The Middle Ages in Popular Culture: Medievalism and Genre 160497897X, 9781604978971

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The Middle Ages in Popular Culture: Medievalism and Genre
 160497897X, 9781604978971

Table of contents :
Table of Contents
Introduction: Multiple Middle Ages • Helen Young
1 Female Protagonists in Arthurian Television for the Young • Clare Bradford and Rebecca Hutton
2 Women of the Cinematic Middle Ages in Red Riding Hood and Brave • Judy Ann Ford
3 Medievalism and the Courtship Plot in Julie Garwood’s Popular Romance Novels • Geneva Diamond
4 The Authenticity of Intersectionality in Nicola Griffith’s Hild • Robin Anne Reid
5 Reinventing the Past in European Neo-medieval Music • Alana Bennett
6 Neomedievalism and the Epic in Assassin’s Creed • Elisabeth Herbst Buzay and Emmanuel Buzay
7 The Cyberpunk Road Away from Middle-earth Toward Virtual Atonement • Carol L. Robinson
8 Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit • Anne McKendry
9 King Arthur and the Knights of the Postmodern Fable • Molly Brown
About the Editor and the Contributors

Citation preview

The Middle Ages in Popular Culture

The Middle Ages in Popular Culture Medievalism and Genre


Helen Young Cambria Studies in Classicism, Orientalism, and Medievalism General Editor: Nickolas A. Haydock

Copyright 2015 Cambria Press All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Requests for permission should be directed to: [email protected], or mailed to: Cambria Press University Corporate Centre, 100 Corporate Parkway, Suite 128 Amherst, New York 14226, U.S.A. This book has been registered with the Library of Congress. The middle ages in popular culture: medievalism and genre / edited by Helen Young. pages cm. -- (Cambria studies in classicism, orientalism, and medievalism) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-60497-897-1 (alk. paper)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Multiple Middle Ages Helen Young . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Chapter 1: Female Protagonists in Arthurian Television for the Young Clare Bradford and Rebecca Hutton . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 Chapter 2: Women of the Cinematic Middle Ages in Red Riding Hood and Brave Judy Ann Ford . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35 Chapter 3: Medievalism and the Courtship Plot in Julie Garwood’s Popular Romance Novels Geneva Diamond . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55 Chapter 4: The Authenticity of Intersectionality in Nicola Griffith’s Hild Robin Anne Reid . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75 Chapter 5: Reinventing the Past in European Neo-medieval Music Alana Bennett . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91 Chapter 6: Neomedievalism and the Epic in Assassin’s Creed Elisabeth Herbst Buzay and Emmanuel Buzay . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113 Chapter 7: The Cyberpunk Road Away from Middle-earth Toward Virtual Atonement Carol L. Robinson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133 Chapter 8: Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit Anne McKendry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 155 Chapter 9: King Arthur and the Knights of the Postmodern Fable Molly Brown . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 179


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Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 199 Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 221 About the Editor and the Contributors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 229

The Middle Ages in Popular Culture


Multiple Middle Ages Helen Young

Popular culture is littered with simulacra of the past as contemporary society plays with history to produce and reproduce itself. References to the Middle Ages are particularly prevalent: the iconic Disney castle; Renaissance Faires; Medieval Times–themed restaurants; the Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and A Game of Thrones franchises; social media games like Castleville; Vikings appear in advertisements for cars, banks, and energy drinks and in the names of sports teams (e.g., the Minnesota Vikings and Newcastle Knights) around the world—this list of some of the most visible examples is merely the tip of the iceberg. Many of these reimaginings of the Middle Ages appear in popular genres—romance, fantasy, crime, and historical are just some of them—across the full gamut of entertainment media from books to television, film, games, and music. In early 2014, the introduction to a special, medieval-themed issue of the National Geographic remarked that the Middle Ages are “a world carried in our shared imagination.”1 That imagination often owes more


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to myriad popular culture manifestations of medievalism than it does to history,2 and that imagination can reveal more about the anxieties of the present than the nature of the past. In the 1970s, Umberto Eco lamented “the avalanche of pseudomedievalist pulp in paperbacks” which had flooded popular culture in his essay that also coined the term “neomedieval.”3 His dismissive tone exemplified long-held prejudices in the academy, which had sought to separate its professional interests in the Middle Ages from the amateur or popular since the nineteenth century.4 In recent years the label has, however, been recuperated by scholars.5 As Richard Utz puts it: Neomedieval texts no longer need to strive for the authenticity of original manuscripts, castles, or cathedrals, but create pseudomedieval worlds that playfully obliterate history and historical accuracy and replace history-based narratives with simulacra of the medieval, employing images that are neither original not the copy of an original.6 Exploring neomedievalisms does not show what the past was like; rather such studies illuminate what can be imagined not only about it, but through it in the present moment. Neomedievalisms are bounded, in part, by the many widely shared assumptions about the Middle Ages, and this needs to be taken into consideration whether or not one shares in these beliefs. If popular culture neomedievalisms have escaped the tyranny of history in theory, in practice the idea of history remains powerful for authors and creators in all media, as well as audiences. Writers as different as Philippa Gregory and George R. R. Martin claim to reconstruct the real Middle Ages,7 while audiences can be so invested in their ideas of textual accuracy that they sometimes threaten violence when it is challenged.8 When asked directly, authors will acknowledge that the story comes first, as Gillian Polack observes: “the historical datum is usually subordinate to the needs of plot and character.” She also points out, however, “the novelist has a burden of credibility,”9 the world must be believable to

Multiple Middle Ages


audiences. Andrew B. R. Elliott, writing of film and drawing on reception theory, argues for a key distinction between accuracy and authenticity, in which the latter “is created in part by the audiences’ horizon of expectations” and is “linked to genre.”10 The “world carried in our shared imagination”11 is produced by multiple forces, many of which have little or nothing to do with historical fact, even when it can be determined. Profit and pleasure define popular culture, and genres are a major framework organizing the production of both: creative industries employ genres to generate profit, and consumers use them to seek out pleasure. The triple crown of income, entertainment, and convention outweighs any commitment to history in genre medievalisms while factors such as the medium in which a work is created and its technological limits may also play a part. Production companies, such as Disney, and their purposes, practices, and ideologies are likewise significant forces.12 The conventions of any genre also influence, as Elliott has suggested, what is possible in any constitutive creative work; this is as true of medievalism as it is of any other element. Popular culture, as Ken Gelder notes, “remains conscious of its viewers/ readers, and is determined to please them, and often “values conventions over originality.”13 The driving forces of pleasure and repetition are not, however, inherently or necessarily linked. I have argued elsewhere that genre conventions may be thought of as habits—of representation, narrative, style and so on.14 Popular-culture medievalisms might, from this perspective, also be thought of as having been formed through habits; an audience has certain expectations because of what has been seen before. Tony Bennett, et al., describing a Deleuzian approach to habit, state: “it is through habit that the past is accumulated and stabilized, providing a point of anchorage for action in the present through which processes of open-ended becoming are perpetuated.”15 Habits are, by their very nature, more often repeated than not in any given genre text, but they can also provide a locus for resistance, a framework from which an existing pattern of behavior, thought, representation, or being can be


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explored, and/or an alternate ideological position can be pursued. Habits can be broken, and expectations do not have to be met. While there are habits of neomedievalism which span multiple genres, as this collection demonstrates, there are also multiple Middle Ages constructed through myriad combinations of repetition and difference. To date, the most extensive corpus of work on popular-culture medievalisms is in film studies,16 while screen and digital media have also been the focus of much of the work framed by and through theories of medievalism.17 This may in part be the result of the influence of cultural studies, which is more concerned with those media than the written word, a tendency which has also impacted on the relative lack of interest in fiction genres as compared to those in audio-visual media.18 Many popular-culture genres, however, first took shape in the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century, and the written word still plays a key role in them today. Even those major franchises which began in audio-visual media—Star Trek, Star Wars, Assassin’s Creed, and World of Warcraft are cases in point—include licensed novels adapting the characters and their worlds. Whether within franchises or genres more broadly, neomedievalisms move across media. The chapters in this book generally focus on a single medium, most commonly print, but the collection as a whole reflects the multimedia nature of contemporary popular culture. Unlike most scholarly collections, this book is not divided into sections; this move reflects the impossibility of neatly categorizing contemporary medievalisms as well as the tendency of genres to bleed into each other. Rather, the chapters are clustered to reveal overlapping common concerns or threads of interest—habits— that span multiple contributions. Constructions of gender and gender roles are key concerns in chapters 1 through 4: the first three reveal restricted female agency and conservative models of behavior in medievalist texts ranging from children’s television to adult romance novels; chapter 4 explores a work which pushes back against those habits through both textual representation of, and challenges to, conventionally masculine concepts of authorship and

Multiple Middle Ages


questions of authenticity. Issues of accuracy and authenticity are likewise explored in chapters 5 and 6, which shed light on the “pick-and-mix” selection of aspects of the past which are combined into contemporary identity constructs. The motif of the quest—for individual redemption, atonement, or social order— runs through chapters 6 to 8, and concerns with subjectivity from chapters 7 to 9. In chapter 1, Clare Bradford and Rebecca Hutton demonstrate that during the last two decades film and television treatments of Arthurian narratives have incorporated young female protagonists. This development arguably reflects the fact that television for the young seeks to maximize its audience by appealing to both female and male audiences. The chapter shows, however, that female protagonists merely gesture towards agency and are principally shaped by conservative models of behavior. Judy Ann Ford explores Brave (2012) and Red Riding Hood (2011) in chapter 2 to argue that the two films provide their audiences with a version of the medieval past in which women could be independent if they only tried hard enough. The chapter demonstrates, however, that such independence is significantly circumscribed, that it is ultimately confined to a traditional domestic circle. The ideologies produced in these works are markedly similar to those of the Arthurian texts discussed in chapter 1. Chapter 3 focuses on the romances of Julie Garwood, exploring the intersection of a genre traditionally read as being for women and a time period commonly considered masculine. In it, Geneva Diamond contrasts the courtships plots between heroes and heroines as depicted across Garwood’s corpus—which includes medieval, eighteenth-century, and contemporary settings. The chapter demonstrates that the medieval setting allows a hypermasculinization of courtship that her nonmedieval popular romances, both historical and contemporary, do not enact. In chapter 4 Robin Anne Reid considers Nicola Griffiths’s historical novel Hild (2013). The chapter argues that Griffith creates a strikingly


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authentic work imbued with the material and sociocultural knowledge contemporary scholarship has of this period of the Middle Ages, one that also speaks strongly to and of current intersectional theories in socially progressive discourses regarding the interlaced constructions of gender, class, and race. The results have implications on the differing views of authenticity of both popular and scholarly audiences. The fifth chapter turns away from issues of gender as Alana Bennett explores questions of cultural identity as constructed through the genre of neo-medieval music.19 The chapter argues that neomedieval music does not emphasize accurate performance of medieval source material but rather deliberately re-creates and repurposes the music and instruments of the Middle Ages, using this reinvented sound in tandem with striking visual stage displays to signal and enable an escape from the mundane world into the reclaimed past. Authenticity and identity are likewise key issues in Elisabeth Herbst Buzay and Emmanuel Buzay’s discussion of the video game Assassin’s Creed (2007) in chapter 6. Through an exploration of medieval and modern genres, quests, and heroism, they show that although the game insists upon the historical, medieval aspect of the setting, it puts many key contemporary issues in play, including the tensions between East and West, Christianity and Islam, as well as questions of violence in relation to religion, and fears inspired by technological advances. In chapter 7 Carol Robinson examines how issues of sexuality and gender identity permeate both the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson and the Matrix (1999–2003) films of Andy and Lana Wachowski, returning in part to a theme of earlier chapters—gender. Issues of sexuality and medieval Christian theology come into a subtle debate in both oeuvres: a debate of the body and its environment: How does the “right” body conform to (or destroy) the “right” environment? The desire to leave one’s body for the “heaven” of the soul in a quest for a better place is a common preoccupation of medieval theology and modern cyberpunk.

Multiple Middle Ages


Anne McKendry compares the quest of the modern detective with that of the medieval knight in chapter 8, in an exploration of the medievalist crime fiction of Ellis Peters, Peter Tremayne, and Bernard Knight to argue that both the detective and the knight are concerned with social order. The chapter considers the narrative and conceptual tensions which result from the insertion of modern rational subjectivities—in the form of detectives—into medieval worlds laden with historical detail. It demonstrates, moreover, that the detectives created by Peters, Tremayne, and Knight align strongly with the conventional characters of the modern crime genre. The final chapter returns to Arthuriana for young audiences. In it, Molly Brown examines Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy (2001–2003), and Catherine Fisher’s Corbenic (2002). Brown asserts that revisiting the Arthurian corpus in such works becomes not merely a nostalgic or jingoistic enterprise but rather a means of emphasizing the role of storymaking in readers’ efforts to invent integrated selves and a comprehensible world. As these brief descriptions of chapters suggest, and the volume as a whole demonstrates, the habits of representation, ideology, and concept which run between genres in popular culture medievalisms are plural not singular. Certain patterns can nonetheless be identified: medieval worlds are fertile ground for quest narratives; the Middle Ages are strongly associated with conservative constructions of gender; and the formation of contemporary subjectivities are more concerned with appearance and feeling of “authenticity” than the historical past. These habits entwine— or at times tangle—in popular culture to produce multiple Middle Ages.


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Notes 1. “Introduction,” 9. 2. Sturtevant, “‘You Don’t Learn It Deliberately, but You Just Know It from What You've Seen’: British Understandings of the Medieval Past Gleaned from Disney’s Fairy Tales.” 3. Eco, “Dreaming of the Middle Ages,” 62. 4. Utz, “A Moveable Feast: Repositionings of ‘The Medieval’ in Medieval Studies, Medievalism, and Neomedievalism,” i. 5. Much of the relevant theoretical discussion can be found in the 2009 and 2010 volumes of the journal Studies in Medievalism. Important book collections include Marshall, Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture; Robinson and Clements, Neomedievalism in the Media: Essays on Film, Television, and Electronic Games. 6. Utz, “A Moveable Feast: Repositionings of ‘The Medieval’ in Medieval Studies, Medievalism, and Neomedievalism,” v. 7. Poniewozik, “GRRM Interview Part 2: Fantasy and History”; Meakin, “A Fascination with Heroines of the Past.” 8. Dewalt, “On Telling the Truth”; Baker-Whitelaw, “Is a Medieval Video Game Historically Accurate without People of Color?” 9. Polack, “Novelists and Their History,” 19. 10. Elliott, Remaking the Middle Ages: The Methods of Cinema and History in Portraying the Medieval World, 215. For a more extended discussion of the issue, in relation to digital games, see Kappell and Elliott, “Conclusion(s): Playing at True Myths, Engaging with Authentic Histories.” 11. “Introduction,” 9. 12. Pugh and Aronstein, The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past. 13. Gelder, Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field, 13. 14. Young, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, 5–6. 15. Bennett, et al., “Habit and Habituation,” 8. The key text on which they are drawing is Giles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition. 16. Driver and Ray, The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy; Elliott, Remaking the Middle Ages: The Methods of Cinema and History in Portraying the Medieval World. 17. See, for example, Robinson and Clements, Neomedievalism in the Media: Essays on Film, Television, and Electronic Games; Kline, Digital Gaming

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Re-Imagines the Middle Ages; Pugh and Aronstein, The Disney Middle Ages: a Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past. 18. The volume The Shifting Definitions of Genre, for example, has the subtitle “Essays on labelling Films, Television Shows and Media.” 19. Bennett draws a distinction between neo-medieval and neomedieval in her chapter, see page 110n2.

Chapter 1

Female Protagonists in Arthurian Television for the Young Gendering Camelot Clare Bradford and Rebecca Hutton In the animated television series The Legend of Prince Valiant, Rowanne, daughter of the blacksmith, strikes up a friendship with Prince Valiant as he embarks on his quest to join King Arthur and become a knight. When Valiant declares his ambition, the following exchange occurs: Rowanne: “And I’ll become the first female knight of the Round Table!” Valiant: “What? That’s ridiculous! There are no female knights of the Round Table!” Rowanne: “You know that for a fact? You've been to Camelot and heard it from King Arthur’s own mouth?”


