may forget the details but will retain general knowledge of life in that historical period is the opposite of what actually happens. The reader, especially the child or adolescent reader, is identifying with the characters in the text and will therefore remember the details specific to that character. A casual reader will not be analyzing the details she reads about in order to see the broader picture of “life in that period.”

When I read Adam of the Road, all I knew was a story about a boy in 1294 who suffered many catastrophes and had to have many adventures, both good and bad, in order to make everything right again. Of course those catastrophes and adventures were contingent upon the time period in which Adam lived, and of course as a child reader I knew that, but I wasn’t consciously making connections and piecing together a picture to say “oh, that’s what the Middle Ages looks like.”

A child reading for pleasure will not actually retain knowledge of life in that period and forget the details, and therefore have a schema that can be applied to factual information. Rather, he will remember the details, and the schema that will be applied is from the narrow and specific experience to the broader experience, not vice versa.

Part of the explanation for this is a concept in psychology of reading called “experience-taking.” The authors of the initial study of experience-taking found that this mode of reading has more effect on the reader than a similar mode. In vicarious self-perception, the reader identifies with characters because she recognizes bits of herself in the fictional characters.

In experience-taking, the reader leaves the self behind and does not identify with the character so much as become the character. The effect of this is that the reader’s behaviors after reading the book change for a short time. Those books were about contemporary life, so it’s easier to see how experience-taking transfers specific details from the books to real life.

Even with historical fiction, though, those details which affect the reader so intensely stay with the reader long after the general setup of the scenes is forgotten. When the reader loses himself and becomes the character, the details which are important to the character become important to the reader.

I remembered the details of Adam and Eve changing clothes behind the curtain because it was a detail important to Adam Quartermayne. That was the schema I had, and I could fit that vivid almost-memory into what I was learning about mystery plays performances in the Middle Ages in a more general way.

So imagine what would have happened if in that undergraduate class I had gotten excited over remembering this scene in relation to the texts we read and then learned that this was an invention of the author in order to make the book more exciting – that this could never have happened because plays were performed inside and not where a boy could sit on a wall, or that actors exited the stage and had changing rooms where no one could possibly see them.

No real damage would have been done. I’d say – oh, ok, the author made up those details. I would adjust my understanding of the reality of history. But then I’d have lost the vivid image of an individual person I had been able to apply to a broader and possibly harder to grasp idea of how this functioned in society.

The thing is, this thought experiment counts on the rest of the book being fairly accurate. Most historical fiction of this kind is usually accurate, and the detail I used here is mostly inconsequential (and actually accurate in the book).

But there is damage that can be done when an author portrays parts of the historical picture inaccurately, either due to lack of knowledge or due to a desire to make the story more exciting and engaging. Sometimes the purpose of the book isn’t even to write about history at all. And that is perhaps the most dangerous in this regard.

James Harold discusses the moral philosophy of trying to write a narrative from the perspective of someone entirely different from yourself. He is concerned mostly with writers in the position of oppressors claiming an intention of understanding the oppressed and therefore writing in their voice, an oppression of its own kind. Harold is not talking about the kind of historical otherness I am addressing here. His discussion is more high-stakes with regard to contemporary and real oppression, but his ideas can be applied here as well.

He writes that “the idea is that failure to show the right kind of respect for historical or fictional figures violates an indirect duty – it undermines the agent’s own moral development, and her propensities to treat people respectfully” (252). Books that play fast and loose with medieval-ish material show disrespect. That might be a strong word to use here, but as almost everyone who studies the Middle Ages knows, the effects of this kind of misrepresentation are not insignificant. I don’t think it’s exaggeration to call it disrespect for the people of the Middle Ages and for others today, both scholars of the Middle Ages who know what it actually looked like, and the less-informed readers of these novels who don’t know that they’re gaining misinformation as factual.

In attempting to find specific examples to use for this paper, I became very discouraged by the books being categorized as medieval, whether in the “best” lists or “worst” lists on Goodreads. The reviews and comments are highly amusing and really useful, but they’re also very frustrating.

Every so often, a reviewer (most of whom are teens) will scoff at the inaccuracies of a warrior princess in thirteenth-century England or something like that, but more often teens rave about the heroine’s courage and say things like “I really got a sense of what life was like for a girl in the Middle Ages” (though they’re more likely to use the term Dark Ages here…) The term medieval is used in a pejorative sense by these readers and reviewers.

The effect when a reader of these books is sitting in an undergraduate survey class is more likely a disinterested, possibly disgusted, “this ‘real’ Middle Ages isn’t as exciting as the Middle Ages my favorite characters experienced.”

When the book in question is obviously using popular concepts of the Middle Ages in order to write a story that has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, it’s frustrating enough. But when authors whose intention is actually to portray the Middle Ages feel the need to invent more exciting details, they do more harm than good. And when those invented details are written well and seem real, it’s really bad.

Katherine Paterson has been asked many times about the real-world inspiration for the woods in Bridge to Terabithia. Or rather, as she says, the question is phrased “where is Terabithia?” She gives various answers, but in a 1984 lecture, she explained that although it is a mixture of a few different places she remembered from childhood, she panicked when she realized that she wanted to include a grove of trees which may not be able to grow in the area where the rest of the story was set. She could not possibly excuse using those trees there, even though it was a minute detail which likely no one would pick up on.

In order to create strong affective connections, the imagined place needs to be real. Making up details or tweaking things to fit the plot or character might seem innocent but will actually influence the emotional connection the reader can form with the characters, and therefore the affective and subjective understanding the reader has of that historical time period.

One of the brilliant things Elizabeth Janet Gray does in Adam of the Road is provide a richly detailed and real imagined place for the story. Since Adam’s father is a minstrel, Adam gets to travel, and when he gets separated from his father and has to try to meet up with him, he gets to travel into more and wildly different parts of England. As Adam’s father says, “A road’s a kind of holy thing…It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together” (52). That echoes Chaucer in some ways. Whether the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales would have been traveling together in reality or not, the idea of a road as connecting people from various backgrounds works.

In this historical novel, this characteristic provides an opportunity for Adam, and thus the reader, to experience many different aspects of medieval England. Adam visits a fair, a forest, a churchyard play, an Abbey, a lord’s household, and many other places – all richly and accurately described and used in the story. This level of detail and accuracy is what allows the reader to connect with the character, and then later to retain those connections and memories when discovering factual details, and to supplement fact with fiction – or fiction with fact, perhaps a better way to put it.

