Author: Finn Longman

Writer, Irish dancer, and stay-at-home medievalist. I read a lot of books and yell about Cú Chulainn.

The Road To ASNaC: Blog Bodies

I met Eleanor during Freshers’ Week 2014, amidst the whirlwind of introductory sessions for ASNaCs (students in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) during which they crammed our heads full of information that, in my case at least, was immediately pushed out by other things. We sat at the back of the room, exchanging memes about Achilles and Patroclus, and that was it. We were friends.

I know there must have been more to it than that — what was it about Eleanor that made eighteen-year-old me think she was a safe person to talk to about queer readings of mythological figures? — but that’s what I remember. Being overwhelmed, sitting next to Eleanor, and exchanging memes. 

Being silly on King’s Parade, October 2015

This proved to be an accurate representation of how our friendship would progress, and now here we are, near enough seven years down the line. We’re a long way from the versions of ourselves who first embarked on their medievalist journeys, but a lot of things have stayed the same. And today we thought we’d talk a little bit more about how we ended up studying what is probably Cambridge’s most obscure subject. How did we find out it existed, and what made us think — in an era of high tuition fees — that this was what interested us? Were we budding medievalists from the cradle, or was everything new?

This isn’t intended as an advertisement for the ASNaC course in particular, but since it’s where we both started our medievalist journey (and where Eleanor has continued hers), it seemed like a good starting point to kick off our Blog Bodies series.

This is our first discussion post, so we’re still figuring out the logistics — let us know what works and what doesn’t!

Finn: For me, the road to ASNaC very much started with children’s books. Specifically, one children’s book: The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, which my grandma gave me when I was about ten — it sparked an interest in Irish music and folklore that later led to me becoming an Irish dancer. It also probably latched onto roots laid down by my childhood obsession with The Load of Unicorn by Cynthia Harnett (a historical novel about Caxton, the printing press, and Sir Thomas Malory, first published 1959), the nightmares I had after reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner, and of course, the huge influence of Tolkien on my childhood. You’ve definitely mentioned Alan Garner and Susan Cooper to me as influences, so did you have a similar experience?

Eleanor: I definitely didn’t have as good an idea of what I was interested in as you did! I found ASNC the absolutely classic way, by going onto the Cambridge website and seeing it at the top of the alphabetical list of subjects. But the books I read as a kid, and then as a teen, definitely set me up to be enthusiastic about it once I’d found it. Like you said, I read a lot of Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor) and Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising Sequence) – at the time, I didn’t realise just how much they were both drawing on ASNC-type lit and folklore: it’s more that I picked up The Vibes from them, and then when I saw ASNC on the website, The Vibes appeared. History-wise, I was a massive fan of Rosemary Sutcliff novels, and some of my favourites were set in the Late Antique and early medieval period (Beowulf: Dragonslayer, the entire series from The Eagle of the Ninth to Sword at Sunset), so I knew in theory that I liked the period. Even so, I absolutely didn’t anticipate just how much I was going to love it!

Finn: To be fair, I found ASNaC by accident while poking around on UCAS, so we have that in common. And we could probably do an entire post just about our childhood reading experiences, if people would be interested (let us know in the comments!). But for now… getting started as a nerd. I had no prior experience with medieval history or literature — I hadn’t studied it at school or anything. I’d been researching ‘Irish mythology’ for writing purposes for a couple of years, but most of my sources were… unreliable, and it wasn’t until a few months before starting at Cambridge that I actually read Táin Bó Cúailnge rather than relying on Edwardian retellings. It was a big learning curve. What about you, did you have much of a medievalist background? 

Eleanor: Does being into Julian of Norwich count? But in all seriousness, I was in a very similar position to you, really. I hadn’t covered medieval history since my first year of secondary school. My school was unusual in focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries for A-Level History, so I knew that I liked looking at earlier history, and the further back the better – I liked immersing myself in a version of society very different from my own. And I knew that I enjoyed the language element of medieval studies because I’d done Latin (thank you, Catholic school) – and even that was unusual in our cohort: I’d done Latin up to A-Level, but most people were starting from scratch, and the people in the intermediate classes with me had largely dropped it after GCSE. But I had no real experience of studying the medieval period at all! So it was a big shift to go from “all dates start with 19- or 20-” to “all dates start with 15- or 16-” to “all dates start with something between 4- and 10-”. 

Finn: My school pretty much only focused on the 20th century, so I’m a bit jealous you got to do earlier stuff! I know there’s a stereotype that everyone’s studied the Tudors a million times, but I just did the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations over and over again… it’s one of the reasons I didn’t take History A-Level, I couldn’t face doing it again. 

I have to say, there were definitely moments in first year when I was profoundly disappointed by the way that the Irish material didn’t live up to my Romanticist expectations. Most of my sources as a teen were from the 19th century, or relied on scholarship that was, so I went into it expecting gods and fairies. Instead, I got a lot of monasteries. Like, a lot. The amount of ecclesiastical history involved was something that really hadn’t clicked for me before I started. Of course, as you know, I ended up going purely literary and hiding from the concept of mythology, so I got over that, but… are there ways in which ASNaC destroyed your dreams or preconceptions?

Eleanor: I definitely had some preconceptions, going in, about the degree to which things would be “pagan” – euhemerized gods showing up in the literature, Secret Pagan Mindsets sneaking into the Christianity, all that sort of thing. Stuff that’s less studied these days, or that arose based on faulty assumptions in the first place. I do remember going into my first Welsh lecture and being told “we basically have no evidence about pre-Christian religion preserved in our lit, and also, the Mabinogi are definitely not as old as some people will tell you”, and going “…oh. Wait, what? Then why am I doing this course?” But what I realised pretty quickly was that things didn’t have to be explicitly non-Christian to be interesting – they just had to be weird. And the early medieval period has plenty of weirdness! Every time someone told me, “it’s more complex than that,” I just got more enthusiastic about digging down into the complexity. And I think we both found that the literature doesn’t necessarily have to preserve the secrets of an earlier time in order to speak to us. It speaks just fine on its own.

Finn: Yeah, medieval Christianity is way weirder than your bog-standard modern English church where everything’s very respectable — something you never see represented in pop culture depictions of the medieval period! Saints’ lives are wild. And I agree about the literature not needing to preserve secrets to be interesting. That doesn’t mean I dismiss all possibilities of mythological survivals or whatever, but it does mean I don’t really care if they’re there or not.

Did you know going into it what your focus would be? It was always the Irish material that drew me, but I flirted with the idea of Old Norse for a while (which I ended up dropping after first year), and I made a valiant attempt at Welsh in final year before returning to my true love. But you seemed a bit more consistent in terms of what papers you took.

Eleanor: I knew that I liked Old English, and I did end up taking it all through undergrad, so in that sense, yes. But I thought Old English lit, and Scandinavian and pre-Conquest English history, would be way more important to me than they actually ended up being! Everywhere I applied outside of ASNC, I was originally applying for things like Viking Studies! Welsh was kind of a neat add-on for me at first, because I thought it looked cool and I liked going on holiday in Wales. I really struggled with the language to start with, too. It wasn’t until I started writing essays on Welsh lit, and learning how beautiful englyn poetry was and how gloriously weird Welsh Arthuriana is, that I discovered I wanted to keep doing it and actually make it my focus. (And look at me now – these days I focus on saints, and I had no idea I had any interest in saints’ cults until my third year of undergrad!)

Finn: I applied for English and History at most other places… but I’m really not a historian, I’m definitely a literature person. Funny how we can be wrong about these things. Fortunately, though, we ended up in the same place, or I wouldn’t have one of my closest friends <3 And maybe one of these days we’ll get you to tell everyone here about some of those saints’ cults!

So that’s where we started — where are we now? I’m finishing up an MA in Early and Medieval Irish at University College Cork, and Eleanor is doing a PhD in the ASNaC department at Cambridge, researching a 14th-century manuscript of saints’ Lives and trying to pin down where it was made. 

And we exchange memes about medieval lit.

A lot of memes. 

Some things never change. 

