Shadows Over Camelot reads Le Morte Darthur

Overall setup for Shadows Over Camelot

I have a presentation coming up in July in Leeds. The panel is one I put together with a friend of mine in the UK on board game medievalisms. I am writing on the board game Shadows Over Camelot and how its treatment of women compares to medieval Arthurian texts, especially Le Morte Darthur.

Today, I intend to brainstorm some on my own presentation, stitching together images and text.

Kinds of Characters

The project started once I started reflecting on how different characters from Arthurian legend appeared in the game. They are all found in Sir Thomas Malory’s comprehensive fifteenth century work Le Morte Darthur in some form or another. All of the player characters are knights.

Knights to be played, each with a summary of the rules. Characters: Palomides, Gawain, Tristram, Galahad, Arthur, Kay, Percival.

Merlin exists as both a card and (in the expansion) an independent figure who moves through the board according to certain rules.

Examples of cards that do good things. Characters: lots of Merlins and a Lady of the Lake.

All of the women exist only as cards to complicate or aid quests.

Just like that, the feminine subtext of Arthurian literature is translated into game form. Geraldine Heng‘s work in recovering a sense of feminine agency in Arthurian narrative had been made relevant again. What of these feminine characters, and the way in which they are framing and prompting the superficial actions of the game – the knights succeeding or failing on quests, the traitor dooming his comrades or being revealed by accusation?

Cards from the evil deck. Characters: 3 Morgans, Vivien, Guinevere, and Mordred. Also note: “Mists of Avalon” at top.

One response might be to adapt Arthuriana into a game in a way that Marion Zimmer Bradley did with Mists of Avalon. What if the players were women? What if their goal was to support or thwart the quests going on around them? In other words, what if feminine agency were foregrounded instead of submerged?

I would be up for designing a game like that, but as I think about it, the game does something different from merely foregrounding characters. It foregrounds the quest as an apparatus for approaching problems in Arthurian literature. Both games would take the quest as a kind of center, right next to the actions taken to support or thwart its completion. Something changes when the processes take more of the foreground than the characters. I’m not sure what yet.

Procedural Allegory

This is a term that has been stuck in my head for a few months. A Google search at this date confirms that I am not the originator of the term, but it has been used less than 50 times on the internet.

Partly the term comes from Ian Bogost’s work on “procedural rhetoric,” which involves studying what the systems, algorithms, and other generative procedures of video games say. It is an interpretive approach that starts with rules and moves to consider the fields of possibility that they generate. Monopoly is a common example, where its punishing model of finance drains money from players and quickly tilts in favor of players who possess key properties. No single rule defines the impoverishing logic of the game, which only becomes clear to players through play.

I am also thinking of strains of literary criticism that study allegory. C.S. Lewis’s history of allegory in The Allegory of Love is undoubtedly relevant here. Even so, I find Rosemond Tuve’s late work Allegorical Imagery; Some Mediaeval Books And Their Posterity (1966) compelling 50 years later because she approaches allegory as a kind of procedure. She wanted a model for understanding allegory that could distinguish between common perceptions of didactic allegory and the complex systems of interaction going on in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, where no character was precisely the virtue or vice they were named after. (The Knight of Holinesse is not always faithful, nor the Knight of Temperance always temperate.)  For Tuve, these characters are instead emulating a standard, imperfectly trying to perform it. They certainly play with more straightforward didactic forms of allegory, but with more space for deviation, wandering, and interaction.

Tuve captures what I’ve understood about allegorical works for a long time. They are not straightforward translations from one field of ideas to another. They are not isomorphic functions – A to X, B to Y. Broad, flexible rules encompass the characters of allegories (or allegorical-like romances). Her work is attentive to the interactions and relationships between characters and between works. It would only take a slight shift to reframe the rules and relationships of allegory into procedures.

My goal in understanding The Faerie Queene (or any other work) procedurally is not to encompass the whole work into a neat system, or even to put a bow around the contradictions that result. It is to understand how a work is an open system for interpretation, which is best understood through the interactions between pieces, through dynamic situations rather than ideal, closed forms.

