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Death in The Sandman: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman (referenced in the title of this post)

Just like anyone else I get anxious when faced with the unknown or change, but the stronger feeling I have in these situations is excitement for the possibilities. When I left Chicago for Cork, I had no idea what to expect from this master’s program, I didn’t know a single person here, and I had yet to secure a place to live. I quite literally just showed up and figured out everything else along the way. The same thing happened on a much smaller scale when told to start a blog and post about my research in a very public way, which I would then be assessed on at the end of the year. Just like my move, I was excited by the prospect, I set it up, and I figured it out along the way.

I started out with what seemed like the obvious answer, how my interest in death in medieval literature came to be. My first blog post served as both an introduction and close reading of my favorite line in “The Wanderer” that has been a fixation of mine since I encountered it during my undergraduate education. My fascination with lines 82b-83a comes from the peculiarity of death in the context of the sentence:

In most contexts, the noun “death” invokes a thing or a state of being; however, in this poem I see death acting as either a person or a place. In my translation, I added the word “with” because death is in the dative form, and thus an indirect object of what the “grey wolf” is sharing with “one”. As School House Rock reminds us, a noun — in the most basic sense — is a person, place, or thing. This nuance is relevant because stuff isn’t typically “shared” with things, leaving us with person and place. Which only bring up more questions of the poet’s and Old English attitudes towards death. Texts that imply death is an individual or somewhere to go is a particular love of mine, and one I am continuing to look into. One day I hope to identify the common thread between these and make a hypothesis as to why this happens, but as of now, I’m collecting instances and ruminating.

sumne se hāra wulf dēaðe gedælde

Looking back on this paragraph is strange because I’m still focused on figures of death, but not in the same way as before. Word choice and connotations are important to me, but I’ve pulled myself out of the trenches of making post-structuralist semiotics the core of my arguments. Those ideas still have their place but I think I was driving myself mad getting so close to the grammar, and stepping back has made me enjoy looking at the presence of different figures of death more.

Three Skulls (1902-1906) Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

            The next post showed this a little bit by starting as a close look at the difference of meaning between mourning and grief, but then zoomed out to talk about the cultural difference between the two. This was also the point I realized how hard blogging is, and how anxious I felt about making each post perfect. I threw the post together quickly because I had spet the last month just making drafts, and looking back, it’s super repetitive:

All of these points of public mourning are ways of expressing private grief. In my own understanding of private grief, it’s not necessarily hidden, but it is up to the individual to decide how it is shown. In the way monuments and funerals give an open display of a loss to anyone observing, grief is more about the individual than the collective. Public mourning takes up most of my thoughts in this post because it is something palpable, whereas private grief means something different to everyone.

Public Mourning and Private Grief

All these lines could have easily just been said in two. I would like to say that my writing has become more concise, or at least I’ve made my peace that repetition has its place, but it has to be used carefully. This post is also indictive that my first draft is just to get the words down, and revision is for culling until I find what I’m actually trying to say. With repetition I know that I am trying to say different things, but focusing just on how sentences are related. But then again, I am extremely critical of my own work, and will look for any way to call my writing bad.

The Witcher Fuck GIF - TheWitcher Fuck HenryCavill - Discover ...

The next two months (three if I count the majority of November) in both my life and blog was characterized by good ol’ imposter syndrome. I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say, and I just had to pretend until the MA was over. My blog post on Netflix’s 2019 adaptation of The Witcher came into existence because of my strange, lengthy debates that red hair isn’t a personality trait, and that when I would vent my frustration to friends in the MA, they told me to post it. So I did, and even highlighted my imposter syndrome: “Unfortunately, a life long experience of being a female consumer and creator of pop culture has taught me that I need to show my credentials before being openly critical” (Fan Culture’s Fixation on Fictional Gingers). When writing this paragraph, I was thinking about anyone who would stumble across my blog and tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Through my need to prove I am knowledgeable on the topic I was actually covering up the fact I didn’t think my words were valuable on their own.

Recounting my search for Cat Sidhe was another way to avoid having to compose and post an opinion on anything. I essentially created a summary of all the different stories that could be related to the mythological cat. Since there was no point to this post beyond having something written on my blog, my conclusion was to give up (written in an academic way):

I do not have any confirmation if Cat Sidhe was ever a real belief, but it’s interesting that these stories connect the figure to the dead. I don’t think it is a personified Death, but Cat Sidhe certainly follows the dead whether it be funerals or sacrifices. It is also important to note that it’s literally a fairy cat because fairies have a connection to the dead in medieval literature. Unfortunately, I think I’ve exhausted the resources of the potential existence of Cat Sidhe, and can only hope someone else is willing to dive deeper into this concept.

Curiosity Killed the Cat… and Satisfaction Hasn’t Brought it Back
My cat Dusty, demonic status confirmed

The upside is that the night I spent scouring the internet was not a waste of time. I could have easily thrown out the research because at that point I had decided that blogging is not for me. Now I’m unsure how I feel about it. I think the knowledge that I was going to be graded on this writing kept me from exploring the platform more. I felt like I needed to stay that would culminate in my future thesis, rather than just writing on whatever was on my mind. If I continue to use Morbid Medievalist after this course, there will be a wider variety of things because everyone needs a life and interests outside of their research.

            I was not able to get out of my funk until the in-class assignment on editing Wikipedia. I had a lot of fun writing about pop culture and the general vibe in the room that day was joyous. When I wrote my reflection, I “[hoped] the Death (personification) page will get more contributions because I would like to see how someone else would revise it” (#EditWikiLit: One Week Later). I am happy to report that it has gotten quite a few additions, and has given me more media to consume. It’s a nice reminder that the work I’m doing in the MA does not exist in a void. This assignment was also beneficial in recovering from a bout of imposter syndrome because it reminded me how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to pursue academia:

My primary take-away from this experience is the integral role that Wikipedia plays in accessibility of information. I’ve always been aware of my privilege to not only to pursue higher education, but also to study what I love. For many people museums, documentaries, and hours on Wikipedia is the only contact that they’ll have with Medieval literature. While I didn’t edit anything about the Middle Ages specifically, this assignment reminded me of the privilege I have just to go to university and learn from primary texts. I’m definitely going to continue revising and fact checking Wikipedia pages because it’s a very small way that I can use my privilege of education to benefit others.

#EditWikiLit: One Week Later

I adore medieval literature and because of that, I am aware that it is not accessible. What I mean is in order to just read the texts, one has to learn the language or use a translation, which are often dense. Essentially, medieval literature is not light reading and there is a toxic history of hoarding the information to make academia an elite group. The Wikipedia assignment reminded me that I’m in this area of study not only for my love of the texts, but also a desire to share it with anyone willing to learn. As education becomes increasingly expensive, the number of people who cannot afford to follow their passion grows, and I hope to be involved in public humanities to foster continued learning. I know this is an idyllic outlook from someone still at the start of my academic career, but reminding myself of this goal helps me keep the imposter syndrome at bay. The more people in academia who see the need for accessibility, the more public humanities will grow.