At the People’s Vote March, London, 2019

You can find Eleanor here: @englynsmith 

To support me and the Blog Bodies project, please consider buying me a coffee.

A Medievalist Reads ‘Blackheart Knights’ by Laure Eve

I’ve drifted away from reviewing books over the last couple of years, and I’ve also developed … not an aversion, but a certain wariness towards retellings where I’m too familiar with the source material, as I inevitably end up getting annoyed at them. But when the publicist for Jo Fletcher Books reached out to me about Blackheart Knights, I realised I was going to have to break both of those habits:

From the acclaimed YA author of The Graces comes the first adult novel – a unique retelling of the Arthurian legend, set in a London where the knights are celebrities, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money – think Chamelot meets Gotham! Full of magic and secrets, Blackheart Knights is a wonderfully immersive read. It’s dark, it’s sexy and Laure’s expert world-building will have you gripped.

Was it possible, I thought, that somebody had finally written the weird, queer, knight-focused Arthurian retelling I was craving? One that recognised that the individual knights and their quests were the main draw in many of the medieval stories, not Arthur himself, who is usually more of a background figure? One that did something creative enough, strange enough, new enough to get past my inherent suspicion of Arthurian retellings?

I needed to find out. And when I saw the cover, I needed it even more.

So, I signed up to participate in the social media blast, Jo Fletcher Books generously sent me a proof copy, and here we are. Let’s talk about Blackheart Knights.

A photograph of 'Blackheart Knights' by Laura Eve. The cover features a knight riding a motorbike amidst bright swirls of electricity and/or magic. The book has been positioned so that it appears to be standing on Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Malory's "Morte D'arthur", and Simon Armitage's "The Death of King Arthur".
My elderly copy of Malory wasn’t photogenic enough to make it into this picture.

First of all, this is an intensely difficult book to review, because I don’t want to spoil anything. While as a chronic re-reader, I’m wary of anything that can be undermined by spoilers — shock reveals can only be a shock once — there are definitely parts of this book where you benefit from going in blind. I want you to have the same experience I did, of dropping the book on the bed after a reveal, swearing loudly to yourself, and feeling like a complete fool for not putting two and two together sooner.

It’s pretty rare that I get completely bamboozled by books, and I have a weird talent for guessing plot twists based on nothing at all; I once guessed at random that a character was another character’s future self travelling back in time, thinking there was no way that could possibly be right, and… turned out to be right. I was mad at myself for spoiling that one, I can tell you.

So when a book does manage to mislead and misdirect me to the point where I don’t figure things out, I’m always as much impressed as I am annoyed at myself — especially if it’s something that, as a medievalist, I really should know. In this regard, Blackheart Knights reminded me of the experience of reading American Gods for the first time, and how angry I was that I hadn’t figured out sooner who Wednesday was, considering I was preparing to study Old Norse at uni…

But is this book the knight-centric book I was expecting or hoping for? Not exactly. Arthur — Artorius Dracones — is still a significant character, and the overall plot/vibes owe more to Malory etc than to Chrétien de Troyes, as often seems to be the case. (Having said that, there were a few deliciously unusual details, such as a reference to Lailoken, which made me very happy.) The stories of the knights are tangled together with the larger narrative, in the way that suits modern storytelling, rather than reflecting the episodic, individualised ways their stories are often presented by medieval authors. Of your classic Round Table knights, only a few appeared, and weren’t always easy to identify because of how Eve played with the naming.

It is, however, the most I’ve enjoyed an Arthurian retelling in a long time.

There are a few reasons for that, but one of the most important is that for a long time, I couldn’t tell what stories it was retelling. There was enough creativity and invention to disguise the source material enough that it never started feeling predictable. In fact, for a while I wondered if it was even retelling any specific story at all, or whether it was more the concept of an Arthurian court that Eve was borrowing, so it caught me out whenever the story circled back to an ‘expected’ element. I never felt like I knew exactly where we were going, which meant I stayed hooked.

It also wasn’t trying to be historically accurate in any way, which should be obvious from the blurb: motorbikes and magic and the media abound. I am, for the most part, very tired of Arthurian retellings which try to be ‘historical’, which generally means setting them in some nebulous early medieval world, stripping out all the weirdness of the original stories and making all the most obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. They’re also rarely actually accurate, particularly in regards to their insistence on removing all the Christian elements of the Arthurian stories. While Blackheart Knights has its own religious system, Christianity also exists, which I found to be an interesting choice; the fact that faith seemed to play a role at all was refreshing, considering how prominent it is in the medieval sources.

And to my delight, Eve also doesn’t make obvious choices with regards to gender and sexuality. The book is set in a queernorm world — e.g. our heteronormativity and gender roles don’t seem to exist, at least within the present setting. There’s a brief reference to women not always having been permitted to train as knights, but this is long gone, as evidenced by the fact that our main character is Red, a girl training to be a knight. She’s also bisexual, or something similar — there’s no discussion of terminology, but that speaks to a world where labels aren’t needed because sexuality isn’t categorised particularly.

There are also two nonbinary characters who use they/them pronouns. Again, there’s never any discussion of terminology or a forced explanation: they’re just there on the page, using neutral pronouns. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen two they/them characters in a book that wasn’t explicitly about trans stuff, and the fact it was so normalised and never questioned was refreshing. It’s weird how books never feel the need to specify, “Art was a boy”, but often when there’s a nonbinary character, authors feel the need to point this out. But Eve just introduced Garad and Dario with they/them pronouns and never felt the need to shoe-horn in a reason. Most excitingly, Garad is a knight — let the version of me who loves to wave a sword around rejoice!

Throughout the book, the past and present are interwoven: Art becoming King, and the early years of his rule, and Red’s training as a knight. Because I never figured out where the story was going until it got there, I was kept hooked by this dual timeline, trying to work out what we were building up to, and Eve did a masterful job of misleading me and then pulling the rug from under my feet with a reveal that made me question my understanding up until that point. I normally don’t love dual timelines (I’m good at ignoring chapter headings, so I tend to get confused), but these two threads felt distinct enough to minimise any confusion, and it kept the whole thing very compelling. I ended up staying up until 1:15am to finish it, because I had to know where we were going.

The worldbuilding was, as promised, immersive, although that did make the opening of the book a little challenging as I tried to get my head around the world and the unfamiliar terminology. I felt we didn’t necessarily see as much of this world as I’d have liked; I’m not sure if there’s to be a sequel (though based on the ending, there’s a space for one), but if there is, I’d like to see more about how the world works. We have seven kingdoms, one of which is London; another is Kernow, but what are the others? Do they map to their current real-world locations? I could also have used a map of this version of London, but maybe there’s one in the finished version of the book.

That the book is set in London seemed a slightly strange choice. The creative worldbuilding and use of language means it didn’t feel much like our London, and could realistically have been anywhere, so I wondered why Eve hadn’t chosen a place with more obvious Arthurian resonances. Some of the Brittonic-sounding placenames (Cair Lleon) seemed odd transplanted into such a seemingly ‘English’ location. However, the geography was different enough for it not to annoy me the way some Anglicisations of Arthur do, so this was more of a question mark on my part than a flaw.

Relatedly, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on linguistically. Not being set in our world, there’s no reason that the names and terminology should follow a logical pattern based on our history, but it was still a little puzzling. There were plenty of Brittonic names and a fair few Gaelic ones too, but the names for types of magic users seemed to be Old English, and Latin, or a version of it, also seems to exist.

This wasn’t a flaw — I actually enjoyed how many different influences there seemed to be, because Arthuriana has never been limited to one country or language; from its Welsh origins it very quickly found a foothold in France, England, and beyond. But it did make it a little more challenging for me to figure out some of the worldbuilding, because I was probably overthinking it and looking for logic where there wasn’t necessarily any. I couldn’t figure out whether this terminology was associated with specific places or people-groups (e.g. was Old English used for ‘godchildren’, those with magical powers, because they’re underground and hidden, compared to the Latin-sounding name of the ruling family?), or if the world of Blackheart Knights was very much a melting pot of cultures, but I’d have liked to have more of an explanation for that, as well as for whether people spoke different languages or whether they’re only reflected in the proper nouns. This is probably just me being a nerd, though.

