In this first entry of the blog, I had a few fairly simple tasks in mind; to introduce myself and the justify my interest in OMR texts. To try and “justify” my interest might seem like an odd goal on a university course, writing for an audience of fellow students and the professional academics who’ll be marking it, all of whom broadly share the same passion. But I believe that any sincere passion can be justified and even if it is not strictly necessary to do so, to take part in the exercise is a valuable tool for self-examination.
Entry the First – October 9th, 2022
Welcome to my MA blog, tentatively entitled Graved Under Mold. My name is Robbie Lyons and I wrapped up my BA in English at UCC in 2021, in the latter days of the Plague Years. Deciding to undertake the next step and have a shot at an MA was the easy, natural thing. Choosing one was considerably more difficult.
In my own time I’m a great lover of horror and weird fiction, to say nothing of noir, mystery and science-fiction. None of these highly-derived genres, easily digestible to the modern reader, can be readily traced in older works of literature without some significant spadework being put in. Even modern genres that do find easy parallels in the distant past have snares to entrap the careless reader; After all, Medieval literature is full of romance as we know it yet the word meant something wholly different to contemporary readers.
An MA studying works closer to our own time period, or even the timeless freedom of a Creative Writing course, would therefore seem like an easier path towards the ghosts and demons I’m so prone to chase after in my daily reading. And yet, I shot for OMR. The reason why is simple enough: besides a general interest in history, I’m fascinated by these older texts as the forerunners of all the literature, or even media generally, we hold dear today. There is no Lion King without Hamlet, and there is no Hamlet without Amleth. The collective body of human imagination in the form of history and folklore is crystallized and given a sharper focus by the literature that survives of our earlier ancestors.
I’ve chosen the name Graved Under Mold, a quotation from Harley 2253’s “Debate Between Body and Soul”, as it is indicative both of my fascination with the layer of buried influence that lies beneath our modern stories and of a more specific interest in how humanity’s relationship with the natural world has been paralleled in our art. To us today, nature is something beautiful and delicate, dangerous to the individual but under threat from a collective humanity whose burgeoning numbers and hungry cities threaten to overwhelm it completely. By contrast, a medieval author would have balked at the idea that any creation of God’s could be threatened by mortal men. To the medieval traveller, Nature was a deadly threat and one that would inevitably claim the body of all things that live, to be “graved under mold” while the worms eat from our chins.
In this entry, I began an examination of the adversarial relationship between man and nature in the pre-modern era, something that still fascinates me. It is frightening, humbling, and naïve all at once. I’ve cut the half of the post discussing rats for space, as it wasn’t as effective or useful.
The Wolf – November 7th, 2022
For all the time that has passed, people still fear and revile rats today for several of the same reasons they once did. Whether their feelings are justified or not, the rat still occupies a dark place in the minds of many. By contrast, the wolf is an animal whose cultural associations have completely changed since the pre-modern era. While few would care to encounter even one of these powerful pack hunters up close in the wild, their status as symbols of natural power and grace draw more admiration than fear from a human population that has outgrown the threat of wolves on anything but the personal level.
The same could be said of many apex predators now under threat from human action: tigers in particular represent a tragic vision of the natural beauty that is on the verge of fading from the world forever at our hands. But Europeans don’t live with tigers, and never did until European colonisation had saturated the globe in mutton chops and firearms. We knew wolves long before that time, and they knew us.
In prehistoric Europe, there existed a large, social, mammalian carnivore that used intelligence and pack-hunting tactics to bring down larger prey. And alongside them, existed wolves. The fact that wolves and humans shared such a similar ecological niche inevitably resulted in clashes that continued from prehistory right up until the end of the Early Modern period. The current state of wolves being largely absent as a threat in Western Europe is very much not the norm. Our conflict with our lupine competitors lasted longer than any war humans have ever thought to fight amongst themselves.
