Gwydion fab Dôn: hero and villain

“It is not the trappings that make the prince,” he said gently, “nor, indeed, the sword that makes the warrior.”– Gwydion (The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander)

Prince Gwydion, the legendary war leader of the Sons of Don, is the kind and wise father-figure of young Taran in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles.   At first, hero-obsessed Taran is disappointed at Gwydion’s humble appearance: the mighty war leader is shaggy, middle-aged, and travel-stained, rather than the young and flashy figure Taran had imagined (and wants to become).    Almost immediately, though, Gwydion’s quiet regality and dignity impress Taran deeply, and the young assistant pig-keeper learns much from the great prince on their travels together.

Like Taran, I also grew to love the strong and noble warrior.  His lessons–as important to the impulsive Taran as they were to me–emphasize patience over foolish “courage,” mercy and diplomacy over violence, and the true weight of heroism.

Gwydion, with his lovely name and wise heart, became an important symbol for me of Christian leadership.  Like Aslan or Gandalf, he still remains a much beloved role model.

So imagine my horror when I discovered the original Gwydion of the medieval Welsh tale the ‘Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi‘ to be a selfish, scheming, murdering, raping, trickster.

Dear Mr. Alexander, whatever were you thinking?

Alan Lee’s illustration of Gwydion driving the Otherworldly pigs from Dyfed to Gwynedd

Like Taran’s Gwydion, the Gwydion of the Fourth Branch is also a prince and war leader.  His uncle, Math, is king of Wales and a great magician.  Gwydion himself is said to be a remarkable enchanter and the best storyteller in the world.  Despite his nefarious deeds, he also raises his sister’s abandoned child, rights wrongs with his amazing magical illusions, helps create a woman out of flowers, and sings his wounded nephew back to health and human-form.

Mabinogi-Gwydion is a figure of mystery and wonder, as well as despicable crimes.  Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated with him and with Mr. Alexander’s treatment of him.  Gwydion’s gifts give him an incredible capacity for Tolkienian Enchantment–if he didn’t act so reprehensibly, his magical and artistic talents might place him in an ideal position to initiate the kind of mystical communion that we find at the end of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.  Throughout medieval Welsh poetry, Gwydion is referenced as an enigmatic figure of great magic–sometimes he even seems to embody the Enchantment of prehistoric Wales.

That’s why I feel so conflicted.  The legendary Gwydion often misuses his gifts to deceive others, but sometimes his actions awaken in me a hope for his powers to enact his receptive, rather than acquisitive, desires.  Gwydion is a figure, for me, of heart-breaking potential for perilous, Enchanting wonder.  He is achingly close to being a textbook example of a Tolkienian Elvish sub-creator.

So, Mr. Alexander, even though I am confused by your decision to embrace Gwydion (of all people) as your gentle hero, I am grateful.  The beauty of your Gwydion brought me to discover his source, and even gave me hope that the legendary Gwydion is redeemable.

I think that the Gwydion of Prydain would approve of mercy being offered to his namesake.

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An apology to the well-meaning

Me, presenting my first Mellon project at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research, Spring 2014

Me, presenting my first Mellon project at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research, Spring 2014

I honestly wish that I had a nice, pithy, short sentence to explain how I decided to study the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.  It would be really handy when someone well-meaningly asks about my project to be able to give a simple: “oh, my ancestors were Welsh,” “I grew up with the stories as a child,” or “my professor put me on to it.”

Unfortunately, none of these are true, and either the person who asked the question receives the lame answer of: “It’s funny, but I don’t really have a good answer to that question” or, even worse: the supremely awkward experience of me explaining the complicated process of the path my life has taken, which I can only attribute to divine grace, in the end.

So, when asked about my interest in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, I usually react with exuberance and too much information, or with self-conscious apologies and no information at all.

Sum up: I need to get better at the whole “elevator pitch” thing.

Honestly, I think most people in academia struggle to answer polite questions about their interests.  I suppose that when you spend all of your time learning and thinking deeply about a specific subject, it becomes hard to figure out exactly how much to talk about it to people who don’t.

As I’ve mentioned before, from about third grade onwards, my imagination was fed by a varied diet of fantasy novels, fairytales, and historical fiction.  I always liked best the stories that began with “long ago and far away,” and medieval tales especially caught my interest.  Looking back, I can see how my appetite for Welshness was whetted by a small collection of British and Irish folktales and several book series influenced by Welsh mythology (the Prydain Chronicles and the Dark is Rising especially).