The blurb above doesn’t quite explain the setup with the knights and their televised fights — it’s for more than fame and money that they fight. They’re basically extremely violent lawyers, fighting to settle disputes (although the knights themselves aren’t supposed to know what the fight’s about, in case they end up throwing the fight or otherwise influencing the outcome). This actually felt pretty medieval to me — there are a lot of stories where a knight fights on behalf of a maiden in travails, and of course wins, because he’s in the right and because he’s the coolest. Having them belong to a ‘stable’ and be hired out to particular claimants was less medieval, since the procedure in medieval texts seems to be ‘find knight in the middle of nowhere, possibly in need of rescuing himself, and ask him to help you, calling in a favour if you have to’, but that suited the setting and gave it a modern, commercialised twist.

Having said that, this setup really only provided the background to the main characters’ machinations; I felt perhaps it could have been more central. I was kind of hoping that two knights who cared about each other would end up fighting, like Yvain and Gawain at the end of The Knight of the Lion, but I think I have a type when it comes to making friends fight each other. But it was only after I finished the book that I felt the lack of more development of that concept, not while reading it, and I think it’s a symptom of the fact that the worldbuilding here felt a lot bigger than one book alone, so I’ll be intrigued to know if there’s a sequel, and if so, where the plot might go next…

I’ll tell you nothing more about the story itself, because I really do think this is a book that rewards reading without foreknowledge. This means I can’t show off my Arthurian expertise or explain any of the references, but since some of them took me until the final chapters to get, I feel like I’ve surrendered my authority in that regard! So I’ll just tell you that for the most part, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which kept me up far too late at night. Finally, an Arthurian retelling that didn’t annoy me — can it be true? (There have been others, but not recently, and several major disappointments in between…)

I still await my Chrétien-esque knights-centric Arthurian novel, ideally featuring Yvain and his lion, but I had a lot of fun being bamboozled and misled by Laure Eve in the meantime. And while I’m not sure anything will quite compare to the experience of reading it for the first time, I look forward to rereading one day and spotting all the clues I missed this time around.

So this medievalist’s judgment? Fun! With some intriguing references that’ll make you feel clever when you spot them, but enough creative divergences from the source material to stop it becoming predictable.

I’d love to give you my medievalist’s opinion on other retellings, Arthurian or otherwise, so please drop suggestions in the comments. And if Blackheart Knights sounds up your street, you can find it on Amazon UK (affiliate link) or on (normal link) — or of course at your local bookshop!

To support this blog and my book-buying habit, please consider buying me a coffee.

Introducing: The Blog Bodies

One of the things I’ve been struggling with about blogging, and the reason that it’s been so quiet around here lately, is the sense that I have nothing to say which hasn’t already been said by somebody else, probably more eloquently. I’m sure this kind of self-awareness is good for you, in small doses — it’s an important part of growing up to realise we’re really not that special, and that probably, nobody wants to hear the most mundane details of our lives — but in large doses it can be paralysing.

It’s also strange, because every time I try and tell somebody about this fear, that there’s nothing unique or interesting about me and therefore nobody will be interested in anything I have to say, they laugh and point out that I’m a complete weirdo. I’m doing an MA in Early and Medieval Irish. My closest friends are a bunch of huge nerds who live and breathe obscure medieval nonsense. I’ve had a number of unusual hobbies, I write novels, and on top of that I’m queer, trans, and disabled — which has to be good for something, right?

And, well, I’m not sure I live a particularly interesting life (particularly at the moment, when I do literally nothing, because there’s a pandemic), but it’s true that my interests are fairly niche, and that I know more about medieval Irish literature than your average person. And while I’m not about to start posting large chunks of my research on the internet, for a number of very good reasons, that’s something I can talk about where I do have something to say and a unique perspective.

I think I get caught up sometimes in the idea of being marketable, having a brand, trying to keep things tidy online. I write YA thrillers about assassins, so I can’t let my online spaces get too academic, because that doesn’t fit, etc. But by trying to keep all the parts of me distinct, I just end up silencing the biggest parts of who I am. I’m not here to market myself. I’m here to share thoughts and ideas and information that I think is cool. I’m here to be myself, and if me being myself is interesting to you, then I hope you’ll stick around to watch me do it. I’m pretty sure that’s more what you want from a blog you follow than me attempting to Have A Consistent Brand, after all.

And if I’m going to blog about the things I’m thinking about and the things that interest me…? That’s going to be medieval literature.

And yes, I know, you’re thinking, “Okay, how is this at all different from what you’re already doing?” Because it’s true. I already sometimes blog about academic topics, like my post about why we need queer theory in Celtic Studies, or the one that’s a thinly veiled excuse for me to throw my emotions about Láeg mac Riangabra and Horatio at you.

The difference is that I want to talk about being a medievalist, not just about the material itself. I want to talk about how I ended up studying weird stuff that I have to explain every time I tell someone my degree title, and some of the challenges that entails, which might not occur to people who’ve never encountered it. It’s the kind of thing I’ve shied away from talking about too much on here, and I’m not entirely sure why. Because it feels like an interview? Because there’s something self-centred in assuming anyone would be interested in why I picked my degree subject? Except that people are interested; it’s usually the first thing they ask when they hear what I’m studying. So why not talk about it? Why not lean into the one thing that’s genuinely unusual about me?

I also want to start talking more about my reactions to medieval-inspired media — retellings and adaptations, for example — from the point of view of a medievalist. Although I drifted away from doing general book reviews a while ago, I’d like to start seeking out some medieval retellings to review and discuss. I’ve got a couple on my list to start with, but I’m taking suggestions for more, especially new releases. I don’t want to do this from a nit-picky “here’s what they got wrong” perspective, though; it’s easy to drift into that, but rarely much fun for those on the outside. I want it to be a more positive, “here’s where this comes from!” kind of approach.

But the biggest difference is that I don’t want this to be only my perspectives on things. Like I said: my closest friends are big nerds. They have stuff to say, and are willing to say it, and I’d love to share this space with them. So while this will remain my personal blog, where I post my extended thoughts about my experiences and interests, I’m also going to be varying things a little bit more. Bringing in some guest posters, some discussion posts and collaborations, that kind of thing.

I realise this is the kind of thing that people start podcasts about. Discussion about medieval-inspired media from the point of view of medievalists? There are probably a bunch of podcasts on that exact topic. There are even probably a bunch about how people ended up in their niche area of study. However, I am allergic to podcasts, which is to say that my ears and my brain are not friends and I would always 100% choose to read a transcript instead, so we won’t be doing that.

Nope, we’re doing this the old fashioned way. On the blog. Like it’s 2010 again. It’s like if a podcast had a transcript but then there was also no audio and you could read it on your phone while listening to music or something. Feels like a radical innovation these days, but I think there’s room in the internet ecosystem for the old way of doing things.

And we — me and the Blog Bodies, as the team is currently nicknamed* — hope you’ll join us. (And yes. We probably will end up talking about The Green Knight, when the long-awaited summer of Dev Patel finally arrives.)

But don’t worry, the ‘usual’ posts (if such a term can be applied when I write them once in a blue moon) will still be here too. Hopefully I’ll have some writing news to share with youse before long, and I still maintain hope that I’ll get back to dance eventually and will have things to say about that too. This is an addition to the blog roster, not a replacement.

It should be fun. We’ll see how it goes. And don’t forget to drop some medieval retelling/adaptation recs in the comments if there’s anything you think I’d enjoy.

*This is of course a reference to bog bodies, aka bodies preserved in peat bogs, chosen because I think all of us secretly dream of becoming a bog body one day. As a friend put it: “It’s time. Peat me up, boys.”

To support the continued existence of this blog and its new directions, please consider buying me a coffee.

Lowering The Barre

The mantelpiece makes a poor barre.