Again, discussions of the benefits of children’s historical fiction focus on this aspect – the elements of good historical fiction are an exciting story, memorable characters, and a historical backdrop. Having a character to relate to, seeing those minute daily-life details and emotions of a child “just like me” makes history come alive.

But these discussions center around books that portray huge historical moments from a child’s perspective, not a child living a normal life with no great social and historical upheavals.

The reason Adam of the Road was a perfect central text for this paper is that it does not focus on any big event. The big event is Adam losing his dog and his father, and having to travel all over England – an England in which nothing out of the ordinary is happening – in order to be reunited.

In terms of experience-taking, books focusing on huge historical moments can have significant effects on children’s moral development as they watch other children solve problems on such large scales. But for the purposes of gaining a schema for understanding an entire historical period, approaches like the one in Adam of the Road are more effective, showing an ordinary boy and his ordinary troubles – very different from the ordinary troubles of today’s child, but dealing with similar issues of arrogance, abandonment, passion, etc.

Another issue I take with the pedagogical discussion of historical fiction is in regard to the suggestions for study guide questions. These are again mostly focused on books dealing with important historical moments, but they tend to ask questions about the child protagonist’s motivations or emotions at any given point.

However, if the benefit of fiction over textbook is the affective versus objective reading, this analysis detracts from the affective response. Had I stopped to think about the role of minstrelsy and music or the effect of the vibrant descriptions, as some study guides do in fact suggest, my enthusiastic “oh I recognize that!” as an undergraduate would likely not have happened, and I would not have felt that emotional connection to the facts I was learning then.

A few pedagogical discussions mentioned that reading fiction about interesting historical figures could cause children to research that historical time period further. Children don’t always wait until they’re in college to find out more about the lives of characters that interest them.

But the main benefits of this phenomenon come from its completely organic nature. When a child is captivated by a book and independently seeks more information, that’s affective engagement at its best. When it’s initiated, prompted, and guided by a teacher, it’s of course still better than a textbook because the children are definitely more engaged with the characters of the book. But it’s missing the spontaneous excitement which generates genuine interest and long-lasting understanding of and connection to that history.

What’s the alternative, though? To provide the books and hope kids get interested enough to follow up on at least some of them? That’s completely unrealistic for so many reasons. Teachers can make sure students have access to books which are rich in accurate historical detail and feature strong engaging characters, and students might love those books, but they won’t necessarily follow up on any of them. Guided questions seem to be the only answer, but that defeats the purpose of immersion in history in order to understand it properly. By stepping back to analyze it, they lose that immersion.

As I was puzzling over this, I didn’t come up with any realistic options, but I did remember a moment when I was teaching eighth grade English. The students had each chosen a book from a selection I’d provided, and they were then split into groups to read, discuss, and write about the books. Four students had chosen The Phantom Tollbooth. I was excited, because these were the four brightest students, and this is one of my favorite books.

They hated it.

They read it, though, all the way to the end, and with such great attention to detail – because they wanted to have ammunition to argue against me with.

This is not historical fiction, of course – it’s about a boy who enters another world where reality is shaped by grammatical and mathematical concepts. But all the guided study questions I had prepared for them had been completely forgotten as they picked apart the book on their own terms.

Their arguments about why the book is not as great as I think it is were thoughtful, text-based, and broad. They didn’t convince me – I still love the book. But their arguments were good. Their engagement with the book was not what I had hoped it would be, but they did engage with it.

Again, this won’t happen for every student. But in some way, allowing students to engage with the books on their own terms can accomplish more than prodding them along to see what teachers want them to see.

Students may or may not “get about” as Perkins says (though of course he means physically and I mean intellectually), but at least the possibility for that is there when teachers provide the historical accuracy and the potential for emotional attachment.

Of Ghosts and Inferi: “Second Generation Memory” and Orthodox Children’s Holocaust Literature

[This was written as an assignment for the class “Children’s and Young Adult Literature: Reflections on Theory and Method” with Carrie Hintz, Fall 2015.]

I eagerly signed up for this week as my primary blog post because I wanted to write about The Giver. As soon as I started reading Second Generation Memory, though, I realized my primary blog post would be totally different. And somewhat long, so tip: the actual analysis is at the end, but I have quite a bit of setup first.

Anastasia Ulanowicz writes that “the child of concentration camp survivors is profoundly aware of the fact that she might not exist if the material circumstances and series of events that her elders encountered had varied even to the slightest degree” (15). I am not actually the child of survivors, but my parents both are. I’m a grandchild of three survivors. And I was always profoundly aware of the fact. If my grandmother had not been smuggling sugar across the Polish-Russian border to feed her family, if the Russians hadn’t caught her and sent her to Siberia where she met up with her father and brothers who had been captured earlier, she would have been sent to Auschwitz with her mother, sisters, and younger brothers a week later. They were all killed immediately upon arrival. She would have been killed, I would not exist.

I never heard that story from my grandmother, though. I heard it numerous times from my mother, her daughter.

My other grandmother was sent from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, an initiative sending children out of troubled zones to England at the start of the war. She never spoke about it either. But when she and my grandfather were visiting once, she saw a book on my nightstand – Far From the Place They Called Home. It’s a popular Jewish Young Adult novel about five boys sent on the Kindertransport. She read it in one night, and the next morning she sat next to me on the sofa, held my hand, and told me about how she and her brother escaped, how her mother was brought over later as a cleaning woman, how they went to the countryside in Scotland when London was being bombed. That was the most I’ve ever heard her talk about the war.

I wanted to ask her which town in Scotland she stayed in, but she passed away seven years ago, before I ever asked her.

Growing up, we heard story upon story of life “before the war,” and about the strength and faith of individuals and groups during the war and just after liberation. The stories of atrocities we got from books.

For my primary response, I’m going to provide a perspective that Ulanowicz doesn’t cover, one that isn’t covered in most surveys or discussions of children’s literature: the literature of the Orthodox Jewish community. It’s a literature exclusive to Orthodox Judaism, published by Orthodox publishers and sold in Judaica stores. These are not very accessible outside of the cloistered Orthodox communities. Though some Orthodox Jewish children do, to varying degrees, read non-Jewish books, we never did read secular books about the Holocaust. My purpose here is to explore how second generation memory as Ulanowicz describes it works in this specific demographic and with this specific set of literature.

