Classically Inclined

December 7, 2016

Between Scylla and Charybdis – the current outline

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:23 pm
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After all my general potterings about the monster book, I thought you might be interested in hearing a bit more about what it’s going to look like when it’s finished – or, at any rate, what the plan looks like at the moment. I came up with this outline in the original pitching process, but over my research leave I’ve had the pleasant discovery that my vague ‘this’ll work’ idea actually hangs together methodologically much more sensibly than I originally thought it did – one of those pleasant research-in-action surprises you sometimes get as you work on a project. The most sensible way of doing this seemed to be sharing the chapter outlines, so a brief summary of what I hope each chunk will say and do when it’s finished.

The introduction will do the heavy lifting about what classical reception is, where this book fits into it, how I have chosen what I’m going to talk about and so on. It will also note where I’m setting the chronological and geographical limits to my subject, and the limitations that places on what I’m going to say. I’ll also explain that monsters, like everything else, don’t have a single static meaning. At any rate, this is the heavy reception theory bit.

Chapter one gets stuck into the various forms of monster theory available, and looks at how they might or might not help us work through understanding what’s going on with the classical monster in the modern world. At the moment, the reader travels through catalogues, cryptozoology, Cohen and Mittman’s monster theory, the historical trends in what a monster looks like, anthropology, psychoanalysis, Foucault, Haraway and Braidotti, coming out at the end with what I hope is a version of monsterage that makes sense for what I want to do.

Chapter two stays with the theory for a bit longer and thinks about place, space and genre. This chapter looks at the question of where monsters dwell, broadly defined, and how that’s an important difference for the classical monster – I think it’s one of the major differences in what’s going on, a factor that comes from the Greek and Roman sense of a very porous boundary between everyday and divine or otherworldly space. I’m also talking about the difference it makes about whether we meet a monster on the pages of a book or on a screen, drawing on more Benjamin and more Haraway about the effect of vision, along with the rise of CGI technology.

Chapter three follows through this idea that genre-place matters by looking at monsters in the movies, starting with films produced in the sixties, seventies and eighties, with a particular focus on the work of Ray Harryhausen, and then looking at what has come afterwards. I find myself focusing on two strands – what one might call the modern peplum movie (all the Hercules your heart could desire), and what I tentatively call ‘creative interpretations’, where the monsters are taken and reimagined in plots that aren’t necessarily concerned with providing full filmic immersion into the classical world.

Chapter four sticks with the screen, but moves to the small scale to think about television. The conference paper I’m giving next week is the start of this chapter, thinking about the way monsters are used in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; I’m planning to bring in in Xena: Warrior Princess, the appropriate bits of Doctor Who, and quite possibly Ulysses 31 at the very least. My ideas about what’s going on here are still unformed, but I think something about the television series format allows for a different kind of engagement with monsters, both because of the extended time and lower budgets involved.

That’s the first half of the book – the second half will consist of four case study chapters, each focusing on the presentation of a particular monster in popular culture. The monsters I’ve picked are Medusa, the Minotaur, sirens and centaurs, each having their own interesting features and a range of representations in media. I want to give a brief overview of the ancient myth to start each chapter, just to highlight some of the key aspects of each monster, but the main meat is going to be looking at particular instances of reception and seeing where things work and where they don’t. I’m anticipating that these chapters will mainly look at books and comics, with a few other odds and ends thrown in, as most of the film and television stuff should be in earlier chapters in its own right. I’m looking forward to talking about using the sirens to give an anti-porn message in more detail, and I’m sure I’ll find some other fun things to talk about.

So, that’s the plan. I’m hoping to have the first half in very rough draft by the start of term, and then to get on with researching and writing the case study material in the new year. We’ll see how it all goes. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts about examples of classical monsters in popular culture that I simply can’t miss, please do leave a comment and I’ll do my best to chase them up!

