Spring 2021

Visit Celtic courses at the Harvard Course Catalog

Breton 123. Intermediate Modern Breton. Joseph Nagy (with Myrzinn Boucher-Durand). Times TBD. Meets four times a week. Continuation of Breton 122.


Celtic 109. Finn: The Great Gaelic Hero. Natasha Sumner. TuTh 10:30-11:45. This course explores the lengthy and wildly popular Irish and Scottish Gaelic tradition surrounding the hero Finn mac Cumaill (Finn McCool). Stories about Finn and his legendary warrior band, the Fianna, have circulated in manuscript, print, and oral forms for well over a millennium. The protectors of Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, Finn and the Fianna are presented alternatively as hunters, warriors, and seers. Embodying heroic qualities valued by their culture at different periods, they undertake seemingly impossible tasks and defend Gaels from foreign and supernatural threat. In the course, we examine literature about Finn and the Fianna as it is presented in medieval and early modern manuscripts; we engage with the rich modern folklore of Ireland, Scotland, and Nova Scotia; and we consider the international impact of the tradition by examining James Macpherson's infamous English-language adaptations and the vicious controversy over their ‘authenticity’ that erupted in the eighteenth century and persists to this day. All Gaelic texts are read in English translation.


Celtic 138. The Mabinogion: Stories from Medieval Wales. Catherine McKenna. TuTh 10:30-11:45. An exploration of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Welsh Arthurian romances and tales, and the bardic lore associated with them, in the context of the literary culture of Wales in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. All texts are read in English translation.


Celtic 240. Pursuing Diarmaid and Gráinne: Texts and Contexts. Natasha Sumner. MW 1:30-2:45. Traditions about the love triangle among the aging military leader Fionn mac Cumhaill, his younger subordinate Diarmaid Ua Duibhne, and Gráinne, the daughter of Irish high king Cormac mac Airt, date as far back as the tenth century in the written corpus of Gaelic literature. The protagonists may have their roots in early Celtic deities, and a handful of medieval texts reference the events of the tale. As the story spread across the Gaelic world, it took on new forms. The most celebrated version, the lengthy prose text Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne), is thought to have taken shape in Ireland in the fourteenth century, around the same time as four lengthy poetic lays exploring aspects of the tradition emerged in Ireland and Scotland. The story also circulated orally, and the collected body of folklore about Diarmaid and Gráinne’s elopement and Fionn’s vindictive rage exceeds two hundred tales, songs, and anecdotes. Evidence of the story’s continued popularity can be found in the over fifty creative adaptations that have come into being since the mid-nineteenth century, including poems, short stories, novels, dramas, a graphic novel, and a feature film.

This graduate seminar will examine the development of this captivating body of narrative, following our tragic lovers as they wend their way through multiple forms and genres, and across seas and oceans, over the past c.1200 years. Situating our readings within the broader literary record, we will explore forms, themes, and parallels, and consider critical issues such as orality and intertextuality. Some translation will be required, but this is not primarily a reading course.

Prerequisites: Participants should be competent in at least one Gaelic language (modern or medieval).


Irish 133r. Intermediate Modern Irish. Natasha Sumner (with Nicholas Thyr). Times TBD. Meets four times a week. A continuation of Irish 132, developing students' fluency in spoken and written Irish. As our knowledge of the language expands, we venture into storytelling, journal writing and writing and performing short skits. Internet, audio and video resources complement the study of grammar and select prose texts.


Irish 204r. Readings in Early Irish Poetry. Joseph Nagy. F 12-2:45. Readings in selected texts. Some knowledge of Old/Middle Irish required.


Scottish Gaelic 131r. Intermediate Scottish Gaelic. Natasha Sumner (with Shannon Parker). Times TBD. Meets four times a week. Direct continuation of the fall term course Scottish Gaelic 130.


Welsh 225B. Medieval Welsh Poetry. Catherine McKenna. TuTh 1:30-2:45. Continued readings in medieval Welsh prose and an introduction to Welsh poetry down to 1400. Continued study of grammar and practice in translation, as well as an introduction to the manuscript sources of the poetry and their cultural contexts, and the intricacies of medieval Welsh poetics.


Freshman Seminar 61F. Cartoons, Folklore, and Mythology. Joseph Nagy. M 3:00-5:30. The creators of cinematic (and later TV) animation have perennially turned to traditional oral and literary tales about fantastic heroes, villains, tricksters, and settings for their story material. In the world of the animated “short” and feature-length film, myths, epics, legends, and folktales could come to life in a highly stylized, kinetic, and visually arresting way. Cartooning created a pathway for traditional stories to live on in the consciousness of twentieth-century viewers, and also for these old tales to be adapted to changing times. Hence animation offers not only an influential modern commentary on the folklore and mythology of the past but also a contemporary mythology of its own, deeply meaningful to adults and children alike. In this freshman seminar, students are invited to take what might be considered mere entertainment very seriously, closely reading texts of traditional stories in tandem with critically viewing animation that draws its inspiration from those stories. For a final assignment, each student will be called upon to choose some animation (a short or a clip from a feature-length film) to share with the rest of the seminar, to provide some background for it, and to lead a discussion of the animation in light of what else we will have seen, learned, and said. While the instructor’s contribution to the seminar will primarily focus on animation from 1900 to 1960, students when choosing which sample of animation to share will be welcome to present later or contemporary examples of the cartooning art—including perhaps even their own.


Gen Ed 1097. Tradition, Performance and Culture. Joseph Nagy. [TuTh 3:00; to be confirmed]. What is culture, and how does it shape us? This class explores how folklore (a broad term meant to include all aspects of tradition, custom, and heritage) and its expressive manifestations shape national, regional, and ethnic identities. In particular, we examine the function of folklore within the communities that have, perform and use these cultural goods, as well as the ways traditions are expressed and performed in daily life. In this course, you will study major forms of folklore (e.g., myths, legends, beliefs, rituals, festivals), as well as the theoretical approaches (e.g., performance theory, the ethnography of communication) used to interpret cultural documents drawn from the world of traditional expression and ritualized behavior.