Ulanowicz clarifies that she focuses on the texts’ representation of and contribution to the conceptualization of second generation memory, but that she refrains from studying human response to the texts, leaving that to psychologists and reader response critics (20). I’m going to be that reader response critic here, drawing on my own experiences, on those of my friends and sisters, and on what I observe in the shift of Holocaust books from my own generation to the current generation of children’s Holocaust books. Following is a kind of annotated bibliography, with an analysis at the end. I’ve divided them roughly into four categories: 1) “early” memoirs, 2) “early” fiction, 3) later memoirs, 4) later fiction.

1) “early” memoirs:
Sisters in the Storm, by Anna Eilenberg (1992)
Part of the series The Holocaust Diaries. The first Holocaust book I read, as a ten year old. My sister says she read this when she was seven. (This is the typical age. Important details for thinking about how and when second generation memory is formed.) Chana (Anna) lives in Lodz, Poland and is forced to move with her family into the Lodz ghetto. Conditions are terrible, and she is eventually sent to two different concentration camps. The abridged version I read as a child ends with liberation and displaced persons camp, but the full version follows her to Israel and details the rebuilding of her family, her marriage, children, and grandchildren.

Some of the episodes that I remember vividly to this day:
– She and her sister sneaking out to join learning groups for girls, risking their lives because the Nazis were patrolling the streets.
– Her brother being told by the doctor that he’s very sick and needs to eat meat, but refusing to do so because the only meat available was non-kosher horse meat. He dies a week later, revered and respected for his conviction.
– Her father stealing wooden fences to heat their apartment and their Polish neighbor informing the Nazis and then revealing his hiding place when the Nazis were looking for him.
– The Jewish kapo beating the inmates until they were bloody because she had been praised so much by the Nazi guards that she stopped identifying with her Jewish sisters.

Those Who Never Yielded, by Moshe Prager (1997)
Originally written in Hebrew and translated to English. Short stories detailing teenaged boys in ghettoes and concentration camps who defied the Nazis. Defiance is exhibited by observing holidays and organizing prayer groups even at the risk of death.

2) “early” fiction
A Light for Greytowers, by Eva Vogiel and Ruth Steinberg (1992)
Miriam and her mother escape Russia during the Czar’s rule and flee to England. Miriam’s father has fled earlier, but they have no way of contacting each other, and husband and wife are desperately trying to find each other. Miriam winds up in an orphanage, which is run by a draconian woman. Miriam finds out that all the girls there are actually Jewish, and she leads them in a revolution against the witch-like Miss Grimshaw. They begin to observe Shabbos and keep kosher. Miriam’s mother and father find her and each other at the orphanage, Miss Grimshaw flees in disgrace, and all the girls get a loving warm Jewish house mother – Miriam’s mother.

A Thorn Among the Roses, by Eva Vogiel (1990s)
First of a series. After the war, young girls are left homeless and distraught. A few women set up a school in England’s countryside where they can begin life anew. Intrigue ensues in the form of an anti-Semitic neighbor and his accomplice (who is inside the school as an employee disguised as a Jew), danger and kidnapping of two girls, and eventual reuniting and safety at the school.

3) later memoirs
A Boy Named 68818, by Israel Starck, as told to Miriam (Starck) Miller (2015)
I haven’t read this one, but my sister gave it to me when I went to pick up the others… The title is a reference to the numbers tattooed on the arms of concentration camp inmates. In lieu of a summary, here are some blurbs from the back of the book:
“A spellbinding book. Starck is an ember saved from the inferno of World War II.”
“Starck’s unpretentious account and his extraordinary courage tested in the hellfire of World War II reveals his faith and humanity and will surely inspire young people to treasure the richness of faith.”
“Srulek’s [common Hasidic nickname for Israel] strength of spirit enabled him to survive and thrive. This is a story that should be shared!”

4) later fiction
I don’t have any particular titles for this category, but here’s a sweeping generalization: Novels of the past decade tend to be either thrillers or emotional tearjerkers, and almost all of them are set against a backdrop of Holocaust memories or Holocaust survivors. Sometimes the heroes need to go to Europe, where they come up against a number of obstacles related to remnants of anti-Semitism. Sometimes the entire story is framed around a young person’s response to their grandparents’ stories. Almost always, in Ashkenazic Orthodox teen literature, the Holocaust exists as a natural component of life even when the entire story has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Rarely does a book go without a single mention of the Holocaust.

5) One more category: songs and movies.
In eighth grade, we watched a film called To Live Forever. Since then, I have tried numerous times to find it, with no success. It’s basically a really mournful musical soundtrack with black and white photos of the Holocaust, including some of the most famous: the boy in the Warsaw ghetto with his arms raised, the man standing silently with his chin up as Nazis laughingly cut off his beard, children with hollow eyes and bones showing through their skin, lying on the ground. These images are in the second video below, though I don’t think they ever showed us the really graphic images of bodies.
Many many English-language songs are about aspects of the Holocaust:

(Both of these songs are frequently sung in summer youth camps and at various high school events.)

I termed the books from the 1990s early because that was when, I think, survivors first began to write down their memories. Of course, as Ulanowicz makes clear with her examples of Judy Blume and Lois Lowry, books about the Holocaust were being published before that. But not in the Orthodox world.

The early memoirs, though, focused equally on the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators and on the faith of the heroes and heroines said the cause of their survival. The stark danger of trusting Gentiles was clear – Anna Eilenberg details how her Polish neighbor, with whom they’d been very close before the war, betrayed her father to the Nazis when he was hiding from them in the attic.

The early fiction focused on rebuilding, but again emphasized the dangers of interacting with Gentiles. Fiction was more likely to focus on teenagers with teenage voices, while the real accounts may have chronicled a teenager’s experience but was always told in the voice of an adult – these were memoirs, meant to sound raw. Until I checked the publication dates now, I had always assumed these were written way earlier than the 1990s, because they focused so much on the years just after the war. Now that I know when they were written, I would guess that even after so much time, rebuilding was so important that it made sense that played such a prominent role. If the 90s hadn’t seen that boom, I’d assume that today’s Orthodox Holocaust fiction would be emphasizing rebuilding. Since the books of the 90s did it, it’s no longer necessary, as I’ll explain further below.