It’s Thursday morning, and I’m wearing my ballet shoes — a rare occasion these days, even if today they’re paired with faded black leggings, laddered in one thigh, and an oversized My Chemical Romance t-shirt I bought myself as a gift for hitting a writing milestone. I’d love to say I got up early to start the day with a barre, but my knees don’t actually bend when I first get up, let alone the rest of me, so it’s almost noon by the time I press play on the familiar piano music.

I’m in my living room, which is a mediocre studio at best, barely half a dozen paces diagonally, made narrow by the sofa. The mantelpiece is slightly too high for a barre and, being a solid block of wood, leaves me with nowhere to put my thumb, but it’s my best option; the stools by the breakfast bar are too low and unstable to be a viable alternative, and there’s no space for other furniture here. Still, it could be worse — at least I’ve something to hold onto.

I told myself when I moved in that I’d do this. The first time I saw pictures of the flat on, I saw the living room and thought, “Oh, I could do a barre in there!” Its laminate flooring seemed a step up from the carpet in my old house in Cambridge, even if it’s a fraction of the size, and having anything to hold onto that wasn’t a dining chair was exciting. I pictured myself doing a barre each day, or at least a few times a week, building up my strength in anticipation of studios re-opening.

I didn’t.

Dance has been the main casualty of lockdown for me, with studios closed and classes cancelled and every space to small to jump in. Combined with the loss of motivation, I plummeted from dancing five days a week in preparation for a show to dancing maybe once a month, and my fitness has gone with it.

But now, in quarantine and twitchy with energy I don’t have space to walk off, I’m trying again. I’ve told myself I have to do twenty minutes. After twenty minutes I can stop, but not before. It’s a useful rule, because sixteen minutes in to what would once have been only the first third of a class, my FitBit informs me that my heartrate is well into the peak range and I’m sweating enough to have to prop open the front door (there are no windows in the living room).

I make it through my twenty minutes. I manage thirty, if you include stretches — which I do, because the cage of protective muscles around my injured hip that was plaguing me a year ago has tightened into a knot and my flexibility has suffered. My legs are shaking a little with exertion, and I suspect I’ll need a nap this afternoon.

It’s a start.

On Friday, I don’t dance, not because I’ve chosen inactivity but because I’ve decided that a better use of my restless energy is to reorganise all of the furniture in my bedroom. This is easier said than done, since the room isn’t large enough to allow for manouevring, and furniture has to be disassembled and reassembled in its new location. I spend so much of the afternoon taking objects up and down the stairs that I end up hitting my 8,000 step count for the day without leaving the flat, despite it being barely ten paces from one end to the other.

On Saturday, I wake feeling like I’ve been beaten up.

This is not unexpected, but still, the double-whammy of the aches from Thursday’s barre and Friday’s furniture-wrangling leaves every muscle in my body aching. Some are easily identified: my hamstrings are protesting the stretches, my quads the pliés. Others are a mystery: why are my forearms so sore? I spend the day in bed and it’s only in the evening that any energy returns, but when I attempt a plié it feels like my thighs are screaming, so I decide to give the barre a miss.

This is how it always goes: a day where I dance, three more where I don’t. I know from past experience that there’s little to be done for the aches but to push through them, and eventually they’ll recede, but those first few weeks of trying to remember how to move are fraught with the pain of readjustment, and it’s hard to endure it long enough to come out the other side. And my fatigue doesn’t help, with the uncompromising way it fells me when I dare to overstep.

Sometimes it feels like I’ll never dance again.

I remind myself regularly that this is not the case. Past experience is proof enough that interruptions don’t have to be final. Two years without Irish dance has nothing on the six years I previously took away from it; a year without a ballet class is not without precedent and always, always I’ve come back. Slowly. But I’ve come back.

Do I resent those interruptions? Sometimes. Sometimes I wonder what I could have become if my eleven-year-old self hadn’t walked away from ballet and sometimes I’m grateful that I did, before the toxic studio environment could warp my self-image at a formative time of my life. Sometimes I wonder whether I’d be a champion if I’d stayed with my original Irish dance school and sometimes I’m relieved I never found out whether or not that was the case.

But however I feel about stopping, the restart is always a perpetual state of recovery, trying to remember how to be somebody from my past and how to relearn what they once knew within the context of my present self. To constantly start again is a step backwards, a step away from the chance to grow and improve — in some ways. In others it’s its own opportunity. And it isn’t worthless.

I tell myself this a lot, when I’m resenting the process of re-learning, when I’m watching videos of my past self doing effortlessly what my stiff joints won’t allow today. I pretend to believe it. I’m told the power of positive thinking is life-changing, but most of the time it feels like strategically lying to myself, both in the promises I make and in the illusion of believing them.

This isn’t worthless. This simple barre, which exhausts me and highlights all the weaknesses of my body, isn’t worthless. It’s a process of reclamation, taking back a control and a power I used to have. It’s in defiance of the small space and the temptation towards inertia. It’s a step away from a screen, from social media, from the world, and back into mapping out the contours of myself.

Even when I’m not happy with the picture they paint.

The mantelpiece makes a poor barre. But I swap my bedroom slippers for ballet shoes, plug the little speaker into my phone, and begin.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.

In Praise of Cold Takes

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t exactly tend to be at the cutting edge of media consumption. And I’m not only referring to the fact that I spend most of my time being overwhelmingly emotional about medieval literature, although no doubt that contributes to the phenomenon. I just… don’t have the hang of pop culture — rarely do I like something before it’s cool, and more often I like it after it’s cool, when everybody else has moved on.

I suspect this is my natural state, which means I’m not entirely suited to the online culture of immediate reactions and hot takes. Back when I used to participate more actively in fandom communities, I found the pressure to engage immediately or be bombarded with spoilers a little overwhelming; I remember racing upstairs to my laptop after every episode of Doctor Who to see how Tumblr was reacting, and I was devastated if I had to miss an episode and catch up on iPlayer later, because I’d inevitably see spoilers before I had a chance to watch the episode for myself.

Now that most people’s TV consumption is asynchronous streaming, there isn’t quite as much pressure to watch a new episode within one specific one-hour slot or risk having every possible twist ruined for you, but spoilers still abound. I didn’t have Disney Plus when the second season of The Mandalorian aired, but within about a day I’d seen dozens of gifs of the big reveal. I’ve never watched WandaVision, but it seemed like the day the final episode aired, my entire Twitter feed was quotes and discussions of quotes.

(I’m not so anti-spoiler as I used to be, and since I had no particular interest in WandaVision and knew it would be a while before I could catch up on The Mandalorian, these didn’t bother me hugely in terms of ruining twists. But I saw enough grumpy tweets about spoilers to know that others felt differently — and there are certainly other things I’d have been more bothered about having spoiled for me.)

I tried, for a while, to be part of that kind of culture, discussing pop culture with a sense of immediacy. I always gave spoiler warnings (at least online; apologies to the friends who had spoilery text messages from me back in the day), but I’d be writing posts about Sherlock the day after an episode aired, trying to capture a fleeting readership; when I wasn’t blogging here I’d be on Tumblr, engaging with meta and discussion and reblogging copious amounts of gifs.

And back then, well, maybe sixteen-year-old me had the energy to go from consumption of media to Opinions About Media in half an hour flat, but these days? Not so much. In fact, these days even Consumption of Media can feel like too much, especially if it’s something new and unfamiliar that my brain has to try and process. Sometimes I just want to reread or rewatch.

This pressure to constantly be on top of The New Thing is why I ended up giving up bookstagram. There, it wasn’t spoiler-based pressure, but there was still an unspoken pressure to constantly post about new releases, buy new books, be able to talk about all the ‘big’ YA books… and I realised I wasn’t actually interested in that. Because, frankly, I’m a contrarian who hates being told what to do. Having to watch something now, read something now, talk about it now, just to stay on top of some fleeting zeitgeist? Everything in me rebels against that.

It always has done, I think, in hindsight. As a teen I had a singular disinterest in ‘fitting in’, to the point of being frankly snobbish about things which were popular. While I could have toned down the latter, the former explains why I was late to the party with a lot of the popular YA books of my teens — practically all of The Mortal Instruments had been released by the time I picked up the first one, The Hunger Games was well on its way to being a film by the time I raced through the trilogy, and I never really understood the Divergent hype.

