Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)



This course will explore the rich world of medieval romance through the strange and often beguiling encounters with the supernatural that pervade these texts. Considering shape-shifters, marvellous objects, and experiences of the miraculous or uncanny, we will investigate how romances fashion exotic, escapist worlds that at the same time reflect contemporary values and anxieties. We will ponder what magic reveals about human motivations, especially in situations of moral ambiguity. We will pay special attention to the historical and intellectual contexts in which medieval magic was understood, and to its intersections with other spheres of knowledge such as science and theology.




The first class of this course took place in the Spring Semester of the Academic Year 2019 / 2020. The course evidently drew students from various disciplines, all with different expectations based on the course title alone. Many joined the class with a keen interest in Arthurian mythology, their impressions formed largely by the renowned BBC television series Merlin. Some were more focused on the idea of the magical and the supernatural. There were different interpretations and understandings of “romance” and how it intertwines with the magical.

The opening reading on the Lais of Marie de France easily made a great impression on the class with its playfulness and narratives with surprising developments. So did the even stranger Welsh text, The Mabinogion, capture particular interest especially with its lengthy attention on names of various warriors and figures (reception towards this piece was evidently polarised). The class had certainly spent a considerable amount of time comparing the Arthurian romances of Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes and the renowned Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg.

Some interesting class activities included students writing a snippet of their own lais, attempting to read a few lines of The Middle English Breton Lays in their original tongue, and coming up with key terms about love with short explanations. For Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the class was introduced to possible geometric forms of the poem and also had lots of good fun filming movie trailers for the text! The exercise of filming trailers turns out to be particularly suited for this text because like the text, the trailers set expectations for where the narrative will go and withhold certain information at the same time. Not to mention, critics have mentioned that the poem does have a cinematic quality to it!

An example of one of the trailers filmed for the class by YAP JIA YI (’21)NIKKI YEO YING YING (’22), & TOH HONG JIN (’23).
Envisioning the medieval motifs and tropes as a card game.

The final months of the semester was marked by the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the class quickly transitioned from needing to socially distance, to wearing masks, and finally, moving lessons online altogether. Le Morte D’Arthur served as the final stop in this journey through the medieval romance tradition. The class shared their thoughts over Zoom and connected prior texts and concepts together in their own unique ways, before the semester came to a close.


As part of their final project, some students produced creative responses to the texts read throughout the course, and a few of them even took it further, pursuing independent research into an area of the medieval literary tradition that has intrigued them over the semester.


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