The later memoirs are most often written by children of survivors taking down their parents’ words. They are more about anguish and crying out to God. The danger of associating with Gentiles is less emphasized. My hypothesis is that the children (now adults) writing these stories down have so absorbed the lessons they learned from the earlier accounts that this danger is no longer an essential component to emphasize. Instead, they focus on the memories that tie Jews of faith together – the anguish that elicits cries for help directed at God.

Later fiction may have a storyline based on events of the Holocaust, but more likely is the Holocaust as a “ghost” in the background – exactly as Ulanowicz describes second generation memory, but this is the third, or more accurately fourth, generation after survivors.

The second generation absorbed the horrors of the Holocaust not as ghosts but as Inferii: real, tangible, bursting out of the water in frightening solidity. Ulanowicz’s dismissal of the term “dominate” as a description of the past’s effect on the present of children becomes relevant again in this context. Later generations, the generations who received the memories from the second generation, experience the memories as ghosts – filmy, transparent, fading against the wall and barely noticeable, but still there – finally superimposed on and merging with the present as Ulanowicz describes, but not taking it over completely.

Specifically Orthodox representations of memory always include a reference to faith. It was faith that kept the people going and allowed them to survive, according to these books. It was faith that allowed them to pick themselves up and rebuild their lives afterwards. And their faith was strengthened from having experienced these horrors and the resultant “obvious” miracles and grace of God. (This insistence is the reason secular books, especially about the Holocaust, are banned.) Children and teens reading about and identifying with the characters who experienced the horrors but persevered in their faith would picture themselves in the same situation.

But while the books Ulanowicz discusses accomplish identification with the result of children learning to be more tolerant of others, to spurn racism and anti-Semitism, Orthodox books do this with the result of ever more closed boundaries and ever more fear of outsiders. The methods and the general concept are the same; the outcome is quite different.

To close, I’ll transcribe the lyrics to two songs from my high school musicals, to illustrate the extent to which even fun high school entertainment becomes imbued with all of these memories and values. Both of these plot lines are based on the Holocaust, Peace by Piece(1997) happening to the children and grandchildren of a survivor, and Not Enough Tears (1998) during the war, in the US with the protagonist having escaped from occupied France.

Peace by Piece (1997):
My father by the Nazis was taken away,
In a concentration camp he arrived one day.
In a factory of tea kettles he would work nonstop,
Melting the handles well, attaching them to the teapots.
Father’s fingers swiftly worked under the table.
He would finish his quota early so that he would be able
To put on tefillin [black prayer boxes] just for a moment, to daven mincha [pray] too
A day without a tefila [prayer] wasn’t living for a Jew.

Not Enough Tears (1998):
So many teardrops falling, collecting through the years,
When tragedies unfolding, leaving a trail of tears.
My life was torn and shattered remembering the years,
When nothing else had mattered, leaving a trail of tears.
Hard as they have tried to rejoice when we have cried,
Yet the day will come we know, our tears will be their sorrow.
Tears of anguish will be replaced, and the tears of joy will roll down our face,
As we once again begin to reunite a tattered nation.

Look, Mom, I’m a Mom!

The process of Alyce’s transformation in The Midwife’s Apprentice from the scared Beetle to the strong and independent girl she is at the end of the book fascinates me for what it implies about childhood and growing up.

The moments where she gains skills and, more importantly, emotions that were previously denied to her as a waif roaming from village to village and sleeping in dung heaps have a common theme: Alyce’s maturation is based upon her ability to care for others. In order to grow up and claim maturity for herself, Alyce must develop the maternal instincts she already has.

By the second chapter when Alyce is working for the midwife, we know that Alyce has maternal instincts. She is still underfed and barely noticed, but she adopts a cat and gives away part of her already sparse meals to feed him. This is not quite maternal, but it does show a tendency towards caring and nurture.

When the village boys try to drown the cat, Alyce’s attempts to bring him back to life are a marker against which to measure her growth throughout the book:

If Beetle had known any prayers, she might have prayed for the cat. If she had known about soft sweet songs, she might have sung to him. If she had known of gentle words and cooing, she would have spoken gently to him. But all she knew was cursing: “Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.”

She doesn’t know any of these because she’s never experienced them. Her maturation includes learning about some of these. (She never learns about prayer, oddly enough for the Middle Ages.)

The midwife commented earlier on her cleverness in finding a dung heap to sleep on in order to keep warm. No one taught her about that, but she figured that out as she didn’t figure out kind words.

There are a lot of things to say about that, but for now, just one: when it comes to her own survival, she can figure things out instinctively. The proper way to care for others is part of learning and growing up.

The maternal aspect of Alyce’s rescue of the cat is made clear a bit later, when a woman gives birth in the field and so Alyce actually sees the midwife at work. After the midwife screams and curses at the mother, as is her method,

Jane the Midwife eased the child out of his mother and into her hands. It out Beetle in mind of the time she got the cat out of the bag.

Alyce (or Beetle still at this point) is not yet changed from the stupid, scared girl that the midwife saw as a perfect opportunity for free help and no competition. But she has begun feeling like she could bring life into the world.

Interestingly, the moment Alyce chooses her name is not one of caring for others or of acting maternal. After going to the fair,

Beetle stood perfectly still. What a day. She had been winked at, complimented, given a gift, and now mistaken for the mysterious Alyce who could read. Did she then look like someone who could read? She leaned over and watched her face in the water again. “This face,” she said, “could belong to someone who can read. And has curls. And could have a lover before nightfall. And this is me, Beetle.” She stopped. Beetle was no name for a person, no name for someone who looked like she could read.

Frowning, she thought a minute, and then her face shone as though a torch were fired inside her. “Alyce,” she breathed. Alyce sounded clean and friendly and smart. You could love someone named Alyce. She looked back at the face in the water. “This then is me, Alyce.”

Getting a name is all about what others will feel towards the person with that name. Alyce herself has not changed. But she could imagine other people loving her, and that gives her identity. It’s not about caring for others here, but about having others care for her.

And yet no one does love her when she gets her name. As she remarks only a bit later,

This business of having a name was harder than it seemed. A name was of little use if no one would call you by it.

The first person to call her by the name she has chosen, not to laugh and say she is still nitwit, is Will Russet, one of the boys who has always plagued her. Will becomes one of the people who love her, but the reason he begins to is quite telling.

