Kalan McDonald – The Impact of Old and Middle English Poetics on Modern Fantasy


Having worked with individuals around the world and from fields more diverse than I could have previously imagined – as I have lived, for example, with both a Bavarian journalist and a Mongolian food scientist – one thing remains clear to me: we, as humans, love stories. Men and women will fight language barriers, prepare elaborate meals, partake in rounds of alcoholic beverages, and become temporary poets, bards, and thespians ultimately sharing the stories dear to them. No matter where we find ourselves and no matter who we find ourselves with, storytelling is one of the primary forms of human self-expression.

This understanding stands as the foundation of my project. However, the primary concern in question is this: how do our linguistic and literary traditions affect the ways in which our stories are conveyed in Western culture? In order to investigate this question, I am observing both poetry and the genre of fantasy. These were chosen for specific reasons. Poetry, in my opinion, is one of the most expressive forms of writing, utilizing audial aspects of sound, tone, and rhythm as well as linguistic aspects of syntax and grammatical function all while including images through color, metaphor, allusion, and sound devices. Additionally, poetry is a form both ancient and modern, as popular in any bookstore today as the Classical epics of Greece and Rome thousands of years ago. Secondly, while it is clear that forms of the Western literary tradition are ever-evolving and are as continuous as a river flowing from its source, winding perpetually onward, the genre of fantasy provides a unique glimpse into the past. It is a genre more disconnected from the 17th through 19th centuries, a time that prioritized realism and science, and, thus, more directly connected to the Middle Ages and before, popularized in the late 19th and 20th century by a select few, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, William Morris, George MacDonald, etc. These individuals all admitted much inspiration and influence from writings of Old and Middle English, but their works have inspired a host of present-day bestsellers and television adaptations. In this way, I aim to investigate ways in which the past English linguistic and literary traditions play a role in the ways we express ourselves as a society, focusing on poetic tropes.

My research mentor for this project is Dr. Lori Campbell-Tanner of the University of Pittsburgh’s English Literature department. She is an expert in the field of fantasy literature, and teaches classes on how it’s works reflect Western culture and countercultures, utilizing novels such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings and related works by J.R.R. Tolkien. I have had the pleasure of taking several of these classes under Professor Campbell, and I look forward to researching under her experienced guidance.


My name is Kalan Culver McDonald, and I am a History and Classics double-major with a certificate in German Language and a minor in English Literature. In the field of academic research, my focusses are in the relationship between linguistic expression, society, and the literary works it produces. I have previously undertaken two research projects in this manner, “A View to an Empire – The Past and Present of the Anglo-American World Through James Bond” and “The Aeneid in Translation – What linguistic changes are made across translations of the Aeneid with regards to grammatical structures and figurative language?” I have also written a short series of essays on poetic composition that are discussed at the university level in my hometown (an accomplishment I am particularly proud of). However, my career goals are much less lofty. My hope is to pursue a history position in secondary education, perhaps continuing independent research projects such as this on the side. Thus, while I am attending university, free from the obligation’s of a focused career, I am eager and excited to work with the Brackenridge community, as I have already found it to be a place that fosters and encourages my own curiosity and research while I am given the chance to learn from others, who are pursuing goals both interesting and ambitious.

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