Before coming to University College Cork, my experience in medieval literature was primarily Old English with a smattering of Old Norse. I had just read Sir Orfeo for the first time a few days before Dr. Amelia Worsley gave her lecture for the Research Seminar Series on echoes and Charlotte Smith’s solitaries. I was blown away how well the ideas she presented could be applied to Sir Orfeo, and with the notion that echoes have their own presence, Sir Orfeo was able to make a trade for Heurodis:

Using Smith’s idea that echoes remain as a part of the landscape, Sir Orfeo trades the voice he creates with his harp in exchange for his wife. He is able to enter the otherworld, without being summoned by the Fairy King, under the guise of a harpist looking for work. The music stands in place of negotiations for his wife’s life, and the Fairy King must honor his promise and give him Heurodis. There is no indication that the Fairy King knows the harpist is Sir Orfeo, so his music truly stands on its own as the price for Heurodis. Dr. Amelia Worsley notes that an echo reverberates throughout time, which would make this an even trade for the Fairy KingSir Orfeo is able to bring his wife back from the Otherworld, or death, by replacing her presence with the echo he creates with his harp.

In Response to “Charlotte Smith’s Solitaries and Her ‘Strange Shells’ of Poetry.”
File:Heimdal verlangt die Rückkehr Iduns aus der Unterwelt.jpg
Heimdallr desires Iðunn’s return from the Underworld (1881) Carl Emil Doepler.

These ideas were developed more into what was to be my mini-conference presentation. Thinking of Sir Orfeo’s music with a staying presence, allowed for me to think about the exchange taking place and notice a trend of playing games with Death.

            Reflecting on Death’s games is the natural progression here, so please excuse that I’m breaking from the form of discussing each post in the order they are on my blog. Plus, as I paraphrased in my bio and I am going to actually implement, “this is the blog where I write about whatever I want, because it’s my blog, and not yours” (“About”). For the mini-conference I intended to talk about the ways that “The Death of Baldr and Hermod’s Ride to Hel” in The Prose Edda, “The Pardoner’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, and Sir Orfeo follow the conventions of a game. A fun fact about me is I have additional writing credits from the time I spent as an intern at the video game company Volition. So not only am I consulting research on game studies, I also have experience in the field. It was an exciting moment to see the different parts of my life meeting when I realized that these texts fit the model:

The texts mentioned above all have characters who challenge Death, and play a game with them according to game studies’ idea of “game”. While the details of each exchange differ, Death is ultimately the winner in these encounters. This sampling shows the continued desire to defy Death, even though dying is still an unavoidable concept. My further research into death personified can go in multiple directions: finding more example of Death’s games, looking at other common threads of how death is personified, or considering Death’s role as the adversary.

The House Always Wins: Death Personified and Game Studies in Medieval Literature

It turns out, my long-term research will combine all three. Death plays more games when I take into account the theme of hunting, and consider Death as a hunter. The current groupings I’m looking at are the one just mentioned; fertility and fate, which I have already written about on this blog; and movement, which includes dance. These motifs still give space for Death to be the ultimate adversary because of the sense of definite finitude. This even accounts for the villainy of the undead, but I would not consider them Death (the proper noun).

Eve, the Serpent, and Death (1510-1515), Hans Baldung Grien, National Gallery of Canada

While exploring Middle English I noticed that figure of death tended to be masculine, whereas in early medieval literature they were feminine or genderless. It was then that I read The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature by Karl S. Guthke that tracks the changes in Death’s gender over time and what prompted it. For the later Middle Ages, Guthke looks at Adam and Eve for their role in bringing Death into the world (40-41). Specifically, Eve’s role in being the mother of humanity connected Death to fertility for me. Then the in-class discussion of Lady Fortune bringing people from crib to grave added fate into this group. This is a reminder to me that the study of death is also the study of life, and there is a unique feminine role in the duality:

It is interesting to note that all the figures mentioned [in the blog post] are feminine, or, at the least, described with female pronouns. James J. Paxton observes that personifications are innately female, and anything else is the deviant (“Personification’s Gender”). In my research it is only figures of death with connections to fertility or fate that are exclusively female. Further research will involve looking at why medieval literature reserves that dual identity for figures of femininity

Life: The Harbinger of Death

Figures of death with a connection to fertility and fate could be an MA thesis topic on its own. Especially when I consider how these women are still adversaries in various ways. This is because of the innate fear associated with death, and the monstrous role of a female as a giver of life and death.

March 9th through the 11th of 2020 the Medieval/Renaissance MA was fortunate enough to get to know Dr. Imke Lichterfeld. She was a guest instructor for a class on The Revenger’s Tragedy, which culminated in her lecture for the Research Seminar Series along the line of the same themes:

She examined the “other” in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, the choice in casting marginalized people in these roles, and the criticism in response to these casting choices. Dr. Lichterfeld’s research focused on the “other-ing” of bastards, specifically Edmund in King Lear, and looking at the receptions of productions casting choices of these characters.

In Response to “Diversity on Stage? Shakespearean Productions and Racism, Sexism, and Ableism”

Bastards have an inherent villainy because they are born into the role as the “other.” Her lectures continued my train of thought on what qualities define a character as a villain, and consider if Death could be seen as an “other”. What confirmed Death’s adversarial function was Rosemary Woolf stating in The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages,“people have to be taught to fear hell, they naturally fear Death” (73). Which is true even in art, exemplified by the folklore surrounding the statue Eternal Silence by Lorado Taft.

Eternal Silence by Lorado Taft at Graceland Cemetery Chicago, IL Photographed by Annette Ellis (2006)

It may be surprising that the first time I felt homesick during my time in Cork was during isolation due to COVID19. I’ve missed my loved ones the entire time, but there was a different feeling of longing since returning home would be unsafe for those same people who fall into the “at risk” category. My final post was and excuse to write about Eternal Silence because all I wanted to do during that time was to go for a walk in Graceland Cemetery:

Standing at ten feet tall (three meters), the bronze statue Eternal Silence by Lorado Taft is Graceland Cemetery’s personal depiction of Death personified. Since it was placed in the cemetery in 1909, the bronze statue now exists in a severely oxidized state, but that only adds to its somber look at the passage of time. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the sculpture is based on Taft’s “ideas on death and silence” and the figures on the Tomb of Philip the Bold in Dijon, France. It is also said if you look into the eyes of Eternal Silence you will see a vision on your own death, but as someone who has looked upon his face many times, I can assure you that is just folklore

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” – Richard II (III.ii.141)

This also made me realize how long I’ve been interested in death personified because as a child I always asked to visit Graceland Cemetery so I could see this statue. Things always come full circle because while blogging was difficult for me it forced me out of my comfort zone, which was also one of the reasons I decided on University College Cork. Embracing the unknown makes us grow as people and my time here has certainly done that. Blogging has made me more comfortable with sharing my writing and introduced me to other people’s interpretation of texts to challenge my own. My classmates’ posts have blown me away with all the amazing things they discover and given me plenty to think about. This master’s program is far from over, but Morbid Medievalist and taking this time to reflect has shown me how much I have grown. Chances are that in late summer, when we do reach the official end, I’ll look back at this post and realize I’ve once again become a different person.