The list of wolf attacks on Wikipedia is long and brutal, but it only presents detailed records of attacks from 1700 onwards, roughly the last century of the Early Modern period. However, the most powerful and shocking account on that page is one of the few Medieval entries, one that perfectly shows the parity which existed between wolves and men in those lost days; the story of the Wolves of Paris, when in the 1430s a pack of wolves entered the city through a rent in the walls and spent a brutal winter haunting Paris and hunting its trapped residents like penned sheep. Unlike the later Beast of Gévaudan, there is no confusion or controversy about the nature of these wolves. Despite the terrifying nature of the account, or the mythmaking that may gild it, no supernatural otherness is ascribed to the wolves. They are wolves, the enemies of man, and that is cause for fear enough.
In this post, I introduce dragons and tie them to my previous post about wolves. To “introduce” dragons seems foolish, given that just about everyone in the Western world is familiar with them, but it’s a similarly useful exercise to that I carried out in my first post. I was able to the highlight some of the iconographical tells that first directed my attention towards dragons here, and even if I am unable to fully develop this in my thesis as I had hoped, this is still my favourite blog post of mine.
A Surfeit of Serpents – November 18th, 2022
I would comfortably wager that every soul reading this is familiar with at least one dragon in a work of modern pop culture they enjoy. Tolkien’s Smaug is merely the most famous of the fantasy great’s many wyrms. The Harry Potter series suffers no shortage of serpents. HBO went to great expensive to showcase CGI dragons in their adaptation of Game of Thrones and they feature even more prominently its new spin-off…well, it’s called House of the Dragon and that is not a figurative expression.
For myself, video games and tabletop games ensured frequent encounters with fire-breathing serpents and winged monstrosities. Skyrim is loaded down with the beasts, and Dungeons & Dragons prompts me to end this paragraph with the same witty flourish as the first.
The ubiquity of dragons in modern pop culture has a simple explanation; they’re cool. Incredibly so. They combine the scale of dinosaurs with the magic of Merlin. They’re majestic, powerful, awe-inspiring beings in every one of the above-named works. They offer as much scope to the speculative biologist hoping to weave realism into his fantasy as they do to the stargazing idealist who wishes to depict them as wise precursors to fickle mankind and guardians of ancient secrets.
These are, for the most part, positive traits. Even when depicted as menacing or villainous, dragons rarely fail to be impressive. They are grandiose beings the confrontation of which represent the hero’s shining moment or darkest peril. However, the further back we go the more likely it is that the dragon will be villainous or monstrous.
In a sense, the shifting depiction of dragons mirrors the depiction of large, dangerous animals over the 20th and early 21st centuries. Modern attitudes towards conservation and a higher degree of public education on matters of ecology have made a significant impact on how lions, tigers, and other apex carnivores are depicted. It no longer takes a degree in biology or first-hand experience to see these creatures not as vicious maneaters whose extermination and taxidermy should be celebrated as a pulse-pounding adventure, but as beautiful animals whose destruction is selfish and myopic.
So, with animals, so with dragons. An even-handed approach is more typical. Many modern works depict dragons as animals, as prone to bonding and affection as they are to burning down villages. The How to Train Your Dragon series has made them icons of children’s film, capping off a process at least as old as 1963’s “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Even in a work where dragons are intelligent and broadly malicious, such as Skyrim, we have a heroic dragon like Paarthunax to balance things out.
But if we cast our eye back, even as far as the Early Modern era, we find depictions of some truly terrifying wyrms. Hendrick Goltzius’s depiction of the Greek hero Cadmus encountering the dragon of Ares has none of the beneficence, intelligence, or even the grandeur of dragons as depicted in modern media. Instead, we are confronted with a baldly horrific beast, scrawny and hideous, its ravenous hunger not allowing it to pause in its feasting even to defend itself from the hero’s spear. There is no reading of the painting from which any positive view of the dragon might be gleaned; this is an unnatural thing, and its removal constitutes a heroic act of good for all of humanity.
