An Interview With Thijs Porck
THE MAGIC BEHIND PHILOLOGY
His profound love of Tolkien, Vikings, and doodling is well-known, but what about the man behind the doodles? Armed with nu-merous questions I set out to learn more about our very own Philology tutor Thijs Porck. As the interview progresses and more and more magical elements rise to the surface, Thijs comfortably reclines in his chair, reminiscing about magic in the days of old, kindly answering all questions (even the strange ones) while occasionally glancing at a large poster of Middle Earth which hangs just above his bookcase. Two other posters stand out in the office: one portraying a Viking and one of Paulus the Boskabouter—his childhood hero, as we will discover in this memorable interview.
WHO IS THIJS PORCK?
This question immediately gives rise to a puzzled look on his face, and when asked about his puzzlement he replies: “You never know how to describe yourself, do you? I am a lecturer in Old English, Middle English and History of the English Language; I am also writing my PhD-thesis on ‘old age’ in Anglo-Saxon England. I am a lover of everything medieval.”
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN AT LEIDEN UNIVERSITY NOW, INCLUDING STUDENT YEARS?
“As a student I started studying medieval history in 2002 and started studying English in 2004. I first started teaching at Leiden University in 2008. I started out in the Linguistics section, teaching courses on syntax, phonetics, phonology, morphology and historical linguistics, but, seeing as my real field of experience is Old English, I soon moved to the Philology section.”
DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW THAT YOU WANTED TO TEACH?
“I certainly did not always aspire to become a teacher. As a pupil at secondary school, I suffered from class presentation anxiety! However, I really like it now and wouldn’t want to do anything else. What I appreciate most is the fact that I get to teach things I find extremely interesting: The Middle Ages, dragons, knights, castles, monsters, and magic!”
AND HOW MAGICAL IS PHILOLOGY EXACTLY?
“Very magical. Ha!—This is a lovely philosophical question… there is a sense of magic in reconstructing the thought patterns of people who are long dead, deciphering their language and uncovering hidden sentiments in their literature. By studying these old texts you shape or imagine a very ancient world, in your head.” With a twinkle in his eyes he adds: “Most people will agree that the most magical courses they can follow during their studies of English here are the Philology courses of course.”
WHICH COURSE IS YOUR FAVORITE TO TEACH, OR IS THERE STILL SOMETHING WHICH YOU WOULD LIKE TO TEACH?
“My favorite course to teach is Philology 2: Introduction to Old English. Overall, students have never heard of early medieval England, its language and its literature before, and so everything you tell them is new and (hopefully) interesting. Last year, we added a series of lectures to the course, which allowed me to showcase the wealth of Anglo-Saxon history, art and manuscripts to an even greater extent than be-fore. The topic is fascinating and students, on the whole, receive the course well.”
“As for topics I haven’t taught before, I look forward to teaching MA-courses on specialized topics, such as an entire course on Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon animals or medieval English historiography (chronicles and such). I would also love to do a course on J.R.R. Tolkien and his Anglo-Saxon sources: find out where he got his inspiration from, look at his own scholarly articles on Old English and his recently published translation of Beowulf. ”
WHAT OTHER KINDS OF MAGIC CAN STUDENTS EXPECT TO ENCOUNTER, ASIDE FROM THE ANGLO-SAXON CHARMS?
“The magic of deciphering medieval manuscripts, solving thousand-year-old riddles, getting to grips with some of the best and oldest English literature available and learning more about the ancestors of the people whose language and culture they have decided to study.”
IS THERE ANYTHING WE COULD STILL TAKE FROM THE MAGICAL RIT-UALS AND PRACTICES IN ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD?
“Well, actually many elements of Anglo-Saxon magic are still practiced today. The Anglo-Saxons related the position of the planets to future events or tried to make sense of their dreams. We have extensive lists in Old English of what it means when you dream of kissing a dead person, riding a red horse or seeing bees fly into your house. Modern-day dream dictionaries and horoscope reading are part and parcel of this same tradition.”
COULD YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT THE KIND OF RESEARCH YOU ARE DOING AT THE MOMENT?
