This article is part of a series featuring Centre College’s 2019 John C. Young (JCY) Scholars. Centre’s JCY program, now in its 29th year, is designed to serve highly motivated seniors, allowing them to engage in independent study, research or artistic work in their major discipline or in an interdisciplinary area of their choosing.
John C. Young (JCY) Scholar Kersey Reynolds ‘19 (Kingsport, Tennessee) applied feminist and archetypal criticism to medieval texts in order to explore the resurgence of the medieval within contemporary popular culture during her yearlong research project titled “Dragons and Dragon Ladies: Medieval Archetypes in the Modern World.”
Throughout the project, Reynolds analyzed numerous epics and romances from both the pagan and Christian periods of the Middle Ages. She then put them in dialogue with modern criticism and works of fiction in order to trace the evolution of female representation in literature and society since the Middle Ages.
“I found that returning to the medieval allows modern authors to revise the terms of female interpretation from its very foundations, something that’s especially powerful given current social trends and the way that female roles in today’s society are being renegotiated,” she explained. “In that light, it makes total sense for us to explore modern narratives within a medieval setting, because that setting heightens our awareness of the extent to which modern society, as we know it, has been authored by men—particularly men claiming some sort of spiritual authority, whether through something like divine right or something as simple as a layman’s assumption of male authority due to Eve’s role in original sin.”
“Reynold’s topic is unique because she begins with the present day, asking why it is that we still continue to be fascinated by the Middle Ages, especially as filtered through such works of contemporary fantasy as the uniquely popular series ‘Game of Thrones,'” said Charles J. Luellen Professor of English Mark Rasmussen, who served as Reynold’s faculty mentor. “To answer that question, she looks both at medieval models of gender identity and at how gender is represented in ‘Game of Thrones,’ focusing on the portrayal of female characters. At least part of our fascination with the series, she argues, comes from its opening up a range of archetypal models of gender that were drastically narrowed and redefined during the Middle Ages, but that in their original forms resonate powerfully with ways that we are coming to understand gender today.”
Reynold’s had the opportunity to work with Rasmussen not only on campus but in England, while participating in Centre’s London program. Kersey has worked on the project with me both on Centre’s home campus and here in London, where she has completed her research as a reader at the British Library, while participating in the Centre-in-London study abroad program.
The original idea for Reynolds’ project was inspired by watching horror films like “Mother!” and “Suspiria,” causing her to consider why it was that certain expressions of femininity had become so terrifying. This then led her to dig around archetypal theory, and she quickly started making connections to her own study in medieval and early modern literature.
“I wanted to pursue these links in order to find a way to advocate for the relevancy of the medieval in today’s world, while also tracing social progress through literary history,” she added.
Reynolds’ believes that, in today’s society, the intensity of progress has led people to be overeager in distancing themselves from archaic elements of the past.
“This distance often comes at the expense of our understanding of where the present is located within a nonlinear progression of identity and ideology,” she explained. “Exploring that progression was extremely rewarding, because once you start identifying the cyclical patterns of contraction and expansion of identity over time, those patterns become particularly enhanced through literature, and you can see a very real dialogue happening between literature and social history.”
She said it was fitting that her research was also nonlinear in its own way, as she had to go back and forth between textual research and continuing to explore theoretical history that was new to her.
“I’ve really been able to grasp the importance of literary context in terms of both rhetorical and living history,” she added. “This process, as a whole, has also been very instructive in regards to the nature of literary research as more observation-based, than driven by a specific hypothesis. Sometimes that aspect makes you feel a little bit like you’re driving blind, but it’s just a genuinely organic process and the best results come when you’re not trying to force an agenda.”
Reynolds’ biggest takeaway from this experience has been in relation to the direction of her graduate research. She said doing this JCY project expanded her interests and has helped her formulate an intentional plan for future study.
After Centre, Reynolds will pursue a masters degree in English at the University of South Carolina.
by Kerry Steinhofer
June 7, 2019