Harley J. Sims


About Me

  I am a writer, professional reviewer, and independent scholar back once more in British Columbia after many years in Ontario and Nova Scotia. 

My Training

  Originally from British Columbia, I began my post-secondary education at North Island College on Vancouver Island and transferred to Carleton University in Ottawa to finish my Honours BA in English (Minor in History) in 2003. I took my MA at Carleton the following year, and in 2005 was accepted into the University of Toronto's Ph.D. English programme.

I graduated with my doctorate in November 2009 with a thesis entitled Countries of the Mind: Conceptualizing Imaginative Reality in "Beowulf" and Other Medieval Narratives. The study is dedicated to providing an immersive, exploratory approach to the imaginative works of medieval literature, particularly Beowulf, though its methodology can be applied to any work of fiction. 

During my post-secondary education, I studied - to varying degrees - more than a dozen languages from the modern, medieval, and ancient periods. My dissertation involves literature from many of these, including Old English, Old Norse-Icelandic, Middle Welsh, Old Irish, Sanskrit, Latin, and Ancient Greek.

My interests in linguistics range from constructed languages (conlangs) to modern language evolution, on which I have published and spoken in public forums.

Why I Studied It

Literature and languages are not the most practical field of study, especially when you grew up with a dad who can build and fix anything. To this day, I feel a rawer sense of accomplishment when I repair or install something than I do from finishing an article.

I owe my professional interests to a number of things. Growing up in all corners of British Columbia, particularly the rural Interior, instilled me with a sense of wary wonder for the natural world...the sort of primitive awe that, equal parts fear and reverence, I found well met in Old English and Old Norse-Icelandic descriptions of wilderness.

The outdoors can be beautiful, but in this age of urban-centred environmentalism, people often forget how terrifying and inhospitable they can be, and that they must have seemed this way to our ancestors for tens of thousands of years. Hrothgar's description of Grendel's mere in Beowulf; Sir Gawain's trek to face the Green Knight at his chapel; Saint Guthlac's spiritual battles in the fens near Crowland; all portray hinterlands somewhere between this world and another. 

Ancient and Classical literatures almost never represent the wilds in such a way, instead peopling them with gods, spirits, and monsters whose otherness, though often hostile, is fully aligned with human values.

My interests in the literary realms created by collaborative medieval story-cycles come from a childhood immersed in expansive, fictional worlds, particularly those of literature, television, and interactive media such as electronic games.

I realized early on that audiences do not consume stories passively, but live in and explore them as imaginative participants, often adding a great deal to their reported structures, and using fictional perspectives to understand real-life events.

My own artistic participation and expression, including stories, artwork, and board games, showed me that creative efforts may spin a single narrative into a vast web of story, and that its threads may even trail off into several dimensions of possibility at once. 

Consider the different versions of so many popular modern characters including James Bond and Batman, whose franchises are constantly being rebooted by new creators for new audiences. At the same time, think about how the same stories are retold with different emphases, and add to this the subjective experiences of every member of its audience. Though dizzying and even offensive at times, this lack of integrity is fundamental to the ways in which imaginary worlds live and grow.

     For years as a student of literature and the imagination, I was preoccupied exclusively with my own, intense experiences of texts, aware of course that others saw them differently, but unsure of the ways to accommodate any differences. With medieval literature and the long-standing historical methodologies governing its most respectable forms of study, this conflict only became more acute. I and others still argued about what the stories meant, but our personal convictions were now reinforced by assumptions of historical accuracy (and others' reactions to it).

It was not, in fact, until I read something by John D. Niles that I felt emboldened enough to try to formalize a subjective approach to thousand year-old literature. In the closing remarks of the Introduction to A "Beowulf" Handbook, Niles made the prediction that "the future of Beowulf studies [...] will lie with those who also use and take pleasure in it, adapting it to their own purposes in the world in which they live, as the poet's own listeners and readers surely did." Surely, if one of the world's foremost Anglo-Saxonists could publish such a thing, there must be a will for the means. Imaginative Reality is my proposal.

Why I Keep Studying

     I could go on and elaborate in like fashion my fascination with heroism, my love of language and languages, and my incurable bibliophilia. I'll leave off, however, not with another incentive to study medieval literature, but with what I believe to be the the most immediate reward. 

Simply put, literature of the early periods teaches us jaded secularists how to wonder about the boundaries of our own world again-to step beyond a globe disenchanted by Google Earth and crowdsourcing, and to re-enter a place where every hill hides a marvel. Like the trolls church bells are said to have chased out of Scandinavia, the alternate worlds of Fantasy represent the fugitives of our modern condition, fled from the world not because they don't belong here, but because there is no longer room for them.

Some photos of Iceland (2015)

     After studying Old Norse-Icelandic language and literature on and off for a decade, and with a great deal of help from others, I finally made it to their living homeland.

     Even for a part-Norwegian boy from British Columbia, Iceland is another world.



University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands)


  Auðnir, near Akureyri


                          Skagafjörður, Northern Iceland

On the horizon is the island Drangey, where, in the Old Icelandic Grettis saga, the outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson spent the last years of his life, and was finally hunted down.