I would urge that particular attention is paid to the dragon’s topmost head; the least prominent in the painting, it is nonetheless the most important to my purposes. The oblique angle Goltzius gives us of this head offers a more three-dimensional view of the monster’s anatomy. With its deep, rectangular muzzle and protruding tongue it suggests the lupine more than anything else. A scaled, wolf-like head atop a writing serpentine neck. This transposition of ‘undesirable’ animal traits onto dragons fascinates me, as does the reverse; when draconic or reptilian traits are ascribed to real animals, to highlight their ‘unnatural’ status as enemies of Christian humanity. As an example of this, I leave you with this truly bizarre depiction of an actual man-eating wolf that hunted the population of the town of Cinglais, France from 1632. Free from context, would you identify this as wolf or as a dragon? And if you were a French woodsman or washerwoman confronted by it on a misty morning, would such a distinction even matter?
A long break here. Too long, definitely. At this time I was struggling with a few things; the viability of my thesis idea, the requirements of the course, and that ever-present refrain; “personal issues.” Being able to attend a somewhat relevant talk at last, the mandatory nature of the seminar reports was what dragged me back to the blog, for which I am actually rather grateful. Writing this gave me an opportunity to clear my head and express some almost relevant thoughts about the changing nature of monstrosity that had bubbling in my head for a while.
Musing on the Monstrous – February 18th, 2023
On the evening of January 30th (or a midnight of the 31st, given the vagaries of our round planet), I listened in on a lecture at UCI given by Jeffrey Wilson and Thomas Varga on the topic of Richard III and how his disability has been interpreted and represented through centuries of Shakespearean performance.
Now, my interest in this topic is not just because it’s in my OMR wheelhouse but also because I’m interested in the study of monsters and monstrousness, and few human traits throughout history have been monstrified like physical deformity. Richard III may have been a ruthless Machiavellian tyrant, but his enemies still thought that outlandish tales of his two-year gestation period or full set of teeth at birth would better illustrate the blackness of his soul than describing any of his actions.
Since his death, Richard III has enjoyed a gradual rehabilitation of his reputation as more than a black-hearted semi-human devil. It may be simple contrarianism, but there’s something about literally dehumanising language that makes the conscientious person instinctively seek to contradict it, and there exists more than one society of Ricardians who seek to rehumanise the last Plantagenet king.
Given how frequently I read, write, and think about monsters of all stripes, the gradual humanisation of monstrous characters is a phenomenon I find interesting and sometimes frustrating. The vampire is the most well-trodden example, with a clear progression from pure villainy to pure heroism throughout centuries of media adaptation. In Greek and Romanian folklore, vampires are under no circumstances considered to have any good qualities, being harbingers of pestilence and death with no redeeming values. Our first literary vampire, Lord Ruthven, is similarly vile, as is the famous Dracula and his superior knock-off Nosferatu.
Yet when we look about the modern landscape of vampire fiction, we find very few depictions of the vampire as a unilateral villain. They can be misunderstood antiheroes, broody love interests, or tortured by their curse. Even when we do see villainous vampires, they’re often contrasted by our pointy-toothed protagonists. Vampires have essentially become as people; some are good, some are bad.
Good writing is a complex thing, and giving characters multi-layered personalities and relatable motivations is considered a hallmark of mature storytelling. It’s a very natural progression to consider the internal lives of what we term “monsters”, to try and put ourselves in their shoes and examine how we would deal with the unnatural powers and weaknesses they carry. In this way we rehumanise creatures that were never intended to be human and gain a degree of depth for what were, by modern standards, shallow antagonists.
However, there is a trade-off, which I rarely see discussed or acknowledged; purity of purpose. Purity is a vanishingly rare quality in actual reality, as hardly anything or anyone is wholly any one thing. Any good person has their secret shames, if only in thought, just as every scoundrel of the blackest dye balks at some arbitrary line. But in fiction, such crude realities can be distilled, harnessed, contemplated, and feared. To posit that the vampire has an internal life like you or I, however twisted, bridges this gulf; it strengthens them as characters but weakens them as symbols. Pure evil can only exist as either a spiritual force, if one is a believer, or a conceptual one.
Well, here it is; my academic dark night of the soul. I do hope, in my vanity, that the frustration and despair I was wading through around this time, were not too obviously on display. Nobody enjoys falling down, but most would enjoy it even less in public, I’ll be bound. Still, things have brightened somewhat since then. I will talk about it in my conclusion.
