Whence the Heroic “Other”?

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about Othering and its operation in literature, in various ways.

Currently, “other” as a verb has a universally negative connotation.  “Benevolent Othering” sounds cozy but gets its “sting” from its implication that Othering even with the best intentions is ultimately bad for the person being Othered.  The modern message is clear: Othering is bad, mmkay?

In the various medieval sagas and romances I’ve been reading this semester, though, Othering appears in a third, curiously “good” category.  I’ve been calling it the “heroic Other.”

Heroic Others are marked/othered by the same folklore motifs that carry out “bad-othering”: they’re often youngest or only children, with noteworthy physical features (ranging from “most beautiful” to impressively long hair to physical deformities), unusual circumstances of parentage (orphans, fosterlings, and changelings figure big here), and/or some connection to animals (e.g. raised by wolves), the supernatural (e.g. raised by wizards/giants/fairies), or both.

A character Othered by these characteristics, in medieval saga and romance, might be a villain.  Or s/he might be the hero.  The characteristics themselves don’t tell us which it’s going to be; we’re left to figure that out largely by how the character is treated by others and what life circumstances befall him or her.

Two things stand out to me:

1.  The medieval stories don’t differentiate between Othered hero and Othered villain on the basis of personal choice. That is, the hero is the hero by the circumstances of his/her birth, and we are meant to understand this is a “heroic” birth by the presence of the marks of Otherness.  The villain is the villain, presumably, by the circumstances of birth as well, since the same marks of Otherness are present.  The primary difference, if there is one, is that we are told about the hero’s birth and so we know the marks of Otherness are present from the beginning, whereas we are left to speculate as how the villain got so “marked.”

2.  By contrast, modern “folklore” – movies, novels, etc. – is obsessed with the idea that personal choice is what makes one a hero or a villain.  Here, both the hero and villain may be marked at Other and even marked with the same indicators of Otherness, but we are made to understand in the story that we should side with the hero because s/he chose “good”, and that we should ally against the villain because s/he chose “evil.”

The Harry Potter series fits the mold of point 2 perfectly.  Throughout, we’re reminded of how similar Harry and Voldemort really are – and that their fundamental differences are the result of “good” choices on Harry’s part (choosing Gryffindor over Slytherin, defending his friends, etc.) and “bad” choices on Voldemort’s (murdering people, targeting infant Harry over infant Neville, etc.).

The medieval writers don’t seem to have a problem with heroes who don’t choose heroism.  In fact, the medieval texts don’t even seem to expect heroes to make particularly heroic choices.* These characters are Other-marked from birth so that we know they are heroes; no moment of choice or particular attention to character development, short of describing the circumstances of birth, is needed.  Likewise, villains are villainous primarily because they aren’t the hero, and they appear in the narrative just long enough to oppose the hero before dropping out of sight again.

Today, though, our stories make that need to choose absolutely essential to the plot.  The Othering circumstances of a hero’s birth do not mark him or her as the hero, but as the character who is going to have to make a choice.  The choice is going to be “hero or villain?”.  It might be a series of choices (e.g. Luke Skywalker).  It might be a choice presented more than once (e.g. Loki).  When the “hero’s” choice is utterly predictable, character development becomes more difficult – a problem most often solved by relegating predictable characters to secondary roles (e.g. Melinda May) or by the presence of ironic self-consciousness (e.g., Adventure Time’s multiple references to Finn’s “alignment”).  When highly-predictable heroes are given primary roles, we are never allowed to forget how very like the villain they are and how very important their continued, consistent choice-to-be-the-hero is (e.g. Steve Rogers).

Which leads me to ask, like you do:  How are medieval and modern hero-adventures dealing with cognitive and/or developmental Otherness?

In the medieval tales, this kind of Otherness comes up in heroes far more often than you’d think.  In fact, it’s most often wrapped up in the very markings that signal “hey, this is the hero!”  Youngest sons are often portrayed as “simple,” and their very “simplicity” is what makes them able to solve problems their “normal” siblings cannot.  Changeling children (here I  mean either the fairy replacement or the human abductee), when their characters are developed (not often), are likewise understood to be the heroes because of their fairy-touched births, not in spite of the “oddness” that resulted.  Just as the stories don’t need “choice” to find the hero, they also don’t care whether said hero is mentally different or not.

Modern stories, however, care very much.  When the locus of heroism or villainy is in the capacity to choose, suddenly cognitive or developmental difference becomes the question regarding whether one can be a hero or a villain at all.  Intellectually or mentally “different” people never become true heroes or villains.  If they stumble into heroism, it’s because they’re too “out of it” to choose to be really bad (e.g. Luna Lovegood), and if they become villains, it’s because they’re too “out of it” not to realize they’re being used by “real” criminal mastermind (e.g. the Winter Soldier).