This week I found a video Dr. Dean Cantù’s overview of the personification of Death at TEDxUniversityofTulsa (2018), which, much to my excitement, we’ve noticed similar patterns.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: Brief Lives. Vol. 7, DC Comics, 1994.

Guthke, Karl S. The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge;New York;, 1999.

Woolf, Rosemary. The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages. Clarendon Press, 1998.

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “About.” Morbid Medievalist, 2 Oct. 2019, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/about/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “sumne se hāra wulf dēaðe gedælde.” Morbid Medievalist, 2 Oct. 2019, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2019/10/02/sumne-se-hara-wulf-deade-gedaelde/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “Public Mourning and Private Grief.” Morbid Medievalist, 2 Nov. 2019, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2019/11/02/public-mourning-and-private-grief/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “Fan Culture’s Fixation on Fictional Gingers.” Morbid Medievalist, 22 Dec. 2019, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2019/12/22/fan-cultures-fixation-on-fictional-gingers/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “Curiosity Killed the Cat… and Satisfaction Hasn’t Brought it Back.” Morbid Medievalist, 24 Jan. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/01/24/curiosity-killed-the-cat-and-satisfaction-hasnt-brought-it-back/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “EditWikiLit: One Week Later.” Morbid Medievalist, 12 Feb. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/02/12/editwikilit-one-week-later/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “In Response to ‘Charlotte Smith’s Solitaries and Her “Strange Shells” of Poetry’.” Morbid Medievalist, 13 Feb. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/02/13/in-response-to-charlotte-smiths-solitaries-and-her-strange-shells-of-poetry/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “Life: The Harbinger of Death.” Morbid Medievalist, 21 Feb. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/02/21/life-the-harbinger-of-death/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “In Response to ‘Diversity on Stage? Shakespearean Productions and Racism, Sexism, and Ableism.’” Morbid Medievalist, 13 Mar. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/03/13/in-response-to-diversity-on-stage-shakespearean-productions-and-racism-sexism-and-ableism/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “The House Always Wins: Death Personified and Game Studies in Medieval Literature.” Morbid Medievalist, 20 Mar. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/03/20/the-house-always-wins-death-personified-and-game-studies-in-medieval-literature/

Zelechowski, Mylissa. “’Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs’ – Richard II (III.ii.141).” Morbid Medievalist, 23 Mar. 2020, https://morbidmedievalist.wordpress.com/2020/03/23/lets-talk-of-graves-of-worms-and-epitaphs-richard-ii-iii-ii-141/

"Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs" – Richard II (III.ii.141)

It may be a deep look into my psyche that I grew up playing in cemeteries. I learned to ride a bike on the paths, I laid out in the grass to read, and I even learned how to drive on the roads of some of the bigger ones in the Chicagoland area. Cemeteries are a place of refuge to me, and a place to go for peace and to enjoy the sculptural art. I haven’t written at all on my blog about this art form so with cosmic tension going on all around the world, I’m going to practice self-indulgence and write about some of my favorite cemetery art.

Wheat on a headstone at Westerly Burying Ground in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, Mike Ball (2011)

My absolute favorite image is found on graves are depictions of broken things because of the emotional connotations of associating death with breaking. A link of chains with one broken can represent either a family contacted to the one who has died or the severing of soul from body. Brokenness also represents a life cut short. In particular a rose in different stages of bloom indicate about how old a young woman was at her death: just a bud is used for a child 12 or under; a partial bloom is a teenager; and a full bloom is normally someone in their early/mid twenties or died in the “prime of life”.

On the other end, wheat indicates that someone live a long life and died at the right time. The right time of course is subjective but whomever chose the image for the grave marker clearly believed it was such. This image is interesting because of the implied grim reaper. In case you didn’t know, a scythe is a tool for reaping wheat or grains (reaping being the actual act of cutting in the harvesting process). The idea of the grim reaper taking the person to the afterlife is present with out actually showing a skeletal figure.

The cadaver tomb of Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln Cathedral,
died 1431 Photo © Richard Croft (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The movement in the British Isles to statuesque burial markers is found in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The tradition of marking important graves with a stone slab emerged just before then in the late Old English period. The early sculptures often displayed a serene image of the deceased sleeping on a pillow, or with a fabric spread over an inert figure. Erwin Panofsky points out it is not until after the Black Death that tombs “attempted to represent the actual condition of ‘being dead'” (Tomb Sculpture 56). It is then that we get the double-decker transi tomb or cadaver tomb; he earliest known transi tomb in England belongs to Bishop Richard Fleming. This type of tomb depicts a stately figure of the deceased on the upper level, often with hands in prayer to help the soul through purgatory, and an image of decay directly below. Just like the motif in literature, the tombs often showed worms and vermin consuming the corpse and stood as a grim reminder that of momento mori.

Inez Clarke Monument, taken August 2019

Graceland Cemetery is a 121 acre, garden cemetery in Chicago, Illinois and one of the above referenced cemeteries that I “grew up” in. It’s full of iconic names relevant to Chicago history, and outside of the area it is mostly known because of its role in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. If I were to lead a tour of Graceland, I would say the two most important stops are the graves of Inez Clarke and Dexter Graves. The grave of Inez Clarke is the statue of a girl which reads “Inez Daughter of J.N. & M.C. Clarke.” What makes this grave special is not only the detail put into the sculpture, but also the urban legends created around her. Historical records about her are scarce and there were decades of debate before her identity and familial associations were tracked down. Her cause of death is unknown but the urban legend says she died when struck by lightning, and every time there is a storm, the statue gets up from her chair and hides until it is over. To add fuel to the mystery of this grave, Helen Sclair, affectionately called in Chicago “The Cemetery Lady”, found records indicating that a young boy named Amos Briggs in actually buried in that plot.

Eternal Silence at Dexter Graves’s grave, taken August 2019

Dexter Graves also is not well known for his individual role in Chicago history, but rather his grave and the sculpture accompanying it. Standing at ten feet tall (three meters), the bronze statue Eternal Silence by Lorado Taft is Graceland Cemetery’s personal depiction of Death personified. Since it was placed in the cemetery in 1909, the bronze statue now exists in a severely oxidized state, but that only adds to its somber look at the passage of time. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the sculpture is based on Taft’s “ideas on death and silence” and the figures on the Tomb of Philip the Bold in Dijon, France. It is also said if you look into the eyes of Eternal Silence you will see a vision on your own death, but as someone who has looked upon his face many times, I can assure you that is just folklore.