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture Valiant: “Well…no, but you see…” Rowanne: “Then we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?”1

Rowanne speaks for generations of girl protagonists and audiences in her desire to insert herself into the Arthurian world as an active participant alongside the boys and young men who are its “natural” inhabitants. The long history of Arthurian print narratives for the young began with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur and proceeded to abridged versions and adaptations of Malory’s work dating from the 1860s, some of which foregrounded stories involving female characters in deference to a growing readership of girls.2 Andrew Lynch observes, however, that the increasing prominence of female characters in these nineteenth-century adaptations of Malory “is not to suggest that they were empowered beyond traditional gender roles.”3 In the mid-twentieth century, Roger Lancelyn Green’s influential King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953) dominated Arthurian adaptations, sustaining Malory’s preoccupation with the project of chivalry, pursued through ideals of masculinity based on chivalric adventure and romance. By the 1980s the influence of second-wave feminism was manifesting in Arthurian fiction for adults. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s strategy of filtering narratives through the focalizing perspectives of female protagonists in The Mists of Avalon (1982) redirected the Arthuriad to female audiences, taking up many of the agendas of 1970s feminisms: an emphasis on women’s perspectives and emotions, the construction of independent and agential female identities, resistance to male-dominated social and political formations, and the displacement of Christian traditions by a neopagan emphasis on the significance of the goddess. With the exception of neopagan elements, these agendas were reflected in 1980s medievalist fantasy for young readers, notably Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness quartet (1983–1988), but it was not until the beginning of the twenty-first century that Arthurian Young Adult (YA) novels appeared

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featuring female protagonists and focalizing characters, among them Mary Hoffman’s Women of Camelot (2000), Nancy Springer’s I Am Morgan le Fay (2001), Vivian Vande Velde’s The Book of Mordred (2005), and Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2007).4 These literary texts adopt the revisionist strategy of writing back to the male-dominated systems of power and control that pervade their pre-texts, while calling on settings and storylines recognizable to readers familiar with Arthurian narratives. In comparison, popular medievalist genres directed to family audiences, such as the television series and made-for-television film that is discussed in this chapter, assume that the children and young people who watch them have no more than a glancing acquaintance with Arthurian traditions. Rather, Arthurian settings, tropes and figures are used as signifiers of the fantasy world in which narratives unfold. In The Legend of Prince Valiant, for instance, Valiant and Rowanne are invented characters, as is the peasant Arn; the three comprise a group of friends whose exchanges evoke modern attitudes as they compete with and support each other during their search for Camelot and throughout their subsequent adventures. Combining different social classes and gender, the three young people transparently figure as characters with whom audiences might align themselves and whose concerns and experiences mirror those of the contemporary world. Medievalist texts for children and young people typically address the issues and politics of their own times, deploying the medieval as a means of defamiliarization, a distancing strategy that allows for critique or interrogation of contemporary mores and attitudes. Humorous depictions of the medieval and of medievalism further distance audiences from the Middle Ages; as Louise D’Arcens comments, “the medieval period has long provided a fund of images and ideas that have been vital to defining ‘the modern.’”5 In the television texts we discuss, these two impulses— proposing ways of being modern and making fun of the Middle Ages— come together in their treatment of gender, addressing contemporary questions relating to female agency and relations between the sexes.


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The animated series The Legend of Prince Valiant was launched in 1991, running until 1994 over 65 episodes, and was released on DVD in 2006. Sir Gadabout: The Worst Knight in the Land, a live-action British comedy series based on Martyn Beardsley’s series of junior novels, ran for two series in 2002 and 2003. The series features King Arthur’s teenage daughter Princess Elenora, who disguises herself as Sir Knight and rescues the incompetent Arthur and his assistant, Sir Gadabout, from their misadventures. In the made-for-television film Avalon High, released by Disney in 2010 and based on Meg Cabot’s novel, the female protagonist, Allie, enrols at Avalon High, where students and teachers turn out to be Arthurian figures in contemporary form. In our examination of how these female protagonists are represented in television narratives we understand agency, in Robyn McCallum’s words, as “the capacity to act independently of social restraint” such that individuals can “mak[e] choices about their lives.”6 These television productions, spanning a period from the 1990s to 2010, function as family entertainment, interpolating humor and intertextual references that imply a mixed audience of children and adults. The Sir Gadabout series, for instance, plays with narratives, jokes, archetypes, and material culture, only some of which are accessible to the youngest of its viewers. Alongside their tendency to play to various audiences, medievalist television productions for the young are implicated in practices of socialization, conveying cultural norms either explicitly or through the assumptions and naturalized values that inform them. The gender ideologies that we focus on are, of course, never fixed or settled, but are rather informed by the shifting and often contradictory discourses that inflect concepts of the feminine. This is especially the case in texts that represent the identity formation of girl protagonists. While children’s literature in general has been strongly influenced by 1970s feminisms, popular texts such as those we discuss also reflect the influence of the female action heroes who emerged during the 1980s, gaining popularity in the 1990s as the girlpower movement developed.

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Anita Harris observed that girlpower is evident above all in popular culture: “Girlpower celebrities include such diverse subjects as Lara Croft, Tank Girl, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Courtney Love, and the Spice Girls … They are deemed to embody girlpower because they are outspoken, not afraid to take power, believe in themselves, and run their own lives.”7 Harris’s list of girlpower celebrities includes figures—Lara Croft, Tank Girl and Buffy—whose bodily strength and agility are key components of their identities. Similar to the prevalence of women warriors in recent womanauthored Arthurian literature,8 the characters of Rowanne, Elenora, and Allie also engage, to various degrees, in physical and martial action. Even as these characters promote the idea of the modern girl, ready to take on all comers and unimpressed by male hierarchies, romance tropes exert a hold over narratives and representations. Rowanne, Elenora, and Allie are all fair-haired, beautiful, and heterosexual; all are susceptible to the lure of true love and the ideal romantic partner, and all become involved in sequences involving mistaken identities or romantic triangles. The odd combination of Arthurian narratives and girlpower figures in The Legend of Prince Valiant, Sir Gadabout and Avalon High, combined with more conventional feminist discourses, makes for a complex and uneasy amalgamation of values and representational styles.

The first female knight The Legend of Prince Valiant is loosely based on Hal Foster’s highly regarded comic strip Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, which was launched in 1937 and continues to appear weekly in a half-page serial drawn by Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni. The Prince Valiant of the television series is a young squire intent on becoming a knight, an aspiration shared by his companions, Rowanne and Arn.9 The exchange we quoted at the beginning of this essay articulates Rowanne’s conviction that she will become “the first female knight of the Round Table,” and Valiant’s skeptical response.


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Rowanne’s ambition to become a knight marks her out as an exceptional figure whose belief that she can be anything she likes aligns her with modern audiences; she is, in effect, a modern girl in the medieval setting. But The Legend of Prince Valiant also thematizes gender relations that are treated as irremediably “medieval.” The villainous Baron Draconarius arrests Valiant and Arn on the grounds that they are inciting rebellion by promulgating the virtues of Camelot and thereby threatening the feudal order of his realm of Bridgeford. While Valiant and Arn are subjected to violence—the baron sets his dogs and soldiers on them—the treatment meted out to Roxanne is of a different order. The baron handles her roughly and flings her at his younger brother Robert, the sheriff, with the words, “Here, take her! She’s yours!”10 The narrative explicates this incident of sexualized violence in relation to a feudal economy in which Rowanne is no more than property, susceptible to being passed on from one man to another. Thus coded as an extreme version of gender inequality, the misogyny of the incident is safely quarantined in the medieval past. Almost immediately it is, moreover, redressed by a display of Rowanne’s spirited behavior. The baron holds up a noose prepared for Valiant and Arn but promises Rowanne that he will grant the two boys a head start, “the length of a kiss between my brother and his bride to be.”11 Rowanne takes advantage of this offer, waiting until Valiant and Arn are safely on their way before approaching Robert with the words, “Now it’s time for you to get yours.”12 We see her approaching Robert, who backs away nervously as she clasps him firmly and proceeds to kiss him. The scene then shifts so that Valiant and Arn occupy the foreground, making good their escape, while in the distance Robert is imprisoned by Rowanne’s protracted kiss, his arms flailing as he attempts to escape. Rowanne’s physical “assault” on Robert and her reference to his claim to ownership (“it’s time for you to get yours”) ironizes the previous incident in which the baron has claimed his authority over her. At the same time, this is an uneasy moment. Rowanne, subject to the baron’s authority, uses her sexuality and her physical strength to protect Valiant and Arn while placing herself at risk;

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she is simultaneously a medieval woman entrapped by feudalism and a modern action-hero. Tison Pugh and Angela Jane Weisl’s claim about children’s and YA literature with medieval settings applies equally to The Legend of Prince Valiant: that such texts accept “both the alterity of the Middle Ages and its multivalent use as a time and place that embraces change and multiple points of view.”13 Relationships within the friendship group of Valiant, Arn, and Rowanne are strikingly different from those that govern their behavior in the public sphere of Camelot. In private the three often conduct semiplayful arguments, usually over their relative claims to expertise or knowledge, while their relations with each other in the company of the inhabitants of Camelot are far more circumscribed, with Valiant assuming the role of leader and Rowanne and Arn treating him with deference. Valiant’s aristocratic lineage and his command of the protocols of the court endow him with a seemingly natural authority that is evident to members of Arthur’s company. Even as the series constructs Camelot as the antithesis of feudal orders and as an anticipatory vision of democracy, it falls back on notions of inborn nobility that distinguishes Valiant from Arn and Rowanne. These textual tensions are symptomatic of the awkward fit between medieval and modern in popular culture: while The Legend of Prince Valiant relies on a nostalgic vision of the medieval past, it also maps Camelot onto modern conceptions of nationhood and democracy. The struggle between these versions of the past is evident in series one, episode six, when the three friends reach Camelot. As they search for the throne room while evading Arthur’s guards, they work in tandem, each focusing on their common goal. When the three encounter the final ring of sentinels, Rowanne urges Valiant to continue the search while she and Arn keep the guards at bay. Valiant thus reaches the inner sanctum of Arthur’s throne-room first, carrying out the Errol Flynn–like maneuver of climbing a stone wall, swinging from an iron light-fitting, and kicking open the heavy doors that lead to the throne room. Following this impressive entrance Valiant hands Arthur the ring of King Olaf of


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the Vikings as a token of Olaf’s desire to promise allegiance to Arthur. At this moment Rowanne and Arn burst into the throne room, pursued by guards. Their abrupt arrival is mediated by Valiant’s address to Arthur: “Begging your pardon, sire, these are my friends. They wish to pledge their loyalty to you to one day become knights of the round table. And that is my wish too, to serve you and Camelot. I know it to be my destiny and my future.”14 The emphasis here is upon Valiant’s aspirations, to which those of Rowanne and Arn are merely an addendum. When Arthur raises the question of Rowanne’s gender, it is Guinevere who airily dismisses his qualms: Arthur: “Guinevere, one of [the three] is a female, a woman who wishes to be a knight.” Guinevere: “It is of no consequence. There is no difference among them. Look into their eyes. Have you ever before seen three more pure or shining souls?”15 If Guinevere refuses to advert to differences of gender and class, the remainder of the episode reinstates the significance of just such differences, as Rowanne and Arn stand meekly in the background while Merlin impresses on Arthur the “promise of greatness”16 represented by the young prince. Predictably enough, Valiant achieves his goal of knighthood in the final episode of series one, in a sequence replete with ritual, fine speeches, music, and shafts of light. The grandeur of the event is somewhat undercut by Gawain’s enunciation of a crassly masculinist view of knighthood as he tells Valiant: “You’re about to join the ranks of those envied by their fellow man—and adored by every maiden who draws breath.”17 Rowanne is decisively not such a maiden, but she expresses disappointment that the three companions do not achieve knighthood together. The disjunction between her conviction that she, Valiant, and Arn will “always be together”18 and the preferential treatment accorded

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to Valiant creates a certain pathos; accomplished as she is, Rowanne will never quite measure up to knightly ideals that center upon masculinity. Rowanne’s progress toward knighthood is punctuated by tests and obstacles heavily influenced by gendered assumptions. Whereas Valiant and Arn are tested in battle and in situations that probe their loyalty and character, Rowanne must prove not only her skills as a warrior but also her immunity from emotionality. Mary Magoulick remarked of the television women warriors Xena, Nikita, and Buffy that while they routinely defeat their enemies, their characters are constructed according to “conventional conduits of sexuality and physical and emotional femininity.”19 These “conventional conduits” recirculate many of the binaries on which patriarchal orders are founded: that women are less rational than men, and that they are more susceptible to gossip, ruled by their baser emotions. When Valiant falls in love with Princess Aleta, for instance, Rowanne is tormented by jealousy and withholds crucial information from Valiant, so placing Aleta in a bad light; later, Rowanne finds a way to prevent Valiant and Aleta from meeting each other. Valiant and Arn may act impetuously, but their characters are depicted as honorable and loyal. In contrast, Rowanne is often depicted as petulant and even spiteful, especially in her dealings with Aleta. Her most crucial test, lasting through four episodes, begins when Rowanne is accused of stealing jewels belonging to the kingdom of Northland. The accusation is transparently a ruse to create dissension between Camelot and Northland, and Arthur explains to Rowanne that he must pretend to arrest her in order to prevent conflict and even war. After scenes where both Valiant and Arn tell her that they are her friends but are not romantically attracted to her, Rowanne declares that she has been abandoned by Arthur and her friends and returns to Bridgeford. Guinevere’s admonishment positions audiences to understand how Rowanne’s behavior is to be read: “I know the feelings you must be struggling with, but this is not the way to deal with them.”20 The obstacles Rowanne must overcome are, then, her jealousy and emotionality, and


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when she finally returns to Camelot and apologizes to Arthur the narrative makes it clear that she has cast aside these “feminine” modes of behavior and acquiesced to a natural (masculine) order in which “fighting for what you believe in is more important than the honor and glory it may bring.”21 The question of nomenclature dominates the ceremony at which Rowanne receives her knighthood. Arthur praises her for her courage and her devotion to justice, and “for your gift of making others, including your king, see the world in new ways.”22 As he raises Excalibur to dub Rowanne, he pauses, turns to Guinevere, and asks, “What do I do? I can’t call her Sir Rowanne!”23 Following a whispered conversation he continues: “I dub thee Rowanne of Camelot, knight of the Round Table.”24 The emphasis is, then, on what Rowanne is not, and on the exceptionality of her achievement. A knight but not a sir, Rowanne is reminded of her outsider location in the very moment of her incorporation into Camelot.

“We’ll all be wearing pink armour”: Knighthood and the Feminine Whereas The Legend of Prince Valiant adopts a reverential and elevated tone in its depiction of Camelot and its knights, Sir Gadabout draws upon traditions of satirical and absurdist comedy in British television and film, particularly Blackadder and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. With a nod and a wink to a family audience, the series relies on puns, silly accents, and comic excess to construct a parodic representation of the Round Table. Each episode begins with a blast of trumpets that disintegrates into inharmonic squeaks, and the visual image of a castle made up of impossibly attenuated turrets. The names of most of Arthur’s knights, too, are cobbled together: Sir Gestion, Sir Prano, Sir Real, and Sir Tificate. These characters, combined with Arthurian figures (Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin), produce a mélange of elements, medieval and modern. In this Pythonesque setting Princess Elenora is distinguished from the other characters as a realistically played girl, intent on escaping the

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“medieval” strictures associated with her role as princess. When Arthur calls on her to open the tournament with the “official jousting hanky,” she asks, “Is this to be my only role in life, father?”25 In line with earlier depictions of assertive princesses in picture books such as Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko’s The Paper Bag Princess (1980) and Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants (1986), Sir Gadabout relies for much of its comedy on the disjunction between medieval and modern, embodied by Princess Elenora’s refusal to acquiesce to the gendered practices of the Arthurian setting. A further strand of medievalist comedy manifests in the series’ emphasis on the comical ineptitude of Arthur and his knights. Children’s texts often engage young audiences with narratives featuring child characters who are far more knowing than bumbling and incompetent adults. In medievalist comedy such adults are both inept and also ancient, so constructing a version of the Middle Ages that constitutes a comic foil in narratives that mock patriarchal versions of gender relations. The Arthur of Sir Gadabout is at once a father comprehensively outwitted by his daughter, a timid and indecisive king, and a camp figure constantly agonizing over which hairstyle he should adopt. Clutching a teddy bear, he is more a child than Elenora, who treats him with kindly condescension. Not only is Elenora the adult to Arthur’s child, but she disrupts what Arthur regards as an inviolable rule: “You can’t be a knight because you’re a princess. And princesses can’t be knights.”26 The series both perpetuates and plays with dichotomies: child/adult; princess/knight; woman/man, exposing the instabilities of these binaries through parody and humor. In her disguise as Sir Knight, Elenora wins the “best knight” competition, but she must evade recognition as Elenora lest she be consigned to her chamber to embroider tapestries. The series’ depictions of her dual identities as princess and knight collapse into some of the gender stratifications that they seek to circumvent. Indeed, her enactment of the two personas requires the excision of gendered markers: to become Sir Knight she must remove her gown and crown; to become Elenora she


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must remove her sword and armor and avoid behavior associated with masculinity. When, as Elenora, she spars with her friend Will in the Series One episode “Elenora’s Betrothal,” she is obliged to feign exhaustion after he marvels at her skill.27 This repudiation of behavior associated with her Sir Knight persona requires that she adopt a feminine identity in an attempt to prevent anyone from recognizing Sir Knight’s mannerisms or behavior. Similarly, as Sir Knight she must avoid elements of behavior and appearance that might suggest stereotypical femininity; she lowers her voice and disguises her figure, hiding her face beneath a chainmail coif. Just as the series cobbles together medievalist tropes, images, and popular conceptions, so Elenora’s identity as Sir Knight constitutes a fractured version of the motif of the Fair Unknown. As Elizabeth Scala notes, the Fair Unknown in medieval romance is a young man whose disguise prevents onlookers from recognizing him until he “ultimately discovers his aristocratic origin … While the protagonist’s heroic performance seems to produce his aristocratic status, eventually those adventures affirm a hidden noble birth (gentility) that is co-terminous with gentle deeds.”28 Elenora is patently of aristocratic ancestry; in Sir Gadabout she is the only child of Arthur and his dead wife Guinevere. Her inherited role as Sir Knight is revealed in episode one when Merlin passes Guinevere’s horned helmet on to Elenora and tells her that her mother “defended Camelot with mind and soul and body.”29 The series thus plays with the disjunction between what the audience knows, and the limited insight attributed to Arthur and his knights. By passing as a knight, Elenora seeks to prove herself so that her actions and worth are judged without the prejudice she encounters as a female. Yet this act is paradoxical. While Elenora can feature as a Fair Unknown, the subterfuge relies on her assumption of a male persona distanced entirely from her identity as Elenora. She is, then, a divided self, alternating between male and female, and this renders her defenseless in the face of gender-specific assaults by patriarchal forces. Elenora’s ability to successfully combat and overcome adversaries is integral to the impact