December 1, 2016

On sabbatical goals and #acwrimo

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:56 am
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I decided this year that I was going to have a go at Academic Writing Month, better known as #acwrimo over on Twitter. Taking its inspiration from National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, it’s basically a way to get an academic writing practice established – whether that’s daily writing, having a project finished by the end of the month, you name it, you can have a go at it. I had a go at this back in 2012, with mixed results – I found it a good way to push myself forward on revisions for the Seneca book, although I didn’t get as much done I as I wanted (plus ça change). AcWriMo isn’t good for everything – its emphasis on counting words, for instance, isn’t always the most helpful thing to do to help move your academic work along. But right now, given the fact I’m trying to get as much of the monster book drafted as possible, I thought that going the AcWriMo route would be sensible to move the sheer generative phase forward.

And so I set myself a very simple goal – to write at least 500 words a day, with Sundays off. And it worked really quite well… until the 22nd of November, when I completely fell off the bandwagon through a combination of full family sickness, travelling to a research seminar and giving a paper, and needing to finish the work of rigorously checking the proofs of the Seneca book by the deadline. So there’s been quite a lot of academic work in the last week or so of AcWriMo, but it’s not really been translating into words. Which is fine, not least because the proofs have been returned, the seminar was successfully given, and generally all the other bits and pieces I needed to do are more or less done – thus again reinforcing the point that word count isn’t always the most important thing.

But on the issue of word count, I don’t think I did too badly – overall, I managed a bit over 14,000 words in those three weeks. This was made quite a bit easier by the fact I’m counting my seminar script and handout translations in those words, and the former certainly pre-existed and just needed to be shaped into a script form. But the other words mean I’ve now got all of chapter two for the monsters book in first draft, and chapter three is under way.

When I applied for this sabbatical, I said that my goals for the term were to complete the majority of the Monster book manuscript, and to complete an article based on the research seminar. A short, sharp encounter with reality meant that I soon revised the first goal to having the first half of the Monster book in first draft, which feels like it should still be doable – not least as I’m due to give a paper at an AHRC conference in a few weeks based on chapter four, which should get that started. I’m not sure about whether the article manuscript will get much further, but at least I know what I want to say and that there is a kernel of an idea there. So it’s all progress – and sometimes, putting the words down onto the paper is what you need to do.

November 16, 2016

Coming soon to a bookshelf near you… The Ethics of the Family in Seneca

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:59 pm
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seneca-book-page-proofThere are quite a lot of things contributing to a sense of unreality around here at the moment. One of the more pleasant of these is that I am currently working through reviewing the proofs for my soon-to-be-published book, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (available for pre-order now!). There’s something very surreal about seeing the words that I’ve agonised over for almost ten years in the font of Cambridge University Press, suddenly getting a whole new dose of authority in the process – are these really my words? In a way, the other surreal thing is that they aren’t my words any more. My job in checking the proofs isn’t to change anything, but to look for problems of presentation, spelling, referencing and so on. To use a natural metaphor, these are words in their chrysalis, waiting to become fully published words and spread their wings, not words that I’m nourishing on some kind of intellectual cabbage. (Alright, it’s an odd metaphor. I’m sticking with it.)

Starting to look at the proofs and working out a strategy for approaching everything that needs to be checked has reminded me that I’ve never really written about the book here. I started blogging just after defending my PhD thesis, so while I’ve grumbled a bit about the whole revising the thesis into a book thing and have talked about some of the spin-off work that’s come out of it in more detail (like the ad Polybium article), I’ve never done more about the thesis/book’s content than a plain English summary of the thesis early on. I guess this is one of the perils of living with a project for so long: it becomes utterly normal to you. I certainly know I’ve had days of wondering why I’m putting in all the effort, before reminding myself that the ideas that have become so familiar to me will be completely new to other people – which is why I’ve followed the long road that’s got me to these proofs and will, eventually, produce a real live book.

9781107145474So I thought I’d take a moment to talk about the book and what you can look forward to when it comes off the presses and into your eagerly awaiting hands. My modest goal is to revolutionise how people think about ancient philosophy and the family. There’s a tendency for the family just to be ignored – to be treated as if it’s something that only those social historian types need to worry about, while we can read ancient philosophers as if they knew their Kant. This is a problem, particularly with Stoicism – Roman philosophy is about constructing a system of belief in which everything has a place and everything intersects. That is, if we can spend so much time talking about how various ancient philosophies think about friendship, we can surely give some attention to what they have to say about how we should relate to our family.

