Emotions, Ideology, and a PhD

Often, I think as serious students of English literature we are tempted to deny our most personal – frequently deeply emotional, sometimes frivolous, always totally nerdy – interests in our chosen topic, both amongst friends, and in our thesis-writing. As soon as I reveal my intention to study Anglo-Saxon poetry at PhD level to a new acquaintance, the most frequent courtesy follow-up question is ‘so what made you choose that?’ I feel like I should respond with some scholarly sound-bite, something along the lines of:

‘I’m simply fascinated by the philological implications of translation’

or

‘I’m concerned with exploring the linguistic word-hoard of a poetic idiom now lost.’

But I don’t want to start throwing academic jargon (that I’m not even sure I’m using correctly) around, even if it does give me a little thrill to say words like ‘philological’ or ‘idiom’ aloud. So I usually end up laughing away the bemused looks, murmuring something about how ‘someone has to do it’, before moving the conversation on. However, I’m always afraid that one day I’ll end up spilling my secrets and spout either something incredibly geeky and boring, or worse, I’ll reveal an innermost daydream that should never be said out loud:

“Actually, I am, like, totally in love with getting lost in a world of fearless seafarers and warriors, I mean, we’ve all seen Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings right? I like to think of Beowulf having his face, I mean you definitely would, wouldn’t you…?”

Probably not something you should reveal on a Tinder first date. Alternatively, I’ll get political, and start bemoaning the fact that, in general, we as a nation know so little about our medieval past and I want to explore ways of changing this: isn’t it a shame that school children are more likely to think of Daenerys Targaryen than Queen Ælfgifu if asked to imagine a medieval woman? And by crowning Chaucer as the father of ‘English poetry’ aren’t we missing out on a rich treasure-trove of poems from the centuries before him? I could bang on about how outraged I am that the very words – ‘medieval’, ‘The Dark Ages’ – that we use to talk about the time period that spans 500-1400CE either get the bad rep of being associated with baddies from ISIS to FGM advocates, or are otherwise totally misunderstood as referring exclusively to Arthurian knights, damsels in distress, magical fairy kingdoms, and elves. So too ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often appropriated now by the likes of the English Defence League or the Republican as a way of defining ethnicity, of othering and neatly excluding anyone they don’t like either because of the colour of their skin or their religion. Of course, I’ll conclude, my thesis will be part of an effort to reclaim and redefine all of these words, helping to liberate all things medieval from the clutches of fascists.

Image by Fran Allfrey
Image by Fran Allfrey

But again, this sort of conversation probably won’t make me many friends, or will at least have me sounding like a smug armchair activist with a grandiose delusion that anyone beyond my supervisors and my parents will read my thesis. Furthermore, it’s these sorts of conversations that I long to weave into my writing, but feel pressure to do so in a measured, academic way. Phrases like ‘I love’ or ‘I am outraged by’ feel too personal, too impassioned, and could never be part of a serious argument. But it is love, and outrage, a childish sense of adventuring and time-travelling, a complete fascination with playing with language, a desire to simply get lost in poems, reflect upon beautiful art, and immerse myself in the ideas of other people, whilst trying to come up with my own opinions, that are all driving me. So, over the next three years, I’ve just got to find a way of channelling all these drives that push against each other, compete for attention, and conflict with what I understand to be ‘scholarly’, into coming up with some serious, passable, research. If I can also find a way of making my PhD sound interesting to Tinder dates, that would be a bonus.

Fran Allfrey will begin her PhD in the English Department at King’s College London in October. Her research asks questions about what cultural work Old English poetry can do, or can be made to do, now, and what exactly medievalists might get out of this new work. Follow her @francheskyia.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice in Wonderland is a tale that has followed me just as Alice follows the White Rabbit. Her pubescent exploration of a confusing topsy-turvy land has stuck to me, appears when I don’t expect it. I realise I return to her rabbit hole regularly even now.

When I research I fall down the rabbit hole. Following what I find curious into darkness: dark corners of libraries, into the dark fathoms within books. Day after day I fall into different rabbit holes, some of which are dead ends, others that thankfully lead to wonderlands. Research is as strange and a mutable as Alice’s Wonderland and the joy of research stems from a curiosity like Alice’s. When I read I float like Alice in her rabbit hole – in a dark unknown, in a time suspended, a time that catches my skirt into a parachute and warps the ticking of the clock I should be following. Curiosity in the library – in the words of Alice – can ‘often lead to trouble’. rabbit hole

When Alice follows the white rabbit with a waistcoat and watch into an inadvisably small hole to fall down into another, more imaginative world that makes little sense, she enacts the experience of researching.

Yet. And yet, Alice in Wonderland shadows me ever further. For in my research I have taken myself to a wonderland much like Alice’s – a place of dreams and nightmares, myth and fantasy, full of strange and marvelous creatures.

The difference is that the wonderland of my research exists – can be traversed, touched, smelt and felt. It is a garden, built in sixteenth-century Italy, a woodland garden, where you will come across two fighting giants 7.7 metres tall, enter a gaping face where sounds resonate from the interior cave, see a sea creature with yawning jaws rise from the earth, and meet mythical Sirens and Harpies. It is a place as topsy-turvy as that land Alice wanders. A place, which I hope will tell us something of place, embodiment, imagination and fantasy in early modern Italy. In Through the Looking Glass, the second book of Lewis Caroll’s Alice tales, the White Queen lives backwards:

“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”

     “– but [said the White Queen] there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”

My memory only works one way, in the words of Alice I sadly ‘can’t remember things before they happen’. But in my research I remember Alice, her wonderland echoes in mine and it is with her beside me that I fall down rabbit holes.

Thalia Allington-Wood is currently in the first year of her PhD in the History of Art Department of University College London. Her research explores the Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo, a sixteenth-century woodland of monsters and marvels carved from stone.