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of Sir Gadabout’s challenge to gender binaries. Yet this success comes undone in the face of assaults on her agency led by her father and Merlin. As the princess, Elenora engages in agential acts, gathering information about threats to the kingdom,30 developing plans to counter such threats,31 and often acting independently of her father’s wishes.32 But the episode “Elenora’s Betrothal” marks an uncomfortable reversal. In this episode Sir Rancid and Nanny (based on Mordred and Morgan le Fay) manipulate Arthur into concluding that he must marry off Elenora. To this end they engineer a dream in which Arthur sees Elenora grow up to become a self-sufficient businesswoman running a successful “Knights for Hire” business. The vision constructed by Rancid shows Elenora at a table, her crown on her head but her hair pulled back in a bun, and her gown replaced by a suit-like ensemble as she conducts her business. Arthur is horrified to see Elenora in the guise of a working woman and seeks to restore her to her proper place in society through marriage. Elenora’s attempts to avoid betrothal are confined to stereotypically feminine strategies: enlisting male support and screaming. Having unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade her father from his plan to marry her off, she and Will devise a plan in which he will masquerade as a prince seeking her hand. Sir Rancid also attempts to pass as a prince; and during the ensuing duel between Nanny and Gadabout, the two champions of the “princes,” Elenora screams to distract attention from Will’s intervention as he fells Nanny. The duel is, however, of no consequence, because the circumstance that saves Elenora is that her father falls asleep. If this eventuality saves her from the imminent danger of matrimony, she is not, however, immune from the entrenched expectation that a wellborn girl will pass from the rule of the father directly into the hands of another male. Social relations in Sir Gadabout center on Arthur and his knights, who spend their time playing tiddlywinks, avoiding combat, indulging in fart jokes, and telling exaggerated stories about their valorous deeds. Women are absent from this homosocial world, except through jokes hinging


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on their helplessness and superficiality. In the episode “Halibut in the Stone,” when Elenora announces that she has been thinking about how to retrieve Excalibur (stolen by Nanny and Sir Rancid), Arthur responds: “The womenfolk have been thinking! We’ll all be wearing pink armour by sundown.”33 In another episode “Elenora’s Betrothal,” Gadabout comes across Will and Elenora dueling each other and rushes to the conclusion that Will has attacked Elenora: “A strapping lad taking on a mere girl. Would you bully a fluffy rabbit just as quickly, or a baby seal?”34 These ludicrously paternalistic formulations of the feminine enhance Elenora’s exceptionality: firstly she is a female; secondly, she does not simper or preen, so this makes her the wrong kind of female. Elenora’s friend Will is attributed with only slightly more progressive attitudes. When Elenora tests him by asking him his opinion of women knights, he responds, “That’s a good idea. They could serve below the men.” The double entendre of this exchange, signaling an implied audience of adults and children, is quickly succeeded by Will’s stammered restatement: “Well, perhaps the second rank,”35 which fails to mollify Elenora’s insistence on equality for women knights. In its jocular approach to the feminine, the series owes as much to The Benny Hill Show as to Monty Python and runs the risk of being implicated in the sexism it parodies. The constructions of female agency speaks to its promiscuous (and problematic) combination of genres and narrative approaches.

Arthurianism and the Female Hero In her introduction to Arthuriana’s themed issue on representations of girls and women in modern Arthurian texts, Bonnie Wheeler comments that the politics of modern Arthurian fiction for girls are “depressingly mixed.”36 Wheeler’s judgment is pertinent, too, to Disney’s 2010 madefor-TV film Avalon High, which depicts a girl, Allie Pennington, who could/would be king. Harris notes that the dominant narrative offered to young women in the twenty-first century is that of “the successful new young woman who is self-inventing, ambitious, and confident,”37

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and at face value Allie’s identity formation in Avalon High seems to conform to this ideal. In The Legend of Prince Valiant and Sir Gadabout, Rowanne’s and Elenora’s struggles to become active participants in Arthurian settings play out in renderings of the Middle Ages associated with patriarchal power. Iconic markers of this past—kings, knights, and feudal systems— involve social structures and mores that speak to prefeminist landscapes where women are marginal and where they must battle systems and boundaries as much as their fictive foes. As Jane Tolmie argues of Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness series, these texts insert “feminist voice[s] …into an ostensibly pre-feminist context.”38 Avalon High, in contrast, makes contemporary America the theatre for Arthurian battles and inserts King Arthur into a “girlpower” present. Comic medievalism in The Legend of Prince Valiant manifests in episodes that mock the medieval through comparisons with modernity; for instance, by setting Rowanne’s “modern” views of the rights of girls and women against the outmoded attitudes of medieval men. Sir Gadabout similarly pits Elenora’s action-hero identity against the patriarchal order of Camelot, at the same time alluding to traditions of comic medievalism in British film and television. What Sir Gadabout and Avalon High have in common is a comedic approach that flatters young audiences through broadly drawn contrasts between inept adults and competent young characters. In Sir Gadabout this contrast folds into an opposition between bumbling “medieval” adults and Elenora’s cool-headed modernity. In Avalon High, however, the locus of comedy is medievalism itself; in particular, the fascination with Camelot manifested by adult characters, notably Allie Pennington’s parents, who are medievalists. Her mother, convinced that Arthur is shortly to be reincarnated to bring the world “out of the dark and into a new age of enlightenment”39 and so to restore the rule of Camelot, has arranged for the family’s relocation to Annapolis, Maryland, where the prophecy is to be fulfilled. The Penningtons’ histrionic delight in this prospect, and their tendency to introduce nuggets


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of Arthurian lore into every conversation, exasperate and amuse Allie, so that her parents function both as the uncool parents common in teen film, as well as exemplars of a comical over-investment in the medieval. Avalon High is neither the first live-action text to proffer a modern teenage girl a sword nor is it the first to locate humor in the meeting of premodern and postmodern. The canonical television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) stands as a precursor to productions such as Avalon High, despite their seemingly divergent mythologies. There are actually a number of parallels between Buffy and the Arthurian hero, including her birthright and status as the “Chosen One,” her sense of duty to defend the weak or innocent, her willingness to sacrifice herself repeatedly for the good of others,40 and the assumption of her leadership as natural. Further to this, over the course of its seven season run, Buffy included a number of subtle allusions linking the Slayer and her friends to the Arthuriad. For example, Buffy “has her own, albeit small, brotherhood of knights” in Willow, Xander, and Giles;41 in seasons five and six she holds the group’s meetings at a round table; and a turning point in the series’ final season involves Buffy pulling a weapon, made for the Slayer alone, from a stone. Buffy even refers to herself as having “King Arthur’d” this weapon.42 And whereas it is not explicitly named as such in the live action series, the weapon—a scythe—is later identified as a counterpart of Excalibur in a comic book continuation of the series.43 In 2004, Susan Butvin Sainato referred to Buffy as an “out-of-theordinary” example of “the emerging on-screen defender:” a new form of hero embodying the chivalry, courage, honor, and self-sacrifice of traditional medieval knights but also “transpos[ing] concepts of chivalry and knighthood from aristocratic and gendered definitions.”44 In a category still mainly populated by male characters, Sainato’s work singled out Buffy as an exemplar of the female modern on-screen knight; “an unlikely hero”, but simultaneously “crafted of the same material as medieval knights.”45 A similar impulse is apparent in the way that Avalon High works to present Allie as an unexpected hero, leader and savior to a

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post-Buffy viewing generation. Furthermore, both Buffy and Avalon High employ a form of humor that A. Susan Owen, referring to Buffy, identifies as being “derive[d] from the (sometimes contrived) irony of postmodern teens dealing with premodern monsters.”46 It was not until Buffy that the adolescent female body was seen as “signifying toughness, resilience, strength, and confidence.”47 Yet while the show was often (though not always48) pioneering in revising conceptions of the modern female hero, Avalon High encounters tensions in its attempts at providing audiences with a young female defender who is meant to be an antidote to the sustained tradition of the male Arthurian hero. Avalon High’s narrative reinforces the assumption that Allie’s love interest, Will, is the reincarnation of King Arthur, only to reveal at the end of the film that Allie is in fact Arthur while Will, amusingly, is the only central character not to be aligned with a recognizable Arthurian figure in the film’s denouement.49 This narrative outcome is at odds with the film’s pre-text, Meg Cabot’s novel Avalon High (2005), in which Will turns out to be Arthur and Ellie the Lady of the Lake.50 The film thus appears to adopt a two-fold style of revisionism: it responds both to its medieval pre-texts, where Arthur’s identity is indelibly identified with his masculinity; and also to Cabot’s novel, which maintains this identification. Nevertheless, the filmic narrative is fraught with ideological inconsistencies, attributing to Allie the standing of a king but defining her “destiny” in terms of romance, a reliance on males, and exclusion from many male-centric arenas. “Destiny is everything you’re made of,”51 says the film’s theme song as it plays over the end credits. References to Allie’s fate and destiny are threaded throughout the narrative; her parents have moved their family to Annapolis expressly because of their conviction that Arthur is to be reincarnated in this location. But male figures—the teacher Mr. Moore (Mordred) and Allie’s friend Miles (Merlin)—engineer events, guiding Allie toward her “destiny,” so that the film’s narrative consistently


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downplays Allie’s agency and highlights the intervention of powerful figures in her world. Allie’s destiny as the reincarnation of Arthur also figures her as exceptional beyond the film’s other female characters. Narelle Campbell notes that, A heroine’s exceptionality can serve to create a noteworthy ambivalence within medievalist texts that cast women in heroic roles. On one hand the active heroine provides an exemplar for assertive and liberating behaviour, whilst on the other hand these texts can represent this behaviour as anomalous and, in some way, unnatural.52 The film consistently emphasizes Allie’s independence; and her drive to compete and win seems to establish her as the kind of individualistic, competitive figure described by Campbell. For instance, when she enrolls at Avalon High Allie embarks on a campaign to join the school’s track team, distinguishing herself from the other girls trying out for the team by her speed and her ferocious determination. Allie’s “assertive and liberating behaviour” is evident, too, in her preparedness to form relationships proscribed by the unwritten laws of Avalon High. In her first class Allie chooses to sit with Miles, a nerdish outsider to the school’s dominant groups. When she introduces herself with a friendly greeting, Miles warns her, “You are making a tactical error of monumental proportions,”53 urging her to associate herself with “the popular group” rather than seeking friendship with him. Allie’s response, “I can be friends with whoever I want,”54 points to her capacity to critique the practices of the school setting.55 Her determination to befriend Miles may, then, appear agential, manifesting in “actions which counter or violate boundaries and thereby situate a person in conflict with existing social practice.”56 Such a reading of her behavior struggles, however, with the discourses of fate and destiny that pervade the film: given that Miles is the reincarnation of Merlin, Allie is “predestined” to

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form a close relationship with him and to benefit from his paranormal abilities, which include predicting key events. Interspersed with the middle-American setting of Annapolis, the film introduces medievalist elements to alert audiences to the connections between medieval and modern. The camera lingers on the cinematic staple of an ancient, leather-bound book, which contains information about the Order of the Bear;57 the school itself is adorned with Gothic Revival features, including stained glass windows, pointed arches, gables, and a tower adorned with parapets. As she stands near the lockers and looks along the corridor Allie sees four knights dressed in armor and helmets marching toward her, transforming into four boys wearing football team jackets in blue and white like the insignia on the knights’ shields. This intimation of impending conflict in the Arthurian world is displaced onto the battleground of the football game, where Will, the captain and quarterback of the Knights, must lead his team to victory over the “undefeated Dragons,”58 so enhancing his chances of gaining a scholarship. Allie realizes her identity as Arthur during a tense exchange with Mordred midway through the game, which discloses the film’s competing discourses regarding contemporary girlhood: Miles/Merlin: “It was you all along, Allie. You’re King Arthur.” Allie: “I…I am? I am. I am King Arthur!”…. Mr Moore/Mordred: “Impossible. I thought maybe you’d be The Lady of the Lake. Maybe. But King Arthur? King Arthur can’t be a girl.” Allie: “And yet here we are.”59 Mordred refuses to accede to the idea that Allie is the reincarnation of Arthur, insisting that she adhere to the peripheral and feminine role of Lady of the Lake. As Allie argues in the face of his refusal, there is no denying that in this film, Arthur can just as easily be a girl as a boy.


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The film’s final scenes switch between real and fantastic modes: the football game and the final battle between Arthur and Mordred, now revealed as Allie and Mr. Moore. This battle, echoing the film’s opening, takes place on a shoreline where Allie leads her troops against Mordred’s forces. Again Allie relies on male intervention as Miles/Merlin retrieves the scepter wielded by Mordred, so preventing him from using its magical properties for evil and restoring it to Merlin, its natural owner. Following Mordred’s defeat the action returns to the football field, where the audio track is overlaid by the sound of battle as Will’s heroic physicality wins the game for the Knights. Despite the bracing lyrics of the film’s theme song, with their emphasis on strength and on the necessity of standing one’s ground, the narrative of Avalon High collapses into its romantic outcome. Allie’s identity as Arthur,60 obscured until the predestined time, is revealed as a “true self” waiting to be uncovered, in the conventional humanist sense, and is overshadowed by the kiss that instantiates Allie’s destiny as Will’s partner. Far from constructing her as a “self-inventing, ambitious, and confident”61 female subject, Avalon High subordinates Allie’s agency to her desire for a “knight in shining armor.”62

A Place at the Round Table Our search for television series and films foregrounding young female characters has revealed the dominance of male-centric texts as well as the brief lifespan of female-oriented productions. The Legend of Prince Valiant is the only one of the three we have discussed to have been issued in full on VHS or DVD, suggesting that its focus on the male hero plays a role in the marketability of the series (whose availability in turn facilitates the sustained popularity of this series). A similar trend can be seen in other male-centered animated Arthurian shows for children. For instance, the US-produced King Arthur and the Knights of Justice (1992– 1993) was first released partially on VHS and DVD, then issued in full on DVD in 2010, and the UK-produced King Arthur’s Disasters (2005)

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is likewise available in part on DVD.63 The adventures of boys within Arthurian narratives, it seems, can be readily accessed, watched and replayed at will. But when it comes to the adventures of girls, there are fewer chances for young viewers to engage with or rediscover narratives about Arthurian female heroes. Our investigation of Arthurian television for young audiences leads us to the uncomfortable conclusion that television productions featuring female protagonists are not noticeably different from contemporary Arthurian fictions for the young more generally, which as Wheeler observes, “provide miserable female role models for girls (and, frankly, for boys also).”64 Perhaps one explanation for the stubbornly anti-progressive tenor of these television productions is that they are inflected by cultural assumptions about the Middle Ages as a time of unrelieved misogyny sharply distinguished from modernity. Another explanation lies in the disjunction between popular forms of entertainment and the cultural shifts that occur beyond their spheres of production. In television productions that seek to attract audiences of adults and children, male and female viewers, the figures of Rowanne, Elenora, and Allie seem to gesture toward revised models of female agency, only to revert to older paradigms of femininity. In this sense they do not represent a significant advance on nineteenth-century Arthurian narratives, whose female characters were, in Lynch’s words, not “empowered beyond traditional gender roles.”65


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Notes 1. The Legend of Prince Valiant, directed by David J. Corbett, series 1, episode 3, “The Blacksmith’s Daughter,” DVD. 2. Malory’s Le Morte Darthur was, of course, not written for children but was nevertheless read by generations of young readers. See Lynch, “Le Morte Darthur for Children, 4–12. 3. Lynch, “Le Morte Darthur for Children,” 14. 4. See Davidson, “When King Arthur is PG 13” for an account of Arthurian fiction for adults and young readers by women authors. 5. D’Arcens, “Medievalist Laughter,” 116. 6. McCallum, Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction, 7. 7. Anita Harris, Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century (London: Routledge, 2005), 17. 8. Davidson, “When Arthur is PG 13,” 10. 9. Arn’s peasant status is treated as an obstacle that he must overcome by developing knightly capacities and (more importantly) by overcoming his sense of his own inferiority. 10. The Legend of Prince Valiant, Series 1, Episode 3, “The Blacksmith’s Daughter.” 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid. 13. Pugh and Weisl, Medievalisms, 61. 14. The Legend of Prince Valiant, Series 1, Episode 6. “The Finding of Camelot.” 15. Ibid. 16. Ibid. 17. Ibid. 18. Ibid. 19. Magoulick, “Frustrating Female Heroism,” 729. 20. The Legend of Prince Valiant, Series 2, Episode 29, “The Aurora.” 21. The Legend of Prince Valiant, Series 2, Episode 31, “The Sage.” 22. The Legend of Prince Valiant, Series 2, Episode 33, “The Ring of Truth.” 23. Ibid. 24. Ibid. 25. Sir Gadabout, the Worst Knight in the Land, Series 1, Episode 1, “Lead Balloons.”

Female Protagonists in Arthurian Television 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49.


51. 52. 53. 54. 55.


