By Keyi YinFreshman Year has ended, along with my time in the Special Collections as part of the Freshman Fellows. I’ve undergone a lot of changes throughout this year. I changed my major to Biophysics and gained a sense of personal independence. As a Freshman Fellow, I learned a greater appreciation for the past and how it relates to the present.My project focused on monsters in folklore, in “science,” in literature, and I strove to find what aspects and elements of creatures were regarded as monstrous, and how such elements were influenced by cultural bias and contemporary worldviews.As a pre-med student, the idenitification of medical anomalies as monstrosities was certainly fascinating, but I found that looking into the societal influences on monstrosities was equally so. The former demonstrated the human capacity for curiosity and imagination, and the latter the human capacity of using narrative tools to express of their own fear and repulsive.
Perhaps the peak of my Freshman Fellows experience was the Round Table discussion. I admit, it was a bit surreal to see my face around library posters, but to speak to an audience about a niche topic and to be put on the spot in answering questions on how my research related to other topics truly illuminated the depth of the knowledge I’ve absorbed during this fellowship.
I readily answered other questions posed, but my favorite related the themes around the monsters and races in The Lord of the Rings. I considered the question of the “other,” and drew parallels with Tolkien’s concept of an entire race being designated as unintelligent or evil to other races, an insight into 20th century sensitivities at the time. Tolkien’s work, which drew so much from Anglo-Saxon folklore and linguistics, have laid a solid grip upon the paradigm of epic fantasy and become folkloric in itself, building upon centuries of narrative to create yet another enduring layer of language, lore, and monsters.
As someone with an intense interest in the evolutionary sciences, I was fascinated by the relationship of monstrosity morphology with the development of science. For instance, George Riley’s Beauties of the Creation (1798) referred to orangutans as the “wild men of the woods,” an observation that contributed to the development of evolutionary theory. In Ulysses Aldrovandi’s Serpentum et Draconum Historia (1640) Snakes – a real animal – were categorized alongside dragons, fantastical or mythical creatures present in many cultures, whose prevalence in such has been theorized to be due to the discovery of dinosaur fossils. Thus, morphological similarities between two difference reptiles has been recognized by these past writers, even before the formal discovery of one group of such reptiles. Personally, I think that this can really emphasize how scientific thought can grow as a gradual dawning.
Beyond the Special Collections, I find that my exploration of monsters and monstrosities never seems to cease. When reading for my own personal interest, I continue to see things through the framework that I built during my time as a Freshman Fellow. Hours spent on an old Japanese medical journal, Harikikigaki, revealed conjectures of little microscopic disease-causing creatures, so similar to monsters. I still scour through analyses on the shifting perception of some classic monsters – from mere horror at the thought of them, to an almost too relatable amicability. This truly demonstrates that what I’ve discovered through this program has made its appearance in other regions of my life.
Even though monsters are fundamentally fantasy, they are very much rooted in real life. Recognizing where such boundaries lie, recognizing the purpose for moments of escapism or instances of metaphor, is how we can use such stories to illuminate the past.
There is truth in folklore. There have been instances in the past in which we’ve been a mite dismissive about folklore because they seemed mere stories. Squirrels showing Native North Americans how to extract maple sap or the “walking” of the moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are two examples. But stories – and people and creatures, such as monsters, present in them – persist for a reason: they hold meaning. It is by exploring this meaning in which said truth is found.
Even in the sciences, a field that’s too often held apart from the humanities, there’s merit in not turning one’s gaze from folklore. It was for this reason that I spent my freshman year in the Special Collections, hunting monsters in books.
For any rising freshmen who are reading this, I would highly recommend considering this position. You engage with works from the past, and you contribute to this “Great Conversation.” It sounds grand, perhaps overdramatic, and definitely surreal. And, as if you need any more incentive, just being among the books is humbling. They are nothing short of beautiful.