In much of the secondary reading for my course, I find myself immured in horribly glib words like ‘discourse’, ‘signification’, ‘reified’ etc. in a way that no longer meaningfully refers to structuralist criticism but is a kind of easy way of saying nothing while looking like you went to graduate school. (‘Discourse’ has a particularly bad rep, though it is, I admit, difficult to avoid it.) Reading journal essays and Cambridge Companions one gets the horrible and hollow feeling that these were published out of the desire for tenure and not academic inquiry. And that is why I am so grateful to Helen Cooper, a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature who was at Oxford and is now, alas, at The Other Place.
Her 2004 book The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare has not only saved my essay on romance this week but is proving to be a genuinely interesting read. Romance is one of those genres which can bore you to death, or tantalize with a hybrid of familiarity and strangeness. Cooper’s book – which investigates quests, sea voyages, fairy queens, and magic which doesn’t work – in engaging prose (such a rarity!) is the sort of scholarly work that you can sit in an armchair and read and lose track of time.