I’ve always had a taste for Enchantment (although I didn’t know it at the time), and something about the images in these books caught my attention.  I think it was the names, especially.   The spellings were strange and quite unfamiliar, but they tasted very old and very proud.  There were so many things I didn’t understand in these stories, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

This drew me into spending long hours on Wikipedia and more obscure corners of the internet looking for answers.  Every page led me to three others until my browser was full of more tabs than I could ever read.  Eventually I decided to be a bit more systematic and I attempted to learn Welsh pronunciation and started reading collections of Welsh myths and fairytales, the Triads, the Book of Taliesin, and the Mabinogion itself.  Pretty much all of it went over my head, but I knew that I had found something special.

I was not at peace with my interests, though.  I had been sucked into the neo-pagan idea that these stories had been pure once, but then had been contaminated by Christian censorship.  This way of looking at these texts put Christianity and the wonder that I found in medieval Welsh literature on the opposite sides of a chasm, and my heart was split in two.

I was confused.  Why did God give me longings that these things satisfied and inflamed, why did He make me so open to wonder, if they (and the part of me that felt connected to them) were wrong?  So I loved, but held loosely, feeling that it was my duty to turn my back on what I could only helplessly describe as ‘beauty.’

But, as the writer of A Time to Build recently wrote, God does not give us longings that he does not satisfy with Himself.  My freshman year of college, when I confided my confusion to my adviser, I was met with the almost shouted answer of: “don’t ever say that studying Welsh myth or anything else cannot serve God just as much as ministry!”

Now I was really confused, but I felt that his words were a challenge.  I began to pray that God would show me how such a thing–to my mind a miracle–could be.  My advisor then put me in touch with the English department’s medievalist, who eventually introduced me to J. R. R. Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories and René Girard.

At this point, I had decided that the question of how myth and the Gospel are related was an academic question as well as a spiritual one for me, so I began to pursue it in my independent research project for the Mellon Scholars Program.  My original research question was whether myths–and The Four Branches of the Mabinogi in particular–are lies that the Gospel reveals, or truths which the Gospel fulfills.  Evidently, after two years and a semester in Wales, my understanding of all texts involved has grown somewhat since my original endeavor, and so have my questions.  With the help of my dear friend and research partner and our mentor (the medievalist mentioned before), I have been working on a unified theory of how human desire is revealed through what Tolkien would call ‘fairy-stories,’ both in the interactions of characters, and through the stories themselves–and how that relates to the Christian Gospel.

So, here I am, trying to put words to the wonder I find in the Mabinogi (through which I found glimpses of the ultimate wonder of God), attempting to engage with scholarship that I do not completely understand, and without a clear understanding of how I got here besides what some would call coincidence and I must call grace.

All of this is to say, if you ever ask me about my research and I babble like an idiot, rave like a madwoman, or remain awkwardly silent, I am truly sorry.  I’m still working through it all for myself.

Faērie and conversion through Wonder

When I was in first and second grade, I hated reading.  I found learning frustrating, and I struggled through the mundane morality tales I was given for homework.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like stories–I adored it when my parents read The Chronicles of Narnia aloud to me–but for some reason I wasn’t excelling.  Then third grade came, though, and something shifted.

I discovered a fantasy series for elementary-aged children, the Secrets of Droon.

Sure, it’s a cheap knockoff of Lord of the RingsNarnia, and Harry Potter for younger children, but it was the first time that I discovered what Tolkien calls Faërie.

I was hooked.  I read fairytales and myths, as well as fantasy, ravenously, searching for something specific, but ineffable to me.  Even as I found a taste of it, I would feel myself pulled to search for more.   Eventually, this lead me to my academic passion: the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

Coming into college, I was introduced to Tolkien’s academic work, and I found that he not only understood my search for the something, he had words for it!  He knew what it was, and why and how it affected me as it did.

In On Fairy-Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien discusses his own longing for the perils of Faërie.  He speaks of the “primordial desires” which it satisfies: “to survey the depths of space and time, . . . to hold communion with other living things,”  and “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”  This is what I had felt tugging at me all my life.  The Magic and Enchantment of fairy-stories had, indeed, “awaken[ed] desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably.”  Tolkien provided me with a vocabulary for how to express what these tales do for me.