So why, as an adult, did I try to force myself to behave in a way my teenage self would never have done? Aren’t we meant to grow out of the need to fit in, not into it?

Don’t get me wrong, I like to know what’s happening in the book world. When I used to do reviews, I enjoyed getting sneak peeks at new books, and it was satisfying when I went to bookshops and found I’d already read most of the new YA on the shelves. I liked feeling like I had my finger on the pulse. But I also love rereading. Or finding random books in the library that came out ten years ago. And I’m not always interested in the ‘trendy’ or ‘popular’ books.

So when I only have the energy to do one or the other… the new stuff (being generally expensive and less accessible than older things I already own or can access via libraries) tends to be what has to give.

And it’s not that I’m never impatient and excited enough for a TV show or a film that I’ll watch it as soon as it comes out — while I’m not the ‘midnight showing’ kind of person (tbh, before lockdown I went to the cinema about twice a year), there’ve been plenty of TV shows that I’ve gone out of my way to watch as soon as they were released.

But mostly, I just like to take my time about cultivating my opinions. I don’t want to have to have a hot take immediately. I don’t want to race online after every film I watch, when I’m still trying to decide how I felt about it; I’d rather give my thoughts a bit of time to develop before I try them against anybody else’s. Engaging too soon in the constant online discussions can leave me unsure what I felt in the first place, when all of my opinions have been displaced by somebody else’s.

And, yes, I think part of it’s my fear of confrontation. When everybody’s yelling about a book, I’m scared to throw my thoughts in the ring. I’d prefer to come back ten years later and talk about it then, when everybody else has moved on. When I have a strong emotional reaction to a piece of media, I’m nervous about that response being dismissed or criticised while it still feels new and raw.

Beyond that, though, I do like the perspective that comes with time. Maybe it’s the academic in me, obsessed with rereading, looking for new perspectives. Maybe it’s the medievalist, who thinks anything after 1500 is suspiciously newfangled and should be viewed with caution (although since I keep drifting into 17th century manuscripts these days, I may have to get over that). Maybe I’m just very tired, and don’t have the energy to have opinions non-stop.

Probably it’s all of them. I’m an anxious, tired, thoughtful, sensitive medievalist and I like to give my opinions on pop culture a good half decade to mature before I let them out.

In other words, this blog is a hot take-free zone. All takes here will have been left in the back of the fridge for three years until they grew mould that I had to scrape off and then maybe I’ll reheat them and hope they’re still edible before I serve them up. In six months to six years from now, you might get to hear my thoughts on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but probably not before, and in the meantime I’ll continue to have opinions about YA books from 10-15 years ago.

At least that way, I don’t need to worry so much about spoilers.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.

Rereading Katniss

Over the last few days, I’ve been rereading the Hunger Games trilogy for the first time in years.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but with the libraries closed and my copies in London, there were a number of significant barriers in the way. However, when I found myself back in the UK temporarily for medical reasons (essential travel) and therefore reunited, in the short term, with my books, I decided now was the time.

The Hunger Games was, of course, a massive phenomenon in the world of YA fiction, impossible to ignore. I won’t pretend I was ahead of the trend on that one, because I wasn’t; there are very few major YA books from the past 15 years where I’ve been an early adopter, especially since teen me was often snobbish about anything that seemed too popular. But I vividly remember the first time I read the books, racing through all three of them in the space of about a day and a half. I never bought into the ironic, Capitol-esque marketing ploy of “Team Peeta or Team Gale?” because as far as I was concerned, that wasn’t at all what interested me about the books.

I wanted to reread because I found, recently, that I couldn’t remember them in detail; I was also interested because of comparisons others had drawn with my own work. Obviously, I’m not about to start using THG as a comp title — it’s old enough now that doing so would only make me look like somebody who hasn’t read any YA for a decade, for a start — but I wanted to see how apt those parallels might or might not be, and whether I could learn anything from it.

I don’t know that what stood out to me now was what appealed to me as a teenager; I don’t have a strong enough memory of my sixteen-year-old self to be sure. But I definitely found myself engaging with the books both as a reader (emotional investment) and as a writer (analysing Collins’ craft and narrative choices).

I was struck by Katniss: how unlikeable she is. How uncompromising. Not because she thinks she’s better than the other characters or prides herself on being different or anything like that, but because her response seems to be, I don’t know how to behave the way you expect me to when it’s so antithetical to my experience of the world. Is that a neurodivergent vibe I get from her? Perhaps. It’s obvious, of course, that the way the Capitol expects her to behave is irrational and artificial, for a girl from her background — perhaps any of the District 12 girls would have reacted the same way. I’m not sure.

But the thing about Katniss is that no matter how calculating, how selfish, how violent she becomes in her attempts to survive, she doesn’t stop being a sympathetic character. This fascinates me, as somebody who tends to write morally grey characters who do terrible things but still wants my readers to care about them. Part of it with Katniss is the old tried and true method — if everybody around them is worse, you root for the awful character regardless. Part of it, I think, is that she feels such self-disgust and is so unflinching in her cruel assessments of her own character that she almost absolves the audience of any responsibility to do the same. You don’t need to judge her, because she’s already done it.

The fact that she sees herself in this way helps, obviously, with maintaining sympathy even after she’s killed and so on: it would be harder to root for a character who enjoyed it. You constantly have this sense with Katniss that she’s trapped, and has no other choice, but somehow this doesn’t translate into her feeling like a passive character who only reacts — even though a lot of the time, that is almost the case. She isn’t given the information she needs to make choices, and she isn’t given the power, either. But she never reacts the way people around her are expecting her to react, which I think is what helps the plot avoid becoming predictable.

I was also struck by the intensity of emotional consequences in the books. I’m not about to suggest THG is unique among YA dystopias in portraying trauma and depression — but I do think there’s something unusual in how profoundly events affect Katniss. In how it depicts her nightmares and panic attacks and depression, which pervade books two and three. Some of it’s obvious, and some of it’s more subtle, but no traumatising event is ever allowed to pass without consequences. Even when physical damage is ‘repaired’ by Capitol doctors, the mental scars remain.

Too often, I think, characters aren’t given the space to be screwed up after what they go through. After a book’s worth of trauma, they then go on to lead a revolution, and somehow they hold it together. But Katniss… doesn’t. And I feel like this gets overlooked in popular discussion of the series, possibly because the films were less able to portray those aspects than the books, or because of the media focus on the ‘glamorous’ and ‘romantic’ elements. People talk about how Katniss is a badass, and yeah, she is, but how often do we talk about how she’s also depressed, haunted by nightmares, intensely traumatised…?

As a friend put it in a conversation yesterday, there’s something defiant about Katniss’s emotional responses. The Capitol doesn’t want her to be visibly traumatised. The revolution doesn’t want her to be taking depression naps in a cupboard somewhere. They all want her to pretend. And she doesn’t. Not enough, anyway. There’s an “understated and bleak rebellion of I Am Going To Continue To Be Screwed Up About This, Actually”, as my friend said — Katniss’s refusal to be “just a piece in their games” continues in her unwillingness, or inability, to let it be just a game. And once you acknowledge the horror and the violence of the murder of children… it’s hard to leave it behind.

This trilogy stands out to me because it allows Katniss not only to be unlikeable and closed-off right from the very beginning, but also because it allows her emotional responses to be so powerful and all-consuming. I wonder if this is why a lot of people were less keen on the third book. Yes, some of the choices she makes are illogical, irrational, unwise. Yes, she spends a lot of the book doing not very much (although I have to say I can relate to the depression naps). But that’s because she’s traumatised. And seeing that on the page — seeing the way that nothing Katniss went through can be brushed off — gives the narrative more weight, and makes the losses and the suffering more powerful.

Katniss doesn’t soften, or become more likeable. She fractures, and turns her broken edges outwards because that’s the only way she knows how to survive. And I admire that, actually. I see it in some of my own characters, and I found myself thinking how books like THG created a space on the shelves where my own stories could exist. Stories about screwed up, unlikeable, bitter teenage girls who do awful things because they want to survive. THG didn’t invent those stories. But it definitely gave them a foothold in YA that I’m not sure they’d have had otherwise.