This may sound like common sense, but there’s very little out there that thinks about how familial ethics operates in the ancient world, or even if it’s a thing. I argue that it is – that Stoicism offers a framework through which to understand all parts of the world, and that through reading Seneca we see how Stoic concepts shape our relationship with family members. There are chapters on mothers, fathers, brothers and marriage; I have a look at how Seneca handles the imperial family, and close by running through Seneca’s Epistulae Morales or Moral Letters, which are written to someone with a serious commitment to becoming a better Stoic rather than the general audience Seneca is trying to attract to Stoicism in most of his other writing. All of them suggest that the family is a significant place for moral formation and education, and that when the family gets it wrong, bad things happen. Bad things like Caligula.

Why does this matter? Because looking at ancient philosophy as if it were something that doesn’t match up to the other bits of ancient society doesn’t make any sense. Because treating the family as if it doesn’t connect to the intellectual sphere doesn’t make any sense. Because seeing how these various layers of understanding the world interlock and inform each other matters if we are going to understand what Seneca thinks he’s saying, and what we might make of what he’s saying. Because, oddly enough, women and children feature in the lives of philosophers. The Romans didn’t see any distinction between their philosophical activity and the rest of their lives – neither should we.

November 3, 2016

New publication: This Is Not A Chapter About Jane Harrison

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:42 pm
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Just a brief note to share the exciting news that my chapter “This Is Not A Chapter About Jane Harrison: Classicists at Newnham College, 1882-1922” has now been published! It appears in Women Classical Scholars. Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romilly, edited by Rosie Wyles and Edith Hall, and I’m really delighted to have contributed to this fantastic volume. It’s bringing together whole swathes of previously forgotten women scholars and shows the kinds of contributions have made to classics as a discipline over the centuries – often despite the expectations or censure of men.

My particular chapter charts out how we go from a situation where women aren’t accepted to study at Cambridge in any capacity to the situation, after the first World War, when women are established in the teaching faculty of the university, women students are an accepted presence at university lectures (despite the continued objection of some individual lecturers), and female academics are developing their own chains of inheritance rather than relying on men.

A lot of this work drew heavily on material from the Newnham College archives, to whom I owe a great debt of thanks; I wrote about some of the hidden gems I found in this post about what the departmental photocopier looks like in 1903.

For me, this chapter is a marker set down for future work – but for now, the monsters call again.

October 27, 2016

A monstrous case study: the sirens and porn

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:32 pm
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One of the pleasures of working on classical reception in popular culture is that every so often, an absolute gem of a case study falls into your lap. Earlier this week on Twitter, Natalie Collins shared this video from the Naked Truth Project, and as you’ll see it’s extremely relevant to my current monstrous interests:

The video uses the myth of the sirens to offer handy tips on how to deal with your porn addiction. Learning from Odysseus putting beeswax in his men’s ears and having himself tied to his ship’s mast, and from Jason getting Orpheus to sing a sweeter, louder song to drown the sirens out, the men (and the target audience is very clearly men) watching this video should avoid what they can; ask others for help; and pursue the better song.

Where to begin.

Let’s start with the underlying premise that the ancient and the modern world have no distance between them. In a line that would generate floods of red ink in any undergraduate essay, the voiceover informs us that “throughout history and the arts, sirens became the personification of sexual temptation” and that “a few thousand years later, and pornography is more accessible than ever, with the same deadly pull of the sirens’ song.” Notice the grand generalisation, the chopping of several millennia of culture, the flattening of the cultural register. Sirens = porn, and from the Greek heroes we can learn how to deal with them. We being we men, and heterosexual men at that – the sirens of the start of the video are echoed by the women on the representative screen, as if they have moved from their rock to the internet, erasing the existence of gay porn. The shallowness of the cultural comparison speaks to a real modern problem in dealing with the classical world – the idea that the Greeks and the Romans were ‘just like us’. If the Argonauts had had to handle pornography, this is what they’d have done. The strangeness and difference and peculiarity of the ancient world disappears.