In an echo of her rescue of the cat earlier, Alyce saves Will from drowning after he falls into the river and the other boys run away, knowing none of them can swim. He pleads with her to throw him something, but she’s terrified.

This passage is narrated so as to almost elide the point where Alyce makes the decision to help. She says she’s scared, she creeps out on a branch to see where he’s gone, and suddenly the branch she’s on is being used to bend down to the river and give Will something to grab onto.

The moment when she realizes this is a good at to save him is not mentioned at all. Is it because she’s so terrified that she wouldn’t have stopped to think? Or because this tendency to save others is so instinctive?

Either way, when Will recovers, he says,

“You have pluck, Beetle.”


“You have pluck, Alyce.”

She claimed an identity for herself with her name, a girl who looks like she can read and who can be loved. It takes serving someone else, though, to get this identity recognized.

But once Will has recognized her, he helps in her process of nurturing that identity. Alyce learns to sing when she helps Will with his cow as she is giving birth. She uses gentle words on the cow “as she heard Will do,” and makes sweet noises, “although none would have called them sweet but she and the boy and the cow.”

Her memory of this wonder-filled experience later turns into a song when she catches herself rhyming in her recounting of the event to her cat: “All shiny they were, and sticky to touch. I did not even know them, but I loved them so much… And so it was that Alyce learned about singing and making songs.”

Between the birth itself and this memory, we are told that Alyce “grew in knowledge and skills…Alyce, grown accustomed to herself, did not notice. But the villagers noticed, and…they began to ask her how and why and what can I.”

She barely notices the gradual changes in her, until the next chapter when the boys are teasing the cat again and she lets out a string of shouted threats, to everyone’s surprise, especially her own.

Her caring instincts were there from the beginning, but before she had a name and before Will started noticing her and before she learned to sing, she was too afraid to rescue the cat until it was almost too late. Now she can make her voice heard without even thinking about it.

When she finally gets to help with a human birth, told by the midwife to “do nothing” while she goes to help another mother, Alyce draws on what she’s learned from birthing the calves – she speaks soothingly and gives Joan “all she had of care and courtesy and hard work.” In total opposition to what she’s seen the midwife do with human birth, she does what Will showed her with animal birth.

(There’s a whole separate and fascinating topic in comparing the incidents of animal birth and mothering, human birth and mothering, and humans helping in the birth or mothering of animals.)

This event teaches Alyce to smile:

Alyce felt so much pride and satisfaction that she had to let them out somehow, and so she smiled, which felt so good that she thought she might do it again.

The response of a smile comes not only from having accomplished, but from hearing the new father say,

“We have no need of you, Jane. Your helper has taken care of us with her two strong hands and her good common sense.”

She is needed and appreciated. And that night, she dreams of her mother, though she can’t remember the dream when she wakes. Coincidence? I think not. I’m not sure yet what exactly I think the significance is.

It could be that she’s needed and appreciated, in a way completely and obviously opposite to her precarious position earlier, when everyone knew that no one cared about her and therefore took advantage of her. And so now she dreams of belonging again.

Or, and I’m leaning more towards this, she has participated in creating a mother and so dreams of her own. She has, in the process of growing up, taken her place as part of the chain.

And I’m leaning towards that because of what happens immediately after: she becomes a mother to a little orphan boy.

Which to me means that the organizing principle of maturation in this book is the ability to shed childish selfishness and turn around to help the next child.

Selfishness being a marker of childhood is not presented as a bad thing in and of itself in this book. It’s simply that growing up and claiming adult selfhood requires cultivating a care for others.

That doesn’t mean total self-erasure either – Alyce smiles because she feels pride and satisfaction, and this prompts her to start actively learning – she has proven to herself that she can.

Before this, she couldn’t have said to Edward, “Everybody is somebody and so are you,” because she didn’t feel like somebody. Claiming a personal identity she is proud of enables her to continue maturing and passing that on to another child.

Again, passing it on does not mean totally giving of oneself with no personal benefit. Even this maternal aspect provides personal gain: “A sudden pleasure inside her warmed her hands as she reached out to smooth the boy’s hair,” as she tells him her secret of keeping warm in the dung heap.

After sending him off to the manor for work and food, Alyce feels so much satisfaction that she “thought not of her tasks but of Edward’s face and the abundance of bread and cheese up at the manor looking for a hungry boy’s belly to fill.” This is not completely selfless, as her daydream later shows – she imagines Edward starving and unhappy so that he would cling to her when she goes to visit him and take him away.

His happiness, safety, and comfort later get her to cry for the first time. Earlier, just after she saved him, Alyce fails to deliver a baby and runs away after the midwife comes to the rescue.

Strange sensations tickled her throat, but she did not cry, for she did not know how, and a heavy weight sat in her chest, but she did not moan or wail, for she had never learned to give voice to what was inside her. She knew only to run away.

This is a setback, and she goes back to thinking of herself as nobody and nothing – not what she told Edward. She hangs on to the thought of the boy at the manor as she spends weeks working as a nobody at an inn “and wondered how he fared and if she had at least done that right.”

Will again helps her grow and says during a visit to the inn when he discovers her there, “Bah, Alyce. I seen you with Tansy. You got guts and common sense. Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean you know nothing.” She needs to get the courage to go back and face her failures so she can continue learning.

But first she goes to check on her one possible success and imagines how Edward will react to her arrival. But “Alyce learned about the sometimes mighty distance between what one imagines and what is” when Edward makes sure Alyce will leave him there, because he is happy.

This confuses her emotions, as would be expected:

She would not be bringing Edward back with her to make her heart content, but she knew she had not failed him, and she breathed a heavy sigh of sadness, disappointment, and relief. It felt so good that she did it again and again until her sighs turned to sobs and she cried her first crying…

Alyce still doesn’t go back to the midwife just yet. First she has what is basically a test when a woman in labor unexpectedly turns up at the inn where Alyce is working. Alyce successfully delivers the baby when no one else has any idea what to do.

That chapter ends with Alyce going outside and thinking it’s the first of June, “the month, as Magister Reese could have told her, named for Juno, the Roman goddess of the moon, of women, and of childbirth.” Alyce herself doesn’t know this, but that makes it no less significant.