And then there’s the ending. As a teen, I hated it. I didn’t know why Katniss had to end up with anyone. As an adult, I feel differently. There are still elements of it that bother me — I don’t love that Katniss ended up having children, somewhat reluctantly, after having been adamant since book one that she didn’t want them. I’ve always read her as somewhere on the asexual spectrum, and that hasn’t changed either.

But: where teen me saw her eventual relationship with Peeta as a disappointing inevitability, adult me sees a traumatised figure finally allowing herself to heal enough to love somebody. Where teen me saw obligation, adult me sees choice. After losing so many people that she cares about, Katniss allows herself to care about somebody again. She allows herself to love, even after so much loss. She allows herself to take the risk of loving somebody, when she could have closed herself off as a way of defending herself against future loss and pain.

And of course it would be Peeta. Nobody else can meet her where she is; nobody else understands, really, what she’s been through. Peeta, like Katniss, knows how it feels to trust nobody, not even himself.

I don’t know if I read it as romantic, or if it’s more of a queerplatonic intimacy that I see between them, but on this reread, I didn’t see compromise in that ending, I saw healing, alongside the only person who could ever see Katniss for exactly who she is. Since book one, Katniss hasn’t trusted anybody with her heart. Not because of the Games — it goes back further. After her father’s death, her mother’s depression left her feeling abandoned; in that we see the roots of Katniss’s determined and defiant self-sufficiency. Gale says, She’ll pick whichever of us she thinks she can’t survive without. She’s known since she was a child that she could survive alone, because she’s had to know that.

For some characters, choosing to go it alone would be empowering. But not for Katniss. Because she’s had to, always, so choosing to rely on somebody else in any way? That’s growth. That’s healing.

The Hunger Games was a phenomenally successful trilogy, boosted by the film adaptations. There’s a lot to be said for its plot and structure and how Collins avoids repetition between the first and second book, even when ideas/situations recur. No doubt there are dozens of long reads about what made it so popular, and all of them will have different takes.

But what stood out to me on this reread was Katniss, and how raw and unfiltered her experiences get to be on the page, even while her camera crew — and the film adaptations — try to polish them into something palatable.

I don’t know if The Hunger Games was a direct influence on my own writing. I wouldn’t have pinned it down as such, but I suppose it’s inevitable on some level: everything I’ve ever read has become part of my mental landscape and will have had its effect on my writing, whether tiny or significant. I suspect there’s more unconscious influence there with THG than I might have thought before this reread. I do think, however, that whether or not it influenced the way I wrote them, The Hunger Games created a space where my stories can exist and be read, and for that, I’m grateful.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.


I’ve been finding myself nostalgic recently.

This isn’t exactly unusual — I’m a nostalgic person, prone to accidentally losing hours scrolling through old pictures and reminiscing. Sometimes I wonder whether I’d be less nostalgic if I had a better memory. Mine’s terrible, so often, looking through photos like that is the only record I have that things happened at all, that versions of me ever existed.

I’m a chronic re-reader, too — again, my terrible memory can make even frequent rereads rewarding, because inevitably I forget plot points and character details, but even the books I’ve read so many times I have sections practically memorised still feel comforting to go back to. I’ve been this way since I was a kid. Sometimes I don’t feel like embarking on something new: I want a familar world, familiar characters, a story with a rhythm that feels like one of those songs you knew as a child but had forgotten entirely until you heard it again.

But recently the nostalgia’s been reaching new heights. I found myself playing RuneScape — a truly desperate state of affairs, considering how many years it’s been since I last did that. If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d have told you my RS days were firmly back in 2007-08, and yet there I found myself, obsessively training my mining and smithing skills and trying to remember the quickest way from Lumbridge to Port Sarim.

And fanfic, always a source of comfort, has reflected this same nostalgia. I still read considerably more published books than fanfics (at least in terms of wordcount, if not in terms of titles), but I’ve been finding myself spending a lot more time on Ao3 recently… reading Les Mis fanfiction primarily published between 2013 and 2015. It’s not that there aren’t newer fics (the Les Mis fandom has been around in various forms since 1862, they’re not going anywhere), but it’s those older fics that I keep going back to, the dynamics and fanon that I remember from sixth form, when I was more active in the Les Mis fandom and was first dipping my toes into transformative work. Why? I don’t know. Because they’re comforting. Because they feel safe, somehow.

Then there’s music. My music taste has always been fairly eclectic, and I’ll give most things Spotify recommends to me a go, which means I often end up getting really into some obscure band that released one album in 2012 and nothing since. So, okay, I would never describe my playlists as up-to-date or engaged with the zeitgeist or whatever. I’m clueless about new releases and charts (are charts still a… thing?), which isn’t a deliberate refusal of the popular or whatever, just a side-effect of how I engage with music.

But recently, I’ve been regressing. Going back to the albums I loved when I was twelve or thirteen. And, okay, I started writing at 13 and I joined Spotify in 2009 and I’ve been making character playlists just as long, so yes, songs from those albums are still on my writing playlists, and it’s not like I ever stopped listening to them. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t listened to The Black Parade on repeat this much since roughly 2008. In my defence, it’s (a) completely full of bangers and (b) perfect for one of my writing projects, so it’s been helping me through my revisions lately, but that doesn’t change the fact that I found myself singing/yelling along to practically the whole album in my living room the other day, and might have ordered myself a MCR t-shirt as a special treat.

It’s a pandemic. That’s my excuse.

But — that is my excuse. Not to psychoanalyse myself (kidding, I love psychoanalysing myself), but I can’t help thinking this nostalgia is a symptom of all the uncertainty we’re experiencing about the future. Without a way to look forward — because we have no idea what the rest of this year will look like, let alone the impact it’ll have on next year — I’ve found myself looking back, seeking comfort in something familiar.

I saw someone on Twitter saying, “Can’t wait to live in precedented times again.” And I think that’s probably a big part of why I’ve been finding comfort in media that reminds me of the world ten or fifteen years ago. While I’d never choose to live 2007 through again — and would be even less keen to re-experience 2013-14, which was one of the worst periods of my life — it’s the familiarity that feels safe. The fics are set in a ‘modern’ world which is safely contained, separate from the drama and change and uncertainty of reality. RuneScape, while it’s changed a lot since 2007, is a way of whiling away the hours that reminds me of being eleven; it’s untouched and separate from adult reality.

And The Black Parade? Is just a really good album, to be honest.

(But it reminds me of home. It reminds me of my 12th birthday, listening to it on repeat via my old Creative Zen V and docking station, accompanied by the model dragon my sister gave me as a gift, which I’d named Máire. It reminds me of half a dozen characters I spent my teenage years writing about, because I have more writing playlists with MCR songs on them than without. It reminds me of being fifteen and afraid to like anything too visibly, making self-conscious jokes about listening to ’emo’ music because I was afraid to admit what I liked. It reminds me of all my teenage angst, which shouldn’t be comforting, except it is, because I’m not a teenager anymore.)

I’m willing to bet I’m not the only person looking to the past right now. Not just looking at Facebook ‘Memories’ of a year ago as lockdown loomed, or the year before with our normal lives untouched by pandemic, or five years ago to our undergrad days, or whatever. But finding comfort in old hobbies, familiar media, well-loved stories. Not exactly regressing to a past version of ourselves, but leaning on them for strength, because in a world where so much is uncertain and unfamiliar, sometimes you need something that feels safe.

Our unprecedented times keep getting more precedented, the longer this goes on. What was strange and unfamiliar a year ago is now a bleak reality from which it can be hard to see any escape in the near future. But the uncertainty remains: the impossibility of making plans, the constant rescheduling of anticipated experiences, the vagueness about the future.

And when the shape of the future is impossible to discern, perhaps it’s inevitable we’d find comfort in nostalgia.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.