Sources

Panofsky, Erwin. Tomb Sculpture: Four Lectures on Its Changing Aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini. Edited by H W Janson, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992.

https://gracelandcemetery.org/

Kiefer, Charles D., Achilles, Rolf, and Vogel, Neil A. “Graceland Cemetery“, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, HAARGIS Database, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, June 18, 2000, accessed October 8, 2011.

Bielski, Ursula. Creepy Chicago: A Ghosthunter’s Tale of the City’s Scariest Sites, Lake Claremont Press, 2003.

Transi de René de Chalon
Church of Saint-Etienne in Bar-le-Duc, France

Taylor, Alison (2001). Burial Practice in Early England. Stroud: Tempus.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Richard the Second.” The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, 2nd ed., W.W. Norton, 2008, pp. 973–1043.

I took the polaroid photos of Eternal Silence and Inez Clarke Monument in August 2019 to take with me during my time at UCC. Anyone who stumbles upon this blog is welcome to use them with credit, however I assure you there are much better photos on Graceland’s website.

The House Always Wins: Death Personified and Game Studies in Medieval Literature

My research interest is death in the Middle Ages, and for my thesis I’m considering looking at the ways death is personified. Right now I’m using a wide range of texts because I haven’t figured out if I am a late or early medievalist, but hopefully I will figure that out as I find more examples. For this blog post, I’m looking at “The Death of Baldr and Hermod’s Ride to Hel” from The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson (translation by Jesse Byock); “The Pardoner’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer; and Sir Orfeo from the Auchinleck Manuscript. All of these texts have a character who challenges Death, according to the model of games, which ultimately results in Death winning.

Death Playing Chess (15th century), Albertus Pictor, The Swedish History Museum/Lennart Karlsson

In mythology death personified takes two main forms: A character who causes death and collects a soul or a psychopomp escorting the soul to the afterlife with no control over the occurrence. My definition includes both of these ideas, but also includes anything playing the role of Death. The late fifteenth-century vaulted fresco of “Death Playing Chess” in Täby Church, Sweden — and my background writing narrative for video games— prompted me to consider ways that Death is playing a game. While definitions of “game” very from text-to-text on game studies, the common threads are that they must have rules, autonomy, known outcomes, and goals within a feedback system. The goal is a specific outcome that the player is trying to obtain by subscribing to a set of rules that limit the method of achieving such. When developing a game, the player must have autonomy, as in, there’s a sense of free will. Likewise, game needs known outcomes, which are quantitative or qualitative ways to measure the results that are clear to the player.

In Snorri Sturluson’s collection of Norse myths, The Prose Edda, Hel is the personified figure of Death. Her role as a god is to preside over the realm of the same, and in “The Death of Baldr and Hermod’s Ride to Hel,” she has control on who can come and go from her hall. At the start of the poem Baldr dies and Odin, knowing that his son’s death is the first part of Ragnarök, requests that someone goes to Hel and bribe her for his return. This encompasses both the goal and the known outcome for the game: retrieve Baldr or failure means ruin for the Æsir. The game is defined when Hermod asks to take Baldr back to Asgard and “Hel answered that a test would be made to see whether Baldr was as well loved as some say: ‘If all things in the world alive or dead, weep for him, then he will be allowed to return to the Æsir. If anyone speaks against him or refuses to cry, then he will remain with Hel” (Sturluson & Byock 68). Everything has the choice to weep, and exercising her free will, Thokk the giantess declines and “let Hel hold what she has” (Sturluson & Byock 69). Therefore, in Hermod’s failure to meet the “win conditions” Hel set, death personified won this game.

“The Pardoner’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer is a narrative of three revelers who upon hearing of their friend’s demise, decide to seek out and kill Death. Serina Patterson even points in her dissertation that the Pardoner’s aim with his tale is to “[warn] his fellow pilgrims of the dangers of gambling”, (Game On: Medieval Players and Their Texts 40). The text is meta in the fact there is a critique of the greed of gamblers, but also, they test their luck in trying to kill Death. Personified Death is omnipresent in “The Pardoner’s Tale” because the revelers never actually physically find them; although some interpret the old man, who gives directions to where Death was last seen, is actually Death themself. Death is still present because when the revelers reach the tree, they find the pile of gold for which they kill each other over trying to gain possession. This text is different than The Prose Edda in that it is an unspoken game, but it still follows the framework outlined before. The goal is to kill Death, but like any good gamemaster, Death gives the revelers a strategic distraction by presenting them with a pile of gold. From the revelers’ perspective, the game has changed. They all want to take the gold for themselves, and the rules are to achieve such without letting the others know. The sense of autonomy is shown by all of them individually deciding to kill the others for the whole pile, which is a clear quantitative result. As mentioned before, the tale ends with the revelers killing each other, and that is how Death wins the game. Death’s strategic distraction, keeps the revelers from killing them, and Death instead comes for their lives. “The Pardoner’s Tale” can be summarized that the revelers sought out Death, and found it.

“Bag O’ Bones” Fables #11 (May 2003)

Sir Orfeo from the Auchinleck Manuscript, is the Middle English retelling of Orpheus. The Faerie King is personified death in this text, who takes the protagonist’s love to his castle in an Otherworld, or the underworld. Sir Orfeo is in self-induced exile mourning the loss of Herodis for ten years before winning her back. In this text the game isn’t realized until they’re in the middle of it. Sir Orfeo sets his goal to retrieve Herodis when he sees her among the faerie-band, but knows that he must hide is true motive to avoid joining the macabre scene at the castle. He enters the Otherworld under the guise of a minstrel, and plays so beautifully the Faerie King grants his whatever he wants. He asks for the woman under the ympe tree (Herodis), and when the king denies him, Sir Orfeo uses the king’s words (or his rules) against him: “as ye syd nouþe,/ What Ich wold aski have Y schold,/ And nedes þou most þi world hold” (lines 466-9). The Faerie King concedes, since he must keep his word, and Sir Orfeo brings Herodis back to life. While Sir Orfeo wins the game in this moment, Death (the Faerie King) still is untimely the winner because the poem concludes with the end of the lovers’ long life. One can presume the pair would then be returned to Death’s domain.

The texts mentioned above all have characters who challenge Death, and play a game with them according to game studies’ idea of “game”. While the details of each exchange differ, Death is ultimately the winner in these encounters. This sampling shows the continued desire to defy Death, even though dying is still an unavoidable concept. My further research into death personified can go in multiple directions: finding more example of Death’s games, looking at other common threads of how death is personified, or considering Death’s role as the adversary. While I don’t know which way I’ll go, it’s certain that games with Death are rigged since everything must end; therefore, when challenging Death, the house always wins.

