Learning To Read

This term I really learned how to read. When I decided to read Literature of the later Middle Ages I thought it would mean indulging in some imaginative, romantic, and perhaps fanciful texts. The language seemed intimidating and I could not begin to think how I would apply any of the theory and criticism from other units to texts that seemed as remote and inaccessible as those from 800 years ago do. Quite unexpectedly, how I read, theory and criticism is exceptionally important to me in this unit. I have been to ‘The Ends of Allegory,’ as Dr. Sayre Greenfield titled is book, and back.

Allegory is my point of entry to the ‘Literature Of The Later Middle Ages’ unit; in the period I am studying allegory is almost a vogue, so it seemed like a logical place to start. I wanted to appreciate allegory and these particular texts. C.S. Lewis commented that texts can illuminate anthropology, but anthropology cannot really illuminate texts. To me, this means that a text can help me understand a time and place, but studying a time and place cannot really illuminate a text in terms of literary analysis or criticism. For example, noting how a character’s apparel is described might teach me about the period but studying medieval fashion cannot tell me anything about the literary characteristics of the text. I began study feeling a bit under prepared despite how many history books I skimmed and read. Focusing on allegory seemed like a good way to put the texts in perspective.

Because these texts are somewhat exotic, the culture they emerged from is the realm of fantasy in our time, and there are so many influences to consider from Celtic to Anglo-Norman traditions, I decided to adhere to close study of the primary texts. I expected close reading to be challenging because of dialect and vocabulary. The examination for this unit requires me to complete an analysis of two passages in Section A instead of one passage of textual analysis that is typical of other units. Realizing that I would need to write four essays in one hour instead of three got my attention; to become a proficient Medieval reader  I tried reading history, literary criticism and theory, line by line, along with the primary texts.

In the beginning I could not read more than a few lines at a time, and had to read both translations and ‘original’ language simultaneously. This slow, close reading made progression through this intelligent, emotional, imaginative, and compelling story telling very productive and enjoyable. I focused on each word, and on allegory as a trope or a reading choice because, while the texts are riveting and strike deep cords, it still is not quite possible for me to confidently understand what story they are actually telling. I feel too far removed from the unbelievably rich language, time and place to assume anything about a text. Which brings me to Dr. Greenfield’s liberating thesis on allegory and my role as a reader.

Dr. Greenfield writes that allegory can be defined as a reading choice as much as a textual type or classification. Because these texts are so different from all others units I have become a very self-conscious reader. I have been indulging in this unit, but not as I expected. My indulgence has been in reading choices, and becoming a more sensitive, facile and critical reader. These texts are different from anything in my reading experience. I learned to appreciate the extraordinary elements of their subject matter and their authors’ imagination by the slow, close reading they require. How ironic that texts several hundred years old, and from a largely illiterate society, can so effectively teach me how to read.

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