Hosting and Posting

Recently, I found myself in the position of needing to shift to a new blog host. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with my old host — SiteGround has been keeping the site running smoothly since 2017 — but circumstances have changed. Back then, I was getting nearly 30k hits per year, and I felt optimistic it would continue to climb. Last year? 3,000 hits. Suddenly, what had seemed good value for money had become a major expense that I couldn’t justify, and I needed to switch over to something cheaper.

I have a few ideas as to how this might have happened, and a lot of it’s on me. I deleted my entire archive in late 2019, which meant the pop culture-heavy posts from 2013 and 2014 that had been sustaining me with passive hits via Google suddenly stopped making a difference. And, of course, you can’t expect people to read your blog when you rarely post — since the re-start, I’ve only posted 19 times, which is barely once a month for the time that’s elapsed (and nowhere near as regular).

But also, the internet’s changed. It used to be full of small sites — blogs and badly coded personal websites and obscure, niche forums that sustained themselves on the same systems they’d been using for 15 years with no flashy changes to the UI. Now, it feels like everything has become far more dominated by big social media (Twitter, Instagram, etc), and there’s less space for those unpolished little corners.

And, I mean, I’ve been on Twitter since 2009, so I certainly wouldn’t want this to come across as a hypocritical lament or a tirade against social media. But sometimes I miss the world of blogs. I met so many of my teenage writing friends through blog chains like Teens Can Write Too, and some of them I’m still in touch with, all these years later. Blogs were a space that was ours, that we could customise and moderate and shape to fit what we needed. Those spaces are harder to find these days.

Though, of course, blogs self-evidently do still exist, or I wouldn’t be writing this; I don’t want to be like those people who say Tumblr is dead and nobody uses it while there are people like me who’ve been there since 2011 and have no plans to leave. But I think it’s fair to say the world of blogging has changed. Personal blogs are less of a thing, because it’s so much easier to give people updates on your life via Instagram. Professional blogs, expert blogs — those are still around. But let’s be real. I’ve never been professional a day in my life.

Anyway, what point does this musing have? Not much, except as justification for why I hopped hosts again. Since I am generally useless at remembering it exists, this does mean I don’t think I managed to transfer over my associated email account (finn AT finnlongman DOT com), so if you emailed me recently — and by that I mean in the last 3 months — your email might have been yeeted into the void, never to be seen again. I think we’ve all learned not to expect prompt replies from that account, but… well. I usually try to reply eventually. Even if it’s a year late. I’ll try and get it back up and running again, but I may have missed the point at which it was possible to recover existing messages.

Part of me feels the need to justify the continued existence of this site, too, so it’s possible having recently paid money to ensure that, I might be more motivated to post. But as Ireland continues its endless lockdown, I find I have less and less to say that isn’t thoroughly depressing. It’s very uninspiring, to spend your life in the same three small rooms, and never to see another person. Perhaps that’s why I’ve once again forgotten how to write poetry, though late last year it felt like I was remembering.

Those of us who live alone are encouraged to reach out and talk to others online, but — what is there to say? What can we talk about? I bought a different brand of tea this week, maybe. Or, my sleep schedule is now so disastrous that I may as well be living in a different timezone. I’ve heard it’s the same for those who’ve been locked down with their partner — after a while, you’ve had every conversation. There’s no news. Everything you’ve experienced, they’ve witnessed, because neither of you can leave.

Still, I’m British. When in doubt, there’s always the weather. And oh, the weather here in Ireland has been miserable. I know the stereotype is that Ireland rains all the time, but I think maybe as Brits we underestimate that. We think we know rain. We think, It can’t be that much worse than England. But the difference is, I’ve found, that the south of England (the only place I’m qualified to talk about) will rain for an hour, maybe two, during an overcast day; a particularly bad storm might last longer. When Ireland rains? It will rain relentlessly for six hours. The entire day will be lost to the downpour. It’s so persistent, and sometimes it goes on for days at a time.

It has not, as you can imagine, done my seasonal depression much good. Which combined with isolation and Regular Bog-Standard Clinical Depression has resulted in… some not-great mental health days, I will confess.

But today, the sun is shining, and while the signs of spring are few and far between, they’re there. So it’s time for me to turn off the computer and, for once, go outside.

If you’d like to support the continued existence of this blog, please consider buying me a coffee.

An Early Modern Melancholy

I’ve been working this week on Oidheadh Con Culainn, the Early Modern version of The Death of Cú Chulainn. It’s a fascinating story that pretty much nobody seems to care about, as is often the way with these early modern prose tales — too late for the medievalists, too early for the modernists, or at least that’s how it can feel. This lack of interest means there’s no English translation of it than I can find, so I’ve been translating sections myself, gradually uncovering the story.

I went into it looking for Láeg mac Riangabra. I knew I’d find him — I had, at least, been able to read a summary of the story beforehand, so I knew that his role had grown and developed from the medieval version of the text. As Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, he’s also largely neglected in the scholarship, relegated to footnotes and passing remarks. In one analysis I read that listed the main differences between the two versions of the story, his role wasn’t even mentioned, despite the fact it has changed entirely.

In the medieval story, then, Láeg dies shortly before Cú Chulainn, hit by a spear meant for the hero. It’s poignant enough. There would have been a poem, originally, Láeg’s last words — this is lost, as the redactor of the only surviving copy of the story thought we knew it well enough that abbreviating it to a single line was enough: “Bitterly have I been wounded.” Cú Chulainn draws out the spear, bids him farewell, and goes alone to his death after that. A heroic blaze of glory.

But in this later text, it happens a little differently. Láeg is wounded, not killed, and Cú Chulainn sends him away: begs him to go home, to survive, to tell his story to those left behind. Except Láeg doesn’t go. He takes himself to the edge of the battle and he watches, and when it’s over he goes to bind Cú Chulainn’s wounds and assure him that this isn’t how he dies. Cú Chulainn knows otherwise: he recognises his mortality, the culmination of prophecies, and all that remains is to take some control over the place and manner of his death. He asks Láeg’s help to prop himself against a standing stone, holding his weapons, facing his enemies, and it’s there that he dies. But at least this time, he doesn’t die alone.

For me, the most moving moments of the text are here: as Cú Chulainn begs Láeg to leave, and Láeg refuses. As the hero says, “From the first day we bound our friendship together, we have never before quarrelled or separated, not by day or by night, until this moment.” And this quarrel, this separation, is with the goal of saving Láeg from meeting the same fate. Of saving the charioteer and with him the story.

It seems a very early modern melancholy to me. Of course, I’m a medievalist, and no expert — a piece of A-level coursework on Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi back in 2013 does not an early modernist make. Still, it’s Hamlet that this brings to mind: the melancholy, the friendship, the tragedy of the one who survives.

It feels, in these moments, that the redactor is appealing to a very different aesthetic and emotive sensibility than their medieval predecessors. No more the blaze of glory — now the grief. Now the friend. Stay alive, begs the tragic hero, in whatever words he’s given. Stay alive so that you can tell my story. No longer the impartial narrator of myth: instead the story is given to the grieving beloved, who holds the narrative in their trust.

And the hero is proven tragic by his ability to die (as Anne Carson says, immortality defies tragedy). It surprises him too. Cú Chulainn says — “If I had known that my heart was one of flesh and blood, I would never have performed half the feats that I did.” He’s caught out. His mortality is almost a shock. So this is it. Our medieval hero is waiting for the end to his short life; our early modern hero finds his humanity a disruption.

But the friend — the friend is condemned to survive. Horatio and Láeg, made unwilling bards by their endurance. Both would probably have found it easier to die there, and the medieval hero would have let them. But the early modern one bids them live, entrusts to them the precious role of remembrance. It’s a cruel kind of love, that one, to abandon your friends to life.

And then the curtain falls. Then Horatio is left among the dead — no word as to whether Fortinbras believes his tale, or if he’s tried and hanged for treason and the murder of a dynasty. Then Láeg, in his grief, leaves Emer and Conall to their revenge — and goes where? The story doesn’t say. As friend, his part is tied to the hero’s. Perhaps he walks the landscape alone. Perhaps he goes home, to his mother, and weeps with his head in her lap for a young man who was beloved by him. Perhaps she saw this coming, and would have tried to protect him from it, if he had let her.