Garden of Death (1896), Hugo Simberg, Ateneum Art Museum

Works Cited

Benson, Larry Dean, editor. “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer, by Geoffrey Chaucer, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 196–202.

Byock, Jesse L., translator. “The Death of Baldr and Hermod’s Ride to Hel.” The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology, by Snorri Sturluson, Penguin Books, 2005, pp. 65–69.

Patterson, Serina Laureen. “Game on: Medieval Players and Their Texts.” T. University of British Columbia, 2017.

Treharne, Elaine M., editor. “Sir Orfeo.” Old and Middle English: c. 890 – c. 1400: an Anthology, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 550–563.

In Response to “Diversity on Stage? Shakespearean Productions and Racism, Sexism, and Ableism.”

On March 11, 2020 Dr. Imke Lichterfeld gave a lecture for the UCC School of English’s Research Seminar Series, Spring 2020 tiled “Diversity on Stage? Shakespearean Productions and Racism, Sexism, and Ableism.” She examined the “other” in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, the choice in casting marginalized people in these roles, and the criticism in response to these casting choices. Dr. Lichterfeld’s research focused on the “other-ing” of bastards, specifically Edmund in King Lear, and looking at the receptions of productions casting choices of these characters.

Hamlet I.v, Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2010 Dir. Bill Rauch

Her discussion reminded me of the 2010 production of Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OFS) in Ashland, Oregon. Howie Seago played the Ghost using American Sign Languages (ASL) which created a nuanced relationship between Hamlet and his father. As the only two using ASL, it not only offers an explanation of why the Ghost only communicates with Hamlet, but also establishes an emotional bond between the two that motivates Hamlet beyond revenge. The other characters even stopped the motion of Hamlet’s hands in ASL during spoken scenes, driving home the idea that the rest of the characters do not understand the language/choose to ignore it and the “other-ing” of the Ghost. This difference in language also perpetuates Hamlet’s narrative place on the line of “valid” and “other”. Madness is another way in which Shakespeare’s plays “others” characters, and for Hamlet each staging must make the choice of Hamlet’s self-awareness of his madness.

When verifying that I had the correct year of the OSF production, I discovered Michael W. Shurgot interviewed Howie Seago and the director (Bill Rauch), and published an article on Seago’s use of ASL at the OSF. Rauch stated in their interview that he casted Seago as the Ghost for two reasons: both he and Dan Donohue (Hamlet) have red hair and they shared a “secret language”. As the terror and rage of the Ghost grew, Seago’s hand moved faster and sharper which “conveyed which his entire physical body the huge emotional burden of the Ghost as he confronted his son with information that he feared would ‘taint [Hamlet’s] mind’ yet desperately wanted to tell him” (Shurgot 32). As the play unfolds the continued appearances of the Ghosts adds tensions to the scenes through the choices of who can see him and Gertrude’s blatant refusal to acknowledge the Ghost’s presence.  The struggle to convey the Ghost’s suffering through ASL, adds to the character’s agony and grants depth to an otherwise one-dimensional character.

Lichterfeld, Imke. ““Diversity on Stage? Shakespearean Productions and Racism, Sexism, and Ableism.” Research Seminar Series, Spring 2020. O’Rahilly Building 2.12, Cork. 11 Mar. 2020. Lecture.

Shurgot, Michael W. “Breaking the Sound Barrier: Howie Seago and American Sign Language at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.” Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 1, 2012, pp. 21-36.

Slovick, Matt. “Out of Deafness: Q&A with Howie Seago.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 June 1998, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/movies/qa/howieseago.htm

Life: The Harbinger of Death

To study death is to also study life, because whether it is through fate or fertility, the two are directly linked. My introduction to figures of death was watching Hercules as a child, and learning about the Greco-Roman deities of Hades and the Fates. The movie made it clear that Hades has no control over life and death and it is the Fates who are spinning the life tread or cutting it. The combination of life and death was furthered for me when I learned of Persephone, who is not only the queen of the underworld, but also a goddess of vegetation and fertility. As my interest in death embodied continued, I found that figures of death and life truly are, the cliché, “two sides of the same coin.”

Figures in charge of fate are also found in the Germanic tradition with depictions of the Valkyries and Norns. The Old Norse word valkyrja literally translates to “chooser of the slain” and bear the half dead heroes who die in battle to Valhalla. They clearly have the role of being psychopomps in Norse myths, but Snorri Sturluson furthers their intermixing with fate in that “they are sent by Odin to every battle, where they choose which men are to die” (45). In this way the Valkyries are Death watching over the battlefield, establishing who will die and carrying their souls off. One of the Valkyries is also the youngest of the three Norns, the Germanic embodiment of fate. The Valkyries get to specifically chose who dies in battle, but it is the Norns who “[lay] down laws, they [choose] lives for the sons of men, the fates of men” (Voluspa 21). They make these choices at everyone’s birth, one of which is the length of life.

Losbücher, 1450-1473, München, BSB, Cgm 312, f.98r

The Middle English motif of Lady Fortune is also in control of fate because of the ups and downs of life at the turn of her wheel. Lady Fortune, like the Norns, is present throughout a person’s life as she follows people from the cradle to the grave. One of the example of Lady Fortune I’ve encountered this year is in the Alliterative Morte Arthure Part IV. In a text mostly removed from the magical and otherworldly elements typically found in the Arthurian tradition, a figure of Death is still present when Arthure dreams of Lady Fortune spinning her wheel. Upon the wheel in this dream are the Nine Worthies, one of which is Arthure himself. It’s a nonverbal omen that shakes Arthure to his core: “And when his dredful dreme was driven to the ende, / The king dares fore doute, die as he sholde” (3224-25). Fortune is always spinning and it is his tine to take the turn towards the grave, just as the other eight worthies have on the wheel. If people get on the wheel at birth, the Lady Fortune is a figure of life and death as she takes each person through growth and decay.

Going back to the Nordic texts, it’s easy to forget about Freyia’s hall, Folkvang, where she houses “half the slain she chooses every day,” the other “half Odin owns” in Valhalla (Grimnismal 14). The existence of this hall where Freyia presides over the dead, makes her another embodiment of death. This role is in contrast to her role as the goddess of fertility. Kel in their blog post “How to Love Your Monstrous Mom: Thoughts on Acker’s ‘Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf'” brought to my attention the concept that a mother gives us life but also death. Their work in this area perfectly illustrates the image of Freyia in that she is both a giver of life and a keeper of death, and that the roles are not mutually exclusive.

The Anatomy of an Angel (2008), Damien Hirst
Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

Hel, the Norse goddess of death, also illustrates the blurring of life and death in Snorri’s description of her image: “She is half black and half a lighter flesh colour and is easily recognized. Mostly she is gloomy and cruel” (39). The side referred to as “black” is often interpreted to be a skeletal image in the state of decay, making her visually appear as the point the two states of being are meeting. Hilda Roderick Ellis discusses supernatural women and their connections to death in the book The Road to Hel, and such is a place for further study for me. I’m especially interested to look more in-depth at Baldrs draumar and the dead seeress that Odin calls up from the ground. The seeress also exists on this boundary by being dead, and being drawn back to life for knowledge of Baldr’s fate.