…Which points to an odd irony in modern crime reporting: the vast majority of Most Reproached Criminals (school shooters, child molesters, etc.) are written off by the commenting public as “psychotic,” a term which is used clinically to mean “experiencing a break with reality” but colloquially to mean “making choices no being-we-recognize-as-human would make.”  The colloquial use centers villainy-as-choice while simultaneously Othering the villain right out of the capacity for choice-making.

*EDITED TO ADD: On reread, I realize this isn’t strictly true – the Icelandic sagas, for instance, do deal with questions of right and wrong conduct and seem to realize that many eponymous heroes either could act badly but don’t (e.g Hrolf Gautreksson), or do act badly and need to be rehabilitated (e.g. Viglund and Trausti’s lesser outlawry in Viglund’s Saga).  This, in turn, raises questions for me about whether the degree of emphasis of “choice” in adventure literature corresponds in any way to how legal-happy the culture is (since the Icelandic sagas are also keenly interested in the operation of law in a way that many other medieval romances simply aren’t).  Which is, of course, another blog post.

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For Those Who Stayed In on National Coming Out Day

It’s National Coming Out Day in the U.S.  For many people, today meant admitting publicly to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity for the first time.  But for many, many others, it meant running a cost-benefit analysis – again – and deciding “…maybe next year.”

For everyone who confronted today and stayed inside:

You made the right choice.  You had a tough call to make, and you’re doing what is best for you right now.  Know that you are no less valuable, no less loveable, and no less important than if you had “come out” today.  Know that, no matter what, you matter.  

Maybe next year.

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Tweaking the Rough/Final/Rewrite Draft Process in First-Year Writing

I find it ironic that every measure I have taken this semester to get out of doing work has resulted in better writing from my students.

Daily writing journals I never read = better writing.  Homework I grade solely on whether it was turned in on time = better writing.  Limiting my commenting on their rough drafts to ten minutes per paper = better writing.  Using the rubric to give them a “grade so far” on the rough drafts and to target feedback, so I can limit commenting on their final drafts to five minutes per paper = better writing.

I’ve never before had a job where I got better results by doing less work.  I’m sure this is because I’m doing less work in the “right” ways; if I tried to do less work by assigning less homework, for instance, the writing would certainly not be better.

The rough draft/final draft/rewrite process is my current focus.  This semester, my students write a “rough draft,” to which I respond by “grading” it according to the rubric and targeting my comments to the rubric sections in which the draft loses the most points.  (This “grade” is for reference only; the only points at stake in the rough draft are the ten they get for turning it in on time, just like any other homework assignment.)  Then, they write a “final draft,” in which I encourage them to use my comments and their peers’ review as a guide to revision (most do).  If they are still dissatisfied with their grade at this point, they can write a “rewrite” – at this point, I strongly encourage them to stop by my office hours to talk before they attempt the rewrite.

So far:

  • Quality of the final draft is absolutely correlated to whether or not the rough draft was turned in, with most students making significant gains between the rough and final drafts.  I had one student bump a grade from a 65 on the “rough” draft to a 100 on the “final,” although the average bump is 15 points.
  • Students who turned in both a rough and final draft averaged an A on the paper.  Students who turned in only a final draft averaged a C.
  • I recommended a rewrite to only one student, of 30, who turned in both a rough and final draft.  This student made the 15-point average increase, but it was from a 65 to an 80, and I firmly believe the student can move this draft into “A” territory with one more go-round and some one-on-one coaching.

What I am trying to decide now is whether to keep this three-step structure or to modify it – and if so, how.  Possibilities include:

  • Making the “final” draft optional if the student is satisfied with his or her “rough” draft grade.  Pros: fewer finals for me to grade; more free time for students.  Cons: Even the ones who gave me “A” rough drafts improved in the final draft, so I believe the revision process is good for them as well.
  • Eliminating the rewrite option.  Pros: fewer rewrites for me to grade; more pressure to do both the rough and final drafts.  Cons: students who don’t do rough drafts typically don’t do them under increased pressure either; less flexibility for students with computer issues/family issues/whatever; less scope for that one-on-one time.
  • Mandating a one-on-one paper talk before turning in the rewrite.  Pros: Students who need a rewrite typically do better one-on-one; my office hours actually get used.  Cons: (maybe?) more work for me; occasional student may be unable to schedule.

Thoughts?  Opinions?  What would have worked for you a student – or does work for you as a teacher?

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I’m Giving a Paper at Congress!

Not Congress Congress.*  Unless you are a medievalist.  Then yes, Congress Congress.**

Specifically, I’ll be presenting as part of MEARCSTAPA‘s “Monsters II: De/Coupling Monstrosity and Disability” panel at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, aka “Kalamazoo.”  This is the first paper proposal I’ve submitted in my academic career, and the first accepted (though whether this will be the first conference I present at depends in part on how some other proposals come through in the next few weeks).  It’s a great opportunity; Congress is a big deal, and because it’s in Kalamazoo, I get to sleep in my own bed.