Spaces of the Game

If I think about the game in terms of spaces rather than pieces, a geography of play begins to emerge that looks somewhat like the geography of medieval romance. The game lends itself to a more geographic metaphor; the core board puts the Round Table on one side, though its roundness and the space it takes up suggests its prominence in the game landscape.

Round Table: the characters sit at the edge of the main board.

On the edges are two frontiers, one blue and one green, representing the threats from the outside. Directly opposite the Round Table is the quest closest to the court in theme, the tournament with the Black Knight.

Tournament with the Black Knight, across the board from the Round Table

Most of the action also occurs through this board. Siege engines and cheery Saxons and Picts encroach upon the neat space of the board.

Pict at another corner of game board.

Cards – both white and black – are framed around Camelot. Combined, these endeavors form a center of which the Round Table is only the most important part.

Meanwhile, three other boards act as islands. These quests fit on a shifting periphery, subject to the size of the table and the eyes of the players. Each has a different design: one tranquil as a lake,

Lake Quest

one reminiscent of the tournament but here detached from the court,

Quest at a Bridge

one uniquely golden and not representative of any physical space.

Grail Quest

The Lady of the Lake, the Combat with Lancelot, the Grail Quest – each threads that at points are freely detached from the core Arthurian legend but which nonetheless help compose its decentered-but-central narrative of perpetual peril.

I’ll stop here for now, but these are some of the elements (material and otherwise) that I’m considering. The game has a geography. It has some form of allegory working through its application of rules. And these Arthurian threads are giving women a submerged form of agency, outside of the position of quest-player but still legible in play.

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All photos are my own. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Editing


When reading a chapter of a monograph, I came across this sentence. Its use of appositive and other parenthetical phrases distracted me.

“Sidney, the aristocrat and artist, I argue, like Aristotle’s and Theophrastus’s eiron, when he dissembles, steps down, not up.”[1]

The author means that Philip Sidney fashions himself not to be seen but to conceal himself. Each phrase is a piece of contextual information inserted within the overall frame – “Sidney … steps down, not up.” From beginning to end, the bits are measured out in a punctuated rhythm. It is a correct sentence, and I understand it.

Even so, I would not write like that.


For a mini-lesson in a pedagogy seminar, I taught paper formatting. My model was a paper I had written last semester, one that was in the early stages of becoming a conference presentation. I brought up the model and started indicating its features.

Twenty seconds in, I noticed a spelling error.

I made the point that the writing process is never done, that it is easy for small errors to elude our grasp, and that looking at a paper in a different way (on a board for a class attentive to formatting) helped us catch new things.

I was both amused and mortified.


I sit with the final draft a student has turned in. The course is not of my design; the essay is low-stakes, graded writing, and there is  no rough draft. The paper makes a comparative approach, pointing out how elements of Salman Rushdie’s work combine and build off of one another.

The student used the word “compliment” over twenty times. Every instance should’ve been spelled “complement.” I note the correction and devote the rest of my time to the content.


It’s common for writers in a tutoring session to ask if we’ll help them edit their paper. “We don’t edit,” we are supposed to say, “but we will work with you to model strategies for revising and editing your writing.” We talk about how the style, sentence structure, and grammar create meaning on a local and global level.


I’m in grade school, anytime between third grade and high school. The teacher, usually of “English” (read: grammar, reading, and writing) but occasionally of “Reading” (read: literature and writing), conveys a model of writing helpfully enshrined on a poster with a giant cartoonish pencil and lined paper. The steps of writing!

Prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, publishing.

These steps were soon emended and modified:

Prewriting involved brainstorming and notetaking.
Drafting was getting the ideas out onto the page in a way that looked like the final draft, but wasn’t. It was “rough.”
Revising meant going over the writing and adjusting big things. Editing meant adjusting small things. Really, it seemed like we did both at once.
Publishing meant turning the piece in to a teacher.

Was the process useful as a model? Undoubtedly. Did I ever perfectly follow it? No.


“There may be no one right answer,” the professor said, “but there sure as hell are wrong ones.”

The statement was about interpreting literature, but it pertains to editing as well.


As an undergraduate, one of my fellow math tutors explained his frustration with papers in the humanities. They required so much extra work, he claimed. Why can’t he just put down all the evidence for what he was saying, proof-style?