The earth is another point where life and death meet. The tradition in Middle English of earth to earth, is entirely based around the idea that life comes from the earth, and will be return to it upon death. Nature itself is a major motif when talking about the dead because of its role in decay; however, it is also associated with growth and fertility, which is exemplified in the figure of Mother Nature. It is interesting to note that all the figures mentioned above are feminine, or, at the least, described with female pronouns. James J. Paxton observes that personifications are innately female, and anything else is the deviant (“Personification’s Gender”). In my research it is only figures of death with connections to fertility or fate that are exclusively female. Further research will involve looking at why medieval literature reserves that dual identity for figures of femininity.

Sources:

Benson, Larry Dean. King Arthur’s Death: the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Western Michigan Univ., 2005.

Caciola, Nancy. Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, 2017.

Chism, Christine. “King Takes Knight: Signifying War in the Alliterative Morte Arthure .” Alliterative Revivals, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, pp. 189–236.

Clements, Ron and John Musker, directors. Hercules. Walt Disney Pictures, 1997.

Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Greenwood Press, 1977.

Guthke, Karl S. The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge;New York;, 1999.

Knowlton, E. C. “Nature in Middle English.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 20, no. 2, 1921, pp. 186–207.

Larrington, Carolyne, translator. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Menton, Kel. “How to Love Your Monstrous Mom: Thoughts on Acker’s ‘Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf’.” þaes Wyrmes Wyrd, 30 Oct. 2019, https://wyrmeswyrd.wordpress.com/2019/10/30/how-to-love-your-monstrous-mom-thoughts-on-ackers-horror-and-the-maternal-in-beowulf/

Morey, James H. “The Fates of Men in Beowulf.” Source of Wisdom: Old English and Early Medieval Latin Studies in Honour of Thomas D. Hill, by Charles Darwin Wright et al., University of Toronto Press, 2007, pp. 26–51.

Paxson, James J. “Personification’s Gender.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, vol. 16, no. 2, 1998, pp. 149–179.

Robinson, Fred C. “God, Death, and Loyalty in The Battle of .” Old English Literature: Critical Essays, by Roy Michael Liuzza, Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 425–444.

Sturluson, Snorri, and Jesse L. Byock. The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology. Penguin, London, 2005.

Tristram, Philippa. Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature. Elek, London, 1976.

In Response to “Charlotte Smith’s Solitaries and Her ‘Strange Shells’ of Poetry”

As a part of the UCC School of English’s Research Seminar Series, Spring 2020, Dr. Amelia Worsley gave a gorgeous lecture on the poetry of Charlotte Smith, the depiction of solitude, and the transcendence of echos. Smith viewed echos as belonging to the landscape, and that they were in conversation with each other throughout time. Along the lines of the classical myth of Echo, most notably told in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the body is shed leaving only an echo behind in said landscape. The image of a shell/lyre is also used through Smith’s poetry as a method to conduct her voice and keep it alive after her death, or in other words, to create an echo. Smith’s solitary longs for oblivion, and the transformation of voice to shell and body to echo, is one that continues to happen and reverberates throughout time.

The British Library, Miniature of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, from Harley 4431, f. 126v

This lecture reminded me of another classical myth, Orpheus and Eurydice, which is retold in Middle English as Sir Orfeo (the oldest of the three written records being the Auchinleck manuscript). The Middle English version has one major difference to Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Sir Orfeo does not have the infamous catch of not looking back, and successfully returns home with Heurodis. Either way, the figure of Sir Orfeo fits into Dr. Worsley’s presentation of Charlotte Smith’s echos and the solitary.

Sir Orfeo is the solitary figure, which is described in Smith’s poetry. The king, upon losing his love, goes into self-induced exile, bringing nothing but his harp. He stays in solitude playing his harp, creating echos which calms beasts and leads him to visions of the otherworld. I interpret the fairy otherworld as a type of land of the dead, based on the fact Heurodis is treated as dead and the macabre scene inside the castle walls. During Sir Orfeo’s solitude his sees and band of fairies from the otherworld which includes his dead wife. Just as Charlotte Smith longs for oblivion, Sir Orfeo longs to join her: “Whi nil deth now me slo?/ Allas, wreche, that y no might/ Dye now after this sight!” (Lines 332-334). Sir Orfeo believes it is death that must come to him in order to to be with her; thus, he uses his harp to cross between the worlds and bring her back instead.

Using Smith’s idea that echoes remain as a part of the landscape, Sir Orfeo trades the voice he creates with his harp in exchange for his wife. He is able to enter the otherworld, without being summoned by the Fairy King, under the guise of a harpist looking for work. The music stands in place of negotiations for his wife’s life, and the Fairy King must honor his promise and give him Heurodis. There is no indication that the Fairy King knows the harpist is Sir Orfeo, so his music truly stands on its own as the price for Heurodis. Dr. Amelia Worsley notes that an echo reverberates throughout time, which would make this an even trade for the Fairy King. Sir Orfeo is able to bring his wife back from the Otherworld, or death, by replacing her presence with the echo he creates with his harp.

National Library of Scotland, Sir Orfeo, from Auchinleck MS fols. 299a (stub)-303ra

Sources:

Worsley, Amelia. “Charlotte Smith’s Solitaries and Her ‘Strange Shells’ of Poetry.” Research Seminar Series, Spring 2020. O’Rahilly Building 2.12, Cork. 5 Feb. 2020. Lecture.

Laskaya, Anne, and Eve Salisbury, editors. “Sir Orfeo.” The Middle English Breton Lays, Medieval Inst. Publ., Western Michigan Univ., 2004.

Briggs, K. M. “The Fairies and the Realms of the Dead.” Folklore, vol. 81, no. 2, 1970, pp. 81-96.

#EditWikiLit: One Week Later

Wikipedia holds an interesting place on the internet because it’s a part of our every day lives, but when we talk about it, the website is vilified. When students learn to research, they are constantly reminded that Wikipedia is not a reliable source because anyone can edit it, and citations are preferred but ultimately optional. Our in-class assignment (English MA students edited Wikipedia pages and live-tweeted it) highlighted the important role Wikipedia plays in public accessibility of the humanities and how much work there is still to do.

Before editing February 5, 2020

Lately I’ve been looking into how Death is personified in the Middle Ages and I noticed that the page for Death (personification) talked about its image in folklore, myths, and religious texts, but didn’t mention anything about pop culture media descriptions. Death from The Sandman comic series by Neil Gaiman is a foundational depiction in how I started looking at death personified. In Gaiman’s comics she is a spunky, nurturing women and older sister to the protagonist. She takes on the caring older-sibling role not only for her family (other embodiments of natural forces), but also for everyone she meets as she escorts them to their afterlife. This depiction stands out to me because she is not the skeletal or menacing depiction that a lot of western media likes to depict. Thus I decided that making a “Media” heading for the Wikipedia page was a good use of my time.