Juno represents Alyce becoming a woman, but she also represents Alyce being born. The more obvious reference of childbirth is of course the woman who gave birth, but Alyce’s transition to woman is a birth in its way. It makes me wonder if the use of childbirth in a narrative of growing up means that every transition is a new birth of its own.

Finally, Alyce decides to return to the midwife and learn all she can to continue delivering babies.

That night she dreamt she gave birth to a baby who gave birth to a baby and so on and son on until morning.

This is the resolution, which requires Alyce to have fully overcome her struggles, and in this genre, to have fully grown up. This sentence, following everything that has happened in Alyce’s process of growing up, points to the idea of maturation as assuming one’s place in the chain of motherhood.

Thinking and Feeling

Earlier this semester, I read Patricia Ingham’s article on the “Pleasures of Arthur,” arguing that the attitude of derision to scholars who hang on to their “fangirling” readings of texts is ridiculous (my words here, not hers). Of course scholars need to be able to criticize their favorite texts and stories, of course they need to be able to point out misogynistic, racist, imperialist undertones – but that doesn’t necessitate leaving behind their exhilaration and pleasure in the text, either before or after making that argument.

That’s been coming to mind a lot in two ways.

First of all, I still get excited about books I read, regardless of how terrible their attitudes are. My favorite childhood books – A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden, Little Women (and the BY Times series too!) – are hugely problematic in many ways. When I first realized this, I resisted changing my rosy views of these books, until I realized that just because I now acknowledge issues which I couldn’t have known about when I read these feel-good books as a kid, that doesn’t mean I have to give up those warm memories, nor does it mean I can never read and enjoy those books again. When I need to interrogate the racism in those books, I will, and when I want to live in that imaginary princess world again, I will.

But the other side of this is the emotion opposite to pleasure in fandom being totally allowed too. As a scholar, I can read a book that inspires strong negative emotions. I can be angry at the text, at the author, at the long line of critics for reading in a manner that elides key issues. But just as when doing scholarship on a book I love, I need to separate the “ohmygod I love this book!” from critical analysis, even if just for a few moments (if only writing a paper took just a few moments!), I also need to separate the anger, or whatever negative emotion it is, from the critical analysis when necessary.

A few colleagues have been surprised that I can be working on medieval interactions between Christian and Jewish communities, particularly in the period following the First Crusade of 1096 when the violence perpetrated against the Jews caused shifts in those interactions and attitudes, and not be in a constant state of anger. As a Jew, I should (so some think) be upset at the atrocities committed against my people. I should always speak about Christians acting with religious fervor in terms of anger, and never in terms of understanding.

But I can’t do that.

I’ve been reading Hebrew chronicles of the Crusades, pages where the chronicler lists numbers – astronomical numbers – of Jews killed in each town. I’ve been reading Hebrew poetry from around that era responding to the horrors of forced conversions, suicide to prevent that, mothers and fathers killing their children, lords promising protection and then handing over whole communities to be slaughtered, crusaders storming in and decimating entire cities within a matter of hours.

The poetry is beautiful. And I can’t read more than one or two poems at a time. Of course it’s painful, of course I am picturing my ancestors, and of course I am drawing parallels between those vague accounts and the details I know of my grandparents’ experiences in the Holocaust.

But my notes are thoughts about the language used, comparisons of the accounts of similar episodes in the chronicles versus the poetry, rhetoric and attitudes etc etc. If I wrote a paper without doing that, only focusing on how terrible and painful it is to read these texts, it would be – let’s say less than good.

In the class for which I’m writing this paper, Medieval Conversions, we spoke about the Prioress’s Tale, and it brought to mind my reaction to The King of Tars, where the attitudes of the Christian writers seem to show a bit of understanding towards the Saracen/Jewish religious fervor. There is even a small parallel made in The King of Tars between the Sultan wanting his wife to be of his faith and a Christian man wanting the same thing. But one of the conclusions in that class was that even when one group can, and tries to, understand the other, that does not necessarily mean there is sympathy.

I can’t be angry at the crusaders because I can understand them. I know their historical moment, I know the effects of a group/mob mentality, I know the realities of religious idealism gone wrong. I’ve read about the nuances, the mechanics and the politics of the crusades. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with them. But it does mean that my scholarship will contain more than “look what atrocities were committed, and this is how the Jews reacted.” It will contain analyses of the effects of the violence on the Christian community as well – an angle I would never take if I were condemning the perpetrators without trying to understand all of the dynamics.

For our Malory seminar today, we’re talking about rape. Malory himself was a convicted rapist, and rape appears throughout the text in various ways. When we were preparing for class and first started thinking about rape in Le Morte Darthur, we had some good thoughts, some good discussion.

But at one point we had to stop and say – might our reactions to and analyses of this issue be colored by our contemporary perceptions and definitions of rape? Once we take a step back and say – okay, this is how the author was thinking about this issue, because that was his historical reality – then we can begin to tease out arguments about what else is going on in the text.

If we stop at “how messed up is it that he rapes her and steals her dog and that proves his love for her!” and don’t consider the historical and legal realities that allow for that situation, we’ve missed out on a whole rich array of possibilities. (We didn’t miss out on that, by the way. We let ourselves feel disgust, but then we did take that step back.)

I want to read affectively. I want to allow myself the pleasure of enjoying a text and the pleasure of hating a text or historical background. And I also want to allow those pleasures to inform, but not take over, my critical readings of those texts.

Remember Me: Memorializing Complex Events on Tombstones in Malory

As I read the section in Morte Darthur titled “The Poisoned Apple” in Book VII, The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere, I was surprised at the lengthy description of the text written on Sir Patryse’s tomb:

Than was sir Patryse buryed in the chirche of Westemynster in a twombe, and thereuppon was wrytten: Here lyeth sir Patryse of Irelonde, slayne by sir Pynell le Saveaige that enpoysynde appelis to have slayne sir Gawayne, and by myssefortune sir Patryse ete one of the applis, and than suddeynly he braste. Also there was wrytyn uppon the tombe that quene Gwenyvere was appeled of treson of the deth of sir Patryse by sir Madore de la Porte, and there was made the mencion how sir Launcelot fought with hym for quene Gwenyvere and overcom hym in playne batayle. All thys was wretyn uppon the tombe of sir Patryse in excusyng of the quene.

My first thought was: wow, that must have been a pretty big tombstone.