I forget what I said at the time. Today, I would ask him if he solves math problems in the same way – from start to finish, once, without adjusting his methods along the way.

With math, it is easy to see the work that comes before an answer. With writing, that part is often left out. We see the Waste Land, not the meticulously marked manuscripts and typed pages, not the reading notes from various sources.


I have notes for an article I submitted to a journal recently. They comment on the methodology primarily – bits of context I need, a citation error. To their immense credit, the peer reviewers also issue a lot of encouragement. The material is good, the readings are good.

It is easier to continue working over a project that has value.


The top of this page currently reads “Edit Post,” by which they mean continuing the draft that I started a couple of weeks ago. For the website, any addition, emendation, or deletion is an edit, even if it means rewriting the entire post anew.


The noun “edit” came after the verb “edit.” In a prior life, “edit” meant to e(x)dire, to give out to the world, to put forth, to publish. The more modern meaning is a back formation from the word editor. An editor prepares a work for use.

Is it a coincidence that some of my best edits come from consultations with other people?


My cousin sent me an informational pamphlet that she was writing about the Korean war, and asked me to edit it. I obliged. I knew from previous conversations what she was expecting – correcting the syntax to make it more comprehensible to the audience.

There were also images associated with the pamphlet. It was clear from our earlier conversations that editing pertained to words, but I could hardly resist. I sized the images to be more proportionate and double-checked that the colors would look good when printed.

I got it back to her in about a week. By then, she had already sent it off.


I write a lot of social media statuses that never get published. Sometimes I think that it is not the right venue or audience. Other times they act much like the footnotes I often write – the audience is me, and I get the message.

The practice of writing words that will never be seen again doesn’t bother me nearly as much as writing nothing. It is harder to edit silences.



My footnote evolved.

[1] The passage is from the late Alan Hager, from Dazzling Images : The Masks of Sir Philip Sidney. Newark: University of Delaware Press, London, 1991. 14. Print.

I am aware of how judgmental pointing out sentences like this can seem. At best, the glee is impersonal and somewhat instructive, like the New York Times blog After Deadline. At worst, it is used to ridicule writers for doing things that the editor is peeved by. I dislike forms of editing that shame their subjects and materials. That is not my purpose. This sentence takes his habit of writing to a limit that I find fascinating, and my initial impulse to edit it has turned into respect for what his writing accomplishes.

I could have kept him anonymous, but that did not seem right once I cited him. So instead, I write this excursus in order to explain that I intend no disrespect; he wrote excellent scholarship on Philip Sidney, John Milton, and reading apparatuses, and I wish I could have talked with him about romances.

Following Phrases in Our Work: Rode His Way

When I read, I flit to phrases.

The phrases often change with each reading. In religious didactic texts, the phrases often offer a break from the expected range of diction, like Julian of Norwich referring to the universe as the quantity of a hazelnut, or the author of the Ancrene Wisse saying that everything is but ball-play. As a reader I often take a phrase in many directions. As a teacher and scholar I must then ground these meanings in some historical or material context: play as stage (“all the world’s a stage”),  sport, martial exercise, game, joy.

Romances are rife with formulaic language, which makes these phrases take on a life of their own. Often they act as transitions, like “hit befell.” I recently came across one phrase that caught my fancy, “rode his way.” In this post, I speculate on possible associations.

Rode his way: initial impressions

There with syre kay putte his spere in the reyste / and ranne streyghte vpon hym / and beaumayns cam as fast vpon hym with his swerd in his hand / and soo he putte awey his spere with his swerd and with a foyne thrested hym thorou the syde / that syr kay felle doune as he had ben dede / & he alyght doune and took sir kayes shelde and his spere / and starte vpon his owne hors and rode his waye.

Therewith Sir Kay put his spear in the rest and ran straight upon Beaumains, an Beaumains came as fast upon him with his sword in his hand, and so Beaumains put away Kay’s spear with his sword and with a spear thrusted into him through the side so that Sir Kay fell down as if he had been dead. And Beaumains alight down and took Sir Kay’s shield and his spear, and started upon his own horse and rode his way.

