On Bastards and Bastardy

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m applying for a master’s in English at the end of the year in England. These programmes are pretty expensive. I’m looking at Oxford, which costs c. £6000 for tuition, plus a £2000 college fee and a recommended budget of £13,000 for living expenses for a year. About £21,000 in total. Expensive, but pretty standard for Britain. We can’t all be Sweden, I suppose.

These hockey players are very excited about free education

A lot of grants and funding opportunities in Britain are only available to UK or Commonwealth students. Even the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) awards will only cover fees for EU students. That’s a £13,000 difference depending on where you’re from. So, I decided to look into British citizenship. My father, uncle and aunts are all Scottish after all. But that’s where I ran into a snag. If your mother is British, then you’re automatically a British citizen. If, however, you’re claiming British citizenship through your father and you were born after a certain year, British law goes by the law of your mother’s country. And in my case, that’s the gloriously forward-thinking, socially emancipated, progressive Republic of Ireland.

and Ireland’s lovely

It was perfectly possible, I learned, to claim citizenship from one’s father. I, however, am not eligible because, under Irish law, I am illegitimate. That’s right. In this, the twenty-first century, in a first-world, EU member-state, I am deprived of rights other citizens enjoy because I, like Jon Snow here, am a bastard.

I know that feel, bro

I was born before my parents married, and they have since separated. That fact, over which, I remind you, I had no control, means a difference of £13,000 if I am lucky enough to win funding. It means I am limited in the types of funding I can seek and it makes it all the more likely that I’ll have to go into debt to pay for my education. All because my parents got a little frisky a little early.

Eire herself facepalms

I’m amazed that my bastardy (a really fun word, incidentally) is having such a quantifiable effect on my life. I know the constitution was composed in 1933 but I assumed that 80-odd years of statehood would have curbed De Valera’s more excessive church-appeasing pseudo-medieval sycophancy.

lol, nope

So there’s not really much I can do. I’m in good company, though. The bastard as a historical and literary figure is an old archetype. They range from the aforementioned Jon Snow of A Song of Ice and Fire to Edmund in King Lear. William the Conqueror was William the Bastard before he got motivated and Confucius, Da Vinci and Thomas Paine all seemed to get by despite their less than immaculate conceptions. It’s telling though, that the most recent figure on lists of ‘bastards what done good for themselves’ is Eva Perón, who died in 1952. It really doesn’t seem to figure in recent history and barring a sudden time jump to 1259, it wasn’t something I ever thought I’d have to worry about.

1259 was not a good year for bastards

The ‘bastard speech’ in King Lear reads a little differently now. ‘Wherefore should I Stand in the plague of custom, and permit The curiosity of nations to deprive me, For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?’ The question stands.

What, in sooth, is up with this shit?

Now Gods, stand up for bastards. Someone’s going to have to.

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So… Otters?

A digression.

Our word otter comes from the Old English word otor, derived from a proto-Indo-European word that was something like *udros, meaning ‘water-creature’.

From *udros, we get words like the Latin name for otter, lutra, and the Old Irish odoirne*. We also get the Greek word hydra, which means this

and these

are actually close relations.

The Old Norse form, Ótr, has an interesting story attached. Ótr is a character in Norse mythology, a shape-shifting dwarf who spends his days in the body of an otter, gorging himself on fish.

One day, the god Loki passes by and, seeing the otter in the river, kills it, skins it and continues on his merry way wearing its pelt.

and looking FABULOUS!

Unfortunately for Loki, Ótr’s father is a king, Hreidmar, and he demands a hefty wergild or ransom for the death of his son. Loki is forced to fill Ótr’s skin, first with yellow gold, then with red. When he has done this, however, there is still a whisker protruding and Loki is forced to cover it using the magic ring he’s stolen from the dwarf Andvari.

This episode, the ‘Otter’s Ransom’, kicks off the Völsunga Saga, which was the basis for Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung and Tolkien’s epic poem The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and was a major influence on The Lord of the Rings.

Now that’s all interesting I’m sure but what’s it got to do with this blog?

Well, everything really.

This word, otter, can be traced right back to the earliest stages of our language. Every one of the three billion native speakers of Indo-European languages currently living and speaking on the planet today almost certainly know some version of it and might even recognise its forms in sister languages. The Ótr story places it at the heart of one of the most enduring myths in Western culture.

This is the background for just one word of the three hundred-odd in this post but most, if not all of them have an equally interesting and illustrious history. It’s an example of what Euan Ferguson called ‘the glorious interconnectedness of all things’. That makes it the perfect title for a blog like this.

Also, otters are cute as fuck.

         I mean seriously

*I don’t know what happened to odoirne but modern Irish uses madra uisce, lit. ‘water-dog’, which is also lovely.