Ibid. Sir Gadabout, Series 1, Episode 7, “Elenora’s Betrothal.” Scala, “Pretty Women,” 36. Sir Gadabout, Series 1, Episode 1, “Lead Balloons.” Sir Gadabout, Series 1, Episode 6, “Ogwozzle.” Sir Gadabout, Series 1, Episode 9, “The Ghost.” Sir Gadabout, Series 1, Episode 2, “Halibut in the Stone.” Ibid. Ibid. Sir Gadabout, Series 1, Episode 2, “Halibut in the Stone.” Wheeler, “Grrrls and Arthurian Stories,” 4. Harris, Future Girl, 37. Tolmie, “Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine,” 154. Avalon High. See for example Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5, episode 22, “The Gift.” Sainato, “Not Your Typical Knight,” 142. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 7, episode 21, “End of Days.” See Willow: Wonderland #2. Sainato, 138. Ibid. 141. Owen, “Vampires, Postmodernity, and Postfeminism,” 24–25. Ibid. 25. See Magoulick, “Frustrating Female Heroism.” The reassignation of Arthur’s identity to Allie in the film leaves Will without a medieval counterpart, so that the figure of Will becomes merely a “knight in shining armor,” as Allie calls him when he enquires about his past identity. The change in name probably reflects the change, from book to film, regarding Allie’s identity. In the novel, Ellie is Elaine and the reincarnation of the Lady of the Lake. In the film, Mordred (Mr. Moore) mistakenly believes that this is Allie’s identity. Avalon High. Campbell, “Medieval Reimaginings.” Avalon High. Ibid. There is a parallel here with the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which Buffy transgresses the school’s hierarchy through her developing friendship with Willow and Xander, two “losers” whom Cordelia


56. 57. 58. 59. 60.

61. 62. 63.

64. 65.

The Middle Ages in Popular Culture instructs Buffy to avoid if she wants to fit in. Willow also warns Buffy that she cannot “legally” maintain friendships with Cordelia and Willow at the same time, and in a later scene even offers her an out with “you don't have to come back,” but Buffy continues to pursue their friendship. McCallum, Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction, 118. The Order of the Bear is a (fictional) organization whose members work for Arthur’s reincarnation. Avalon High. Ibid. Avalon High is not the first text to switch the gender of Arthurian figures; in the comic Camelot 3000, Tristan is a woman. In the Japanese visual novel Fate/stay Night (2004), released first as a video game and subsequently as manga and an anime series, the female protagonist, Saber, is a version of King Arthur. Harris, Future Girl, 17. Avalon High. We looked in vain for a reissue of a series that one of us (Rebecca Hutton) enjoyed as a teenager: Guinevere Jones, an Australian-Canadian television series launched in 2002. Guinevere Jones has not been released on VHS or DVD and is no longer repeated on Australian or cable networks. The only easily accessible series featuring female protagonists is Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders (1995), a disappointing production that is markedly sexist and racist with only tenuous links to the Arthuriad. The show was renamed Starla and the Jewel Riders for international distribution. Wheeler, “Grrrls and Arthurian Stories,” 4. Lynch, “Le Morte Darthur for Children,” 14.

Chapter 2

Women of the Cinematic Middle Ages in Red Riding Hood and Brave Marriage or Monsters Judy Ann Ford During the second decade of the twenty-first century, two films loosely set in medieval Europe featured as protagonists young women who, while trying to avoid arranged marriages, confront threatening, enchanted beasts eventually revealed to be transformed family members. Red Riding Hood (2011) is based on a traditional folk tale.1 Brave (2012) is an original script that belongs in the “princess story” category. Brave and Red Riding Hood both belong to genres devoted to providing guidelines for behavior. As Robert Darnton has argued, folk tales taught ways in which those with little social power could cope with a dangerous and often-cruel world.2 According to Sarah Rothchild, princess stories in modern American culture constitute their own genre which, like fairy tales and folk tales, encode messages for women and girls.3 Rothchild argues that “the princess


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character both reflects and inculcates socially desirable behavior and beliefs in and about girls and women in the culture that produces her.”4 As Merida, the protagonist of Brave, complains early in the film “I’m the princess, I’m the example.”5 Each film features an intelligent, courageous, and independent female central character and potential role model. While the two protagonists differ, especially regarding their attitude towards marriage, both ultimately, to a considerable degree, conform to a traditional understanding of gendered behavior. In doing so, they present a medieval past in which women possessed agency and occupied customary female roles or practiced conventionally gendered behavior from choice rather than compulsion. Red Riding Hood is live-action horror mystery produced by Warner Brothers for a teenage audience.6 It was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the most commercially successful female director in Hollywood at that time due to her previous work on the movie Twilight (2008).7 That film was an adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, the most famous young adult fantasy romance of recent years, which also features werewolves.8 Red Riding Hood may have been intended by Warner Brothers to appeal to a demand for supernatural romances about teenaged characters created by the success of the Twilight saga. As befits a romance, the film concludes with the union of the protagonist with the object of her affection. It tells the story of Valerie, a young woman who plans to run away with the boy she loves, Peter, in order to avoid an arranged marriage. Their flight is interrupted when Valerie’s older sister is killed by a werewolf. Most of the film is occupied by the efforts by the villagers to discover and kill the beast. The villagers call in a cleric, Father Soloman, who is reputed to be an expert in werewolf hunting. When it is discovered that Valerie alone can communicate with the monster, she is arrested as a witch. Peter and Henry, Valerie’s unwanted fiancé, join forces to help her and become allies. Henry releases Valerie from their betrothal, freeing her to be with Peter. Ultimately, the werewolf is revealed to be Valerie’s father, descended from a long line of werewolves. Valerie violently resists his efforts to transform her into a werewolf and, assisted by Peter, kills

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him. Peter is bitten in the process, becoming a werewolf himself. The story ends with Valerie romantically united with the man she loves, simultaneously becoming just like her mother and grandmother: a human woman married to a werewolf. Although Disney produced a version of this story—Little Red Riding Hood (1922) was one of Walt Disney’s first animated cartoons—the 2011 film is not a remake of that animated version.9 It is loosely based on the folk tale “Little Red Riding Hood” first published under the title “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” by Charles Perrault in the collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697).10 In this tale, an unnamed peasant girl on her way to her grandmother’s house encounters a werewolf and converses with him. The werewolf arrives at the grandmother’s house first, kills and eats the grandmother, and then disguises himself in her clothing. When the girl enters the house the werewolf talks to her in the guise of her grandmother, then attempts to eat her. In some versions the werewolf devours the girl but in most she manages to escape.11 The story has been told in several different literary and filmic versions.12 As Jack Zipes has noted, most of them involve attempts to confront ideas of sexuality and gender stereotypes.13 The 2011 film Red Riding Hood is no exception. Brave is an animated Disney film marketed to a young audience. It focuses on Merida, the daughter of the rulers of a kingdom in Scotland. Although Merida enjoys archery and horseback riding, she is trained by her mother, Elinor, to behave like a stereotypical princess, a process Merida attempts to resist. When she discovers that she will be awarded in marriage to whichever firstborn son of a noble family wins an upcoming athletic competition, Merida tries to persuade her parents to break tradition and cancel the competition. When they refuse, Merida chooses archery as the mode of competition, enters the contest, and wins her own hand. A violent quarrel between mother and daughter ensues. Merida, led by magic to a witch’s cottage, buys an enchanted cake supposedly endowed with the power to change her mother. Eating it transforms her mother and Merida’s three younger brothers into were-


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bears. The film focuses on the efforts by Merida and Elinor to break the enchantment before the spell becomes permanent. In the process, they learn to understand one another better, and all parties agree to end that particular tradition of arranged marriage, allowing the firstborn noble children to choose their own spouses. Merida ends the film unmarried. Merida is considered one of the Disney princesses by the studio. Brave was produced by Pixar, which had been acquired by Disney in 2006. It was the first fairy tale film made by Pixar and its first film with a female lead.14 The initial director, Brenda Chapman, would have been the first woman to direct a film for Pixar, but she was replaced during production by Mark Andrews.15 The Disney princess is a specific marketing category. As England, Descartes, and Collier-Meek explain, there is a flourishing advertising campaign devoted to attracting “a wide audience of girls with the ultimate goal of encouraging children to personally identify with the characters so that they will purchase the associated products.”16 Disney maintains a website specifically aimed at marketing the princesses.17 Merida’s inclusion in this category was not without controversy. When it became known that Disney planned to redesign Merida for the website, changing her look to be consistent with the other princesses by rendering her thinner and bustier, with more make-up and styled hair, and replacing her bow and arrows by a sash, an online petition was created on and accompanied by other types of internet protest. Disney chose to drop the redesigned Merida and use images from the Pixar film version.18 The petition indicates that Merida is widely perceived as being somehow different from Disney’s other princesses and that many value that perceived difference. Although Brave is a type of Disney princess movie and Red Riding Hood is a reinterpretation of a folk tale, both are set in filmic version of the Middle Ages. Both establish medieval settings through a combination of character types and visual conventions accepted by modern audiences as iconically medieval. In their reliance on images familiar to contemporary viewers, Brave and Red Riding Hood fit contemporary theories of neome-

Women of the Cinematic Middle Ages


dievalism. Defined by M. J. Toswell, “medievalism implies a genuine link —sometimes direct, sometimes somewhat indirect—to the Middle Ages, whereas neomedievalism invokes a simulacrum of the medieval.”19 As Andrew Elliott observes, modern audiences are generally unconcerned about historical accuracy to the “Middle Ages of traditional scholarship, but are already conditioned by previous medieval-themed films to know what to expect from a cinematic Middle Ages.”20 Both Brave and Red Riding Hood depend more on landscape and material culture than any other factors to establish an impression of medieval Europe. The title sequences of both feature crane shots, or simulated crane shots in Brave’s animated world, of heavily-forested, snowy mountains barren of people and of any of the technology or infrastructure of modern life.21 Both show a remote habitation: a stereotypical castle in Brave, a village composed of stone buildings and thatched cottages in Red Riding Hood. Medieval material culture is thereafter expressed not only through architecture but also weaponry, tools, and dress. Both films stress the peculiarly magical qualities associated with medieval forests as places of secrecy and danger where supernatural things thrive.22 Within the broad category of medieval Europe, Brave is more specific about location that Red Riding Hood, but both films seem intentionally imprecise regarding time and place in a way typical of neomedievalism. Kilts, Celtic music, bagpipes, Scottish accents, and a map briefly shown in a history lesson establish the setting of Brave as Scotland. As Merida is the daughter of the king of a Scottish kingdom, Dun Broch, rather than the daughter of the king of Scotland, the story can be dated to the early Middle Ages, prior to national unification. Even so, the dating is deliberately blurred as one Scottish lord claims that his eldest son fought legions of Romans while another claims his son fought the Vikings—a chronological impossibility. Red Riding Hood includes both French and German elements as well as Protestant and Catholic ones. While the names of some major characters such as Valerie, Cesaire, and Suzette suggest a French setting, others, such as Peter and Henry, do not. Moreover, one


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character, the priest Father Soloman, addresses the woman caring for his daughters using the German word fraulein. Characters in the film express reverence to the pope more than once, yet Father Soloman’s two little girls and deceased wife mark him as Protestant. Openly married clergy would place the story in Protestant territories no earlier than the sixteenth-century, a time further intimated by the glass windows so plentiful in this supposedly poor village. Possibly the filmmakers sought to suggest a sixteenth-century German village inhabited by both Huguenot refugees and Catholics, but much more probably, the meaning behind the mixed references is to portray a vaguely late-medieval, earlymodern village in continental Europe in a way intentionally indifferent to the historical record.23 As Elliot notes, many medieval films are based on folklore or romance and the resulting “tendency to return to legend, or transmute the Middle Ages to a remote and alien otherworld often has a consequent effect of extirpating the action from any real, dateable history, and devolves into dreamtime.”24 While neomedievalism prescribes no specific gender tropes, Brave and Red Riding Hood, grounded in folklore and romance, draw upon what Umberto Eco categorizes as the “Middle Ages of Romanticism” tinged with nineteenth-century gothic sensibilities. Not surprisingly, Merida and Valerie reflect those gender preoccupations.25 The key plot elements of these two films, namely, arranged marriages and magical creatures feature prominently in the “Middle Ages of Romanticism.” Marriage plans and monsters are employed in these two films to develop their central characters as women in very specific ways. Both Merida and Valerie seem to manifest an independent agency and self-determination that renders them palatable to a twenty-first-century female audience. Both are drawn as exceptional women, that is, women whose characters, interests, and abilities are unusual for women of their time, place, or station. The “exceptional woman” is not an unusual strategy in fiction featuring female protagonists, and it is especially common in Disney medieval films. As Clare Bradford points out, “one of the principal strategies deployed by Disney is that of exceptionalism—that is, medieval

Women of the Cinematic Middle Ages


figures are shown to be different from their peers, possessing desires and expectations that mark them out as proleptically modern.”26 At the same time, however exceptional Merida and Valerie may be, neither breaks away from her domestic circle nor challenges patriarchal authority in any meaningful way. Both Brave and Red Riding Hood imply not only that arranged marriages were the medieval norm but also that such marriages discounted the desires of women and were more onerous to women than to men.27 In Brave, when Elinor tells her husband, Fergus, that she had reservations upon being betrothed, his face registers shock. In the context of the film, the wishes of firstborn noble sons count for no more in the selection of a marital partner than the wishes of royal daughters; nevertheless Fergus’s shock indicates that he had no reservations about their marriage and therefore that it was more welcome to him than to Elinor. In Red Riding Hood, Valerie’s mother, Suzette, explains that she did not love her husband at first. The film reveals that she loved another man and was so unhappy in her marriage that she continued to see and sleep with her first love. In the case of Valerie’s proposed marriage, it is explained that her betrothed had long wanted to marry her. In short, his wishes were being observed while hers were not. The films thus construct a medieval environment in which a typical women submits to a marriage arranged against her wishes to a man who quite probably wants the marriage to occur. Valerie and Merida are exceptional in attempting to escape these arrangements. Furthermore, these two films imply that women were far more complicit in perpetuating arranged marriages than were men. In both Brave and Red Riding Hood the mothers, Elinor and Suzette, are primarily responsible for attempting to force their daughters into marriage. In Brave, although both parents agree to follow the tradition in which the king’s daughter marries the noble son who wins a contest of arms, Fergus cannot even bring himself to tell Merida about it. It is Elinor who insists that Merida accept the tradition, just as it is Elinor who devotes her life to training


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her reluctant daughter to behave in a gender-conformist fashion. Fergus teaches his daughter archery; Elinor disapproves. Merida’s awareness that it is her mother, not her father, who insists on following the tradition of an arranged marriage, is shown in her efforts to change her mother through an enchanted cake. In Red Riding Hood, Valerie explains that an arranged marriage between herself and Henry Lazar would give her mother what she always wanted, that is, money. Valerie’s father, Cesaire, spends most of the film masquerading as a drunkard and seems to have no influence on the decision to arrange a marriage for his daughter. Furthermore, the marriage seems to have been arranged between Valerie’s mother and Henry’s mother. In the context of explaining why a marriage was not arranged between Henry and Lucy, Valerie’s sister, who was not only older but also in love with Henry, Madam Lazar tells Valerie that she is the one that Henry always wanted, that she is the pretty one. Suzette and Madame Lazar thus conspire to arrange a marriage which they know will thwart the wishes of two young women as it fulfills the desire of one young man. Consequently, although Valerie and Merida are courageous and self-determined heroines, they are exceptions in these cinematic medieval worlds in which typical women not only accept gender oppression but enthusiastically impose it on their daughters. Brave and Red Riding Hood differ noticeably in regard to the goals of their protagonists regarding marriage. Valerie wants to marry a man other than the one chosen for her; Merida does not want to marry at all, or at least not yet and perhaps never. Valerie thus conforms to gender expectations for marriage far more than Merida. Moreover, Valerie is not shown as acting alone in her attempts to avoid marriage: her success is dependent on men. First, she plans to flee her village with Peter. When that plan proves unviable, she is saved from marriage to Henry by his decision to release her from the betrothal. However courageous Valerie is shown to be in her confrontations with the werewolf, the film implies that she may have ultimately acquiesced to an arranged marriage that she did not want if she had not been helped by men to avoid it.