Yet there is also a strange desire to be authentic in this video, to give an accurate tale about the myths. The fact that the video uses not only the well-known story from Homer’s Odyssey but also the less well-known story from Apollonius’ Argonautica speaks to a wish to engage with the classical sources – or, quite possibly, some intelligent and careful perusal of the Sirens’ Wikipedia page. Either way, the desire to make sirens look ‘real’ gives us the visual representation of the monsters as having the form of women with bird wings – we’ve returned to a ‘classical’ model of what sirens look like rather than the mermaid-like figures who have, in some ways, replaced the sirens in the popular imagination of the last century or so. Again, this could be down to someone on the design team with a bit of classical education under their belt, or some judicious Wikipediaing – but, either way, this desire to be ‘authentic’, tell the real tale, get a bit of legitimising classical reference in there, is in operation. I’d say the same about the video’s observation that the sirens want either to get sailors to drown in shipwrecks or to eat them when they get to the island – including the lesser known fate of the victims adds to the sense of aiming for authenticity and authority, which of course is then used to give the advice in the second half of the video more moral weight.

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October 12, 2016

On classical monsters, theoretical frameworks and the limits of psychoanalysis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:59 pm
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This post follows on from my previous thoughts on whether you can have a monster outside a horror movie, and takes a step back from the assumption that ‘monster theory’ automatically works for classical monsters in the modern world. In my earlier post, I mentioned Asa Mittman’s statement that you know a monster not through how it is categorised, but through its effect. There may be some unifying characteristics – monstrous size, deformity, malevolence – but none of those is in and of itself sufficient for the monster to be monstrous.

Mittman’s position draws heavily on ideas of the monstrous created by psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic approaches to culture, as does Jeffrey Cohen in his highly influential seven theses of monster culture. I’ve just skimmed over the monster theses again; while I spot more references in the body of the text to Foucault than Freud, the language of the psychoanalytic is woven through the argument. Certainly, later writers on monster theory engage with this theoretical angle with gusto, quoting Freud and Kristeva and working the notions of the uncanny and the abject into their approach.

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September 24, 2016

To Cyclops or not to Cyclops?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:15 pm
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When I first came up with the Monster Book proposal, I decided I wanted to have the first half of the book think about some of the big issues around monsters and dedicate the second half to chapters focusing on individual case studies – the plan is for those to look at Medusa, the Minotaur, centaurs and sirens. As I’ve been starting to get to grips with the project, I’ve had to think about what I want to do about Polyphemus, the Cyclops who first turns up in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s funny, because when I initially thought about classical monsters, Polyphemus simply didn’t come into my mind.

If you read the original text, for me it’s a story not about what makes a monster, but how to be human. Polyphemus is one of a tribe of Cyclopes rather than a one-off beast. Yes, he eats some of Odysseus’ men and has every intention of eating all of them, but he only does so after discovering the company in his cave, rifling through it and breaking all the laws of guest-hospitality that should govern the first encounter between civilised peoples. Odysseus’ decision to rifle through Polyphemus’ possessions, essentially pillaging them, makes it clear he doesn’t think that Polyphemus is worth treating like an equal – so Polyphemus returns the contempt. So there’s appalling interpersonal relationships, but no worse than many of the humans that Odysseus meets on the rest of his travels.

However, although Polyphemus is an exaggerated human rather than a monster for Homer, in his later incarnations the trappings of civilization that surround him get stripped away. Eleanor OKell has written about this in the context of the cyclops created by Ray Harryhausen for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, if you fancy reading more about this (the link goes to a PDF), but the general gist is that the social complexity of Polyphemus’ life, his co-existence with other Cyclopes, his command of language and his obvious competence in the complicated art of shepherding and cheese-making get overwhelmed by the man-eating and the single eye. In the process of transmission, he gets flattened out into a beast.