I can now say that I was naive to think in the two hours of class I could organize and write a brief description of all the personifications of Death I knew. The need to cite my sources runs through my blood, and the amount of time it took for me to track down where I learned various things was surprising. I quickly found that I had taken on too large of a task, and changed my goal to getting two entries under each medium. Yet that was still too much for the two hours, so I focused on the ones the major ones I felt are at the core of Death personified in popular media.

After editing February 5, 2020

By the end of class I felt a little defeated for not making a comprehensive list, but I made peace with it because that’s the purpose of a collaborative effort. No one person can do it all, so each editor does a little to make it better. As of today, February 12, 2020, no further changes have been made to the page. I honestly expected that my additions would’ve been deleted by now — even as I was adding the information, I wasn’t sure if this was the place. Hopefully the Death (personification) page will get more contributions because I would like to see how someone else would revise it.

My primary take-away from this experience is the integral role that Wikipedia plays in accessibility of information. I’ve always been aware of my privilege to not only to pursue higher education, but also to study what I love. For many people museums, documentaries, and hours on Wikipedia is the only contact that they’ll have with Medieval literature. While I didn’t edit anything about the Middle Ages specifically, this assignment reminded me of the privilege I have just to go to university and learn from primary texts. I’m definitely going to continue revising and fact checking Wikipedia pages because it’s a very small way that I can use my privilege of education to benefit others.

State of my additions as of February 12, 2020

Curiosity Killed the Cat… and Satisfaction Hasn’t Brought it Back

In the early fifteenth-century, Edward, 2nd Duke of York, wrote on cats that “their falseness and malice are well known. But one thing I dare well say that if any beast hath the devil’s spirit in him, without doubt it is the cat, both the wild and the tame.” Due to their standoffish nature, cats in the middle ages got a bad rap. It also didn’t help the they were given satanic associations, which encouraged people to kill them, and superstitions about their relationship with death.

I read once that if a cat runs over a fresh grave or comes near the recently deceased it would steal their soul before it reached the afterlife. Trying to find the source of said superstition, I discovered the Celtic figure of Cat Sidhe (Irish) or Cat Sìth (Sottish Galic), and its association with death. However, I’m still not certain if this mythical cat exists or if it is just a carry over of Cù Sìth, the name of the black dog motif found in Scottish folklore. Primary sources are nonexistent on Cat Sidhe, and every website I found seems to recycle each other’s words and didn’t provide any references. My hunt for this feline death omen isn’t over, but what follows is all I’ve been able to find so far.

Illustration accompanying “The King o’ the Cats” in More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs (1893)

The most complete is “The King o’ the Cats” written by Joseph Jacobs, and claimed to be a recording of an oral story. One evening a sexton, while tending to the graveyard, sees “nine black cats… all with a white spot on their chestessess.” He runs home to tell his wife how they were caring “a small coffin covered with a black velvet pall, and on the pall was a small coronet all of goad, an at every third step they took they all cried out together, Miaou.” The sexton tells the story of the cat funeral and when he states the name of the departed, his own cat proclaims he is now King o’ the Cats and shoots up the chimney. While the name Cat Sidhe is never used in the tale, it is described as being a large black cat with a white patch on its chest. Perhaps this story is the source for said image.

The only other case I found that could be connected to Cat Sidhe is the Scottish rite of Taghairm. Taghairm was a mode of divination that involved animal sacrifice (often roasting cats on a spigot) to call up the dead. Accounts vary on who or what arrives to answer the rite’s call: human dead, a legion of demons disguised as black cats, or a demonic cat called “Big Ears”. Some stories say that Big Ears will grant the summoner’s wish, but cannot extend a life. The juxtaposition of animal sacrifice summoning Big Ears with its refusal to grant life, makes a clear distinction that it only deals in death. It still feels feels like there is a missing piece to this Cat Sidhe puzzle but I won’t know what it is until it’s in front of me.

My cat Dusty, demonic status unknown

I do not have any confirmation if Cat Sidhe was ever a real belief, but it’s interesting that these stories connect the figure to the dead. I don’t think it is a personified Death, but Cat Sidhe certainly follows the dead whether it be funerals or sacrifices. It is also important to note that it’s literally a fairy cat because fairies have a connection to the dead in medieval literature. Unfortunately, I think I’ve exhausted the resources of the potential existence of Cat Sidhe, and can only hope someone else is willing to dive deeper into this concept.

Sources:

Metzler, Irina., “Heretical Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse”, Medium Aevum Quotidianum, vol. 59, 2009, pp. 16-32

Nikolajeva, Maria. “Devils, Demons, Familiars, Friends: Toward a Semiotics of Literary Cats.” Marvels & Tales 23, no. 2 (2009): 248-67.

Wiseman, Andrew E. M., “Caterwauling and Demon Raising: The Ancient Rite of the Taghairm?”. Scottish Studies 35 (2010), pp. 174–208.

More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14241/14241-h/14241-h.htm

The Master Of Game, by Edward, Second Duke Of York: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43452/43452-h/43452-h.htm

Fan Culture’s Fixation on Fictional Gingers

The most common critique I heard of the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher was the hair color of Triss Merigold. I tried to soothe the woes of friends and family by explaining that books describe her with “chestnut hair”. The push back was that Triss’s red hair is “iconic” for the character, and changes who she is; but, as far as I know, hair color doesn’t affect personality. Plus let’s not forget that hair dye and wigs exist. This gripe calls back to the same exact comments circulating when Zendaya was cast and MJ in Spiderman: Homecoming. What I first viewed as fan culture’s fixation on fictional, red headed women, quickly became the realization that it’s actually backlash adaptations for casting a women of color.

Triss Merigold: The Witcher (2019) Left, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) Right

Unfortunately, a life long experience of being a female consumer and creator of pop culture has taught me that I need to show my credentials before being openly critical. For The Witcher, I’ve read the books, played the games, read the comics, watched the various live action adaptations, and even tried to sit through the musical. For Spider-Man, when I was a child, I was interested in the comics and afraid to ask anyone where to start so I started at the 1963 the Amazing Spider-Man #1, and I continue to stay up to date.

This background may seem pedantic, but unfortunately it’s necessary when posting pop culture opinions in a public form. In fact, I could start a whole series of posts with all the stories I have, but I digress. Now that I’ve established that I love these characters, I don’t care about their hair color, and I love the casting of women of color in the roles of MJ and Triss.