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Merida’s desire not to marry is more unexpected for a story set in the Romantic Middle Ages. Moreover, in competing in the archery contest to win her own hand and in requesting a spell to change her mother, Merida acts alone, without the support of any man. Brave thus constructs Merida as more having more independent agency than Valerie. However, the film does not allow Merida to increase her scope of choice without increasing that of the men around her. When Merida finally persuades her father and the other nobles to end the tradition of arranged marriages between the firstborn royal princess and the firstborn noble who wins an athletic competition—a success that occurs while Elinor is a werebear—the film shows the young men equally eager to contract their own marriages, if less self-aware than Merida regarding the value of the ability to choose for themselves. Brave thereby frames this victory over arranged marriage less as an achievement of freedom for a medieval woman and more as the movement of society into a more “modern” understanding of marriage. This frame supports Bradford’s observation that Disney’s medieval films make their exceptional women “proleptically modern.” At the story’s end, Merida is not a woman bravely unmarried in a society still expecting young women of her station to submit to an arranged marriage, she is an unmarried woman in a society that has become, through her influence, slightly more “modern” in allowing its noble young men and royal women to marry when and whom they choose. Besides arranged marriage, the other key plot feature of Brave and Red Riding Hood consists of encounters with enchanted monsters. Both films present a version of the Middle Ages deeply imbued with magic. Like arranged marriages, the magical elements of these films both shape a Romantic version of the Middle Ages and inform particular notions of gender. While creatures such werewolves and were-bears are often dismissed as fantasy elements unconnected to any type of medievalism, they are actually rooted in medieval cultural beliefs. J. R. R. Tolkien was among those to argue for serious scholarly consideration of medieval ideas of the monstrous. As Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills observe, when Tolkien claimed in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that


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modern critics focused on the wrong elements of the poem by ignoring the monsters at its center, he “contributed to the transformation of an entire critical tradition.”28 Belief in were-animals, particularly werewolves, formed part of European folk culture in the Middle Ages and earlier periods, and references to such creatures appear in clerical and other documents of the educated as well.29 While the thousand years or so that comprise “medieval Europe” encompassed a spectrum of opinion regarding magical creatures, there is strong evidence that in some regions and periods they were believed to be literally real.30 Medieval beliefs in were-animals and other monsters as literally real did not preclude their use as symbols of evil. As David Williams noted in his influential study of medieval monstrosity, Deformed Discourse, these ideas are not mutually exclusive.31 As part of a system of representation, by the twelfth century wolves had become a symbol for the devil, as shown, for example, in bestiaries. Often the symbolic use of wolves focused on their voracious appetite: wolves threatened the Christian flock, providing “a useful model for depicting the infernal.”32 Both films present the were-animals as both literal creatures and as expressions of evil, although Red Riding Hood does so with greater emphasis than Brave. In the latter, although both Elinor and Mor’du, a prince, were transformed into bears as a result of a spell, both transformations were also manifestations of a broken family bond. The human Mor’du was too selfish to share his inheritance with his brothers, while Elinor fought with Merida over the arrangements for her marriage, throwing her beloved bow into the fire, destroying it. In Red Riding Hood, in contrast, the condition of being a werewolf is not presented as stemming from any moral failing. Instead, the moral evil of the werewolves is indicated by setting them as enemies of the church: Father Soloman, a priest, is also a werewolf hunter. Although Father Soloman is not an entirely sympathetic character, the opposition of the church to the werewolves serves to associate them with the demonic.

Women of the Cinematic Middle Ages


The particular invocation of magic in these two films offers another aspect of the Romantic Middle Ages through which notions of gender are constructed: both films associate witchcraft exclusively with women. There is, of course, an enormous scholarly literature on the witch hunt, a phenomenon confined largely to the years c.1450 to c.1750 and thus really more early modern than medieval, however much of it is associated with the Middle Ages in the popular imagination.33 The witch in Brave is presented in a largely comic, ahistorical fashion. Merida is led by willo’-the-wisps to a witch who supplies Merida with a magic cake that transforms her mother and her three brothers into bears. Later, when Merida and her mother return to the witch’s cottage, they find that she has left to attend a wicker-man festival, leaving behind a potiondriven answering machine. The witch appears as a modern Halloween image: an old crone, accompanied by a broom that moves under its own volition and a talking crow—the black animal familiar. In spite of her immediately identifiable appearance, the witch initially denies being a witch, insisting that she is merely a woodcarver. Eventually she admits to being a witch, attributing her initial denials not to fear of burning or other reprisal but to there being “too many dissatisfied customers” for witches. The idea of witchcraft plays a smaller and less comic role in Red Riding Hood. Valerie fears being considered a witch because she could understand the speech of the werewolf, and she specifically fears being burnt. The film’s association of witchcraft and were-animals is somewhat reflective of what is known of medieval beliefs. As Robin Biggs notes, there was an association between ideas of witchcraft and those of shape shifting, specifically a belief that witches could be transformed into the likeness of animals, not only cats and hares but also dangerous and much feared predators.34 The association of witchcraft with women in these films stands in contrast to the more gender-neutral approach taken to were-animals. Both films include both male and female shape shifters. In Red Riding Hood, Father Soloman’s wife had been a werewolf and Valerie’s father believed that he could turn her into one. In Brave, both Merida’s mother


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and the male prince Mor’du were were-bears. This gender parity is unexpected, as Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver have noted that contemporary fiction includes far more male than female shape shifters, and, more specifically, “lycanthropy is either solely or primarily restricted to men.”35 In one respect, the presence of both male and female were-animals creates a medieval past in which both men and women could manifest in powerful, aggressive forms. However, both films limit that impression. The female werewolf in Red Riding Hood, Father Soloman’s wife, is never seen, even in flashbacks: she is merely described, which renders her a less-realized character. In Brave, while Mor’du is presented as powerful and aggressive, Elinor as a were-bear is shown to be like her human self—still demure and concerned about her appearance—and in no way inclined to use her strength to impose her will. The sphere of magic exclusively associated in these films with women and witchcraft is presented in a laughable or weak fashion. The witch in Brave has the power to make spells, but she is a comic figure who acts only when solicited to do so by others. She is portrayed as a merchant who seeks to please her customers, a figure neither aggressive nor threatening. In Red Riding Hood, although Valerie is accused of witchcraft, she has no powers other than the ability to understand the wolf, which is revealed to be a genetic inheritance from her father. The impact in both films is to associate women with magic but in such a way as to invest them with no real power that can be used to further their aims or expand their agency. Moreover, the device of were-animals is used in both Brave and Red Riding Hood, somewhat paradoxically, to keep the conflicts of the protagonists within the confines of their own families. Neither Merida nor Valerie encounters the were-animal on a quest, or a journey away from home to seek adventure. Red Riding Hood’s werewolf is Valerie’s father; Brave’s were-bear is Merida’s mother. In this way, both films reinforce an idea of the medieval past in which women were concerned with their domestic circle and only men go off on adventures.

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The device of were-animals is also used in both films to provide antagonists who are not human men: the plots do not require the young women to actually challenge men in an attempt to refuse their arranged marriage. It is not unusual, at least in the Disney tradition, to surround female protagonists with animals. According to Bradford, Disney princesses, from Snow White through Rapunzel in Tangled (2010), “perform gendered expressions of innocence and motherliness through the sequences in which they care for animals and birds.”36 England, Descartes, and Collier-Meek also notes that “the majority of the princesses’ assertive behaviors, particularly in the earlier Disney Princess movies, were directed toward animals rather than people.”37 Brave and Red Riding Hood both shape the gendered behavior of their protagonists through interactions with animals, not only in the context of the central conflict with a were-animal who is really a parent but also in other circumstances with a variety of animals throughout each story. In regard to their interactions with animals, Merida is drawn in a more traditional-gender fashion than Valerie, unsurprisingly given the Disney tradition. Both films begin with a flashback of the heroine as a child in a sequence highlighting animals. Red Riding Hood opens with Valerie’s memory of herself as a child. She explains in voiceover that she tried to be a good girl and tried to do as her mother told her: stay on the path, get water, don’t talk to strangers. The images in which she fails at being a “good gir”l both involve animals. In the first, adult male villagers tether a pig to be sacrificed to the werewolf. A little dark-haired girl weeps and strokes the pig while one of the men admonishes her: “better the wolf takes the pig than you.” Valerie, apparently about the same age as the girl weeping for the doomed pig, stands on the other side of the pig and looks at it impassively, devoid of any expression of motherliness. In the second, a young Valerie fetching water alone leaves her chore so that she and Peter could hunt rabbits, while the older Valerie says in voiceover “I know good girls aren’t supposed to hunt rabbits or go into the woods alone…” Valerie is shown as more aggressive than Peter, pulling the string that traps the rabbit in a cage, then holding it while urging the reluctant Peter


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to cut its throat. Although the scene ends without resolution, it is later revealed that Valerie, not Peter, was the one who killed the rabbit. Thus, although Valerie manifests unconventional gender behavior through aggressive and unsympathetic acts, these are confined to animals. As it is revealed later in the film that she is descendent from were-wolves, the viewer might be supposed to conclude that her aggressiveness towards rabbits and lack of sympathy with pigs comes from her predator-animal heritage rather than being signs of a facility in asserting dominance. She is not shown as aggressive or unsympathetic towards people, as are several male characters in the film. Brave also begins with a sequence in which Merida is a child. Like Valerie, Merida is in the woods, in a clearing with her parents and their guards. She is given a bow as a present by her father, who begins to teach her how to use it in spite of her mother’s disapproval. Like Valerie, Merida also ends up alone in the woods: she is sent to fetch an arrow which she shot wide of the mark. In the woods she encounters glowing will-o-the-wisps and skips after them, breaking off pursuit to return to camp when her mother calls. Upon her return, she sees Mor’du, an enormous were-bear, attacking the encampment. Merida is carried away by her mother, leaving the men to fight the bear. While Merida deviates from gender expectations in remaining unmarried, the film does not present her as being aggressive or unsympathetic towards animals. Even though Merida is portrayed as a highly skilled archer, she is neither shown nor described as a hunter. Beginning with her initial training as an archer, Merida shoots only targets, not animals. The film shows her doing so while riding her horse, which she is presented as treating with great affection. The idea that Merida might use her highly developed skill with a weapon to hunt, engage in war, or to do anything other than entertain herself is never raised. Just as there is a history of medieval thought regarding werewolves, there is also a history of medieval attitudes concerning the treatment of animals. Bruce Holsinger argues that medieval literature indirectly

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expresses indifference to the suffering of nonhuman animals, noting that even analogies or riddles using a description of the production of parchment as a literary device ignore the actual suffering and death of the calf, goat, or sheep killed for its skin.38 It is likely that the practice in Brave and other Disney productions of using the compassionate treatment of animals as a way of conveying a female character’s gender-normative gentleness draws upon modern rather than medieval assumptions about animal rights. It is emblematic of the sort of ahistorical cultural assumption that marks a neomedieval text. Neomedieval texts can create the illusion that the viewer or reader is meeting characters in a medieval past, characters whose actions may be understood, possibly subliminally, as reflecting paths and choices that were historically possible. Brave and Red Riding Hood offer female leads who are each an extraordinary woman. In analyzing contemporary fantasy novels, Jane Tolmie observes that “patriarchy itself serves as the female adventure and oppressive gender-based structures consistently provide the external criteria that define extraordinary women.”39 Both Merida and Valerie may be seen as exceptional women acting within oppressive gender-based structures, yet neither character can really be judged as triumphing over patriarchy, or as even attempting to do so. In these two films, even magical women do not use their powers to advance their agency, and the bold confrontations young women have with enchanted beasts turn out to be family quarrels. Aggressive behavior by women is directed towards animals and monsters rather than human men. Moreover, both films stress how the oppressive gender-based structures of the patriarchal environment are maintained in part by women, as women more actively than men coerce other women into arranged marriages and mothers train their daughters to be princesses and to be “good girls.” Some contemporary television shows, as analyzed by Bradford and Hutton elsewhere in this volume, feature female protagonists who seem to be modern girls in medieval settings. Merida and Valerie do not fit that model. Brave and Red Riding Hood provide their audiences with a version of the medieval past in which two women work hard


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to achieve their desires but whose achievements never carry them far from traditional gender roles.

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Notes 1. For the origins and history of the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood,” see Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, 9–13. 2. Darnton, “Peasants Tell Tales,” in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, 9–72, esp. 64. 3. Rothschild, The Princess Story, 1. 4. Ibid., 1–2. 5. Brave, directed by Mark Andrews, 2012. 6. Red Riding Hood, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, 2011. 7. Setoodeh, “Not your Grandma’s ‘Red Riding Hood,’” 48. 8. McMahon-Coleman and Weaver, Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture, 21. 9. In reference to the Disney version, see Orenstein, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, 3. 10. Zipes, “Little Red Riding Hood,” 301. 11. Ibid., 301–302. 12. For several examples, see Orenstein, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked. 13. Zipes, “Little Red Riding Hood,” 302. 14. Vary, “Pixar gets into the Girl Game,” 17. 15. Stein, “Pixar’s Girl Story,” 37–38. 16. England, Descartes, and Collier-Meek, “Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses,” 555. 17. “Disney Princess.” 18. “PR Nightmare for Disney Princess,” 5. 19. Toswell, “The Simulacrum of Neomedievalism,” 44. 20. Elliott, Remaking the Middle Ages, 182. 21. Forests have long been used as symbols of the Middle Ages in Disney films. See Kelly, “Disney’s Medievalized Ecologies in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty,” 193; and Sturtevant, “‘You Don’t Learn It Deliberately, But You Just Know It From What You’ve Seen’: British Understandings of the Medieval Past Gleaned From Disney’s Fairy Tales,” 84. 22. For the use of forests in medieval texts, see Goodich, “Introduction,” 12. 23. Andrew Higson notes that “for some audiences and for some in the film industry, a period film is a period film … In this respect we are bound


24. 25. 26.


28. 29. 30.

31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38.

The Middle Ages in Popular Culture to find a blurring or the distinction between the medieval and the early modern:” Higson, “The Period Film and the British Past,” 208. Elliott, Re-making the Middle Ages, 186. Eco, “Dreaming of the Middle Ages,” 69–70. Bradford, “‘Where Happily Ever After Happens Every Day’: The Medievalisms of Disney’s Princesses,” 176–177. This strategy in a range of Arthurian television for young people is noted in chapter 1 of this volume. A claim that arranged marriages were the medieval norm is probably more false than true given that marriages in central and northern Europe outside of the elites, variously defined, were typically arranged by the couples themselves. An uncritical acceptance of the ubiquity of arranged marriages is not uncommon in neomedieval texts. Bildhauer and Mills, “Introduction,” 2. See Sconduto, Metamorpheses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. Also see: Turcotte, “Foreward: Shapeshifters Know No Bounds,” 1–2. For example, an examination of Anglo-Saxon texts persuaded Asa Mittman that there was a “real, persistent belief in monsters, near and far” in early medieval England. Mittman, Maps and Monsters in Medieval England, 69. Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature, 11–12. Pluskowski, “Apocalyptic Monsters: Animal Inspirations for the Iconography of Medieval North European Devourers,” 160. For an account of the chronological development of witch beliefs in medieval and early-modern Europe, see Waite, Heresy, Magic, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Briggs, 66. McMahon-Coleman and Weaver, Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture: a Thematic Analysis of Recent Depictions, 41. Bradford, “‘Where Happily Ever After Happens Every Day’: the Medievalisms of Disney’s Princesses,” 179. England, Descartes, and. Collier-Meek, “Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses,” 560. Brave was not among the films analyzed in this study. Holsinger, “Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal,” 621–622. Holsinger has also provided a useful summary of

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the scholarly literature concerning medieval attitudes towards animals, especially the issue involved in animal trials, 618–619. 39. Tolmie, “Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine,” 146–155.

Chapter 3

Medievalism and the Courtship Plot in Julie Garwood’s Popular Romance Novels Geneva Diamond

Although the popular romance novel is currently enjoying a surge in scholarly attention, those romance novels set within a historical medieval period remain largely understudied.1 One question still not explored is how popular romance novels set in a medieval period join two strands of popular culture generally understood as oppositely gendered. Study of popular romance novels proceeds from the foundational assumption that it is a female-centric genre.2 Study of popular medievalism, in contrast, emphasizes the masculinist nature of much post-Tolkien use of the medieval period.3 Romance novels set in a historical medieval


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period would therefore seem to face a distinct challenge in merging these oppositional impulses. Many authors who write popular romances recognize this challenge and clearly attempt to negotiate the opposed gendering by subverting the masculinist nature of medievalism. Susan Wiggs, for one, focuses on how to construct the medieval maiden as heroine in her advice to would-be romance authors who wish to write within a medieval setting.4 Wiggs asserts that women in romances with medieval settings fulfill a romance reader’s fantasy by resisting the hero’s “aggression, his suspicion, his insistence on mastery” until “she gets her way, and he gets the woman … he didn’t even realize he wanted until he found her.”5 Wiggs’s hypothetical medieval hero draws upon the masculinist tradition of contemporary medievalism while her hypothetical heroine, and the readers for whom the heroine acts as wish fulfillment, originate in the female-centric requirements of the romance novel. Despite such claims, the masculinist characteristics of contemporary medievalism can prove too culturally embedded for an author to subvert fully. Julie Garwood, author of twenty-nine popular romance novels, claims that her female characters are always “strong, intelligent, independent women.”6 Yet, as this chapter demonstrates, not all of Garwood’s heroines are equally independent. The heroines of the romance novels that Garwood places within a medieval setting demonstrate far less independence than that enjoyed by the heroines in her nonmedieval romance novels. Comparing the courtship plots depicted across her popular romance corpus demonstrates that, for Garwood, the medieval setting permits the consistent masculinization of courtship that her nonmedieval settings, both contemporary and historical, disallow. This masculinization of the courtship plot creates medieval heroines who are subject to male authority and identity despite Garwood’s claim of their independence.

