Timothy Miller

BA, Kenyon College. PhD, University of Notre Dame. Special interests include medieval English literature and its transcultural reception history, narrative theory, classical Latin literature and its legacies, and science in literature from the Middle Ages to contemporary science fiction. SLC, 2014–

Current undergraduate courses

Arthurian Literature and Film

Fall

King Arthur, the once and future king, has truly never died. Early historians of England considered Arthur an important figure in the history of the nation, and he quickly became the most enduringly popular hero of medieval romance. This course will provide an introduction to some of the key Arthurian texts from the Middle Ages in the Welsh, French, German, and English traditions but will also invite you to explore the afterlife of Arthurian romance in much more recent English-language literature and film. For example, we will read in its entirety Sir Thomas Malory’s epochal compilation of earlier medieval Arthurian legends, Le Morte Darthur, and also T. H. White’s enormously influential 20th-century reimagining of the mythos in The Once and Future King—which itself inspired an animated Disney film and the stage musical Camelot—and, from there, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Spamalot. As we read various iterations of the tales of Gawain, Tristan, Percival, and many of Arthur’s other Knights of the Round Table, we will also examine some of the different cultural, nationalistic, and ideological uses that these stories have served over time. Because our study of more contemporary Arthurian narratives will heavily emphasize the long and varied filmic tradition, we will spend a substantial amount of time discussing adaptation theory as it bears on this most adaptable and adapted of medieval romance cycles, the Matter of Britain.

Faculty

Games and Play in Medieval Literature

Fall

In contrast to popular depictions of the Middle Ages as an era of drab and dull suffering, games and other forms of play flourished across Western Europe during this period. Contemporary games such as chess, backgammon, and playing cards developed into their modern forms during the Middle Ages, and the upper classes enjoyed numerous leisure activities, including hunting, hawking, jousting, and more. In this course, we will study the place of games and gaming in medieval culture as a whole but with particular emphasis on the intersection of those games with Middle English literature. Evidence exists for the oral performance of medieval literary texts alongside other types of entertainments, and the distinction between “game” and “literature” can sometimes become blurred in, for example, formal contests of poetic composition; the courtly “demaunde d’amor” poem, which challenges the audience to provide a response; and ritualized insult exchanges—these last the medieval analogue of the rap battle. Our primary readings will include some of the major works of medieval English literature, including Beowulf, the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a selection of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But we will read these texts paying particular attention to various issues related to games, gaming, contests, competitions, sport, entertainment, and play—for example, the famous “beheading game” motif in Sir Gawain and the exchange of boasts in Beowulf. Alongside these canonical literary narratives, we will also be reading some less familiar medieval texts, including the verse party game known as The Chance of the Dice, an allegorical poem on The Game and Play of the Chess, fortune-telling poems such as John Metham’s Book of Destinies, as well as some Old English riddles and enigmas that influenced the riddling game in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We will also examine some 20th- and 21st-century games and literary texts that nevertheless bear many traces of the Middle Ages. A genericized version of the medieval West has become the default setting for a number of gaming genres, electronic and otherwise. As we study medieval games and their afterlives, we will take up several questions bearing on the epistemology of reading, writing, game playing, and “game making.” What, for instance, might we learn from understanding literature itself as a kind of game?

Faculty

No Girls Allowed? Women and Science Fiction

Spring

Some historians of science fiction would locate the beginnings of the modern genre in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but in the first half of the 20th century, science fiction was inarguably dominated by male authors, readers, filmmakers, and fans. The first science-fiction pulp magazines printed short stories written almost exclusively by men, and the typical narratives of the time also catered to a readership at least perceived to be almost exclusively male—rarely featuring women as characters in any role except that of the damsel in distress or villainous temptress. Even when Sarah Lawrence alumna Alice Sheldon began publishing overtly feminist science fiction under the pen name “James Tiptree Jr.” in the 1960s and ’70s, some readers refused to believe that a woman could be behind the pseudonym. Today, however, the ranks of science-fiction authors are filled with females who have found the genre a unique tool for exploring women’s issues and often for developing feminist ideas in an imaginative space uniquely suited to their progressive aims—for example, by positing the possibility of radically different social structures in the far future (perhaps in utopias or dystopias) or by pondering more fluid alien gender identities or the consequences of new reproductive technologies. In spite of—and in defiance of—the historical and, to some extent, continuing identification of science fiction as a predominantly masculine or even “macho” field, our syllabus will consist entirely of female authors writing within or in close proximity to genre science fiction: not only Shelley and other earlier authors of so-called proto science fiction but also major figures of 20th- and 21st-century literature such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Nicola Griffith, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, and many others. We will also examine some of the perhaps unexpected affiliations and convergences between feminist theory and science fiction, best exemplified in the works of Donna Haraway.