What is even more interesting, though, is that I have found connections between René Girard’s mimetic theory and Tolkien’s ideas.

Girard’s books are filled with his discussion of human desire and need for conversion  away from the ignorance of mimesis (which continues the cycles of negative desire) towards knowledge of the mimetic mechanism, a renunciation of acquisitive desire, and an embrace of positive desire (see my last two blog posts).  In On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien discusses the three effects which fantasy, myths, and fairytales produce on readers.  I see these effects as themselves effecting a similar conversion.

The first effect of embracing the Secondary World of a fairy-story is called Recovery, and is described by Tolkien as the “regaining of a clear view. . . so that things may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity–from possessiveness.”  Recovery enables the reader’s humility to reject materialism and see Wonder in the Primary World–in fact, to renounce negative desire.  This is a conversion of the eyes, to see the world around you as full of Unlimited objects (which cannot be possessed)–Trees, Living Beings, and Mechanical Wonders–instead of the maple in your back yard, your husband, and your watch.

Escape, the second effect, is the pushing aside of the ugly clutter of everyday life to consider fundamentals.  This is a conversion of the mind: another deliberate renunciation of negative desire and possessiveness, but also the deliberate choosing of Infinite objects and good models of desire for those objects.  It is the rejection of being consumed by street lamps, factories, rush-hour traffic, and the economic pressures of ordinary life in favor of contemplating Lightening, Nature, Living Things, and the Marvel of the Cosmos.

The Final effect of mythic Wonder Tolkien calls Consolation: the “imaginative satisfaction” of those primal desires I mentioned through the Turn (or happy ending) of fairy-stories.  Tolkien describes it as “a sudden and miraculous grace,” which denies final defeat and gives a “fleeting” “piercing glimpse of joy” “beyond the walls of the world, and poignant as grief.”  It has “the very taste of primary truth,” Tolkien says.  This is the unbearable, squirmy feeling of happiness that we get at the end of a fairytale, when everything is made right, and all is joyous, and we almost want to cry (sometimes we do).  This is a conversion of the heart; the story itself both satisfies and inspires a desire for Joy, and thus becomes a mediator for positive desire.  Fairy-stories are teachers of the longing for the Infinite I felt as a child, and have only felt more strongly as I have grown up.

In these three ways, fairytales, myths, and fantasy all aid in a Girardian conversion from negative to positive desire.  They remove us from our contexts, which deaden us with familiarity.  They reveal Wonder to us, which we can take back with us to the Primary World like a pair of glasses and see our mundane lives with a piercing clarity.  They even give us tastes of Infinite Joy, which arouse a further hunger for Wonder which cannot be satisfied by fairytales alone.

Tolkien ends his essay by enlightening his readers about that which all fairy-stories anticipate and teach us to hunger for, so I will as well.  Later in his life, Girard began to write that the conversion from negative to positive desire is ultimately only possible through grace, specifically the grace of the Trinitarian God who brought his son, Jesus Christ–the only true model of positive desire–into the world to die and rise again and thus reinstate humanity’s relationship with God.  Tolkien saw the Gospel as the ultimate fairy-story, the Myth that is True.  Therefore, what all others give a taste of, the Gospel satisfies completely.  In the Christian faith, Recovery is known as Humility.  Escape is the opening of the self to the Infinite and Divine, the quiet space where we go when we stop being distracted by our petty lives to pray or meditate on Scripture.  And, finally, ultimate Consolation is found in the Gospel, where truth and joy have wedded, where “Legend and History have met and fused.”

“God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves,” Tolkien says.  Faërie is an echo of Heaven, and all that pass through the first get a brief taste of the second.

And if we embrace those tales, and follow the road our desire for joy takes us on, we too, like C. S. Lewis and many others, will find ourselves converted through Wonder.

Tolkien and Girard on desire

Galadriel’s Mirror, by Alan Lee

As I’ve delved more and more deeply into the work of René Girard and J. R. R. Tolkien, I’ve become aware that they really have very similar understandings of human nature.  This may seem obvious, since they are both Christians, but on a first reading, they seem like polar opposites.  The former uses the word ‘myth’ like an insult, while the latter has written a 147 line poem in its defense.  In fact, I initially began applying their theories to the Four Branches of the Mabinogi as opposites on the spectrum of Christian opinions of myth: Girard on the side of ‘myth as lies’ and Tolkien on the side of ‘myth as truth.’