“At the moment, I am writing a chapter on Old English words for ‘old age’ and what these words can tell us about the ‘cultural conceptualisation’ of ‘old age’ by the Anglo-Saxons. The vocabulary of a lan-guage often reflects the culture of its speakers and by looking at words for a particular concept we can get gain insight into how speakers thought about something. For exam-ple, Dutch words for old people, such as ‘rimpelsaurus’, ‘graftak’, and ‘schimmeldoosje’ all reveal a negative attitude towards elderly people. Old English words such as frōd ‘old and wise’ and ealdlic ‘old and venerable’ tell a different story.”
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE ACADEMIC PLANS?
“Hopefully finish my PhD in a year-and-a-half, and spend the rest of my career teaching Medieval English and writing articles and books. At some point, I would also love to publish a book of Anglo-Saxon anecdotes with my own illustrations.”
WE HAVE NOW REACHED THE QUESTIONS ON PURELY MAGICAL MATTERS: IF YOU COULD OPEN A DOOR AND WALK INTO A CERTAIN FANTASY WORLD, WHICH DOOR WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?
“None of the fantasy worlds seem particularly safe. I will opt for Middle Earth, I suppose, if only because I could then talk Old English to the Rohirrim. The creature I would be then would be a dwarf, I like them, plus I really like their great big beards.”
FAVOURITE MAGICAL CHARACTER?
His eyes light up from sheer excite-ment: “Ooo! I have always been a big fan of ‘Paulus de Boskabouter’ (Paulus the Woodland Gnome) and the evil (but harmless) witch Eucalypta.”
HOW DID THIS CHARACTER INSPIRE YOU, IS IT THE BEARD?
Thijs smiles. “He is a childhood hero, I spent most of my youth listening to a radio-program about his adventures; I have read almost all of the books, as well as the comic books. The creator of Paulus was a genius, played around with language and created characters that are larger than life.”
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE NOVEL?
“Oh... difficult question! I will give you a top three: Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Twain’s Huck Finn and Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I like adventure stories. What I greatly despise is all this modernist stream-of-consciousness-malarkey, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, bleh.” A look of utter disgust comes over his face while he mentions these.
WHICH BOOKS ARE YOU ASHAMED OF HAVING OR WERE BAD BUYS?
“I own all the books from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, written by Stephen R. Donaldson. It is a fantasy series centering Thomas Covenant, a twentieth-century leper, who is transported to a beautiful alternate world called ‘The Land’, inhabited by giants, magical horses (Ranyhyn) and demonic beings (Ravers). In this alternate fantasy world, Thomas is healthy and is fated to become the heroic savior that needs to defeat the satanically evil ‘Lord Foul’.
What makes the series incredibly annoying is the fact that the protagonist is constantly gloomy, doesn’t believe in himself or The Land and Donaldson’s plots are incredibly difficult to understand (there is time travel, alternate worlds and a lot of psychological symbolism (urgh)). Yet, I kept on buying the books and reading them, I have no idea why. It was probably because on the blurb it said ‘Comparable to Tolkien at his best’– a blatant lie!”
IMAGINE: THE ZOMBIE-APOCALYPSE IS FINALLY HERE, YOU ARE STUCK IN A BUILDING SOMEWHERE, WHICH BOOKS WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE WITH YOU?
“A really heavy one, to hit them with, or perhaps a copy of Beowulf to inspire me when I face the on-slaught of monstrous zombies.”
ARE YOU MENTALLY AND PHYSICALLY PREPARED FOR SAID APOCALYPSE?
He seriously considers this for a moment. “No. Mentally I would be scared out of my wits. Physically... I am not sure. I could run away, I suppose.”
IF YOU COULD RELIVE ANY MAGICAL EXPERIENCE IN YOUR LIFE WHAT WOULD IT BE?
“For a very long time I used to believe in gnomes; my father would do weird voices while pretending they came from trees, I would still like this to be true.”
WHAT KIND OF MAGICAL PET WOULD YOU LIKE TO OWN?
“I already own a magical pet: my pug Breca (named after a character in Beowulf)!” At this point Katinka Zeven, whom Thijs shares his office with, suggests getting an office gnome. This clearly hits the mark, because they both continue to expand upon the merits of owning a gnome. With this I thank Thijs for his time, and taking my leave, the last thing I see is two tutors who not only share an office, but also a love for gnomes.
By Miriam Dieperink