Faculty
Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Vision, Fantasy, Romance: Chaucer’s Early Poetry in Context

Spring

Gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, talking birds and castles in the air, love and betrayal in times of war, prophetic dreams and visionary journeys through the cosmos...all of these and more appear in the early poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer. Although Chaucer has been called “the Father of English Poetry” largely in recognition of his longest and most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, he would still number among the most important of medieval poets had he never written this later text. This course will focus on the lesser known half of Chaucer’s considerable poetic output; and our readings will include a diverse mixture of dream visions, ballads, fables, romances, and even a medieval analogue of the modern short story collection. As we read Chaucer’s early poetry “in context,” we will read widely in some of his literary predecessors, contemporaries, and imitators—meaning that this course can also serve as an introduction to late medieval literature as a whole. A trip through Chaucer’s library will take us on a whirlwind tour of medieval European literature and its origins. We will examine the mythologies and epic traditions of classical Greece and Rome, as well as a great deal of Continental French and Italian literature from the century or so preceding Chaucer’s time, including the Arthurian lais of Marie de France, the “bestselling” allegorical dream vision known as Le Roman de la Rose, and some of the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Finally, the course will conclude with a quick survey of Chaucer’s later literary legacies, particularly in 15th-century England and Scotland. The Scottish poet Robert Henryson, for example, produced a sequel to Chaucer’s tragic romance of Troilus and Criseyde that, in turn, influenced Shakespeare.

Faculty

Previous courses

Gods and Monsters: Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon World

Spring

Hwaet! So begins Beowulf, the story of a group of Swedish warriors battling monsters in Denmark that has been claimed as the English national epic. Although the poem was largely unknown for several centuries following its composition in the early Middle Ages, its 20th-century aficionados—from J. R. R. Tolkien to Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney—helped to popularize the poem for a modern audience. In this course, we will examine the poem in relation to its original historical and cultural contexts in Anglo-Saxon England but also trace its enduring legacy in contemporary literary and popular culture. For example, we will spend some time comparing the different approaches to translation adopted by Tolkien, Heaney, and others, as well as analyzing the enduring popularity of Beowulf and his monstrous nemesis Grendel in film, comic books, and music. Moreover, although Beowulf is the longest and most famous poem still extant from Anglo-Saxon England, it is far from the only one; and this course will also, through modern translations, introduce you to the great breadth of Old English poetry. In order to gain an appreciation of the diversity and depth of this early medieval poetic corpus, we will read a selection of other heroic poems, riddles, elegies, saints’ lives, dream visions, and more. Above all, you will come away from the course with a better understanding of the earliest beginnings of both English poetry and the unlikely language that would go on from being spoken by a handful of wandering Germanic tribes to conquer the world.