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. “Sir Gareth,” Ch. 4. 181.36.

The transition from violence to travel is abrupt. Kay falls in one sentence, and in the next Beaumains takes Kay’s gear and rides off. At first, I imagine the air of determination evident in many action films and westerns, where the hero is too involved in what he’s doing to sit back and reflect upon it. Beaumains is too cool to look at explosions.  He rides his way.

Many of Malory’s battles end with one knight on the ground and another knight riding off without comment or care.  “Rode his way” may evoke a sense of freedom, of moving unhindered once an obstacle is removed.

It may also be a convenient narrative stitch between important scenes. The conflict is the spectacle, and riding his way allows Beaumains to go to his next encounter with a minimum of narrative fretting. After all, this is a text where the narrator explicitly says we are turning to another scene:

Now turne we unto Sir Bewmaynes, that desyred of Dame Lynet that he myght se hir lady.

Malory, “Sir Gareth,” Ch. 19, 202.5.

In Repetition

So this prompted me to look for where the phrase occurs elsewhere in the work. Even a brief search indicated a few things.

Consider this list of who rides his way, in order of appearance in the work.

Sir Pelleas
Beaumains/Sir Gareth
Sir Gringamour
Sir Gareth
Sir Palomides and Queen Isolde
White Knight/Sir Lancelot
Sir Lancelot
Sir Tristram
Sir Tristram
Sir Tristram
Sir Lancelot
Sir Lancelot
Sir Lancelot
Sir Palomides
Sir Tristram
Sir Lucan
Sir Gaheris
Sir Dinadan
Sir Hemison
Sir Tristram
Sir Tristram
Sir Palomides
Sir Lamorak
Sir Dinadan
Sir Tristram
Sir Meliadas
Other Knight

The repetition of names shows a few things.

First, riding his way was not preserved for the best knights alone. Minor knights like Hemison or anonymous ones like the Other Knight can ride away. So can servants like the dwarf or Arthur. (Arthur rode his way to deliver the sword to Kay. He was king and didn’t yet know it.) This indicates that the uses need not occur after combat, though they often did. They need not even be associated with attitude or swagger.

Second, the majority of these uses (from the first mention of Palomides to Sir Meliades) are in the “Tale of Sir Tristram,” a tale particularly fraught with chivalric combat and formulaic language. Many knights confront one another, sometimes many times. Tristram and Lancelot both have several victories after which they are allowed to continue their narrative. The scene changes. In this way, when the knights ride their way, we as readers follow.


From Here

To have more specific insights, I would have to catalog and analyze the contexts of each of these utterances. That would be fine work for a project, but a bit involved for a blog post.

The general shape of a project like this would be useful to model in a course though, because it models the kind of research that does not rest on its own assumptions from start to finish. It proceeds in at least three steps: preconceptions, surface-level research, and in-depth analysis. To conclude, I’ll lay these out briefly.

In the initial impressions, readers respond to an ambiguous or otherwise evocative utterance and apply a variety of contexts they personally know to set out what the piece may be doing. As an expert, I know that it’s too much of a move to project post-Bugs Bunny attitude on a fifteenth century work, but even the act of acknowledging and then setting aside that association makes an important connection. It’s possible that the phrase does indicate some sort of relation to victory that’s like ‘tude.

Then in the surface-level research, they gather these snapshots that take a bit of time to collect but can guide where it would be best to focus. This can involve reading the book again and marking every passage where the phrase appears, doing a Wordle of the passages involved, looking at how critics talk about the passage. What do they say? More importantly, what aren’t they showing that we want to show?

Finally, with the analysis, we go to passages. We do close readings. We gain a better understanding of what the passages are doing. Perhaps we begin to generate the insights for more detailed connections between examples.

This isn’t a process in the sense that we go from A to B to C. Personally I often end up doing quite a bit of analysis before I do the literature survey. Then I articulate some more impressions and pursue them again in analyses of other sources. This isn’t the scientific method as it’s taught in high school. However, it helps a lot when I get stuck at the analysis or at the literature review to say, “I can think of this in a different way.” It focuses reflection, which ends up in more engaging projects for students and researchers.