In reading On Fairy-Stories, though, I began to realize that Tolkien’s concept of Magic (the technology of the Magician which seeks to dominate, change, destroy, or create in order to possess in the Primary World) is a fantastical expression of Girard’s concept of mimetic desire.  ‘Mimetic theory’ is the idea that all human desire is imitative, or copied from a model. In other words, a man unknowingly rates the desirability of an object on its perceived value to others. He wants the object because he feels it is desirable, since others want it too.  Because the object can only be possessed by one person, desire therefore must lead to antagonism. The imitation of other humans, whose desires are just as corrupted as our own, is envious and possessive, causing rivalry and conflict.  This acquisitive desire is always more about the model than the object itself, it is a desire for the Being of the Other:

Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed, sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. (Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 146)

A diagram of Girard's Mimetic Theory

A diagram of Girard’s Mimetic Theory

Magic, both in fairy-story and real life, is about power over and domination of all Others.  It is a supernatural advantage in the imitative competition for Being which dictates all human relations.   In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the ultimate magical object–the One Ring–is imbued with the acquisitive desire of Sauron (himself imitating Melkor).   The mimetic draw of the Ring and Sauron’s mediation is so powerful that it tempts nearly all who come in contact with it to imitate Sauron and use the Ring to dominate Middle Earth (i.e. to become the ultimate winner of all rivalry).  When tempted, all characters transform from themselves into a lesser likeness of Sauron, even to the point of all speaking the same words (remember Bilbo calling the Ring his ‘Precious?’).  Just as Girard would predict, imitation leads to undifferentiation.

Evidently, Tolkien saw the same truth as Girard does: that acquisitive mimetic desire (what Tolkien calls ‘lust’ and ‘domination’) is the curse of mankind.

However, Magic isn’t the only kind of Wonder in Faërie (praise the Lord!).   There is also Enchantment.  This idea is harder for us to understand, so I’ll leave it to Tolkien to explain:

Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. . . To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches.  At the heart of man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centered power which is the mark of the mere Magician. . . In this world [creative desire] is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves. (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” The Tolkien Reader, 73-4)

So, Enchantment deals with a different kind of desire.  In The Lord of the Rings, it expressed through the art of the Elves:  what Galadriel calls “Elf-magic” when explaining to Sam Gamgee that there is a difference between her work and the machinations of the Enemy.

But what is the nature of this other kind of desire?  At first glance, Girard is little help.  It wasn’t until about thirty years after his original book on mimetic theory, Deceit Desire and the Novel, was published that he offered something other than the renunciation of desire as the only way to convert from mimesis.  In Rebecca Adam’s 1992 interview,  Girard suggests that humans are capable of a more positive kind of desire, which is dependent on “divine grace.”  This is through the imitation of good models (ultimately, Christ) and the choosing of good objects–such as the fruits of the spirit.  In a later book, Girard confirms that mimetic desire is what opens us to one another and the divine.  This is an idea later elaborated brilliantly by Petra Steinmair-Pösel, who connects Girard’s anthropology intimately with Christian theology:

[Positive desire is] gratuitous participation. . . in the divine life.  The experience of having gratuitously received something forms the foundation of positive mimesis. It is cultivated wherever human beings experience themselves as having received a gratuitous gift and consequently are willing to pass on what they have received, freely and without calculation.  (Steinmair-Pösel, “Original Sin, Grace, and Positive Mimesis,” 10)

Just as Enchantment is about participation with the Divine and with Men through Art and an unlimited desire for Wonder, so positive desire is the opening of the self in participation with God and Men in an unlimited desire for God, receiving and giving all freely as a gift enabled by grace.

What Girard finds in an anthropological study of myth, literature, and human history, Tolkien finds in a literary study of fairy-stories and the sub-creation of Fantasy.  Both men, as Christians, ultimately acknowledge that sin is the result of attempting to make a rival out of God and each other–that we desire to dominate others and ultimately replace God.  Both would also say, though that divine grace allows us to imitate God without possessiveness, and to join with each other in giving and receiving all freely as a gift.

Why I don’t hate my roommate: Girardian and Lewisian Friendship

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This is a picture of Anna and I.  Anna is the tall one with the glasses (the easiest way for people to distinguish us quickly).  Anna grew up on a farm in the mountains of Vermont, petting sheep, dancing ballet in fields, reading books, and searching for Narnia in the woods.  We met over a pan of hot apple crisp our Freshman year, but we didn’t become friends until the next fall, when we sat next to each other in Dr. G’s Tolkien and Medieval Literature class.  Our friendship was born, as C. S. Lewis says, at the moment (and then thousand of successive moments) of: “What?  You too?  I thought I was the only one” (The Four Loves).