But then I thought how interesting it is that on this man’s tomb (which is probably a lot larger than the gravestone I originally imagined), the main part of the story memorialized here has nothing to do with him. He is an unfortunate casualty of a plot to kill and blame others, and in fact the point of the text, as Malory writes at the end, was “in excusyng of the quene.”

The only part of the text that Malory cites directly is the sentence directly concerning Patryse, and the rest detailing the accusation and vindication of the queen is summarized. That in itself is a point worth investigating. But here I’m going to muse on a few other points.

Kenneth Tiller, in “En-graving Chivalry: Tombs, Burial, and the Ideology of Knighthood in Malory’s Tale of King Arthur,” explains that tombs are used in Malory as spaces to encode chivalry and to make sense, especially in Book I, of the chaotic events, and that at times these inscriptions are used as tools of revisionist history. He cites Balin’s tomb, which “rewrites the history of a bloody-handed and fratricidal warrior into one of an admirable and ‘chivalric’ knight” (39).

In the case of Sir Patryse, the history being recorded is an attempt to clear the name of the queen, who had been accused of treason and murder. It seems not to be revisionist history, because the events recorded on the tomb reflect exactly the events Malory has given us just before this.

Where things got interesting for me was when I read another section for this week’s seminar, “Slander and Strife” in The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur Saunz Guerdon. This week’s seminar is focusing in part on trial by combat, but this episode does not have the same structured trial by combat as the other two we read for today (“The Poisoned Apple” and “The Knight of the Cart”).

Lancelot fights, wounds, and kills the knights who attempt to catch him in the act of adultery with the queen, but it’s more of a desperate attempt to evade capture than a fight of honor, and it proves nothing anyway – Guinevere is still sentenced to death, still accused of treason.

Another article we read for today, E. Kay Harris’s “Evidence against Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory’s Morte Darthur: Treason by Imagination,” changed my view of things a bit. (I wrote the title of this post before reading Harris’s essay, and I’m not actually talking about that anymore, but I like the title, so it stays.)

Harris uses the concept of treason by imagination, as used to define the act of treason in a 1352 statute. In this framework, a person could be accused and convicted of treason if there is proof that he imagined the death of the king. How to prove imagination? Words, Harris explains. A thief can be convicted when he is caught with the stolen goods, the physical evidence of the crime, and a traitor can be convicted when he is caught with treasonous words, the physical evidence of the crime.

So words in this case are physical.

Harris says that the constant “noyse” of the knights as they accuse Lancelot as he is in the queen’s chambers stands, in this model, as proof of Lancelot’s crime of treason. Once the words have been spoken in accusation, the statute and its subsequent interpretations meant that this accusation itself could stand as actual evidence of the crime.

Malory deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Lancelot did sleep with the queen, a point many have addressed, including Harris in this essay. But ultimately, according to Harris’s analysis, it doesn’t matter, because the words of the accusation themselves convict Lancelot and the queen: “Without offering evidence that would prove either the innocence or guilt of Lancelot, Malory consigns Agravain’s accusation, teh clamor of ill-fame, to the imaginative realm. Even so, that accustaion which produces and publishes Lancelot’s treason brings about his banishment” (203).

But Harris cites an example of imaginative treason in 1444:

…in 1444 a woman acosted the king after Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, had been convicted of treason…For her words, the justices ruled that she be placed in a cart and paraded through London ‘with a paupire about hir hede of hir proude and lewed langage,’ and, according to the chronicler, she subsequently was pressed to death… (192)

Although it was her spoken words which condemned her, before being killed she was made to display them as written words. While the imaginative realm was enough to convict her, those intangible words needed to be made tangible. Harris does not explore the idea much farther than this.

But I find intriguing the correlations between Guinevere’s vindication by lengthy writing on a tomb, memorializing Lancelot’s defense and proof of her innocence through an honorable and structured system of trial by combat, and Lancelot’s conviction by spoken words, proving nothing in actuality.

If we are to believe Malory is presenting events honestly in “The Poisoned Apple,” the tomb in this case does not act as a tool for revisionist history, but merely records the facts as they occurred. Malory’s ambiguity and inconsistency, which is part of Harris’s starting point for this essay, means that the non-recorded words may in fact be acting as revisionist history.

So I don’t have a conclusion about any of that. Still thinking. And I want to take closer looks at all the tombs and their inscriptions throughout the whole book. But it’s all kind of fascinating.


Harris, E. Kay. “Evidence against Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory’s Morte Darthur: Treason by Imagination.” Exemplaria 7.1 (1995): 179-208.

Tiller, Kenneth. “En-graving Chivalry: Tombs, Burial, and the Ideology of Knighthood in Malory’s ‘Tale of King Arthur’.” Arthuriana 14.2 (2004): 37-53.

Mapping the Grail in Malory

I doodled this before class tonight and shared it with some friends. Just some silly fun. But then in class, there was talk of digitally mapping the circuitous routes of the knights in the Grail section of Malory. I think this does a pretty good job, actually, right?


Human Agency and Responsibility in Malory’s “Balin or the Knight with the Two Swords”

The story of Balin in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is littered with moments when Balin seems to watch in horror as events set in motion by his own actions spiral far out of his control with disastrous results.

The tale begins with Balin proving he is “a passynge good man of hys hondys and of hys dedis, and withoute velony other trechory and withoute treson” when he pulls the sword from the sheath carried by a damsel into Arthur’s court. But this perfection is in doubt from the very beginning, starting with the way Balin waits until every other knight has tried his hand at drawing the sword and the damsel is about to leave in disappointment. In contrast to Arthur’s response to the damsel’s challenge, “I woll assay myselffe to draw oute the swerde, nat presumynge myselff that I am the beste knyght,” Balin waits because he is poor and shabby, and also because he had been imprisoned for having killed a knight who turned out to be Arthur’s cousin. Though he had been freed by the barons, he was far from Arthur’s favorite and presumably was trying to keep a low profile. The damsel at first scorns him because of his poor dress, but he convinces her to let him try, and he succeeds in drawing the sword where all the others had failed.

This seems to prove that Balin is indeed a worthy and virtuous knight, which is necessary for the tragic tones of all the consequent harm that he inadvertently causes. But immediately after this apparent proof, Balin refuses to return the sword to the damsel, insisting on keeping it even when she warns him that only harm can befall anyone who keeps this sword. None of the major calamities that happen throughout the rest of the tale are Balin’s fault directly. But is his refusal to act logically on the information given to him a factor that might assign blame?