Marie de France, manuscript images, and sourcing

Have you ever seen an image circulating the internet that made you wonder, “Where did that come from?” Perhaps it was an architectural feat, an astronomical spectacle, or a piece of art.

This happened to me today with a manuscript image.

My advisor and one of his TAs for a survey of British literature had found an image of Marie de France writing at a desk.  mariedefrancescribe

Their first source identified Marie’s name but not much else. The TA then tried running a reverse image search, but the results weren’t terribly illuminating. Wikipedia had the image, as did a site of flashcards for studying medieval literature, but Wikipedia’s information looked incomplete. Blogs also reposted the image, often without context.   Those who did repost the context did so minimally – Micheline Walker referred to Wikipedia in a post on “The Cock and the Pearl.”

They brought up the elusive image during our weekly medieval reading group, and the information they had found along the way. They knew it was from a manuscript, perhaps the Fables, but didn’t know which. I decided to look at it myself on Wikipedia. This is what I saw initially, which is also what they say:

There is the image information near the bottom. “Master of Jean de Papeleu,” and a link. The linked site raised more questions than it answered, since it had two images of Marie de France and gives no source. (One image cited as Marie is of Christine de Pisan!)

Then I noticed the arrow at the bottom. It would be easy not to notice, as it wasn’t there before Wikipedia updated its media viewer in early 2014.[1] I opened up the tab and found this:

Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: BnF, Arsenal Library, Ms. 3142 fol. 256.

It was beautiful. It gave the manuscript holder, number, and folio. It even linked to a digital version of that page. Go look at it. Seriously. It’s a beautiful page.

The information turned out to be there, but I often experience problems with finding good attributions for images. What factors contribute to the difficulty?

First, attribution standards vary widely. When it comes to content not original to the internet, we often should preserve the understanding of that original source. It is easy to only attribute the immediate source (a habit I’ve followed often enough), but somewhere in our captions, alt-text or metadata, its material resting place would be helpful.

Second, the tools for archiving images vary widely. It would be easy to believe that Wikipedia’s initial description is all there is – it cites someone who is likely the scribe and gives a link. Flickr, Google, Tumblr, and all of the other alphabet soup sites present information on their images differently, such that one needs familiarity with a particular platform to use it well. This variance isn’t a bad thing in itself – each website has its affordances and its audiences. It just means that making those connections is harder.

Third, specialist information is still a rare and valuable resource. Sometimes this is where the bloggers can help by describing the image and where it comes from. It helped us only to a limit, since we study medieval literature but not Marie de France.  Because our advisor had experience with manuscripts, he knew where it would likely be located. Because I have done research on Marie de France relatively recently, I was pretty sure it was from the Fables too. When I saw the manuscript image, I knew almost immediately what it was. We understood that the image isn’t necessarily an accurate rendering of Marie de France, but a recreation by an illuminator who (it turns out) drew her a hundred years later, preserved until today in her neck-cracking task.

Online resources for this kind of expertise have been growing over the past decade. We need to share them! Some are tools for deeper delving, like the Late Medieval English Scribes catalogue. Others, like the TEAMS editions of various Middle English texts, make introductions, texts, and notes available to anyone who wishes to access them for free. If you pick a major author, it’s likely manuscript images of their work are online. If not, it’s a great opportunity for a grant.

Finally, as I tell my students, sometimes information that is obscure online can be found at the library. Logan E. Whaler describes the manuscript illumination in his book Marie de France and the Poetics of Memory (Washington D.C. : Catholic University of America Press, 2008).

The miniature at the top of folio 256ra shows Marie seated at a desk with a parchment scraper in her left hand and a writing instrument in her right. She appears to be writing. In contrast to fr. 2173, she is presented at the beginning of the text as the author of the fables to follow. (132)

He describes the manuscript pretty well in a section describing illuminations in the Fables. It corroborates the other information I know, and raises the question I hope others would raise: what does it mean for a woman to be depicted as a writer of her own work?

If we can better attribute the images we use, learn how to find information where we don’t have it, and share our techniques for searching with others, we can better understand and analyze the images we see.

[1] For instance, when I participated in the Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In in May, I recall the format being the older Wiki-embedded version.