We found that we share similar backgrounds and similar passions for the integration of Faith and scholarship, the pursuit of what Tolkien calls ‘Enchantment,’ and the redemption of Art (Story in particular).  We also share (or have come to share) tastes in music, puns, film, literature, other humans, environment, fancy hair-braiding techniques, clothing, tea, and even food (except that Anna doesn’t like mushrooms as much as I do.  We’re working on it).  In the last year of sharing a room, cooking together, laughing and crying together, leading a Bible study, beginning an Inklings-inspired poetry appreciation group, singing Irish drinking songs, taking the same classes, and now working on the same summer research project, our already present similarities have naturally increased.  Today I even accidentally introduced myself as “Anna.”

Now, it would seem natural that Anna and I have become more alike as we have spent more time together.  Of course, she remains the quieter of the two of us (in public, at least) and we do have some separation in certain areas of our school-lives, but even those are diminishing.  René Girard, the father of mimetic theory, would say that we have become each other’s models–we imitate one another’s desires and mirror them back to each other, which eliminates the barriers of differentiation between us.  We “desire the same objects and think the same thoughts,” which, in the end, means desiring the “mediator’s being” (A Theatre of Envy).

Girard continues to say that this is fine as long as the objects of friends’ mutual desires can be shared, but when they cannot, disaster strikes: the loving friends become obsessed rivals, continuing to imitate each other’s desires, but in competition, rather than cooperation.  Like Proteus and Valentine in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, a close, doubling friendship can turn into hatred in an instant if rivalry is introduced.  The two can no longer share the same ‘being,’ the ‘being’ itself is now limited to one or the other–the victor of the conflict.

So, then, I return to my title question: why haven’t Anna and I–so obviously acting as identical mediators–fallen into the trap of rivalry?  It isn’t as if we don’t engage in artistic and academic endeavors that often inspire intense competition (we are both highly motivated students).  We imitate each other in countless ways, to the point that even our sense of our own differentiation is sometimes spotty (hence, introducing myself as Anna accidentally).  So, what has (or hasn’t) happened?

My first suggestion is the Grace of God, which is the only way that humans can be elevated from acquisitive desire into the receptive desire necessary for true friendship.  By ‘acquisitive desire,’ I mean the imitation of a model which leads to narcism, wrath, lust, greed, envy, jealousy and idolatry (to name a few) and ends in violence.  By  ‘receptive desire,’ I mean the imitation of Christ (and others who are also imitating Christ) which leads to the humble and grateful reception of things as gifts (not possessions) and passing on what is received.  Simply put, by Grace, Anna and I are, as Christians, enabled to loosen our possessive hold on our identities and objects of desire.

My second suggestion comes from Lewis, whose robust grasp of Philia (friendship-love) has taught me much: Anna’s and my friendship is about more than just each other.  Lewis supports friendship as “the happiest and most fully human of all loves.”  To him, “Friendship” is about “see[ing] the same truth” and “care[ing] about the same truth,” thus focusing attention not on the Friend, but both Friends on something greater than themselves–becoming “fellow-travellers” towards a specific (or many specific) truth(s).  In so doing, the facts of a Friend’s life become less important than who they truly are: Friendship is “an affair of disentangled or stripped minds. . . naked personalities.”  We, and our intimate friend-group, have gathered around our Christian faith and love of myth and literature–much like Lewis and his friends did themselves.

I will put this in Girardian terms.  Anna’s and my objects of desire are often unlimited.  They can (and must) be, therefore, shared–and never hoarded–to be enjoyed.  While a things like positions of prestige based on superior musical or academic talent are necessarily limited, Music, Ideas, Stories, and (most of all) God Himself are infinitely enjoyed and never depleted or lessened because many delight in them.  No rivalry can develop when Friends imitate each other’s desires for these things.  J. R. R. Tolkien called the fulfillment of such desires through shared supernaturally sub-creative experiences Enchantment.  Anna and I call the earthly version Fellowship.