So I think my initial instinct on this is right, and I’m not going to spend too much of the book talking about Polyphemus or the Cyclops – he’s a special case, in that his monstrosity is imposed on him. It certainly wasn’t the only thing that the ancients associated with him – he fell in love with the sea nymph Galatea, who did not return his affections. Both Theocritus and Ovid wrote about Polyphemus’ unrequited love – not something you find when people are talking about the Chimera or the Minotaur. While it’s understandable that the Cyclops in contemporary popular culture has been trimmed down to a one-dimensional bogeyman, the price that’s paid is the humanity that Homer and other ancient poets saw in him.

September 13, 2016

Can you have a monster outside a horror movie?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:42 pm
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This is what I hope is going to be the first of a series of blog posts exploring some of the central issues that come up as I spend my sabbatical getting to grips with the Monster book. I am currently reading All The Theory – that is, trying to get my head around what it is that makes a monster monstrous, and how a monster manifests. On my reading list, inter alia, sit Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and Freud’s essay on the uncanny or unheimlich, along with a dose of Barthes and Benjamin. I am getting familiar with the stomping grounds of monster theory, delineated by Asa Mittman and Jeffrey Cohen, as well as looking at how various parts of cultural and media studies talk about this stuff. The logic here is that I’d like to draft out my initial two chapters, thinking through what a monster is and where monsters live, and then think about the third chapter, which looks at classical monsters in film (and which will build on the paper I gave at the Celtic Classics Conference this summer, “Release The Kraken? Ancient Monsters In Modern Epic”). So while the hope is that I’ll come up with a framework that’s broad enough to cover all the kinds of popular culture I want to talk about, in terms of examples I’m currently circling around film.

Which has led me to a problem of genre, which I ran up against when writing “Release the Kraken” but didn’t really explore there. Much of the writing about the monstrous, about what causes fear, assumes that for something to be truly monstrous, it has to generate a particular sort of response. That is, as viewers, we must fear it. What makes a monster a monster is terror, the emotion that it evokes in the viewer – the shudder of the horror film. Indeed, Asa Mittman argues that what makes a monster is its impact – by its effect shall ye know it. The cinematic monster, for instance, is often visually horrifying because it is covered in blood, pus, ooze – taking the form of a slimy mess of a blob that pulsates and repulses us. The connection between this and the psychoanalytic approach to horror, that we are terrified by the return of the repressed and the impure (to oversimplify), is clear – bodily fluids are taboo, we shudder and fear them.

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August 10, 2016

Changing times, changing working practices

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:12 pm
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Of all the possible blog posts I could write at the moment, I’m starting with the low-hanging fruit of some reflections on what I’ve learned over the past few months about the reality of being on sabbatical and being a parent. This is partly because Academic Twitter has been talking about working practices a bit more than usual, focusing around Raul Pacheco-Vega’s posts about low-hanging fruit and how to pick it, and another burst of interest in my post about academic otters. But as I mentioned in my last research-focused post, I am moving into a new book-sized project at the same time as having a sabbatical, and I need new strategies for how to organise my time and workflow now I’ve moved to an ideas-generating phase rather than a refining phase. (Jo Van Every has a post that articulates this better in thinking about summer writing plans in general.)

My initial plan was brilliant, simply brilliant, I tell you. I mapped out precisely which chapter and side project I was going to work on for every single week until the end of the calendar year, so that I’d have a full draft of the book by the end of my leave, and would have done All The Things. Marvellous.

Except that by the end of the first fortnight of the new Grand Plan, it wasn’t marvellous at all and I was already very, very behind what I’d hoped to get done. There were a couple of reasons for this, the most obvious of which was that I had assumed I would be able to work on the Monster book and Mazes Intricate, a related but separate chapter manuscript, at the same time. The chapter is due in November, so squeaked priority – and while some of the reading I’d done for it also fed into my thinking about the Monster book, when I got into the writing I wanted to get Mazes Intricate finished rather than spinning off onto other things. So, big lesson one of Being A Researcher With A Small Child – don’t try and do multiple projects at once. Focus on finishing one thing at a time. This is very different to when I was doing my PhD, when I’d have (at least) one other article on the go alongside my current chapter, as something to go to as an intellectual break and refresher. Now my intellectual break is helping infans explore how pouring lentils from one container into another via the medium of a yoghurt pot works. Same intellectual function, different learning outcome, to repurpose some jargon.

