Extra Credit Question

Several of the works we have studied contain divine or at least supernatural female figures like Medb, Morgan le Fay, Fortune, Natura, and Venus. Many of them, though not all, are depicted negatively or reflect derogatory views of women. Similarly, nature in medieval stories trends to be treacherous and fickle. How do these views interact; do views of women affect medieval views of nature, or vice versa? How does this manifest in the texts we have read?

Paper Proposal: ‘Fighting the Long Defeat’: Humanity, Nature, and Time 

This aim of this paper is to explore the ways in which J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings reflects common views of nature found in the literature of the Middle Ages, and how these views, though often negative, contain the seeds of a positive and healthier relationship to nature and the environment, seeds which Tolkien himself made flourish. Scholars such as Clark, Wasserman, Martin, and Low have observed tendencies in medieval literature to see nature as hostile to humans, and culture and civilization as small, brief islands of comfort and stability in the midst of change and harsh extremes. This perspective is seen in the Anglo-Saxon elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” as well as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf. Similarly, Tolkien depicts societies such as Lothlórien, Gondor, and Rohan as in decline and ultimately helpless before the march of time and change. Even the beauty and greatness that remain of these places in the novel’s present are only shadows of their former glory, and despite victory over Mordor at the end of Rings, there is a lingering sense that, like Camelot or Geatland after Beowulf’s death, these societies cannot and will not last. From this awareness of human impermanence, both medieval poetry and Tolkien depict nature as suffering alongside us, expressing emotion on humans’ behalf through natural descriptions. I will argue that elements of medieval literature that are nascent in these views have, in Tolkien’s writing, developed into hope, awe, growth, catharsis, and consolation in the face of nature’s inherent entropy. And finally, relying heavily on scholars like Niiler and Brawley, this paper will address the dualistic view inherent in medieval thought between nature and humanity, and explore how Tolkien, principally through Galadriel’s gift to Samwise of soil from Lothlórien, tacitly breaks down this dualism itself, suggesting that human culture and human attempts to reshape the world we live in — if done with respect, care, and admiration for nature — are no less a part of nature than the dams of beavers, the hives of bees, or the warrens of rabbits.

March 23: The Franklin’s Tale

This story hinges on Dorigen’s promise of her love to Aurelius on the condition that he remove all the black rocks on the coast. What are we to make of the rocks themselves, and the different roles (a threat to Arveragus, a symbol of the stability of her love, an obstacle to Aurelius’ happiness) they play in the story?

Does Chaucer see them as a part of Nature, or as part of the mythical/magical world, full of magicians and deities, that his characters inhabit? Is the natural setting of this story merely a backdrop to the plot and characters, or does it somehow interact with their stories as a force or personality of its own?

March 21: “The Wanderer”, “The Seafarer”

There is a lot to say about how these poems overlap, but how are they different? “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” contain similar moods and themes, and use similar motifs to evoke a sense of isolation from human society, but in each poem the reason for this isolation is unique.

How does the poets’ use of natural setting and imagery differ between the two poems? Are there any ways in which these differences highlight the context of (and reason for) the narrators’ isolation?

Feb 2: The Voyage of Saint Brendan

When Brendan and the monks arrive at Paradise, they find a beautiful landscape of flowers, mountains, rivers, animals, and fruits, without any thorn or brambles; basically, what many of us picture when we think of the Garden of Eden. An unspoiled place, largely untouched by the hand of man. And yet, guarding this paradise is a series of things very much in the realm of the manmade: a sword, a wall, a gate.

We often think of people in the Middle Ages, seeing Nature through the lens of Christianity, thought of the natural world as something they could own and dominate. Yet in this image of ideal nature, the home that was supposed to be humanity’s (“Which ought to have been inhabited by us”, as line 1708 puts it), the only manmade things serve to protect Nature. The implication is that these defenses were put in place by God, but still God in this poem chooses to make them in the form of human artifacts.

Is there room for a more nuanced view of Medieval Christianity’s depiction of Nature, or does this simply continue the trope of Nature as ours to do with as we wish? How and why?

Jan 31: The Voyage of Saint Brendan

Just as in Exodus, where the Hebrews are made to spend 40 years wandering in the desert before they reach the Promised Land, Saint Brendan and his monks are made to face the challenges of the ocean and unknown islands for seven years, during which they are continually reminded of God’s ultimate providence.

Since they return to the same islands (and a whale) to celebrate Holy Week and Christmas, it’s clear that the seven years is not meant to suggest that the island they seek is so far away it takes seven years to get there. What is it about the desert and the ocean both, that make these landscapes compelling and meaningful in journey stories like these? What does the depiction of the sea as a proving grounds say about the poet’s view of nature, and humanity’s relationship to it?