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Fantasy, Medieval Lit Take Center Stage in New English Course

Lord Voldemort

Voldemort as an academic reference? In Prof. Gabriel Ford's English class, yes.

Instead of reading texts like Hamlet and Paradise Lost, students in Visiting Assistant Professor Gabriel Ford's "Magic, Monsters and Medievalism" class tackle books including Lev Grossman's The Magicians and Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. They reference Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and cite academic resources like the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature.

"This might be the only class at Davidson in which all of the required texts start with 'sorcerer,' 'wizard' or 'magician,'" Ford quipped during the first class this fall.

A medievalist, Ford designed his fantasy literature class with some very concrete goals. He guides his students as they work to understand how medieval tropes like the enchanted ring, wicked king and damsel in distress once permeated popular culture, and why they still resonate today.

The assigned readings range from (really) old-school classics like the 14th century poem "Sir Orfeo," to the works of contemporary heavyweights like China Mieville and Susanna Clarke.

"[I think] we've been dreaming in the Middle Ages since the Middle Ages ended," said Ford, quoting Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyper Reality. "We use the medieval past as a way to think through who we are and who we aren't. So we tell stories about monsters and wicked kings as a way of explaining what we're glad we're not -- what we're scared we might become."

Class discussion topics have included whether Magicians protagonist Quentin Coldwater is the worst character of all time; why it can, in fact, be a good idea to judge a book by its cover (and the expression of the author's picture in the dust jacket); and whether all fantasy literature can somehow be connected to the 2001 DreamWorks animated film Shrek.

"Reading [for this class] never feels like work. [It's] what I would read in my spare time," Olivia Liccione '19 said. "I say I'm an English major and people expect me to read the 'right' things, and I hate the pressure. There is no 'right' thing to read. [In this class] I am able to read what I enjoy."

Gabe Ford

Prof. Gabriel Ford

For fantasy lovers like Liccione, Ford's class offers an opportunity to elevate books in their favorite genre to an intellectual and academic level usually reserved for canonical mainstays. But it offers much more than that. Combining history, sociology, psychology and literary analysis, the class draws students of all backgrounds and interests.

Dan Rafla '20 is undecided on his major, but was intrigued by the course title and description and decided to enroll. Daniel Martin '17, a Kelley Honors Scholar in the History Department, said he enrolled in the class because he is "fascinated by knights, chivalry [and] battles," as well as "anything with a medieval aesthetic."

Ford's students say the class feels more like a book club than a college class -- a comment not on its level of difficulty, but on its unexpected reading list and Ford's support of creative exploration.

"It is a very odd course in this regard, but a very enjoyable one as well," Martin said. "It's certainly not like any other English course on medieval literature."

In a classroom full of eager scholars, "Magic, Monsters, and Medievalism" is the kid that sits in the back, chews gum and doesn't follow the instructions. By taking a topic that few scholars have brought into the classroom, Ford has created a meaningful course that is both intellectually stimulating and culturally relevant.

This sort of class wouldn't work everywhere, Ford said. He believes it works at Davidson because students have a willingness to explore.

"[Davidson students] are interested in experimentation, willing to let down their guard and go forward," Ford said.

Royce Chen '20
rochen@davidson.edu