Following the narrative through the various altercations that Balin and his brother Balan engage in can get complicated. I stopped numerous times as I read to go back and check the relationships of all the figures involved in the slaying and avenging cycles. The most disastrous pairing is when Balin unknowingly kills his own brother, but from the start of the tale, instances where Balin slays knights whose identities become important only after he has killed them abound, the first being Arthur’s cousin for whose death Balin had been imprisoned.

The three negative qualities the damsel says must be lacking in the knight who will be able to draw the sword are “velony,” “trechory,” and “treson.” The Middle English Dictionary includes in the definition for “trecherie”

Faithlessness to a sworn oath or sacred obligation

and for “treisoun”

treachery to one’s kin, esp. contriving the death, exile, or imprisonment of a relative.

Though Balin does not set out to perform treachery in regard to his and others’ kin, does his refusal to return the sword negate his devotion to following what has been ordained to happen to him?

Balin’s brother Balan tells him, “ye must take the adventure that God woll ordayn you,” after Balin has failed to save Columbe, who kills herself because Balin has killed her lover. This knight was fighting Balin because he had been sent by Arthur to avenge the Lady of the Lake, whom Balin had killed because she had killed his mother, though the Lady says Balin killed her brother. The complicated allegiances and possible treachery are further complicated by the idea that whatever happens to any of the characters is ordained by God.

Balin himself, when refusing to return the sword, says, “I shall take the aventure…that God woll ordayne for me. But the swerde ye shall nat have at thys tyme, by the feythe of my body!” The question is, are the events that follow ordained by God, or are they a consequence of Balin’s choice to keep the sword? How does one determine which “aventure,” which chance happening, is caused by divine and which by human agency?

But going a bit farther back, when Merlin reveals what exactly was happening with the damsel who brought the sword to Arthur’s court in the first place, casts more questions on the cycle of vengeance throughout:

‘Now shall I sey you,’ seyde Merlion; ‘thys same damesell that here stondith, that brought the swerde unto youre courte, I shall telle you the cause of hir commynge. She is the falsist damesell that lyveth – she shall nat sey nay! For she hath a brothir, a passyng good knyght of proues and a full trew man, and thys damesell loved anothir knyght that hylde her as paramoure. And thys good knyght, her brothir, mette with the knyght that helde hir to paramoure, and slew hym by force of hys hondis. And whan thys false damesell undirstoode this she went to the Lady of Avylion and besought hir of helpe to be revenged on hir own brothir.

‘And so thys lady Lyle of Avylion toke hir this swerde that she brought with hir, and tolde there sholde no man pulle hit oute of the sheethe but yf he be one of the beste knyghtes of thys realme, and he sholde be hardy and full of prouesse; and with that swerde he sholde sle hys brothir…’

Turns out, the origin of the sword destined to be drawn by the best knight is riddled with treachery as well. In this recounting, though, no mention is made of the knight being required to return the sword. Would that have made a difference, after all? Merlin says “with that swerde he sholde sle hys brothir” – if he hadn’t had the sword when he faced his brother, would he have been spared this fate?

The section of this tale after Balin has enabled Arthur’s defeat of Ronys is parallel to the episode in which Columbe kills herself, despite Balin’s attempts to prevent her, after Balin has killed her lover. Merlin had prophesied after Columbe’s death that Balin would “stryke a stroke most dolorous that ever man stroke,” wounding the truest knight and causing death and destruction on a huge scale. In this last section, Balin attempts to avenge the death of a damsel’s lover, whose death Balin is only indirectly responsible for. The knight who killed the damsel’s lover is the brother of the one whose death causes all this destruction.

But this “dolorous stroke” is not delivered by the sword. In fact, as pointed out by many, the fact that Balin is the “knight with two swords” seems to have been forgotten at this point, and when his sword breaks during his fight with Pellam, he has to run around looking for another weapon. He finally finds a spear in one chamber, which is actually the spear which pierced Jesus on the Cross, and wounds Pellam with that, causing the destruction of the surrounding land (as part of the Grail story).

The damsel dies as a result of this stroke as well, meaning that if this were supposed to be somehow repairing the way Columbe died as a result of Balin killing her lover, it has not worked. But this whole thing seems to have nothing to do with the sword itself, actually. Balin killed Columbe’s lover who was trying to avenge the Lady of the Lake, who has no connection to the sword that Balin drew from the scabbard.

After this, Balin rides out alone and the story ends with Balin wearing unrecognizable armor and going to fight another knight who turns out to be his own brother, Balan, also wearing unrecognizable armor. They kill each other and ask to be buried together.

The two strands of the tale – one related to the sword, the damsel who wants revenge on her brother, and the curse that the bearer would kill his own brother; the other related to the Lady of the Lake and Balin’s failure to save the grief-stricken Columbe from suicide – seem to be largely unconnected. What they have in common is ambiguity about Balin’s fault in any of the disasters. On one hand, Balin is the victim of a curse (the sword) and another’s actions (Columbe), but on the other hand, he did take actions that had a part in bringing those to completion. He insisted on keeping the sword, and although he acted with the best of intentions, he did cause Columbe’s grief.

Just after Balin wounds Pellam, there is one short episode unconnected to either strand. Balin meets Garnysh and attempts to unite him with his love. Acting again with the best of intentions, he shows Garnysh that his love is “upon a quylt of grene samyte, and a knyght in her armes fast halsynge eyther other.” Garnysh, anguished, kills both of them, and then himself. While Balin explains that he showed Garnysh “that ye myght see and knowe her falshede, and to cause yow to leve love of suche a lady,” Garnysh’s response is “now is my sorou doubel that I may not endure, now have I slayne that I moost loved in al my lyf!” Balin tried to do right, but the effects of his actions are disastrous – just as with Columbe and the resultant “dolorous stroke,” and just as with the sword as he tried to follow “the adventure that God woll ordayne.”

Nothing results from this episode with Garnysh, and the next occurrence is Balin entering the castle from which he will venture forth to fight the knight who turns out to be his brother. Is this episode then in some way a comment on human agency and responsibility? The chain of vengeance, the complex relationships, the ignorance of characters as to each others’ identities, and this apparently stand-alone episode in the midst of Balin’s narrative arc, all point to the impossibility of knowing exactly what the consequences of any action will be.