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The Garwood Corpus and the Courtship Plot Focusing on the popular romance novels written by a single author controls for variations of style and approaches encountered when analyzing examples chosen from several authors.7 Garwood proves a particularly useful choice for determining the effect of the medieval setting on the courtship plot because of her longevity, range, and popularity. She has published twenty-nine popular romance novels from 1985 through 2013, with fifteen bestsellers and total sales in excess of US$30 million.8 Of these twenty-nine romance novels, Garwood sets eleven in the United States during the present (“contemporaries”), nine in England or Scotland at various points in the medieval past (“medievals”), five in England during the Prince Regent’s rule for the incapacitated George III (“regencies”), and four in the American frontier during the late 1800s (“westerns”).9 The total number of romance novels within her corpus is not so overwhelming as to be unmanageable, yet it is substantial enough to provide examples of the four historical periods to determine that setting consistently affects the courtship plot. Garwood’s popularity, as evinced by her sales numbers, assures easy availability of all the novels and confirms a public popularity that warrants study. All of Garwood’s romance novels contain marriage, yet marriage may not signal a plot’s resolution as in, for example, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Marriage in a Garwood romance novel can be performed or merely promised, and it can occur near the beginning of the plot or at the conclusion. Regardless of the specific circumstances of marriage in each romance novel, marriage is always secondary to the hero and heroine falling in love.10 The courtship plot for all of Garwood’s romance novels therefore depicts not the central characters’ progression towards marriage but towards their realization that each loves the other and is loved in return. For each of her popular romance novels, Garwood invents a conceit that draws the hero and heroine together and allows the pair to fall in love while overcoming impediments to their romantic relationship


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as the plot progresses towards its conclusion. Essentially, the plots of Garwood’s romance novels follow the trope that boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Defining the courtship plot in these terms yields three components that can be compared easily across all of her twentynine novels. Comparing the three components of the courtship plot—the meeting, the obstruction, and the resolution—by setting demonstrates Garwood’s consistent masculinization of the medieval period.

Courtship in Garwood’s Medieval Setting The conceit underlying the meeting of hero and heroine falls within a range of three options in Garwood’s nine medievals: clan leaders indulge in rivalries and settle debts owed to each other, or warriors clash over property rights and family obligations, or kings and fathers order arranged marriages. Whatever the conceit might be in an individual medieval, Garwood always assigns authority for the initial meeting to male characters who base that meeting on issues pertaining to the hero’s national or familial identity. The hero and heroine of The Bride provide Garwood’s most extreme example of male authority over the meeting component when they marry as the result of the authority of five male characters. Agreeing to strengthen ties among the border nobility through marriage, the kings of both Scotland and England order two Scottish clan leaders to choose wives from among the four English daughters of Baron Jamison. Reluctant to lose his stepdaughter Jamie, who manages Jamison’s estate and life in place of her deceased mother, the Baron hides Jamie from the men. Beak, the Baron’s servant, believes that married life in the Scottish Highlands is a better fate than life as her stepfather’s drudge; Beak therefore orchestrates that Kincaid, the strongest of the two Scots and the novel’s hero, see Jaime without her knowledge. Garwood removes any independent action in the initial meeting from the female characters. The two kings engineer the initial meeting and

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Jamie’s stepfather attempts to obstruct that meeting, while Beak and Kincaid collude in the decision as to whom Jamie will actually marry. When Jaimie’s older sister, the wife chosen by the second Scottish laird, asserts during the wedding ceremony that she would “rather not” accept the husband presented to her, Jaimie points out “I don’t think it matters what our rathers be.”11 The two women eventually agree to marry despite their own preferences, but female submission to overwhelming male authority does not create the “strong, intelligent, independent women” that Garwood claims she writes. Even when Garwood seems to create an initial meeting based on female agency, the male characters still exert authority over the heroine. In The Secret, Garwood’s only medieval that depicts an initial meeting based on the heroine’s own plans, Judith arranges travel from England to the Scottish Highlands to assist during her childhood friend’s first pregnancy. The two female friends have long anticipated the event, but her friend’s husband must request, and the clan leaders must grant, permission for Judith to visit. Judith therefore cannot participate in the conceit, even one entirely within the female domain of pregnancy and childbirth, without male authority first allowing that participation. Once invited by the Scottish men to attend to her friend, Judith successfully leaves England because her alcoholic guardian is too incapacitated to oversee her properly and prevent her from carrying out her plan. Like all Garwood’s medieval heroines, Judith exercises agency within the initial meeting only when the absolute male authority constructed as normal is relaxed for some reason. As these examples demonstrate, Garwood’s medieval heroines enjoy agency only in how they react to the circumstances that initiate the plot. These heroines can accede to orders issued by male characters or make limited choices within the absence of active male control, but they cannot control their fates independent of men. Instead, as some of the novels’ titles indicate, the heroines remain objects that the heroes


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acquire: the heroines are a “bride” to be married, a “prize” to be won, or a “secret” to be solved. 12 In addition to male authority, male identity justifies the hero’s participation in the initial meeting in all of Garwood’s medievals. Garwood places all nine medievals in historical settings that take advantage of cultural conflict and opposing identities, basing both the initial meeting and the obstruction to the courtship on the very conflict and opposing identities she creates. Honor’s Splendour takes place in 1099 with a hero and heroine from warring English families of opposing political factions. Gentle Warrior and The Prize are set during the consolidation of Norman rule over Saxon England and feature Norman heroes paired with Saxon heroines.13 The remaining six medievals are set in the Scottish Highlands, wherein all the heroes are Scottish lairds and all the heroines English noblewomen.14 If not for male identity, the heroes and heroines in these romance novels would not meet. Duncan meets Madelyn in Honor’s Splendour because he is captured attacking her brother, and Royce meets Nicholaa in The Prize because William the Conqueror has ordered the Norman warrior to capture the Saxon woman’s castle and escort her to court for a political marriage. The Scottish heroes meet the English heroines precisely because they are Scottish and English, respectively. After the initial meeting, the second component of the courtship plot occurs. Male authority and identity also controls the obstruction component by defining the context within which heroes and heroines develop their romantic relationships. In the medievals, the developing romantic relationship always occurs within the hero’s community, thereby continuing the masculinization of the courtship plot. A Garwood medieval hero removes the heroine from her previous community, transporting the woman to the man’s territory and requiring that she accept his authority and adapt to his male-based identity. Although the Saxon heroines remain within their own homes after marriage, their new Norman husbands occupy what had previously belonged to the

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heroines’ families. These heroines therefore must submit to the authority of men, whom the women view as interlopers if not enemies, and also adapt to Norman habits and customs. All of the English heroines are taken to the Highlands where they learn new hierarchies of authority. In addition, the English heroines must speak a new language, adopt new clothing and eat new food. Immersing the heroine in the hero’s community also forces her to navigate the cultural conflicts produced by her new husband’s identity. Now married to Norman barons, the Saxon heroines distinguish between new political allies and enemies among both Normans and Saxons. Garwood’s Scottish romance novels are especially rife with cultural conflicts because the Highland clans to which the heroines are removed either war with traditional enemy clans or attempt to join several clans into a single community. The English heroines quite simply do not understand the importance of clan identity and so often inadvertently transgress their new cultural norms. Jaimie of The Bride misunderstands Highland politics and behavior to the point that “she started three wars the first week.”15 The heroine’s adjustment to male authority and identity while immersed in the hero’s community constitutes the main obstruction in all of the medievals. Given how all but one of Garwood’s medievals place marriage before falling in love, the obstruction in the courtship plot is not what delays marriage but what delays the hero and heroine from acknowledging their mutual romantic love. All the heroes insist that the heroines yield to their authority as husbands and rulers, a demand that also requires the heroines to surrender their previous identities as either Saxon or English. The heroine’s difficulty in achieving the required transition, as well as the hero’s suspicions that she has not done so, for a time prevents either from overcoming the obstacle to their romantic relationship. In The Wedding, for example, competing loyalties threaten the developing relationship between Brenna and Connor. Brenna believes her new


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husband’s commitment to vengeance against an enemy clan—the very reason Connor abducts her en route to marry the rival laird—supersedes his desire for her. Connor, in return, believes Brenna’s affection for her English family delays her full allegiance to his authority. He does not allow Brenna to talk about her family throughout most of the courtship plot because, as he admits, “I also wanted your loyalty.”16 Conflicting identities like these disrupt the courtship plot’s progression towards resolution because both the hero and heroine hesitate to admit their romantic feelings to each other. Despite the mistrust and misunderstandings that obstruct the hero and heroine, each romantic pair in Garwood’s medievals eventually resolves the courtship plot by recognizing and admitting that they do indeed love each other. This resolution does not occur until the heroine accepts the hero’s authority and adopts his identity as her own. Some heroines learn, for example, that they cannot move about outside of their husband’s homes as freely as they would like. Constant danger from political enemies or wild animals requires that the heroes forbid the heroines from leaving the male strongholds without permission or escort, conditions against which the heroines rebel until they accept the truth of their vulnerability in their new husbands’ worlds. The heroine’s adoption of male identity often occurs in a public setting. In Gentle Warrior, Elizabeth chooses her husband Geoffrey over her Saxon grandfather in view of the entire Norman court whereas Nicholaa of The Prize rejects her brother and his involvement in the Saxon resistance against her husband’s Norman king. These public acts reassure not only the hero but also all of his community that the heroine has accepted her place with them and can therefore be trusted to uphold their cultural values and identities. The heroes also make adjustments in order to overcome the obstacle to the romantic relationship and resolve the courtship plot. A Garwood medieval hero commonly recognizes that the heroine will not always behave as the hero would want, but he accepts that a certain amount

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of female independence is allowable. The hero, however, never submits himself to female authority or yields his own male-based identity. As well, what allowances the hero makes for the heroine are exactly that: what the hero allows the heroine in her behavior. Just as the heroines in Garwood’s medievals react to the initial meetings arranged by men or exert agency only within the limits allowed by men, the heroines also exercise their independence only within the boundaries established by the heroes. The heroes humor the heroines by accepting certain behaviors after heroines demonstrate their acceptance of male authority and adherence to the cultural norms established by men. The requisite happy ending of the popular romance novel—the resolution that allows both the hero and the heroine not only to admit their romantic love but also to embrace it—occurs in Garwood’s medievals when the heroine successfully merges competing male and female identities and adopts the hero’s identity and community.17 Garwood constructs the courtship plot in her medievals so that the men dominate the development of the romantic relationship. Men initiate and arrange the courtship, remove women from their own communities and immerse them in the men’s communities, require that the women forego previously held allegiances and identities, and then mistrust the women when they do not conform to male expectations as quickly as the men demand. Once the women accept that they are indeed subject to the authority of their male romantic partners, the women prove themselves to the men by adopting norms based in male identity. The romantic pair can then affirm their love for each other and anticipate a happy ending of acknowledged mutual love. As the remainder of this chapter will demonstrate, Garwood’s medievals masculinize the courtship plot in a manner not seen in any of the other three settings that the author utilizes.

Courtship in Garwood’s Contemporary Setting Garwood’s eleven popular romance novels set in contemporary America sharply contrast with her romances set in the medieval period. The


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patterns of male authority and identity that masculinize the initial meeting as well as the obstruction and resolution of the courtship plot in all of the medievals simply do not occur in the contemporaries. Because her contemporaries are romantic suspense, Garwood’s conceits for these romance novels consist of a crime that places the heroine in danger. The hero and heroine spend time together for her protection and to solve the mystery. During their time together, they fall in love but encounter personal, internal opposition to their developing romantic relationship. By the plot’s conclusion, the hero and heroine overcome personal hesitations to commit to a long-term romantic relationship and either become engaged or marry. The conceits that bring hero and heroine together in Garwood’s contemporaries vary much more than the conceits of the medievals, but neither the hero’s nor any other man’s authority initiates the circumstances of the meeting. Instead, circumstances overtake the heroines to place them in danger as they go about the business of their own lives. A college student inadvertently gains proof of organized criminal activity, a reporter stumbles on illegal research activity, or a computer engineer finds a dead body placed in her car trunk.18 The heroine may be the victim of a targeted crime because of the circumstances that already exist in her life, as when Peyton’s former employer tries to kill her for reporting sexual harassment in Hotshot. In other contemporaries, the heroine comes under threat simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This last possibility happens to Ellie in The Ideal Man when she witnesses the shooting of FBI agents during a failed arrest attempt while leaving the hospital where she works as an emergency-room surgeon. Regardless of the particular crime, Garwood’s contemporary romances do not rely on male authority to create the circumstances that bring hero and heroine together. The crime that places the heroine in danger requires the hero’s response but not his agency. Superiors, who can be male or female, assign the hero to the case, or male friends ask the hero to protect the heroine as a personal favor. The hero’s willingness to accede

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to the request in the second circumstance originates in male friendship, not the exertion of male authority that produces the meetings in the medieval. The heroes of Garwood’s contemporaries are as reactive to circumstances in the initial meeting as the heroines are in the medievals— a man asking a favor from his friend does not involve the same authority as, for example, a king ordering a warrior to marry for political purposes. Once the initial meeting occurs, Garwood’s contemporary heroes and heroines participate equally in the developing relationship, although neither approaches the initial meeting with any intentions of a romantic relationship. The hero focuses on protecting the heroine from the threatening circumstances of the conceit and not on arranging a marriage or choosing a wife as in the medievals. For her part, the heroine views her time with the hero as an aberration and looks forward to resuming her previous life once the threat passes. Despite a relationship that is first viewed as temporary, the hero and heroine find themselves attracted to each other and then fall in love. The contemporary romantic relationships always include sexual activity before the marriage, with the hero and heroine undertaking their sexual relationship as equal partners. The heroines of the contemporaries do not simply accede to male authority like the heroines of the medievals. Instead, the heroines of the contemporaries enjoy as much agency in the choice of romantic partner as the heroes. Male identity also has little to do with the initial meeting and courtship of hero and heroine in the contemporaries. Garwood links the contemporary romance novels by including at least one character in each who is either a member or associate of the Buchanan family. That link can be tenuous, but it is present in all eleven contemporaries.19 All the Buchanan men and their friends share values inculcated by family and shared experiences, but that family connection does not operate as an identity category like being a Norman or a Scot does for the heroes of the medievals. In addition, all the heroes in the contemporaries are law-enforcement professionals, holding positions like FBI agents, Justice Department lawyers, and big-city detectives. His professional identity


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brings the hero into contact with the heroine because the crime that threatens her requires the hero’s professional expertise. As with the hero’s family connection, however, that professional identity remains a facet of the hero rather than the single identity category that defines him. The greatest difference in courtship plot between the medievals and the contemporaries appears when the hero and heroine spend the time together that enables the development of their romantic relationship. In every one of Garwood’s contemporaries, the heroine remains fully situated within her community throughout the courtship plot. The contemporary hero neither removes her from her world nor requires that she adapt to his life. Instead, the hero adapts to the heroine by protecting her as she continues practicing her profession, associating with her family and friends, and living within her own home. Three of the courtship plots take place outside of the heroine’s community, but this is not because the hero removes her from it.20 The heroine travels independently for personal or professional reasons and encounters the crime that requires the hero’s presence. The hero then remains with the heroine in that location until the pair solves the crime and the heroine can return home safely. If male authority and identity control the courtship in the medievals because the hero and heroine fall in love while immersed in his community, then female agency controls this component of the courtship in the contemporaries. Finally, Garwood distinguishes the contemporaries from the medievals in the obstruction that delays the romantic relationship and the resolution that overcomes that obstruction. In contrast to the medievals, falling in love always precedes but does not immediately guarantee marriage in the contemporaries. The resolution therefore is twofold: first the hero and heroine recognize and admit their mutual love and, second, the two agree to marry. The obstruction that delays the romantic relationship in the contemporaries can be simple or complex, and mutual or individual. In all cases, though, the obstruction is internal and derives from events that the hero and/or heroine experience before the courtship plot begins.

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The obstruction to falling in love can be as simple as the hero and heroine disliking each other when they first meet, a mistaken impression that they overcome as the conceit forces them to spend time together.21 The hero might distrust women because his first wife was unfaithful, or the heroine might believe that men pursue her because of her wealth.22 In all of Garwood’s contemporary romances, the obstruction is an internal emotion or belief that the hero or heroine develops in response to previous events that have little to do with the current love interest. For Garwood, falling in love does not produce the resolution for the contemporary courtship plot that it produces for the medieval courtship plot. The contemporary hero and heroine do not overcome the obstruction until they agree to marry. The hero and heroine acknowledge that they love each other and then decide if they can overcome the obstacle that prevents marriage. The heroine may adapt to the hero’s life, or the hero may adapt to the heroine’s life. For example, Theo Buchanan of Mercy resigns his position as a Justice Department attorney to move to Michelle Renard’s home in the Louisiana bayou. He plans to practice law and coach the local football team while she continues running her medical clinic in the small town where she grew up. In contrast, Regan Madison of Murder List follows Alex Buchanan from Chicago to Boston. She transfers from the Chicago branch of her family’s luxury-hotel business to the Boston branch, and he accepts a position with the FBI. As this analysis demonstrates, Garwood refrains from masculinizing every feature of the contemporary courtship plot even though she does so to the medieval courtship plot. In fact, treating the eleven Garwood’s contemporaries as a unit makes all elements gender neutral with the exception of the location of the courtship, which Garwood feminizes by keeping in the heroine’s community. In Garwood’s contemporary world, men and women each live full, self-directed lives professionally, socially, and sexually before meeting. Events primarily outside of either character’s control bring them together, and mutual attraction causes them to fall in love. The romantic couple overcomes the personal, internal reluctance


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against marriage that their previous lives create before choosing a shared life culturally validated through marriage. This difference in the masculinization of plot does not occur simply due to the assumed differences between a historical and a contemporary setting. As the final discussion of this chapter demonstrates, not just any historical period will produce the masculinized courtship plot in Garwood’s romance novels. Garwood’s consistent masculinization of the courtship plot occurs in the medievals precisely because they are set in the medieval past.