Fellowship is humble and grateful.  It insulates its members from public opinion (it defines specific mediators), and can therefore become exclusive (possessive), but, in its true forms, it welcomes all who “see the same truth.”  It is the mutual experience of receptive desire, and is therefore not an act of will, but of Grace.  As Lewis says:

Christ, who said to the disciples “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.”  The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out.  It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of the others. . . they are like all beauties derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.

Anna and I realize that there are dangers of exclusivity and rivalry in our Fellowship, but we try to remain grateful for– rather than possessive of–each other and our greater group of Friends.  We are gifts from God to each other and fellow-travellers on the road towards Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

‘Battling to the End’…with Girard

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Anna touching the Arch

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Dr. G and I at the Arch (photo credit to Anna Goodling)

Recently, I returned to Hope for summer research.  I have joined up with my beloved roommate, Anna, and our advisor and mentor, Dr. G, to continue my study of the Mabinogi, mimetic theory, and Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories’ with a grant from the Mellon Scholars Foundation.  I’ve been working on what I am currently calling ‘Reconciling Myth’ for the past two years, on and off, and once again I am burying myself in confusing theories and lovely stories.  After studying abroad in Wales, I am excited to add what I learned there to my previous work (as well as to expand the entire project in general).  So, I get to spend my days exploring interesting and fulfilling subjects with people that I like with evenings off for adventures.  It’s pretty great.

However, the first week of our project was not spent at Hope, but instead in St. Louis at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion.  For four days (with few real breaks to speak of), we went to panels, talks, and paper-readings on a single subject: the work of René Girard, father of mimetic theory.  Anna and I were pretty much the only undergraduates present, and we found ourselves quickly exhausted by the complicated presentations and constant hobnobbing in over air-conditioned rooms.   The best parts by far were discussions with our advisor while we explored St. Louis in the evenings.

I suppose that ‘CoVR’ is similar to most academic conferences, but it felt different from my only other experience: the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo.  In both cases, I was listening to people speak on a subject I am currently studying and I got the chance to meet many kind and dizzyingly intelligent scholars.  At CoVR, though, I felt out of place and a bit lost among the philosophers, theologians, and psychologists.  I’ll admit, I find Girard and his theories much more daunting than I do Tolkien or medieval history and literature.  This is partially because I am unfamiliar with the language of philosophy and anthropology, and partially because I have difficulty distinguishing the orthodoxy of Girard’s sometimes bizarre theories.

As I continue to read his books, I am challenged both intellectually and spiritually.  I find some of his ideas very enlightening and helpful, and others baffling and nearly heretical.  I find myself exhausted by constantly measuring his statements against what I understand of orthodox Christian theology.  I alternate between frustrated and intrigued.

I think I would be quite unequal to the task without Anna and Dr. G’s input and willingness to discuss what we are reading.  I keep praying for continued joy in my work and for discernment of what is true in Girard’s theory.

I love my research because it is so integral to my faith, but sometimes that intimacy becomes painful, rather than exhilarating, when I feel that the entire project is threatened because my theology is threatened.  Girard has recanted many of the ideas that I find so unpalatable, but his anthropological reading of Scripture can still seem to flaunt (or at least complicate) Tradition.

I find myself where I began with this project: attempting to find Truth within the Four Branches and better understand how God uses myths and fairy-tales to guide our hearts towards Him.

Better than I’d planned

(Written while in a Manchester hostel waiting to come home, not uploaded due to poor internet connection, and then jet lag and business)

Well, friends, I’m afraid that this will have to be my final post about my Welsh semester.   It’s been a wild four months, and now I’m finally going home.

I’m not really the poster child for studying abroad.  I don’t have wander lust or anything like that–I’m a home-body who loves to build community.  I also have a really great boyfriend, roommate, church, and academic community back at Hope College.  Leaving all of that has been really hard for me, and I’ve had lots of tear-filled Skype sessions and times of loneliness and frustration while I’ve been here.

So, if I knew all of this before coming to Wales, why on earth would I subject myself to it?

The simple answer is: because of stories.  My interest in Welsh medieval literature drew me here, and I really felt like studying the Mabinogi in Wales for a semester was what I was supposed to be doing.

So when I came and, after a very rough first week, was told that the class I had come across the world to take would not be running, I was devastated.  I was confused and lost: my reason for giving up a semester doing what I love with the people I love was suddenly gone.  Without this class, all of the beauty of Wales was not worth the emotional stress I was going through.