Where Be Dragons? – February 26th, 2023
Gentle reader, you may be surprised to learn that I have my faults; it’s true! While a casual perusal of this blog so far might paint me as a confident, debonair academic (no, don’t laugh), I am in fact, not The Most Interesting Man in the World. What I’m driving at here is that my research hasn’t been going well, and I find myself questioning the validity of my ideas for the upcoming thesis.
If you’ll recall, the genesis of my idea was to examine the connection between dragons and nature; more specifically those elements of nature which threatened medieval people with pestilence, famine, and death. The dragon as a wolf, the dragon as a rat, the dragon perhaps even as time. And while there is evidence of these connections, it’s scant and often inferred. Some of the most prominent literary dragons that survive instead have distinctly human symbolic associations; greed for Fafnir and Beowulf’s wyrm, Catholicism for Redcross’s dragon (it’s a long story). Actually, religion, evil, and Satan are by far the most frequent obvious parallels to dragons that appear in literature.
Yet this connection to nature nags at me. I was first put on this path by certain iconographical representations of dragons being wholly alien to our modern conceptions of them. Indeed, that clash between our modern conceptions of dragons and the great beasts as they actually exist in pre-modern texts is one of the sharpest contrasts in monster studies. But finding textual, rather than iconographical, evidence of this has proven difficult. Rats in particular seem to have had little bearing on the minds of medieval writers, which seems strange given their ubiquity and the constant threat of poor harvests and famine in the medieval world.
So, I must either broaden my scope or change lanes entirely. The latter option is unappealing, given how much the topic of monster studies appeals to me, so the question is how should I broaden my scope? Broadening it to examine the symbolic use of dragons in pre-modern texts generally seems too ambitious for a 15-20k word thesis. But even if it could be made to serve, I fear it’s ground already too well-trodden by generations of former travellers. My other, perhaps slightly riskier option, is to look beyond dragons at mankind’s relationship with nature in general, particularly the adversarial nature of that relationship. It strikes the same ganglion in my head as focusing on just the dragons and gives me greater scope to examine non-scaly texts…but at present I have no idea what such texts might be. Old English poetry has a lot of desolate natural imagery, and of course the beasts of battle feature prominently. Medieval writers seem to have skipped over rats for the most part, but wolves also feature prominently in many writings…how about weather? The vicious rainstorms of the early 13th century precipitated (ha!) the Great Famine, the precursor to the Black Death. Disease? But here we enter the realm of “practical” texts, the domain of the historian and not the English student. Can I find compelling evidence of the Man vs. Nature cage match that made up the first few hundred thousand years of our existence in medieval and early modern literature? And can I develop what I find into a thesis?
So, then. Having had occasion to read through as many accounts of dragons as I could get my hands on these past few months, I have noticed a dearth of the obvious natural parallels I see in medieval iconography, but I have taken note of another commonality that draws my interest; slayers. Almost every story about a dragon, hydra, lindwyrm, or anything else dragon-adjacent, features a hero who bests it. This can take the form of slaying or praying or any combination of the two, but affords an interesting basis for comparative analysis. What does how a culture deals with its dragons say about it values and aspirations? I will work on developing this idea in the coming weeks. Until then, thank you for reading,
References & Image Credits
“Courtaud & the Paris Wolf Attacks.” The Happy Gallows. July 2016, https://happygallows.blogspot.com/2016/07/courtaud-paris-wolf-attacks.html, [Accessed November 7th 2022]
Fein, Susanna Greer, et al. The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, Volume 2 (Teams Middle English Texts). UK ed., Medieval Institute Publications, 2014, Teams Middle English Text Series, https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/fein-harley2253-volume-2 [Accessed 9th October 2020]
van Maerlant, Jacob, Der Naturen Bloeme. approx. 1350, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, KA 16, fol. 62r, accessed at https://manuscripts.kb.nl/search/simple/ka+16/page/24, [Accessed November 7th 2022].
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