Courtship in Garwood’s Westerns and Regencies Garwood masculinizes all three elements of the courtship plot in every medieval but avoids masculinizing the same elements in all the contemporaries. Garwood is inconsistent, however, in masculinizing the three plot elements in the westerns and the regencies. The number and type of plot elements masculinized in each romance novel varies to the point that no consistent pattern emerges. The westerns largely follow the same absence of masculinizing the courtship plot observed in the contemporaries. Similar to the contemporaries, the westerns mostly do not masculinize the courtship plot. The three Clayborne novels, which depict the courtships of an ad hoc family comprising a New York juvenile gang and an abandoned infant, are particularly free of plot masculinization. Like Garwood’s contemporaries, the Clayborne novels do not arrange meetings or pick brides based on male authority and identity. With the exception of one novella in The Clayborne Brides, all the courtships develop in the heroines’ communities, and the obstructions and resolutions mimic the individual, internal hesitations seen in the contemporaries. One Red Rose, the only novella that brings the heroine into the Clayborne world specifically for an arranged marriage, depicts the hero’s mother as the authority

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who arranges the marriage between her son and a woman with whom the mother corresponds. Prince Charming, a Garwood western independent of the Clayborne series, demonstrates greater masculinization of plot than in her other westerns. In this novel, an English noblewoman agrees to an arranged marriage of convenience with an American frontiersman who will escort her to Boston to rescue the heroine’s two orphaned nieces. As in One Red Rose, female authority is behind the arrangement of the meeting during which Taylor, the heroine, and her grandmother agree that a husband is required to protect Taylor and her two nieces. The grandmother therefore arranges for Taylor to marry Lucas in exchange for money, with the understanding that Lucas will leave Taylor in Boston and continue to his own home in Montana. Taylor does join her husband in his community in Montana, but her presence with her adopted children countermands both his wishes and their agreement. Although Garwood masculinizes the courtship plot of Prince Charming by Taylor’s presence in Lucas’s community, the grandmother’s control of the initial meeting and Taylor’s agency in defiance of her husband’s expectations ameliorate the complete male control over the courtship plot seen in the medievals. Garwood’s five regencies display even more variation than the westerns. All five of the regencies contain some deployment of male authority and identity, but the particular plot element affected varies. Two of the regencies, however, are instructive because each is as internally consistent and as opposed to each other as Garwood’s medievals are to her contemporaries. The Gift is Garwood’s only nonmedieval romance novel to masculinize every element of the courtship plot. Sara and Nathan meet when the mad King George III pairs them in an arranged child-marriage to end feuding between their families. After the ceremony, the young bride and groom return to their respective families until adulthood will allow consummation. Years later, Nathan returns to abduct his bride from her family and gain her dowry, taking her away to his ship for the courtship. The obstruction develops from the Nathan’s mistrust of


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his wife, given that she is a member of the family still feuding with his own. The two eventually overcome the obstruction when Sara convinces Nathan that her values resemble his more than those of her own family. Except for setting, this summary of The Gift could easily describe the events of a Garwood medieval. This regency contains all the masculinizing effects of male authority and identity: male authority arranges the meeting and removes the heroine from her community. The obstruction and resolution are based in male identity with the heroine eventually adopting the hero’s identity to resolve the courtship plot. Yet Castles, a second regency, does not masculinize the courtship plot and presents it in a manner that is more similar to Garwood’s contemporaries than to her medievals. In Castles, Princess Alesandra, descended from a foreign mother and an English father, travels to England to protect herself from a forced marriage to a noble in her home country. Hoping that marriage to an appropriate Englishman will protect her, Alesandra’s guardian tries to arrange a marriage to his son Colin. Initially resisting the matchmaking efforts of his father, Colin eventually admits his love for Alesandra. The two marry, the nobleman is defeated, and the courtship plot is resolved. Where male authority and identity control all three elements of the courtship plot in The Gift, male authority affects only the initial meeting in Castles. Alesandra travels to England due to a male threat, and she meets Colin when his father places her in his son’s home. The remaining plot components, however, do not demonstrate the consistent masculinization of the courtship plot that Garwood constructs in the medievals. The relationship does develop in England and in Colin’s home, but Alesandra initiates the journey to the hero’s community. In addition, male identity affects no plot element. Alesandra’s identity actually proves more important to the courtship plot than Colin’s because her status as a princess in her home country makes her vulnerable to the political intrigue undertaken by the nobleman attempting to kidnap her for marriage. As

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in the contemporaries, danger brings hero and heroine together and, once resolved, allows the couple to resolve the courtship plot. As the examples from the westerns and regencies make clear, Garwood does not masculinize courtship plots in her medieval romance novels simply because the stories are set in a historical period. If that were the case, then the westerns and regencies would also demonstrate consistent masculinization of plot. Instead, the westerns and regencies can share plot characteristics with either the medievals or the contemporaries.

Conclusion To some extent Wiggs’s “medieval maiden” does appear in Garwood’s medieval settings; Garwood’s medieval heroines, after all, do gain concessions from the heroes in the resolution phase of the courtship plot. Yet Garwood’s masculinization of plot works against subverting the masculinist characteristics of medievalism that Wiggs’s advice suggests. Instead of constructing medieval heroines who reflect the strong, capable, and complex women who lived during the historical medieval period as Wiggs advised, Garwood has constructed women who are wholly dependent on male authority and identity because men control the elements of the courtship plot. Garwood’s romance corpus constructs a spectrum of time and place that defines “contemporary” and “American” as identified by female agency and gender parity in romantic relationships. The further away from contemporary America that she sets her popular romances, the more masculinized the courtship plot becomes. Garwood positions medievals along that spectrum as the setting most removed from contemporary America in both time and place, and therefore the setting that demonstrates the greatest male control over the courtships that constitute Garwood’s popular romances. Because of these patterns, Garwood precludes herself from constructing masculinized plots in contemporary settings. The historical settings of the American West and Regency


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England, positioned between contemporary America and medieval England or Scotland, allow a kind of hybridized plot. The westerns and regencies are too close to contemporary America to allow the consistent male domination observed in the medievals yet far enough removed to allow far more masculinization of plot than seen in the contemporaries. The medieval historical setting operates for Garwood, then, as the only time and place in which Wiggs’s aggressive, suspicious, insistent hero can exist as a romance hero without being subverted by that woman “he didn’t even realize he wanted.”23 Garwood’s own construction of the courtship plot across her corpus demonstrates that, despite her claims of independence for her female characters, the masculinist construction of medievalism trumps the female-centric genre of popular romance novels when the courtship occurs in a medieval time and place.

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Notes 1. Burge, “Do Knights Still Rescue Damsels in Distress?” 95–114, asserted the importance of the the medieval setting of Mills & Boon romances. Burge’s endnotes also outline the lack of recent scholarship on medievalism in popular romance novels. 2. Recent scholarly works still provide a history of scholarship on the popular romance novel, beginning with Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature, indicating the comparative newness of the field. Selinger and Frantz, “Introduction: New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction,” 1–19, reviews the general history of scholarship on popular romance novels. 3. Michael D. C. Drout applies the term “masculinist medievalism” to the “world view inherited from Tolkien” in his “The Influence of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Masculinist Medievalism,” 26–27. 4. Wiggs, “The Medieval Maiden,” 158–165. 5. Ibid., 162. 6. Garwood and Grilo, The Book Smugglers. 7. Mary Bly noted the problems associated with studying popular romance novels due to the large numbers of published works and variation among examples, “On Popular Romance, J. R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study,” 60–72. 8. The total number of Garwood’s popular romance novels does not include the two contemporary romance novels Fast Track and Wired, both of which are unpublished at the time of writing this chapter. Neither does the total number include the young adult novels published as either the pseudonymous “Emily Chase” or as “Julie Garwood.” I count The Clayborne Brides (1997), a collection of three novellas, as a single publication. Many sources repeat these numbers for bestsellers and total sales, with one being “Julie Garwood,” Contemporary Authors Online. The author’s website lists the number of copies “in print” at 35 million. 9. The Lion’s Lady (1988) can be problematic to define by setting because it places action in the American frontier and in Regency England. The romance novel begins in the Dakotas of the late 1700s but develops the courtship between the hero and heroine in Regency England. Garwood classes it as a regency, presumably because the courtship plot occurs there and the married couple remains in England. Two of the west-


10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17.

18. 19.

20. 21. 22. 23.

The Middle Ages in Popular Culture erns, For the Roses (1995) and Prince Charming (1994), also divide setting between the American frontier and England. In these romance novels, the romantic relationships develop in the American West despite some time spent in Victorian England. Both are classified as westerns by Garwood. Lisa Fletcher explored the central importance of hero and heroine stating “I love you” in Historical Romance Fiction. Garwood, The Bride, 55. Garwood, The Bride (1989), The Prize (1991), The Secret (1992). Elizabeth of Gentle Warrior (1989) is actually half Saxon through her mother, and Geoffrey is the Norman overlord to Elizabeth’s Norman father. Gabrielle of Shadow Music (2008) is actually half-English, with a mother originating from a fictional European country named “St. Biel.” Garwood, The Bride, 189. Garwood, The Wedding, 369. Barlow and Ann Krentz explained the plot elements and devices expected by readers of popular romance novels, in “Beneath the Surface,” 15–29. The happy-ending resolution is, of course, central to reader expectations of a romance novel. Garwood, Sizzle (2009); Fire and Ice (2008); Shadow Dance (2007). Ideal Man (2011) is the most tenuously linked to the Buchanan characters. The only Buchanan link in Ideal Man occurs near the romance novel’s end (p. 328) when unnamed associates of the hero prevail upon Michael Buchanan, otherwise unmentioned throughout the romance novel, to perform a favor. Killjoy (2002), Shadow Dance (2007), and Fire and Ice (2008) Killjoy (2002) Mercy (2001); Murder List (2004) Wiggs, “The Medieval Maiden,”162.

Chapter 4

The Authenticity of Intersectionality in Nicola Griffith’s Hild Robin Anne Reid

“It is this linking between the historical and the literary shot through with the political that I trace in my study.” — Lisa Kasmer, Novel Histories1 In the second decade of the twenty-first century, questions of authenticity in historical novels are no longer of interest solely to creative writers, reviewers, and literary scholars, especially when the topic is historical representation of gender roles.2 Additionally, the question of how fictional works represent the past is no longer limited to the genre of historical novels; science-fiction and fantasy fiction, films, and television shows have appropriated medieval historical narratives.3 This appropriation has


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caused medieval scholars to coin the term neomedievalism to analyze the relationship between the postmodern and the medieval.4 One example of such appropriation that led to debates on the historical authenticity of gender representation is the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice (1996–2011). The representation of female characters in HBO’s A Game of Thrones, especially in recent episodes involving rape, has been the subject of debates at multiple social media sites.5 Discussions during April and May 2014 were so extensive and heated that the controversy was reported by mainstream news outlets.6 While fans disagree on the effect of how the series in both incarnations handles sexual violence and rape, their disagreement does not break down into male versus female fans, or feminist versus nonfeminist claims. Both defenders and critics share an assumption that the fantasy series (print and television) is set in a place and time analogous to the historical “Dark Ages” of Europe; this means that they believe the fictional portrayal of sexual violence and rape is authentic, meaning an historical or factual element of that time and place. However, the popular assumption that the “Dark Ages” were primitive and barbaric was discarded by historians decades ago.7 I would argue that one reason online debates about the rape scenes in the Game of Thrones received such widespread media attention is due to the ongoing cultural debates in the United States since the 1970s, the decade during which feminists began to challenge legal and cultural definitions of rape, demand changes in laws, and theorize the concept of rape culture.8 My interest is in how claims of historical authenticity affecting the reception of the portrayal of sexual violence in recent episodes of Game of Thrones provide clear evidence of two relevant aspects of the cultural context for Nicola Griffith’s Hild: A Novel (2013).9 The first aspect is how widespread popular assumptions about the oppression and rape of women during the “Dark Ages” are.10 The second and related aspect is how the concept of historical authenticity, which has been linked to masculine authority over the discourses of fictional history since the origin of the historical novel in English during the

Nicola Griffith’s Hild


eighteenth century, justifies portraying women’s lives in the past in such limited and stereotypical ways. Resistance to that authority can be seen in the deep history of women writing historical novels (and historical nonfiction) that feminist scholarship has discussed.11 However, the fact that the popular understanding about what is “authentic” in historical and medieval fantasy novels is a misconception contradicted by academic scholarship does not reduce the extent to which this popular belief normalizes fictionalized sexual violence and oppression as “authentic.” In fact, showing readers, female and male, how terrible things were in the past operates to construct the present as progressive, that is, a culture in which feminism is no longer required to address the systemic problems of rape culture and misogyny which have been safely deflected to the “Dark Ages.” Fiona Price, in “Romantic Women Writers and the Fiction of History,” argues that the connection of the historical novel with the present political context became an important element of the discourses around writing history during the eighteenth century, after the French Revolution: “the generic interpretation of the past had become a matter of national importance, used to consider the desirability and mode of (political and economic) progress in the present.”12 Against this cultural context, Griffith’s novel presents a radically different and complex narrative centering on women’s lives in one specific place and time in the early Middle Ages: seventh-century Anglo-Saxon Britain, specifically Northumbria, the time during which the conversion of pagans to Christians was occurring. The protagonist and point-ofview character in the novel is Hild, one of the few women of this period discussed at any length in primary sources.13 Hild becomes St. Hilda of Whitby whose story is narrated in five paragraphs of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.14 The novel covers the events in her life from her childhood to her wedding. While Griffith’s novel focuses primarily on Hild, much of the narrative covers richly detailed interactions with the women with whom she spends the majority of her time.


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The reception of the novel was overwhelmingly positive, with glowing reviews published not only in media outlets but on numerous blogs.15 The work was nominated for a number of literary prizes and honors by the Science Fiction Writers of America, the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the Bi Writers Association. It was listed as an “Honor Book” by the James Tiptree, Jr. Council.16 Griffith is a well-known and prize-winning author of science fiction and suspense novels; Hild is her first historical novel and the first of a planned trilogy although Griffith only came to that realization in the process of writing it.17 Review essays by medieval scholars attest to the quality of Griffith’s use of medieval scholarship in the construction of the material, political, and social aspects of Hild’s culture as well as to the radical difference between this novel and other medieval historical and fantasy works.18 However, other reviewers who note they have little knowledge of the history of the period are equally enthusiastic about the work.19 In addition, a number of feminist writers have noted Griffith’s success at showing women’s lives as well as the ways in which the novel shows the connections between the genres of historical novel and speculative fiction and fantasy.20 Griffith’s novel is one of the latest in a British tradition of women writing history over the past two-and-a-half centuries to foreground female characters in historical narratives. This tradition operates, as feminist scholars have argued, as a way of redressing the marginalization of women in traditional historical narratives and as a way of using the fictional construction of the historical past to comment on the present.21 While Griffith’s novel is similar in a number of its elements to earlier historical fictions by women, there are ways in which her work, coming as it does from an author situated in lesbian feminist discourses and familiar with the contemporary intersectional theories developed in social justice movements, differs radically from the majority of historical novels. The radical difference in Griffith’s novel lies in the extent to which Griffith deconstructs the popular and inaccurate image of women’s lives during the “Dark Ages” rather than in the narrative structure and point of view, neither of which are postmodern nor experimental. Griffith’s narrative

Nicola Griffith’s Hild


structure does not break the chronological flow of narrative time nor present multiple point of view characters. The primary deconstructive narrative element is characterization. The novel centers on a queer and socially progressive woman whose lived experience foregrounds the intersectional constructions of gender, sexual orientation, class, and race around her although neither she or the other characters would express themselves in that language. The novel—the title is the name of the protagonist—focuses on Hild’s life from the age of three, through her childhood, through her maturing (menstruation marking her as an adult woman in her culture) into her teens, ending with her marriage. The third-person point-of-view narrator is tightly centered in Hild’s perspective. In addition to the thirdperson narrative and a chronological structure, Griffith foregrounds extensive paratextual and epitextual materials concerning her research, the historical sources she used, and discussion (in her project blog and in interviews) about the points at which she had to invent or change the historical information for her novel.22 Griffith’s narrative choices achieve what Maria Margaronis asserts is no longer possible for historical novelists to do, that is to “write serious historical fiction in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, who implicitly offered an omniscient, authoritative view based on extensive research.”23 Margaronis argues that the authority associated with historical fiction established by Scott has been lost to contemporary writers because of the rise of postmodern theories of subjectivity and partial narratives and the arguments of survivors that the “worst historical crimes of the twentieth century (especially the Nazi genocide of the Jews and Stalin’s gulag) are literally unspeakable, and that only those who lived through them … have a right to break the silence.”24 Writers born after 1945, she notes, need to draw on new genres and media forms “to speak without appearing to claim authority.”25 While Margaronis makes a strong argument, the historical novels she discusses are set in recent historical periods, the oldest being found in Toni Morrison’s novels about slavery in the United States. For whatever reasons, one of which may be the distance that seventh-century Britain