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May 23, 2016

New worlds, new projects, new monsters

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:26 pm
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I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while but finding the opportunity and the words has been difficult. I’m coming through a bit of a perfect storm of conclusions – the end of being on a temporary contract, the end of working on the Seneca book manuscript, the end of teaching, the end (nearly) of exam term, the end of when I was supposed to be working at Royal Holloway. The thing about endings is that they bring beginnings with them – but these aren’t the sort of beginnings I’ve been used to. I’ve been thinking about this quite hard, because at first I assumed that my inability to think beyond the next short-term task was down to the small person – as I’ve said before, during maternity leave and the first few months back at work, I wasn’t up to anything more strenous than editing work. But there’s more to it than that.

In intellectual terms, the submission of the Seneca book (even if we still have to get through the foothills of indexing and copyediting) is a remarkably huge deal. At this point I have been working on it for eight years, in one form or another, from the original idea I suggested for my PhD and which got laughed out of court, to the germ of an idea about Seneca which I still vividly remember coming up with when walking down a summer road in Brooklyn, through the process of writing and defending the PhD, then the elongated and lengthy reiterations of editing, editing and editing some more to make the thing into a book… it’s been a long intellectual journey which has revolved around that material. To wave it off has been more of a jolt than I was expecting.

Moving onto a permanent contract marks a new phase too. I’ve spent every single year of my life up to this point thinking in terms of stages. Work to the GCSEs, to the A-levels, to the BA, to the PhD, to this short term contract, that one, and that one… there’s always been a fixed end-point around which I have structured my time and goals, particularly over the last five years. Suddenly, that’s gone. I am finding it quite difficult to adjust. (I know this is ‘my golden slippers pinch terribly’ territory, but bear with me.)

One of the immediate effects of my contract change is that I am eligible for a research sabbatical term next academic year – for those of you unfamiliar with this, the idea is that you take some time off teaching and administrative duties and focus solely on your research. In practice, all sorts of things tend to encroach on that time – but, thankfully, because nobody was planning for me to be at Royal Holloway next year, there is very little that has the potential to encroach, this year at least. So I can take the excellent advice that has been given to me by various people and think about consolidation.

What that means in practice is that I’ll be spending the summer and autumn working properly on to the next book project, which feels unbelievably daunting because the manuscript is due next year. I have to keep reminding myself that there are lots of different reasons that this book is different to the first, in terms of content and audience, and indeed the fact that I have got a lot better at writing than I was back at the start of the PhD. I’ve also been thinking about the ideas I want to explore in the new book for a while – ever since I wrote the Harryhausen piece – so I’m not starting entirely from scratch.

Yes, folks, this is finally the debut of the Monster Book. I had been planning to do this after the second Seneca book, but at the last Classical Association meeting I attended the opportunity came up to explore doing it at this stage, and I figured it would be a nice change of pace to do something reception-y that has been bouncing around in my head for a while. The book all stems from my vague dissatisfaction that there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory way of explaining the appearance of classical monsters in popular culture. The book is meant to look at the ways that the ancient monster is reimagined in popular culture, and locates it in contemporary space. I may have to come up with a System, which is a bit unnerving, but I’m sure I’ll think of something. I’ve already made a start with the conference paper I’ve just given in Poland at the excellent Chasing Mythical Beasts conference – the paper for that is going to turn into a free-standing article but it’s all grist to the mill. I’m also giving a paper at the Celtic Classics Conference which I’m hoping will be one of the earlier chapters doing some of the theoretical heavy lifting.

There are so many issues to think through here. There’s the whole glorious world of monster theory to get stuck into, not to mention the fact that monsters have got all trendy in scholarship about ancient texts and I should probably get the hang of that. There’s a wealth of popular culture to get to grips with (which means a lot of bad things to read and watch, and hopefully some gems to discover in the middle of it all). But most of all, I have to get into the mindset of doing new, fresh research again, and start generating new words and ideas. At the moment, that feels like the hardest thing of all.

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