The indomitable Professor Peredur Lynch

The indomitable Professor Peredur Lynch

After several meetings with various professors and administrators, I was put in touch with Dr. Peredur Lynch.  He’s the head of the Welsh department and is a very important (not to mention busy) man in the Welsh academic community.  He volunteered to do an independent study with me on the topic that the class would have covered.   For the next four months, we met together weekly to discuss the books he would assign each week.  At a breakneck pace we covered all sorts of medieval Welsh prose and poetry.  Each class was intense:  I’d prepare by reading that week’s books or articles and then we would discuss them for about two hours.  I had to really know my stuff, since I had to have enough for us to talk about for the entire period.  His attention pushed me to work hard, and by the end of our time together, I’d created a 4000 word essay which delved deeply into my favorite topic.  That essay has even inspired my independent research project for this summer!

Once again, I have been amazed by God’s care for me.  If my plans had worked out and the class had run, I never would have gotten the individual focus of my professor, nor would the class have catered so much to my interests and needs.  I also probably wouldn’t have been able to create the essay that I did, which will really help me as I continue my studies.

Instead, God provided a situation that I never would have been able to plan myself.  Not only have I achieved my goals for the semester, but I’ve been able to far exceed them!  On top of that, the fulfillment of my academic needs allowed me to relax and enjoy my surroundings (which is good, because they are incredible).

So, yes, these four months have been hard on me emotionally, but I have also been blessed through the new friends I’ve made and this amazing opportunity that I’ve had.  I’ve learned so much from Dr. Lynch and everyone else I’ve met here.

It is good to go home, but I will always be grateful that things didn’t go how I planned–they were better.

Thanks for reading!  As the Welsh would say as a farewell, “I wish you great fun.”  In Cymraeg: Hywl fawr!

Treasures lost and found

Today I took a field trip with my Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Art Archeology class.  Wow, that’s a mouthful.  I love Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art, but an archeologist I most certainly am not.  I suppose I figured it wouldn’t be too different from history, but it is indeed a separate field.  It’s been a challenge, but one I’ve enjoyed rising to.

As I was saying, today we took a field trip.  Nine of us piled into a mini-bus with Nancy, our professor, and bumped and jostled our way down British roads (Nancy is a great scholar, but not the most confident driver) to seek out over 1000 year old stone crosses and recently unburied treasure.

I can’t really describe what it is like to see these things.  The crosses, though damaged by time and the Reformation iconoclasts, are incredible to behold.  The figures and interlace on them are not only amazing for their technical brilliance, but also for the intricacy of their iconography.  The crosses are absolutely covered in symbols which all refer back to Biblical subjects, which in turn connect to a message or theme.

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Maen Achwyfan, Viking Age cross near Whitford, Flintshire

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Anglo-Saxon crosses at Sandbach, Cheshire

The Staffordshire Hoard, a gold and garnet Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard, was found by metal detectors a few years ago.  It is made up of over 100 very small pieces of heavily decorated gold weapon decorations.  The whole find could fit in a shoe box, but it is worth a WHOLE LOT of money and is really important to the archeological community.  IMG_9354IMG_9360

Seeing all of these things was really wonderful, especially since this class has helped me appreciate them even more.  The best part of the day, though, was finally getting to know my classmates.  The irony of this is not lost on me: we’re beginning exams now, and will not be meeting anymore as a group.  I’d been sitting next to these people for a whole semester, but I’d never really met them–not beyond seminar discussion and maybe a little small talk.  But today we went on an adventure, and that seems to bring people together.

Today I met Max, who loves musical theatre and American Football.  I met Rachel, a kind, sunshiny lady in her 60s who has gone back to Uni loves it.  I met Maj, who’s Dutch and thinks it is hilarious that towns in America have Holland-themed tulip festivals.  And I met Luisa, a sophomore with a black mohawk and a thick New York accent who wants to spend a few years traveling the world.

Maj, Louisa, and I dressing up like Anglo-Saxons at the Stoke-on-Trent Museum, which houses the Hoard

Maj, Louisa, and I dressing up like Anglo-Saxons at the Stoke-on-Trent Museum, which houses the Hoard

As my time here draws to an end, it strikes me how odd the world is: you can share the intimate details of your life with people for a day, and then never see them again.  They will continue their lives–continue to learn and grow and change–but I will always carry with me a snapshot of who they were on a single day in the Spring of 2015.

I think that that has its own kind of melancholy beauty, just like the lost treasures we saw together today.

