Support Your Local Student: Read Medieval Literature

Support Your Local Student: Read Medieval Literature

As the clock ticked over onto my 22nd birthday, I was in the process of filling in a job application with a dislocated thumb. Or something similar, anyway. I’m still not entirely sure what it is my hand does when I’m using it and it suddenly stops working and starts hurting a lot, but it’s probably some manner of subluxation, since I’m hypermobile. It’s been dodgy ever since. Truth be told, I’ve had a fair amount of pain in my hands for the past couple of weeks — using a computer a lot over the weekend just pushed it over the edge, and now I’m at the stage of wearing a splint and trying to use them as little as possible. My right hand is worse, because of mouse usage, but the left isn’t great either.

That, then, has been less than ideal.

I have, however, discovered a wonderful thing, which is that there are numerous medieval literary texts available very cheaply as Kindle editions — I’m talking £1.99 for the Tain or Gantz’s Early Irish Myths and Sagas, both essential texts for people wanting to do ASNaC and really useful for anyone studying medieval Irish literature, but also accessible to the general reader who is interested in knowing what I’m yammering on about when I talk about my dissertation.

I made a masterpost of all the vaguely relevant medieval Kindle bargains I could find, which some of you might be interested in checking out, either because you already have an interest and are looking for particular books that you haven’t yet read, or if you’re entirely unfamiliar with medieval literature and would like to give it a go. Moreover, because Amazon affiliates links are a thing, if you buy any of those books via those links, I get a tiny percentage at no extra cost to you. Support a broke student — read medieval literature!

The above only applies to people buying from Amazon.co.uk, sadly, though Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is $1.81 on .com if anyone’s interested. Any other .com deals I notice, I’ll let you know.

Literally the only downside to this is that you don’t get to take pretty shelfies because they’re all Kindle editions. But, on the other hand, you can search them.

Tiny earnings aside, I’m genuinely passionate about persuading ‘normal’ people to read medieval literature. I think it’s intimidating to a lot of people: even in translation, the content can be difficult to comprehend, because the social circumstances under which it was written are so different. Then there’s the fact that it’s difficult to know where to start. A lot of people’s first exposure to this material is through folklore and pop culture, so where do you go from there? What’s the ‘canon’? How do you know what the ‘genuine’ version of a story is when you’ve come across eight different retellings and all the ‘original’ stories contradict each other?

It’s difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible. While some stories require understanding of the context to make sense, others are definitely accessible without detailed study. I first read the Tain in sixth form, before I’d done ASNaC. Obviously, I understood it less well than I do now, when I’m literally writing a dissertation on it — but I still understood and enjoyed it and had feelings about it.

Because that’s the other thing — I don’t think our response to medieval literature necessarily needs to be academic. It’s not intended to just be shut up in dusty Oxbridge libraries to be studied in great depth. There’s value in that, of course there is; if there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing ASNaC. But sometimes you just need to read it as literature. Not necessarily in the same way you’d read modern literature, but as a story. Forget erudite analysis of intent and sources and mythological remnants. What do you feel?

Admittedly, that’s how I feel about a lot of study of literature, that people are so busy analysing it from an academic perspective that they forget to think about what they feel and how they respond on a personal, subjective level. (The final poem in Fleeting Ink is partly about this.)

It was at least partly inspired by how much I relate to Hamlet on a personal level.

But I think it’s doubly true for medieval literature, because it’s so rarely read outside of an academic context. While novels might be read both by academics and by regular people who pick them up in the library or a bookshop, many of these older texts are obscure and forgotten except by those with esoteric interests. I tell people about the Tain and they’re interested — they’d just never heard of it before. I adapt my summary based on who I’m talking to, but this one seems to work well:

“So it’s about the armies of Ireland versus one seventeen year old boy — and he keeps winning. It also contains what are basically several Old Irish rap battles.”

I think social media has helped to make medieval lit more accessible. I’ve seen several retellings of medieval texts on Tumblr and on people’s blogs, which help bring them to a wider audience. Tom O’Donnell shares all sorts of niche humour on his blog, and is also responsible for the Tattooine Cycle, which is Star Wars in the style of a medieval Irish text (and it’s amazing). I made a video a couple of years ago talking about Togail Bruidne Da Derga, one of the texts in Gantz’s Early Irish Myths and Sagas, because it’s one of those stories that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without context but is quite fun in context.

However, there’s still a way to go before I can tell the average person what I’m writing my dissertation on and they’ll actually know what that is. So I’m doing my bit to hasten that day (partly because it gets boring answering the same questions over and over again) by bringing you guys cheap Kindle deals. Go forth and read weird medieval stories, my friends.

And ideally, via those links so that when the optician inevitably tells me I need new glasses this afternoon, I can better afford to get some ;)

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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