It’s a melancholy erasure, this fading out. It refuses grief. It gives in to it. It crumbles under the weight of aftermath and then it hides from it. Cowardly, almost. Where does Láeg go? Or Horatio? To another story, one nobody will tell, because that kind of survival is too raw a wound to salt it with words. They go to the gravestone of endpapers.

How early modern of them.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me, a medievalist, caught up in the peculiar, melancholic loss everpresent in this text. “It is then fell the chief of valour and arms, glory and prowess, protection and bravery.” But left behind was Láeg, his most loyal friend. And wounded and grieving, he mounts Cú Chulainn’s one surviving horse and rides home, alone, “and it is slow and spiritless he came,” until Emer spots him from the ramparts of Emain Macha and understands what has been lost.

Maybe Láeg could have had another story — found another hero in need of a charioteer, perhaps, just as Horatio could have stayed at court as an advisor, or perhaps gone back to Wittenberg and his studies. In Horatio’s case, we don’t know that he didn’t. But Láeg tells us clearly: “I will not be the servant of any other person forever after my lord himself.” Still an ending, then, but a messier one than his medieval counterpart, who dies at Cú Chulainn’s side, king of charioteers. This one is a loss of identity, he who has been defined by his counterpart now walking the rest of his story alone.

We aren’t told where it takes him. Of course we aren’t. The text isn’t Merugud Laeig, the Wanderings of Láeg, the Going-Astray of Láeg. The text is Oidheadh Con Culainn, the Violent Death of Cú Chulainn. And so the beats it follows, of prophecy and plot and battle and death and mourning and revenge, are those of the hero’s story.

Láeg is, I think, somewhat genre-savvy, though all he tries for optimism when he kneels at the wounded Cú Chulainn’s side and tells him the end of his life hasn’t yet come. He knows what’s coming. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t beg to stay, to be a part of it, to meet the end as he has lived before now: by Cú Chulainn’s side. “A chomalta inmain,” he says: O beloved companion. Perhaps it makes it easier, to think that it didn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps it makes it worse, the anticipation of tragedy a preemptive grief that never eases the sting when it comes for real.

Either way, the result is the same. He is the story-carrier, the news-bearer, the messenger of grief, who takes word back to Ulster and sets in motion Conall’s vengeful rampage. As such he cannot be allowed to die. Cú Chulainn is genre-savvy too, to recognise that. The closest of companions must be sent away.

How early modern of him. Or so it seems to me.

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
— Hamlet, Act V Scene II

To support me in having ongoing feelings about Láeg mac Riangabra, please consider buying me a coffee.

Learning To Live

For the last few years, I’ve tried to resist the temptation of making New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve pointed out that they’re a lot of pressure to put on an arbitrary date; that change can come at any time; that I’m the kind of overly-ambitious perfectionist who makes unrealistic goals and only sets myself up to fail.

And hey, all of that’s probably true. But we, as humans, like markers, don’t we? We like stories and names and ways of dividing up the world into pieces that feel a little bit more manageable to process. And sometimes we just need an excuse to prompt us to reset the clock and start over again.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want from 2021. I was lucky: though 2020 had its struggles, it wasn’t an especially bad year for me. Personally speaking, I’ve had far worse years, and on some levels, 2020 marked more progress for me than I’ve had in years, a chance to finally break through of the holding pattern I’ve felt trapped in. That’s made it a little weird marking the end of the year, which has been so hard for so many people. Like I’m afraid to admit I didn’t hate it, in case it seems like I’m bragging.

There are some things that have been on my lists of New Year’s goals/resolutions/wishes for years that don’t have to be any more. “This year, I’ll finally query properly” was one I’ve been telling myself for a while. “This year, I want to find an agent.” Don’t need that one on the list anymore. Not sure where I stand with figuring out progress or direction or next steps: I returned to academia, but my MA’s only a year-long programme, so at some point I’m going to have to figure out what I’m doing next, again. But not yet.

There are things I want from this year that aren’t within my power. A vaccine. A book deal. Top surgery. Better health. In some cases, there are steps I can take towards them, and in others, I only have to wait. So I’m trying not to make those sorts of things my resolutions, because they’re not goals or plans, just wishes.

The question, then, is: what do I want from this year, that I can actually control?

I want to get better at Irish, which means nothing so much as putting the time in, day after day and week after week. I’ve made progress, but I’ve got a long way still to go, and always I look for shortcuts and different methods and some kind of magic trick that will just make it happen.

I want to spend less time looking at screens, and especially less time on Twitter, and more time learning what I’m like when I don’t have an audience. It’s hard, when all socialising these days is online, but I’m increasingly convinced that social media doesn’t bring out the best in me, and I want to learn to put it down for once.

I want to play the violin more often. I want to start dancing regularly again, even if I have to change it up a bit to fit in my tiny living room. I want to try and do calligraphy again. I want to remember hobbies that are physical, not digital. I want to let them stay hobbies, and stop trying to feel the need to be the best at everything.

I want to get better at letting go of negative emotions. I want to get better at keeping a check on the ways that I spiral – to stop going to bed at 3am, to start eating real meals on a semi-regular basis, to stop using sugar to convince my brain to function (because it’s wrecking my teeth and my gut).

I want to polish my Bisclavret retelling, finish my Lancelot/Galehaut retelling, maybe write something completely different and new. Maybe come back to another waiting draft or build more of words I’ve already created. I want to keep writing poems, learn to write short stories, and maybe, possibly, remember to blog more regularly.

And with blogging – I don’t want to do it because I feel like I “have” to. But to build a community again, a proper one, not based on outrage and sharp retorts and one-liners the way so much of our internet communities are these days. A chance to go back to building my own online space, instead of being trapped in the currents of big social media.

I want to see more of Cork, as the weather grows warmer and the days grow longer. I want to make the most of the time I have in Ireland, because I don’t know what will happen when I finish my MA. And when we’re allowed: I want to go to the Gaeltacht; I want to visit the places I’ve never visited that are now just a bus-ride away; I want to learn more about this country where I live.

I want to make more videos about medieval Irish lit, not because creating “content” might earn me subscribers and Ko-Fi tips or whatever, but because I want to share the stories I love with people who would never encounter them otherwise.

I want to read books in the same unselfconscious way I did as a kid, where I would reread the same book half a dozen times, where I wasn’t counting how many books I read or trying to keep to a goal or worrying what anybody else thought about my opinions. I plan to keep track of them in a document on my computer, for my own sake (my memory sucks), instead of feeling the need to track every little thing on the internet.

In the end, most of these boil down to the same kind of idea: I want to stop performing my own life, and start living it. (So of course I started by writing a blog post about it…) A challenge, when I’ve lived so much of my life on the internet, and when there are so few other ways to interact with people at the moment. But sometimes I feel like I’m holding my own emotions at arms’ length because I’m so busy worrying about what I’m ‘supposed’ to be feeling, and I want to break free of that.

2020 didn’t completely suck for me. There was loss, and there were a few months of being too depressed to function, and all in all it had some moments I wouldn’t care to relive. But the last couple of years… it’s felt like whatever else happens, I’m still growing into myself. After a few years where I felt like I was only ever falling apart and crumbling and losing pieces of myself, a year where I come out the other end feeling like me is a good year.

And on that level – 2020 was progress. 2020 was taking steps I’d been hovering on the edge of for a long time. 2020 was writing more and finding an agent and moving to Ireland and starting an MA and presenting at a conference and learning how to press ‘Send’ instead of always hesitating at the final barrier. 2020 was healing (even though chronic pain is never entirely gone). Sometimes 2020 was lonely, but mostly it was just about shining a light on all the ways I haven’t yet learned to live with the inside of my own head, making me aware of my insecurities and my doubts.

So that’s one for 2021: I want to learn how to live in my brain and in my skin, instead of always looking for distractions, and though I doubt I’ll be able to rid myself of my insecurities in a year or longer, I want to learn to live with them.

And I want to come out the other end feeling even more like me.