Pedagogy and Arthuriana: A Roundtable

06 Apr

In her article, “Teaching Arthuriana: A Moderated Discussion on ‘Arthurnet'” (Arthuriana 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1995): 79-82), Miriam Youngerman Miller recounts the highlights of a discussion on pedagogical approaches held via the Arthurnet internet e-mail distribution group. It seems like a good time to look at the ways in which Arthurnet has been a positive influence on pedagogy given its recent (and timely) resurrection over the Easter 2015 holiday, after its temporary dissolution in the winter of 2014.

Miller and ther other Arthurnetters were responding to Miller’s proposal to supplement and update the Arthurian volumes of the MLA Approaches to Teaching World Literature series, edited by Maureen Fries and Jeanie Watson (Approaches to Teaching the Arthurian Tradition (New York: MLA, 1992)), and by Miller and Jane Chance (Approaches to Teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New York: MLA, 1986)). In her original discussion prompt, Miller suggested five topics for Arthurnetters to address, recounted below in full:

“1. Considering the possibility/desirability of forming a canon of modern Arthurian works.
2. Generating a list of recent secondary works recommended as background for Arthurian studies.
3. Discussing current critical methodologies and assessing their value for the classroom.
4. Incorporating Arthurian material in all artistic media into the syllabus.
5. Teaching Arthurian works in non-traditional contexts.”

Before addressing the individual approaches detailed in Miller’s article, I should observe that all five of these topics could be useful for generating discussion in a graduate course or, potentially, in an upper-division undergraduate course. Certainly a course syllabus could be informed by thought on these topics, but the topics themselves could be useful in the right classroom environment.

The first topic saw Arthurnetters proving “very reluctant to make discriminations on a qualitative basis among Arthurian works” (79). Certainly by the mid-90s the trend of avoiding explicit canonical formation was already in place (by and large, this continues today), although (necessarily) in the absence of explicit canon formation, implicit canons are still being formed, the which is more problematic for its inconspicuousness. A few Arthurnetters did offer suggestions as to what kind of works might be considered canonical, but these distinctions are along genre lines rather than based on qualitative judgements (with a few exceptions as in the case of Alan Lupack’s praise of William Morris’ Defence of Guenevere, and John Withrington’s evaluation of Mists of Avalon as ‘a very poor book’). These genre distinctions run from the broad to the specific: either including a single character or motif; or including all of the characters and settings typical to Arthuriana.

Several lists of secondary works were compiled by Arthurnetters for use in the classroom, along with some of the texts that can run alongside those works. Kevin Harty’s Cinema Arthuriana (New York: Garland, 1991) stuck out in particular because it covers many of the major Arthurian films of the 20th century, as did Culture and the King: The Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), which is of particular relevance to my own research area. Certainly this is an area in which the article falls a little bit behind (much has been done in the past two decades), but these works can still provide a good jumping-off point for constructing a secondary reading list of Arthurian texts.

If much has changed in the publication of secondary sources, contemporary critical theory is an area where little has changed in the past twenty years. Miller writes that “the theoretical stance which currently most engages Arthurianists is feminist criticism,” and this is more or less true today. Unfortunately, the strong leaning in the 1990s towards this one critical apparatus has had a dampening effect on the deployment of other critical lenses–disappointing given that feminist critical theory, although useful and beneficial as a theoretical approach, is not the only useful theory or even the most useful critical apparatus at all times and in all places. A wealth of feminist critical literature abounds, but of other approaches the Arthurnetters of 1995 said but little.

For non-literary media in the classroom, film (predictably) generated the most interest, although an updated approach would consider other aspects of the digital humanities, especially video games. Then, as now, Rohmer’s Perceval and Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac were difficult to obtain, but featured prominently on recommendations. The more-accessible favourites of twenty years ago are still around today: Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Today, we would certainly consider the two Merlin television productions–the Hallmark featurette and the five series BBC television programme. But other media was mentioned as well: visual art (modern and pre-Raphaelite) is a non-literary media with a vast Arthurian heritage, and yet it was and remains poorly served by the academy. This is clearly an area in which more can and should be done.

The high point of the article was a suggestion advanced by Pauline J. Alama of “teaching Arthurian legend with other works of mythologized history, including Scott’s Ivanhoe, Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Stone’s JFK, and the Broadway play 1776.” This strikes me as a very innovative way of thinking about Arthuriana which takes into account its cross-era and cross-genre existence, and is something I will strongly consider if I am ever given the opportunity to create an Arthurian course of my own.

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