MJ Watson: Amazing Spider-Man #601 (October 2009) Left,
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) Right

The fetishization of women with red hair is nothing new; numerous studies have been done on the biological attraction to the color red. Combine that with the escapism that fiction provides and that both of these ginger women are the love interest, makes (for lack of a better phrase) a fantasy girlfriend. This is the convention of romantic storytelling: the reader follows the protagonist as they fall in love with their love interest, so in a way, the reader does too. But characters change in adaptations all the time, and a quick dive into TVTropes’ Adaptation Dye-Job list will give you tons of examples with every hair color and gender identity. Plus I don’t recall any issue when Triss Marigold went from chestnut to red hair, so really the only conclusion I can draw is that people are upset because woman of color are playing these red headed women.

Jefferey A. Brown takes a deep look at action heroines in his 2011 book Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture. In the chapter on race, he points out that “the persistent fetishization of ethnic women in the media is often presented as a type of celebration of ethnic diversity and appreciation, but in truth it never strays far from the racist and sexist origins of time timeworn stereotypes.” He also points out in contrast white women are given an angelic quality, particularly in comic books. With Brown’s argument, the issue people are taking with the casting of Triss Merigold and MJ Watson is that the ethnic fetishization is getting in the way of their angelic red haired fetishization. Zendaya and Anna Shaffer killed their respective roles, so clearly the casting director chose the best actors for the part. I can only hope that the show-runners of The Witcher (2019) continue to have Anna Shaffer shine as Triss Merigold, and stylize the character however the costume designer sees fit.

Starfire: Titans (2018) Top Left and Bottom Right, The New Teen Titans #10 (August 1981) Top Right,
Starfire #6 (January 2016) Bottom Left

For anyone still wanting to claim the issue is that the “iconic”red hair, Kel, a fellow student in my program, lovingly pointed out to me that people have a similar issue with the show Titans. Despite sporting red/magenta hair and green contacts, Anna Diop’s casting as Starfire is still rejected in the live action adaption. To clarify Starfire is red/magenta haired, orange skin (albeit white-coded in other media) alien who can harness the energy of the sun. The character is not even human, so to be pedantic, do people have issue with the casting of a human actor?

I always want to hear people’s thoughts and feelings on media, but I’m not interested in thinly veiled racism. Especially when the same people who are up in arms about hair color, are silent when it comes to white-washing. Plus there are more important things to critique in The Witcher (2019). Most notably the inaccessibility to people who haven’t read the book, and therefore have no context for the timeline as it constantly jumps back and forth.

Sources:

BROWN, JEFFREY A. ““EXOTIC BEAUTIES”: Ethnicity and Comic Book Superheroines.” In Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture, 168-84. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. 

CD Projekt Red. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt, 2015. PlayStation 4.

Spiderman: Homecoming. Directed by Jon Watts, Columbia Pictures, Marvel Studios, and Pascal Pictures, 2017.

Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, Creator. The Witcher. Sean Daniel Company, Stillking Films, Platige Image, One of Us, and Cinesite, 2019.

Akiva Goldsman, Geoff Johns, and Greg Berlanti, Creators, Titants, company(s) Weed Road Pictures, Berlanti Productions, DC Entertainment, and Warner Bros. Television, 2018.

Sapkowski, Andrzej. The Last Wish. Translated by Danusia Stok, Gollancz, 2007.

Sapkowski, Andrzej. Sword of Destiny. Translated by David French, Gollancz, 2015.

Public Mourning and Private Grief

On the surface level mourning and grief seem like the same thing, but I’ve always separated them into public v. private spheres. Before getting into the spaces, I want to look at the literal definitions of these words, which are provided here by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Mourning is defined as “the action of feeling or expressing sorrow for the death of a person” or “anxiety, sorrow” (“mourning, n.1”). The action of “expressing sorrow” is key here because of its implication that it can be perceived by another individual. In comparison, the OED defines grief as “hardship, suffering” and 2B8848B4-2306-4D90-B0FC-5B5FABE9F161“hurt, harm, mischief or injury done or caused by another” (“grief,n.”). This gives the connotation that grief an actual wound that must be cared for, and causes harm to an individual. Of course, a wound can be seen by others, but grief is something that just exists, whereas mourning is an action.

Defining them may seem like a pedantic step, but it plays directly into the distinction of spaces for two. Before explaining their social spheres, I feel it is important to mention that public mourning and private grief are equally important, and my ramblings are not a critique on either. The idea of “performative” mourning and the pressure that social media has created around such may be a post later, but intention with this post is to lay a foundation for how I define the two terms.

Mourning lives in the public sphere because of its ability to be perceived by others and its function as a display of grief. There are two main methods: funerals and monuments.

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Mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria, 1894, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Funerals have always been a performance. Beowulf provides us a funeral scene for the titular character, where the poem not only describes the pyre being built, but also tells us about the presence of a woman with the sole purpose to sing and wail for the hero. This display proves for anyone present at Beowulf funeral (including the reader) that he was a greatly beloved king and the magnitude of the loss. Needless to say, this tradition didn’t stop in the Middle Ages. Victorian England is a sight for lavish funerals since it was also used as a status symbol— elaborate funerals and prolonged mourning periods not only showed on’s devotion to a loved one, but also a family’s wealth in that they could afford such. This even includes Queen Victoria, who remained in mourning for her husband until she died. Mourning is still very much a public spectacle in that social media has created a platform for anyone to lament the loss of a loved one or celebrity, and the funerals of the latter are a common topic for media outlets.

Monuments are an equally important sight for public mourning. Being American, the first monument I think of is Reflecting Absence, the 9/11 memorial designed by Micheal Arad. Built in the former foundation of the Twin Towers, it is a pair minimalist recessed

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Photo of the 9/11 memorial taken from the World Financial Center, as it appeared in June 2012.

pools etched with the names of everyone who was lost that day. This monument, and most others, exist to remind onlookers of loss and evoke a feeling of sorrow. Monuments can be found in the funeral of Beowulf which was mentioned before. Beowulf’s final words are a request that his people build ‘Beowulf’s Barrow’ so that the Geats can remember him and that anyone who sails by will recognize it. This is certainly a monument because it is not built merely as a grave, but with the direct intention as a mark of his heroics and his death for anyone passing.

All of these points of public mourning are ways of expressing private grief. In my own understanding of private grief, it’s not necessarily hidden, but it is up to the individual to decide how it is shown. In the way monuments and funerals give a open display of a loss to anyone observing, grief is more about the individual than the collective. Public mourning takes up most of my thoughts in this post because it is something palpable, whereas private grief means something different to everyone. It’s as simple as the sentiment that there is no one way to grieve. Yet the cliché still make me think about why we, throughout history, create ways to process loss openly and to continually visit the sense of sorrow in monuments. I don’t believe there is a definitive answer to that question as private grief is the motivation behind public mourning.

Bibliography

“grief, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, November 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/81389.

“mourning, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, November 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/122947.

All photos are public domain.