Faculty

Medieval Sci-Fi? Medieval Science and Medieval Fiction

Fall

In spite of our growing understanding of the intellectual sophistication of medieval science and technology, in many popular cultural representations the Middle Ages remains a period associated with darkness and ignorance, especially in scientific matters. But medieval science had ready answers to many of the ageless questions that humans have asked about their physical environment. For instance, the Middle English “textbook” known as the Lucydarye poses and answers questions such as the following: Why is the ocean salty? How can we explain the changing phases of the moon? “Howe farre is it to walke frome hence unto paradise and from hence into hell?” This course will explore some of the medieval precursors to modern experimental science but with special reference to how these protoscientific discourses influenced medieval literary texts, including those by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. We will see how mainstream medieval disciplines that modernity rejects as pseudoscience—astrology, alchemy, dream theory, and so on—in fact relied heavily on complex mathematical models and frequent experimentation and verification. As we read widely in the genres of the romance, dream vision, encyclopedia, bestiary, and more, we will discuss the possible differences between magic and science in the Middle Ages and, above all, examine the metaphysical implications of what C. S. Lewis famously called the “discarded image” of the medieval cosmos as an elegant and ordered whole. The medieval understanding of the universe, as we will see, was a powerful tool for meaning-making and deserves more attention than we usually grant to obsolete models of how the universe works. Reading medieval science and medieval literature in this way can also give us a better understanding of the relationship between contemporary fiction and science. After all, given enough time, our own scientific paradigms are likely to be superseded by others; but they are no less significant now for our understanding of our place in the universe.

Faculty

Sex, Love, and Flatulence: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Fall

Geoffrey Chaucer has been revered as “the Father of English Poetry” for the last six centuries; and in this course, we will read his major work, the Canterbury Tales, in its entirety. Dryden famously praised Chaucer’s cast of pilgrim tale-tellers as encompassing all possible human personalities, and other critics have celebrated Chaucer’s panoramic view of human life and experience: “Here is God’s plenty.” But despite this praise for Chaucer’s universality, the time in which he lived was very different from our own. This course will begin to acquaint you with the alien world that is the late Middle Ages, and you will gain a strong command of both the Middle English language and the intricacies of literary production in a manuscript culture predating the printing press. Selected supplementary readings will help situate Chaucer in the various historical and literary contexts that (supposedly) birthed English poetry. Reading Chaucer will also help us address some of the most pressing questions in literary studies today. For example, did English poetry really begin with a fart joke? On the one hand, Chaucer’s poems take up the highest of high themes like love and war, fate and predestination, human justice and God's providence. At the same time, Chaucer also demonstrates a penchant for humor involving flatulence and exposed hindquarters; more sinisterly, his Tales include multiple examples of a genre that we might today call the “rape joke.” Thus, Dryden’s claim that all human life is represented in The Canterbury Tales will frame our discussions of various issues related to gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. As we journey towards Canterbury with Chaucer’s pilgrims, we will nevertheless have to ask what realms of human experience might even this timeless cornucopia of “God's plenty” leave out, and what the implications of those omissions might be.

Faculty

Watchers of the Skies: Science Fiction from the Middle Ages to the Postmodern

Spring

Science fiction. Literature. We often think of these two categories as fundamentally separate, even if the occasional author may seem to cross over from one to the other. But the main theme of this course will be that the best of “genre” science fiction takes up the same questions that great literature has always taken up. What does it mean to be human? What is our place in the universe? What do life and death mean—biologically, spiritually, or otherwise? In fact, science fiction seems much better equipped to examine some of the newer problems that human beings have had to face; for example: What does it mean and what comes next now that we have the power to change our environment irreversibly and on a massive scale? Or now that we have the power to tamper with and even eradicate our own species? Our method in this course will be to read some of the classic works of genre science fiction alongside more canonical or “mainstream” literary texts in search of possible points of contact—literary texts including but not limited to medieval romance, Romantic lyric poetry, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the 20th-century short story, and the postmodern novel. Although we will not be reading widely in SF’s sister genres in speculative fiction—fantasy, horror, etc.—we will spend quite a bit of time discussing the relationship(s) between all of these genres and “the literary” as manifested, for instance, in the phenomenon of magic realism, as well as in contemporary “slipstream” movements that blur the boundaries dividing the genres from the mainstream. Authors to be considered include H. G. Wells, Borges, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jonathan Lethem, China Miéville, Junot Díaz, and Sarah Lawrence’s own alumna Alice Sheldon or “James Tiptree, Jr.,” among others. As the course will emphasize the major role that science fiction has played in the proliferating media of the last century, we will also take some time to consider SF film (including Ridley Scott's Blade Runner), television (such as The Twilight Zone), and even rock opera. After all, the scope of SF aims to be as wide as the universe.

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