We are thrilled to launch a new travel program this summer: British Fantasy Fiction. Students begin in Bangor, Wales, travel throughout Wales and England, and finish the program in London. Professor Jon Mackley has already had an incredibly distinguished career, writing, researching and publishing extensively in his field. We had the chance to ask him about his work, the places in the UK students will visit, and his plans for the course he will be teaching, British Fantasy Literature: Magic Memory. Needless to say, the program is a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime journey through the history and literature of Britain. Read on:
You have a PhD in English and specialize in English and Creative Writing. What made you decide to pursue this career?
I’ve always enjoyed writing fiction. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. It’s an exceptionally hard career to succeed in, so once I’d accepted that I wasn’t going to retire on a beach after my first novel – and also that there were other types of writing which did pay – I started to look for other opportunities.
My first jobs after I left school were in film production and as media liaison for an environmental organisation. And then there were a whole series of circumstances that made me drop everything I was doing and start again. I was quite surprised when, aged 24, I went to Stirling University, initially studying Film and Media, but then switched over to English. And then a couple of well-placed comments from tutors made me streamline my degree to focus on modules that dealt with Saxon and Medieval literature and they also made suggestions for where I should continue with my postgraduate work.
Much of your work relates to Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature – what about these areas of study interested you? What can we learn from them?
It helps when you have a passionate tutor who can convey their enthusiasm for the subject. I attended a lecture on a fourteenth century poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the intricacies and detail of the work fascinated me. But also, it’s a fascinating part of history which isn’t taught at schools (my own students breathe a sigh of relief the closer we get to 1066 – that’s a date that they’ve heard of, even if they’re horrified to discover that the “Battle of Hastings” didn’t actually take place in Hastings.) I’m interested in seeing how language has developed and how the meaning of words has changed.
I’m really interested in folklore – that’s a book that I’m working on now. It considers what it means to be English, where some of our customs and stories come from, as well as “English” mythological tropes that are repeated from the mythology of other cultures. For example, a Saxon legend can be traced back to Pagan Scandinavia, and then back to Ancient Greece. And of course, all of these are materials that writers can draw on to populate their stories.
This study abroad program will take students to Wales and lesser known tourist locales around the UK. What should students expect? Why are these places still special and important?
Rain. The students should expect rain. Lots of it. Seriously, Wales is a beautiful county with dramatic landscape, particularly Snowdonia National Park. And it’s this landscape that’s inspired some of the literature. Wales and the south west of England are places that have inspired the legend of King Arthur, probably our most enduring story. The Welsh are the “original” Celtic inhabitants of Britain before the Saxon invaders pushed them to the west of the land. The Island of Anglesey has evidence of Pagan cultures: this is where Julius Caesar described the practices of the Druids. And there is something truly magical about Stonehenge, Avebury and Uffington. These sites date back some 5000 years, and the early Saxon storytellers, finding these mystical places, wrote stories about what they believed happened then imbued them with more cultural significance.
I think that mythology is generated from the readers’ relationship with the landscape. There are some places, such as Tintagel – named as the birthplace of King Arthur – is such a dramatic location, especially if you visit on a slightly overcast day, you can truly imagine this was a place of monumental significance. Likewise, Glastonbury feels charged with spiritual and mythological significance.
You have written about many great works of Medieval literature (Gawain, St. George, the Voyage of Brendan); and students will be learning about these and modern authors such as Tolkien and Lewis. What is your favorite work of Medieval literature? Your favorite modern work?
Gawain was my gateway into medieval literature, and I love revisiting the text, so I think that will always be my favourite. I’ve only unlocked a fraction of what the author was trying to tell us. I would love to spend a lot more time with it. I did my PhD on a study of the Latin and Anglo-Norman Voyage of Brendan and I recently produced an edition that was a facing page translation so that it was accessible (and affordable) for my students, so it’s a pleasure to introduce it to them. As far as modern works are concerned, I wouldn’t say I have a favourite author. I love finding a new author whose work catches me by surprise. This year I’ve read a couple of outstanding books: The Buried Giant by Kasuo Ishiguro, which considered different ways of remembering (and misremembering), and also Angels of the Universe by Einar Már Guðmundsson, an Icelandic author who I was privileged to meet at a conference this year.
Tell us a little about the course you will be teaching this summer. What will students be learning?
The course is building on a module that I’ve been teaching at Richmond for the last four years, focusing on British Fantasy literature. Chronologically we begin with Saxon writing, then gallop through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and then look at some post-war fantasy and a couple of contemporary texts. For the “touring module” these texts will be ordered by location rather than chronology. It’s one thing talking about literature in a class environment, it’s another thing completely to be in the environment in which the story is set or where the author was writing. Some years ago I sat in Whitby Abbey overlooking the harbour where the Demeter runs aground in Dracula; likewise when visiting Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham (London) you can see where locations influenced Horace Walpole when he wrote The Castle of Otranto. So we’ll visit locations that are significant to the texts we study. I hope students will see places of cultural significance and will be introduced to some texts that they’ve not read before as well as thinking about other texts in a new way. Ultimately, I want to share some of the great places in the British Isles and I want the students to have a great time.
The course description notes that many of the texts you will be covering are arguably the foundation for more recent works such as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Who is your favorite GoT character? And, most importantly…spoiler alert: do not continue reading if you have not finished Season 5!
I’m almost ashamed to admit it: I’d not touched Game of Thrones until this year, because I knew I didn’t have the time I wanted to commit to it. However, this summer I had two dissertation proposals that started “I am going to compare the whole of Lord of the Rings with the Game of Thrones …” so I felt I needed to have more knowledge to explain that this was an ambitious and impractical idea. When I was teaching the AIFS course this summer I was living in a flat in London away from my family and I started watching Season 1. Two months later, (last week, in fact) I finished Season 5 and I also read the first of the books (I would like to read more, but I have a lot of dissertations and there is a lot of reading I’ve needed to do!).
I think Tyrion has to be a favourite character: the razor-sharp wit is wonderful writing. I would have been annoyed by this question about Jon Snow a week ago, as I have religiously tried to avoid any spoilers while watching the series. I’d heard mutterings about Jon but had avoided solid fact.
Do I think he’s dead? No. Despite what President Obama was told. I think that the character’s background has too much significance for it to be written out now. Likewise with Tyrion: Tywin’s comment “You are not my son” is intriguing. I wouldn’t be surprised if they both had Targaryan blood. I think the eye-contact between Jon and Melisandre as she returns to Castle Black from the ‘siege’ at Winterfell is an important clue. In an earlier episode, the Lord of Light resurrected Beric Dondarrion, after all, so Jon might enter a Faustian-like pact just as Stannis Baratheon did, and then spend the rest of the series trying to get out of it.
But actually, after I finished watching the series, I skyped George R.R. Martin and I said to him, “George, this ending of Season 5. It just won’t do.” And he said to me, “Actually …” and then he told me the plot outline for the last two books and I saw what he was doing and it all makes sense. I think I’m the only other person who knows how it ends …
(And this last paragraph, friends, is pure fantasy)
I’ve enclosed a photo from when I was hiking in Wales earlier in the month. I really do love Wales, even in the rain.
Any questions? Find out more about the program here on our website!