Medievalist Miriam

Medievalist Miriam

And the internet said to Miriam, “Tell me the story of the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel in a way I’ve never heard it before.”

And Miriam said, “Not difficult that, since you’ve never heard it at all. But is this the day for such a story?”

The internet replied, “Yes.”

“As in today?”

The internet looked at Miriam and said, “It would be a poor poet who could not tell us the story of Da Derga’s Hostel.”

“Yes, but I’m not exactly a poet … oh, forget it. I know the story, but where am I meant to tell a story like that?”

“On YouTube,” declared the internet, and so it was done, because Miriam knew a great many stories, and while this was not the foremost of them, it was the most convenient because it came up in last year’s Old Irish exam.

It has struck me a few time that there isn’t a lot of point to my YouTube channel other than when I’m in Cambridge and talking about university life in a way that might be helpful for future applicants or offer-holders. The rest of the time, it’s basically a longwinded, time-consuming way of saying the same things I say here and on other social media. I recommend books on Goodreads. I give updates here. I share pictures of my shelves on Tumblr. To go to the trouble of filming, editing, rendering and uploading a video seems like rather a waste of time.

So I thought about it for a while. I thought about the videos that are my most popular videos. I thought about the fact that there are still people periodically watching the GCSE History revision videos I made when I was sixteen — some of them students from the school where I recently worked, although I’ve now finished that job and am unemployed/a full-time writer again.

I thought about the fact that I’m (theoretically) doing a very esoteric degree that most people don’t understand because no one has ever mentioned medieval Irish literature to them before, and how difficult it is to engage with most of this literature without studying it because of the way it relies on literary convention and historical context.

I was reading a book of retellings where the author had tried to make them more accessible or conventional by adding in the emotional detail that the medieval stories lack, and trying to provide motivation for the characters that way. It didn’t entirely work. Let me tell you that hearing Gwydion tell the story of himself and Gilfaethwy from his point of view is just … really, really weird (and if you don’t understand why, count yourself lucky, because that story is messed up). But it got me thinking about retellings and the versions of the stories I read before I came to uni.

A lot of Victorian scholars, as well as more recent ones, chose to sanitise the texts and explain away certain elements that made the medieval stories what they were. I’ve talked a bit about this before. I began to wonder: why is it impossible to retell stories in a way that makes sense to the average modern reader without adding to and changing the story? Why can’t we just put them in everyday language and explain the contextual stuff with a brief remark before moving on?

(To a certain extent, Tom O’Donnell does this on his blog, but even so, his stories and parodies are a lot more entertaining to people with a fair amount of knowledge about medieval Irish literature in the first place, particularly the Tattooine Cycle. I freaking love his Twitter, but my family don’t get the jokes, because they appeal to a very particular subset of Celticist nerds. I’m talking about stories that the average person with no knowledge of medieval literature could understand and enjoy.)

So I decided I would combine this wondering with my concern that my YouTube channel wasn’t serving much of a purpose, and embark on a series of videos in which I did just that.

I have a very specific style of storytelling, which basically involves me not taking anything seriously. This probably won’t suit everyone, but I think sometimes it’s necessary to engage with medieval literature as something intended to entertain, rather than just something to study; it can be hard to see the humour in something while analysing the themes.

The first story I told was Togail Bruidne Da Derga. I know this story very well, because I revised it hard before my exam in first year and then it came up and that revision was probably the main reason I got a First in Old Irish (despite my abysmal language skills), and I still had a lot of notes for it. At the same time, it’s probably neither the most interesting nor the most accessible of medieval Irish stories. It’s something that benefits from detailed study and an understanding of kingship and the Otherworld and how these themes interact…

… and I had to try very, very hard not to slip all that into the video, which despite talking fast and editing out as many pauses as I could, still ended up being 13 minutes long.

Because sometimes people just want to hear a story they haven’t heard before, and that’s the point of this series. I’m not here to explain these stories, just to tell them in a way that means they don’t need as much explanation, don’t need pages of notes and definitions to be understandable.

In future, I’ll go for shorter stories, and stories that are more objectively exciting. I’ll prep them a bit more too — I had to film this one twice, because the first was so rambly it ended up 28 minutes long. I’ve learned from telling this first story.

But even if only a handful of people watch it, I’m hoping that’ll mean a handful of people hear a story they would never have heard otherwise, and a handful of people develop an interest in medieval literature, and a handful of people find that they don’t have to do a degree in something to learn about it. Which seems to me rather a good thing.

Let me know what you think of The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, and if you’ve got suggestions for which stories I should tackle next, well… I’d be delighted to hear them.

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