PLS major turns fascination with King Arthur into unique senior thesis—an original, illustrated book

Author: Hailey Oppenlander

South Bend native Joan Becker was hesitant to consider attending Notre Dame because it was so close to home.

But by choosing Notre Dame, she ended up choosing the world. 

Joan Becker Illustration 1One of Becker’s illustrations for her book. (Copyright: Joan Becker, 2019)

Now a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, Becker has traveled to Germany, Belgium, France, and Wales to explore real-world places important to the Arthurian legends. 

“I was always fascinated by King Arthur, so I was trying to get to the root of that story early on in my academic career,” she said.

Now, Becker is funneling her experiences abroad and in her PLS classes into a unique senior thesis — a handmade and hand-bound book about King Arthur, in the style of the first books printed in the late medieval era. 

Following the trend of the “invented narrator,” where a character in the story is said to have made the book, Becker chose a wizard in the Arthurian legends to narrate her work, The Book of the Enchanter.

“In a couple of the traditional legends, the wizard is described as writing down everything that happened. So I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to make an imagined facsimile of the records he was keeping?’” Becker said. “I’m illustrating it, printing the text, and everything.”

Engaging with literature through art

Becker was originally attracted to Notre Dame because of the PLS major. At the encouragement of a family friend who worked in the department, she sat in on a PLS class while she was in high school.

“It was so amazing — the conversations they were having and just that atmosphere of the program,” she said. “I actually chose the major before the college, I would say.”

As an artist, Becker said the “great books” seminars have allowed her to interact with texts in a new way. 

“I’m interested in making art that responds directly to literature, or even combining the two, and reading the great books is good fuel for that,” Becker said. “Analyzing the great books, discussing them, and seeing how they relate to you personally really nourishes that drive in me to interact with books through art.” 

“Analyzing the great books, discussing them, and seeing how they relate to you personally really nourishes that drive in me to interact with books through art.” 

Seeing a legend come to life

Joan Becker Illustration 2Becker plans to continue combining her passions through a graduate program in studio art, book arts, or library sciences. (Copyright: Joan Becker, 2019)

With a grant from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, Becker traveled to Wales the summer after her first year to study the Welsh language and landscape, both important aspects of Arthurian legends. 

Then, while studying abroad at Oxford University her junior year, Becker received funding from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies that enabled her to spend her spring break visiting to the Gutenberg Museum in Germany, the Plantin-Moretus House in Belgium, and Brittany region of France.

These places gave Becker a deeper understanding of late medieval book creation and Arthurian stories. 

“I have been fascinated with the legends of King Arthur since I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as a child, and fell in love with the vivid cast of characters. As a student at Notre Dame, however, I was able to elevate this personal interest to an academic study,” she said. 

“Being able to travel in person to Arthurian sites and centers of bookmaking was enormously helpful for my thesis. At the Gutenberg Museum and the Plantin-Moretus House, I was able to examine late-medieval books in person, observing details of their construction and content that would be difficult to access through digital facsimiles, and learning from rare books which are not available digitally in the first place.”

Engaging through art

Joan Becker Research AntwerpBecker seeing some of the oldest surviving printing presses in the world at Plantin-Moretus House, part of her Nanovic Institute-funded research trip to Antwerp, Belgium.

As Becker finalizes her senior thesis, she is also applying to graduate schools. She plans to continue combining her passions for art and literature through a program in studio art, book arts, or library sciences.

“I want to keep cultivating my creative skills as much as possible,” she said, “but also start to move toward a career working with books, working with information, and making those things available to the communities where I live.”

Her Notre Dame liberal arts education has allowed Becker to use her passions to engage in critical inquiries.

“It’s a central part of being human to grapple with these questions of meaning, to grapple with stories,” she said. “Life is not just about survival and material comfort. You also want to engage with your mind and your spirit through art.”

Originally published by Hailey Oppenlander at on April 16, 2019. Republished at on April 29, 2019.