My paper is workingly titled “Whose Kids Are You Calling Monsters?: Capacious Concepts of Childhood Disability in Medieval Literature.”  Here’s how I described it recently to a colleague, via Facebook:

The paper argues that conflating conceptions of disability with portrayals of the monstrous in analyzing medieval literature is actually a mistake of the modern, post-eugencis-era mind’s understanding of disability as “other-than-human”, and that if we look at the texts (particularly Gregory of Tours, who did some remarkable writing about cases of disabled children), we find that in fact disabled medieval people did pretty much all the same things non-disabled medieval people did – and that their communities treated them as members, not Others.”

Among other things, I’ll be exploring Gregory of Tours’s various portrayals of disabled children and adults, as well as stories of disabled and/or “wild children” and/or “changelings” who were absorbed into communities as foundlings and raised there.

The supreme irony is that, today, I am working on a paper on Ortnit and Wolfdietrich arguing that conceptions of changelings, wild children, and “kids born under weirdo circumstances” (in this case, with a cross-dressing father) are precisely what mark Wolfdietrich out as “different” – although I do want to explore the shakiness of the line between “bad-Other” and “good-Other.”

*Contrastive reduplication: my new language toy obsession.

**Sessions of the U.S. Congress would be greatly improved by the addition of medievalists giving papers, though.

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Autism and the Complication of the Impairment/Disability Binary

Over at Autistic Academic, I discuss the disability studies’ “disability vs impairment” model and how it makes little sense in the context of my lived autistic life.

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Writing With My Students: Am I “A Writer”?

This semester, I am not only assigning beaucoup writing assignments to my students – I’m also writing with them.  I can insert many Sound Pedagogical Reasons(TM) here, but really it’s about two things:

(1)  Testing my writing assignments by doing them myself – are these prompts really worth assigning?

(2)  Practicing writing (as we all must do in order to improve at it), instead of sitting around bored-ly as my students practice writing without watching me practice what I’m preaching to them.

Since I was thinking primarily in terms of number 2 when I wrote this semester’s syllabus, I had envisioned writing with my students as they wrote in class.  I forgot that I also assign them writing prompts to address as homework.  When I remembered (this morning in the shower), I realized that I should probably write to those as well.

Like my students, I’ll be trying to keep these to about 250-300 words, or one double-spaced page.  Unlike my students, I’ll be blogging them instead of uploading them to my writing portfolio.  Because a blog is far more public than a locked folder in our school’s course management system, all of these writing responses will be my own.  I will not post any of my students’ writing unless they ask to be posted and until they provide me with a piece they feel is ready for the public eye.  All of these posts can be found in the category “Writing With My Students.”

This Tuesday’s writing prompt (due Thursday):

Who is “a writer”?  Do you consider yourself “a writer”?  Why/why not?


I write for a living.  I teach writing.  I answer the question “what do you do for a living?” with “I’m a writer.”  And yet, for all that, I don’t actually consider myself a writer – because I don’t write fiction.

What I write, professionally, is marketing copy for law firms, recruiting firms, and assorted other businesses.  I also write the occasional study guide or lesson plan or assessments for educational purposes, and I’ve written an awful lot of informational articles about various legal topics, some for highly well-known publishers.  And, most ironically of all, I’ve published a few pieces of fiction.

But there’s still this idea in my head of “a writer” being this person who lives in a remote cabin somewhere and who retires to a desk on the porch or in the attic to pound out X number of words each day, Y number of novels per year.  And because I do so much more than sit at a desk and scribble or type for eight to twenty hours a day – because I don’t subsist on whiskey or grow my own vegetables or live in a large pile of polydactyl cats – I don’t think of myself as “a writer.”  And I suspect that even if I did write a successful novel or twenty, even if the local library devoted a summer community read-along to my latest book and the local college taught a “major writers” course on what I’d produced in my lifetime, I still might not think of myself as “a writer.”

Yet I write.

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autism, changelings, wild children, ogbanje and abiku

Dani Alexis:

I have read exactly two of these so far and the others are all RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS.



Originally posted on Lemon Peel:

To continue my foray into the magical changeling fairy-tale world that Dani Alexis currently hangs out in, I can offer up some fun citations of my own that I culled from my giant, completely disorganized folders of sources. I found most of these back while I was researching either disability in literature/history in general, or the specific figure of the “wild child” (as in Victor of Aveyron, etc. etc.) in Romantic and Victorian philosophical works about language and species.

General bits on changeling myths, disability/abnormality in the Middle Ages, and “wild children”:

Eberly, Susan Schoon. “Fairies and the Folklore of Disability: Changelings, Hybrids and the Solitary Fairy”

Wade, James. Fairies in Medieval Romance (Chapter 1): Fairies and Humans Between Possible Worlds

Bruhm, Steven. “The Counterfeit Child”

Laes, Christian and Katariina Mustakallio. The Dark Side of Childhood in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Chapter 3): Disabled Children in Gregory of Tours


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