This month’s meeting raised a variety of different topics and questions.
Joanna Coleman introduced us to her research on becoming animal in contemporary fairy tales. She discussed the social value of fairy tales, the way in which these stories reflect human interactions with nature, and she questioned the way in which fairy tales present us with a more fluid boundary between man and animal. She further wondered whether the idea of young adults living with animals or becoming part of nature was a utopian fantasy (can you really sleep in the arms of a bear?) and whether fairy tales present a naive morality, but she pointed out that there are also stories which focus on the horrors of becoming animal and of living in the wild. A recurring theme was the story of Beauty and the Beast, where a beautiful young girl finds and animal companion or lover – although some tales focus on the need for the beast to become human whilst others argue that a happy ending is only achieved when the beauty becomes a beast herself. We discussed whether these stories presented an idea of escapism or whether they question if humans can ever espace their animal nature, we highlighted the fairy tales’ concerns with adolescence and growing up in a cruel world, and we wondered whether any human can ever truly write about the animal as a subject rather than an object.
James Lloyd told us about the medieval Germanic myth of Weland the smith, whose adventures are found in Norse, German, and Old English sources. Many aspects of Weland’s story deal with supernatural features, such as his marriage to a swan maiden, his sudden ability of flight, and his superhuman skills as a smith. James asked us whether this meant that Weland ought to be seen as a superhuman or maybe even god-like character, and he traced Weland’s stories through the different sources to find out whether or not Weland’s status as human or superhuman underwent any changes. We discussed the mix of influences from what we now see as more ‘pagan’ mythologies alongside stories from the Christian realm, the role of oral traditions and how unfortunate it is that some sources are now lost, and we wondered whether there was a kind of norm of what makes a ‘human’ or a human body and whether anything that deviates from this norm is automatically viewed as something nonhuman.
We thank both our speakers for their very interesting papers, and we hope that those who attended found the discussion as fruitful as we did!