A Mini-Project: A History of Disguise, Primarily in Romance

On a whim, I whipped up a timeline this afternoon for the history of disguise. I haven’t been able to find comprehensive resources documenting where it appears. So I went off the top of my head and a few notes to sketch out what that history might look like using Timeline JS. It’s a work in progress – I should reformat the dates, double-check the dates where only approximations are available, clarify the explanations, and expand. Still, as an illustration I think it shows the considerable range and popularity of the motif.

I even put Beowulf and John Milton’s Paradise Lost as bookends, not because they’re romances, but because they each demonstrate something a little outside the period. Beowulf is before the Crusades, the twelfth century, and the advent of romance. The incognito there focuses entirely on the ability or inability to recognize the threat posed by a group as they come onto shore. As for Milton, he read the great Italian romances but doesn’t imitate their disguises per se. His interest seems to be in the ethical implications of failed sight. Satan disguising himself as a cherub is a little different from a knight dressing as another knight.

Suggestions or offers for contribution are welcome! I plan to periodically return to this as I read other materials.

On style and the little stuff

When it comes to grammar, I am of two different worlds.

On the one hand, I am the scholar of medieval and early modern literature who is an avowed descriptive linguist. I think a lot about how language was used without recourse to the making and breaking of rules that, in many cases, were only formalized after the 17th century.  On the other hand, I love editing. I find comfort in making a clean, error-free copy. Being able to assess style lends a certain command of expression, which leads to me loving websites like After Deadline, where the New York Times picks out points of usage and style with pin-prick accuracy.

These two worlds overlap in my tutoring and in my composition courses. With each student I explain composition not as a set of immutable rules but as a set of conventions that have repercussions in various contexts.

How we use words must meet the forms and expectations of readers – at different times my advisor, my colleagues in my field, my tutoring colleagues, my students, interested readers from other fields and backgrounds, my friends, my partner, and my parents. As I go through lessons and sessions, I emphasize that people aren’t good writers just because they use or do not use the Oxford comma, but because they understand on a conscious and intuitive level the stakes of a particular choice of phrasing, punctuation, diction, organization, and so on.

Whenever people hear I am getting a PhD in English, they first think of grammar or mechanics. This is not in itself a bad thing – the mechanics of writing can and should be a valued skill – but I dislike the anxieties about correct usage that often follow. Strangers on the internet will begin to worry about whether they’re writing correctly enough for me, or a barber will talk about never ending sentences with a preposition, a rule I frequently do not hew to. My role in these conversations, like in sessions with student writers, shifts to that of counselor. “That’s just a little thing. You actually speak quite well.” “Why does that bug you?” “Sometimes we just have to use that rule to fit in.” I try to convey that these small things can matter, but that we also have a choice in how we approach them.

It should be obvious by now that I’m not of two different worlds except as people imagine writing. In response to rules of style that unfold themselves like any number of hierarchies of virtue, I think of Marguerite of Porete. A 13th century French mystic, she wrote The Mirror of Simple Souls, in which she inverts the relationship between virtue and practitioner. While we learn to be good people, we follow virtues. They are our rules and guides. At some point, a few of the most virtuous people become so good, so rich in spirit that the virtues begin to follow them. Chastity, honesty, temperance – all serve them as handmaids.

I like to think this pertains to writing, where the rules and best practices become less infallible guidelines and more followers and friends. Error still happens, and it is to be corrected, but what matters most is the ability to understand the little stuff without taking every transgression too hard. The rest – the many revisions and rounds of proofreading even good writers go through – will follow. All shall be well.

A Restart

I am currently experimenting with moving posts from Weebly to WordPress, as WordPress is currently more friendly for the Domain I’ve decided to own.

As I soon discovered, switching from one interface to another does not preserve every feature of the earlier design. The margins and the like differ from my earlier free blog; the table frames are currently visible; the captions a bit out of sorts.

I’ll be experimenting to figure out how to do things more cleanly in WordPress. However, for now, I think it is useful to show the messiness of remediation first-hand. There is a parallel to a scribe copying a manuscript in here somewhere – even transferring content within the same medium has its costs, its losses, and its new features. We’ll see how it works here.