On the rocky road to Dublin

I love Irish folk music; I was immediately captivated when I was introduced to Riverdance as a small child (my parents and their friends could tell many stories about how little 5-year-old me believed that she too could do Irish dancing), and I’ve loved the genre ever since.  My passion for it has only increased in recent years, since some of my friends and I created a poetry group at Hope College which culminates in a casual folk music session.

So, I suppose it’s only natural that when I was deciding how I should spend my 3 week Spring Break that I was drawn to the capitol of Irish folk music: Dublin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Dublin is, indeed, as kitschy as can be.  You could say that Ireland’s greatest triumph is its marketing.  Temple Bar–the area of town famous for its nightlife–is packed tightly with “Irish pubs” (you probably have one in your town just like them) and live music.  Every night, that part of the city gets lit up like a Christmas tree, and the Guinness flows as freely as classic American rock ballads being played inside the bars.

That’s right, it is (by and large), difficult to find good, traditional, fiddles-and-whistles Irish music in Dublin.

That’s why Rachel (my traveling companion) and I were so grateful for the suggestion that we go on a ‘Traditional Irish Pub Tour,’ which is (surprisingly) not nearly as hokey as one might assume.  Two musicians take the group of tourists to the rented-out upper rooms of family-owned bars that (and I quote) “are the only Irish pubs in Dublin which haven’t been turned into ‘Irish pubs.'”  So, they then proceed to fiddle, strum, and sing their way through the evolution of Irish folk music, beginning with jigs and reels and moving into more modern songs written in a traditional style.

In short, I was in heaven.  They invited us to join in choruses and even taught some of the history of the music itself.   They covered a few of my favorite tunes, and I proudly joined them in a lusty bellowing of “hunt the hare and turn her down the rocky road/ all the way to Dublin/ wack-fol-lal-dee-ra.” I’ve rarely been so giddy.

Moral of the story: if you find yourself in Dublin with a hankering for real Irish music, find yourself some professionals.  You may even get a free Guinness out of it.

Here’s a video of a few of the songs that the musicians played on the tour.

The wonders of home stay, even if it’s just for the weekend

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, academics are catching up on all of us, over here!

Last weekend, my friend Emily and I went on an adventure. There is a wonderful program which Central partners with called ‘Host UK,’ which arranges for international students to spend a weekend in a British home. Emily and I were placed nearby, in a tiny village called Rowen in the Conwy Valley. After taking a train, then a bus, walking over two hills, getting picked up in the village, and driving up the other side of the Valley, we finally arrived at Ty Ucha, the home of a lady named Sue. Sue is retired now, and has lived all over the world because of her job with the British government. She is extremely active and loves hiking and cycling through the mountains by herself. She lives in a lovely Welsh farmhouse that she has renovated, and decorated with exquisite taste. For three days, Sue took Emily and I on hikes on the mountain, around a nearby lake, and to Bodnant Gardens (extensive gardens around an aristocratic estate that are open to the public).

At first, Emily and I were nervous. We had no idea what to expect or what Sue would be like. We were soon put at ease, though, by her engaging conversation.

The Host UK program gave us the opportunity to see a part of Wales that otherwise wouldn’t be open to students using public transportation: village life. Rowen and the farms surrounding it are isolated, but breathtakingly lovely. Grazing fields full of sheep surround the little valley village on the steep inclines of the mountains. All of the homes are made of stone, with traditional slate roofs. The community is small, and everyone seems to have their noses in each other’s business, but they will also pause to visit a bit when they pass each other. Up the mountain is an old church with a holy well, preserved from a time when villagers would climb up every Sunday for services.

Sue was so kind and attentive throughout our stay; she introduced us to her friends, discussed with us everything from politics to education, showed us the countryside that she loves so much, and put hot cups of Earl Grey into our hands at every opportunity. Staying in her lovely house was also a treat. It’s funny how being at Uni makes you forget what it’s like to be in a home again.

Several other students from Central are also going on Host UK weekends, and so far I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews. I wish everyone would take this adventure while they’re here, it brings you outside of the ‘Uni-bubble’ and shows you just a peek at real life in Wales.

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view of Rowen

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Sue next to a neolithic burial site near her house

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Sue’s home, Ty Ucha

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Sue is an amateur artist, with a great eye for aesthetics, especially in her home.

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Ah, the rugged beauty of Northern Wales