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has from twenty-first-century readers, Griffith is able to reclaim a voice of omniscient authority; the narrative conventions in Hild are those associated with historical novels in English since Scott. However, I would argue that this voice is neither masculine nor heterosexual; although Hild lives in a patriarchal culture, the omniscient narrator’s voice is a twentyfirst-century voice with the authority of a woman, a lesbian, a prizewinning author, and a social justice activist. The narrative voice of Hild, I would argue, is a queer and feminist voice that imbues intersectionality with the sense of historical authenticity.26 Griffith’s documentation of the research process that allowed her to create a 536-page novel from Bede’s five-page summary of Hild’s life which inspired her is not only summarized in the novel itself but has been extensively documented in her blog, Gemmæcca: The Story of a Novel About Hild of Whitby. The blog is a work in progress with Griffith’s discussion of choices she made in Hild and is making in the forthcoming works in the series.27 Despite the documentation of her research, including studying primary sources as well as contemporary historical scholarship, her authority is that of a novelist, not an historian. That is, she has not only the authority of studying and drawing on the scholarship but also the authority not to be limited by it: in the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel, she writes that while she “did [her] utmost not to contravene what is known about the early seventh-century material culture, languages, natural world, power politics, and individuals of the British Isles, this is a novel. I made it up.”28 The distinction that needs to be made between historians and historical novelists is an important one, given how often readers speak of learning about history by reading novels. Gillian Polack, in “Novelists and Their History,” drew on extensive interviews with historical novelists and writers of speculative fiction about how they use historical scholarship. She grounds discussion with contemporary genre writers in the theoretical and scholarly issues concerning “historical fact,” noting that while the writers “concerned themselves very closely with previous interpretations of the past: they are less, in fact, concerned

Nicola Griffith’s Hild


with the reality of the past, than with its historical interpretations as the ground on which to rest their narratives.”29 When it comes to the characterization of Hild, Griffith avoids two dominant stereotypes of female characters often found in media productions and novels (not limited to historical or fantasy fiction): the “strong female” protagonist who behaves like a man, often masquerading as one, in order to improve her individual situation, or the victimized female protagonist who exists only to be sent off to an arranged marriage, or raped, or both.30 Instead, Griffith created a work deeply imbued with the material and sociocultural knowledge which contemporary scholarship has produced in relation to this period of the Middle Ages, a period during which the relationships between and among women in different social classes and ethnic groups operate in the social context of complex racialized hierarchies within the context of socioreligious changes. Elements of the novel that I consider intersectional may strike some readers as anachronistic. The most striking example is the line in the novel that sparked the idea for this chapter: young Hild, in a discussion with her older sister, Hereswith, quotes their mother as saying: “men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”31 Hild’s statement is a paraphrase of a quote attributed to the feminist novelist, Margaret Atwood.32 A Google search for Hild’s words brings up 1,180,000 results including Griffith’s own blog post where she describes hearing the quote in an interview with Atwood during the 1980s, making it clear the textual allusion is intentional.33 I would argue that the use of Atwood’s quote is an example of what Patrick Chura defines as “historical prolepsis.” Prolepsis is “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.”34 This example of dialogue is also an example of what Bryony D. Stocker identifies as an example of “hybridisation.”35 Stocker’s analysis of three main methods that historical novelists use in creating a sense of authenticity through the dialogue identifies hybridization as the most common of the three (the other two being immersion and


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reader guidance). Hybridization involves blending modern elements with historical.36 A direct statement of a feminist commonplace by Breguswith quoted by Hild may seem anachronistic, but when that statement is connected with Hild’s anger over her sister being sold into marriage and her ongoing awareness of the ways in which noble women’s marriages are part of the political and military strategies of the ruling class, the purposefulness of Griffith’s narrative becomes clear. The challenge is to a contemporary assumption that women historically did not notice the power men had over them or did not ever speak of it amongst themselves or warn their daughters of it until the nineteenth (or, for those who do not know the history of the suffrage movement, the twentieth) century; it is part of the popular misconception that the past was worse than the present. Historically, at any period, individuals and groups exist who work against dominant ideologies; the failure to document those efforts in some historical narratives has been recently addressed in contemporary challenges to military and political history, specifically in the work being done in social history, work that Griffith could draw upon for her novel.37 Griffith’s focus on the lives and relationships of women does not idealize them as a faux-feminist utopian sisterhood although the depiction of a formally recognized partnership between women, that of the gemæcce, is a fascinating invention that is tied to Griffith’s discovery of a monograph about women’s role in textile production.38 Hild’s relationship with her sister over the years shows them each envious of the other (Hild of her older sister’s status after being awarded her own distaff, and Hereswith’s jealousy of their mother’s prophecy about Hild as the light of the world), but their closeness survives their separation when Hereswith leaves with her husband, a prince prophesied by Hild to become a king. Women work side by side and inhabit a world that men know nothing about because of the homosocial structures. Hild interacts with women from the nobility to slaves. In chapter 15, she goes to observe the creation of a defensive hedge at a fort Edwin is rebuilding, ending up working side by side with women who are carrying brush, joking with two of them about the lack of real work done by the priests who bless the new

Nicola Griffith’s Hild


hedge. The interactions between the characters stands in stark contrast to the popular conceptions of the Middle Ages that have been influenced primarily by the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien39 and recently by George R. R. Martin’s work. Unlike either of those authors, Griffith shows a complex social context that not only illustrates the hierarchies of power and the interactions between the different classes but also demonstrates how the Anglo Saxons, the Welsh, and the Irish considered each other to be the Other in racialized terms (i.e., homogeneous essentialized identities) and how those cultural attitudes were connected with the Anglo-Saxon expansion and dominance of the Welsh. Medieval constructs of race differ in type from contemporary constructions, but, as Robert Bartlett points out, a difference in type is not a difference in complexity.40 Hild is not an exceptional nonracist Anglo Saxon; she buys and owns a Welsh female slave, Gwladus. But during the course of the novel, Hild begins to wish to create a place in the war-torn world where Anglo Saxons and displaced Welsh can live together, a place which will become Whitby Abbey. She begins by establishing a household in which there “are no Deirans, no Bernicians, no Loid or Anglisc, no Dyfneint or Elmetsætne” (293). However, Hild is a woman of her time, and this vision is not one of democratic equality but of a household under her protection, and a holding of land in her name, all in service to Edwin King, part of the hierarchical culture of the time. And yet one of the most striking characteristics of Hild (the historical figure as well as Griffith’s fictional character) is the extent to which she was a part of a culture that was undergoing immense changes politically, socially, religious, and economically, and the extent to which she participated in creating those changes. Griffith discusses that aspect of Hild in the context of the rise in popularity of historical novels, noting that: “by making Hild possible, I wanted to recast what people today think might be possible and so make it possible. In other words, I’m recolonising the past. Recasting it. Retelling it. And by so doing, I’m recreating the present and so steering the future.”41


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This clear political revisioning of the distant past as an aspect of contemporary activism is one of the elements that makes Griffith’s novel so powerful and unique. There are many other elements in the novel which deserve further consideration which are beyond the scope of this article, a few of which are the complexities of Hild’s sexuality; the aesthetic delights of Griffith’s prose and how it reflects the multilingual world of seventh-century Britain; the contrasting masculinities of the war band and the Christian priests who are, to Hild’s eyes, “men in skirts,” men who bring the new technology of literacy;42 and the issues, explored by a number of reviewers, of how blurred lines between the genre of historical novels and science fiction and fantasy apply to Hild, all the more so because of the fact that Griffith’s created world is a challenge to the popular neomedieval fantasies of the twenty-first century. One of the best discussions of the ways in which Hild highlights “how historical fiction is also speculative fiction and shares much more with science fiction and fantasy than may be immediately apparent” is Natalie Luhrs’s “Historical Fiction and Nicola Griffith’s Hild.” 43 Luhrs’ primary argument about the genre relationships connects well with arguments about the subjective nature of historical fiction and the extent to which it relies on interpretation, but Luhrs focuses on the technique of world building that underlies speculative fiction as an immersion technique which is used in historical fiction. The blurring of genre boundaries makes explicit the way that understandings of the past affect the present and can, as Griffith noted, shape the future, and it is that challenge in Hild that makes it so exhilarating. In that context, the novel is a success; I can only agree with the final paragraph of Amal El-Mohtar’s review in which she notes that: “I feel confident that the next time I’m faced with yet another inane repetition of ‘women were oppressed so we can’t write their stories,’ I won’t need to painstakingly educate anyone about the realities of medieval life with recourse to books and articles. ‘Read Hild’ will be enough.”44

Nicola Griffith’s Hild


Notes 1. Kasmer, Lisa. Novel Histories: British Women Writing History, 1760–1830. Lanham, Maryland: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2012. 2. Bryony D. Stocker covered the origins of the historical novel in the eighteenth century, and the demand from those beginnings that “good” historical novels reveal in-depth research by the writer compared to “bad” novels (specifically, as Stocker notes, the “pejoratively termed “bodiceripper”), citing scholarship by historians who study popular culture and the historical novel. Stocker, “‘Bygonese’—Is This Really the Authentic Language of Historical Fiction?” 3. See, for example, Young (ed.), Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms. 4. For example, Kaufman,“Medieval Unmoored” and Marshall, “Neomedievalism, Identification, and the Haze of Medievalisms.” Marshall’s definition of one type of neomedievalism fits well with my interpretation of Griffith’s Hild: “a self-conscious, ahistorical, non-nostalgic imagining or reuse of the historical Middle Ages that selectively appropriates iconic images, often from other medievalisms, to construct a presentist space that disrupts traditional depictions of the medieval”(22). 5. Game of Thrones episodes “Breaker of Chains” and “Oathkeeper.” The first episode featured an incestuous rape scene between a brother and sister, the second a mass rape. 6. The sexual violence throughout the first three seasons was not ignored by fans, but the impetus for the widespread coverage of the debates within fandom and feminist social media followed the airing of the third episode in season 4, “Breaker of Chains,” in which an incestuous but ambiguously consensual scene in Martin’s novel is changed to what many read as rape scene. Articles about the internet debate appeared in The Daily Mail, The Huffington Post, The Rolling Stone, Slate, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The LA Times, The New York Times, The Independent, and The Napa Valley Register, to name a few of the mainstream media sites and in news categories as well as review and arts/entertainment sections, that came up on a Google search on “Game of Thrones” and “rape scene.” 7. Theodore Mommsen’s historiographic essay, “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages,’“ appeared in 1942, in Speculum, a prominent journal of medieval studies, covering in detail the use of the term in scholarly




10. 11. 12. 13.

14. 15. 16.

The Middle Ages in Popular Culture monographs, collections, and encyclopedias, tracing the origin back to Italian Renaissance humanists and arguing that it was deployed not as “primarily a scientific term, but rather a battle-cry, ‘a denunciation of the mediaeval conception of the world, of the mediaeval attitude toward life, and of the culture of the Middle Ages” [sic] (259). At least a part of the section quoted seems attributed to Lucie Varga by Mommsen, though the missing close quote is in the original article, so distinguishing paraphrase from quote is difficult; he gives this citation information in his first footnote: “L. Varga, Das Schlagwort vom ‘finsteren Mittelalter’ (Vienna-Leipzig, 1932).” Sabine Sielke has analyzed the origins and development of feminist activism in the United States. Sielke has explored the ways in which feminist constructions of rape have operated in regard to the intersectional constructions of identity in terms of nationality, ethnicity and race, and sexuality as well as gender. Zan Romanoff has written a brilliant analysis of the problematic nature of the marketing campaign which compares Griffith’s work to Martin’s, noting that it is useful to get people to read the novel, but “the best thing about Hild is that it’s nothing like Game of Thrones, and that, in fact, it succeeds in telling human stories —as it happens, women’s human stories —in a historical world in a way that Game of Thrones resolutely does not” (paragraph 4). Griffith noted her own misconceptions about seventh-century Britain and women’s lives in an interview at the Paris Review Blog; see Carroll. Spongberg, “History, Fiction, and Anachronism,” and Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel. Price, “Romantic Women Writers and the Fictions of History,” 259. It seems useful to note that the present perception of progress is not always accurate and may be serving the dominant political group’s interest. Griffith acknowledges the ways in which Hild is an “exceptional woman” for her time, but also notes that despite her “singularity … despite her elite status, in terms of class and ethnicity, she still has to operate within certain [cultural] constraints. So, for example, as a woman she can’t use a sword; she has to find another way to lead in a warrior culture.” Bond, “Nicola Griffith Discusses ‘Hild,’ The Girl Who Would be Saint.” Medieval Sourcebook: Bede (673735): Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Griffith, “Hild: the Roundup of Roundups.” Luhrs, “Historical Fiction and Nicola Griffith’s Hild.”

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17. Griffith, “Hild and Cromwell.” The fact that the novel is part of a yetuncompleted trilogy means that any interpretive claims must be limited, its striking success and reception makes it worth considering even though Hild’s story is not yet complete. 18. Fox, “Griffith: Hild” and Miller, “Hild by Nicola Griffith.” 19. Narfna, “Dark Ages Lady Fiction, A+, yes, Please” and Raets, “Hild by Nicola Griffith.” 20. El-Mohtar, “With Nuanced Beauty, ‘Hild’ Destroys Myths Of Medieval Womanhood,” Harrow, “Hild: A Novel by Nicola Griffith,” Luhrs, “Historical Fiction and Nicola Griffith’s Hild,” Newitz, “Hild and the Triumph of the Skeptical Fantasy Novel,” Romanoff, “On Hild, Female Readers of Genre Fiction, and Not Being Game of Thrones,” and Shawl, “‘Hild’: Beauty, Danger, and Prophecy in 7th-Century Britain.” 21. Monographs by Lisa Kasmer and Diana Wallace cover the tradition of British women writing history during the periods of 1760–1830 and 1900–2000. While the historical novel is not limited to British women—A History of Women’s Writing in Italy, edited by Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood, is an excellent collection of essays on the work done by women in Italy in non-fiction and fictional genres—given the setting for Hild as well as Griffith’s own ties to Whitby, it seems appropriate focus on the tradition of British women’s historical writing although a comparative study would be fascinating to develop at a later time. 22. Griffith, “Most Heinous Use of an Historical Character (So Far).” Griffith discusses the “unconscionable liberties [she took] with a well-known historical character,” specifically Saint Fursey, or Fursa, who becomes Hild’s tutor after being taken hostage (paragraph 1). 23. Margaronis, “The Anxiety of Authenticity,” 139. 24. Ibid. 25. Ibid.,140. 26. The theoretical concept of intersectionality is a relatively recent one, growing out of Black feminism and the Civil Rights Movement. Kyoo Lee has argued that while the concept grows from the history of interlocking oppressions African American women have experienced, the goal includes informing social justice projects by non–African Americans. Lee, “Rethinking with Patricia Hill Collins: A Note Toward Intersectionality as Interlocutory Interstitiality.” 27. A recent post during the writing of this paper was a discussion about the establishment of Hild’s first religious foundation, complete with footnotes. Griffith, “Hild’s First Religious Foundation.”


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28. Griffith, Hild, 538. 29. Polack, “Novelists and Their History,” 3. 30. Tolmie, “Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine.” Tolmie considered parallels between contemporary fantasy novels and medieval romances in the similar construction of the “exceptional woman” trope. According to Tolmie, no matter the power of the strong and exceptional women in the medieval romance, the culture around them is not changed. Tolmie notes the contemporary authors work in a “post-Tolkien era” in which fantasy is strongly related to medievalisms, enormous, and foundational. Narrative conventions include “motifs of rape, domestic abuse, forced marriage, and other forms of gender-based oppression and violence” (147). The problem, as Tolmie notes, that “in most cases writer rely on popularly disseminated ideas about the medieval period. Many of these ideas call to mind Claire Sponsler’s regret that ‘the Middle Ages are so often understood to have been shaped by a monolithic and homogenizing patriarchal regime that predates modern constructions of sexuality and otherness’.” See Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, 26. 31. Griffith, Hild, 16. All subsequent quotations from the novel are indicated by page number in the text. 32. Attribution online: “Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.” See Dickson, “A Woman’s Worst Nightmare.” 33. Griffith, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.” 34. Chura, “Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmett Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird,” 2. Chura analyzed Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, arguing that the multiple anachronisms in the novel, written in the 1950s but set in the 1930s, result in a work that is more representative of the sociohistorical period of the early civil rights movement and that the novel “is best understood as an amalgam or cross-historical montage, its ‘historical present’ diluted by the influence of events and ideology concurrent with its period of production” (1). His comparison of the fictional trial of Tom Robinson and the murder of Emmett Till and the subsequent trial of the white men who killed him are embedded in a strong theoretical claim that is applicable to historical novels in general: “the historical event or ‘text’ as it appears in fiction necessarily presents a highly subjectivized version of history, governed as that presentation unavoidably is by principles of selection and interpretation either con-

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35. 36.

37. 38.

39. 40.

41. 42. 43. 44.


sciously or unconsciously at work in the author, but never completely absent” (22–23). Stocker, “‘Bygonese’--Is This Really the Authentic Language of Historical Fiction?” 309. The complexities of the narrative language and diction in Hild require a project dedicated solely to it. As Griffith notes, the “Britain of Hild’s time was a seriously multiethnic, multilingual place. She would have heard Old English of West Germanic origin (what she called Anglisc), a variety of Brythonic Celtic dialects (British), Ecclesiastical Latin (Latin) and Old Irish (Irish). Griffith, “The Language of Hild.” A good overview of the development of social history can be read athttp:// Griffith, “Hild and her gemæcce.” The book Griffith cites is Penelope Walton Rogers’ Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700, and the information in Rogers’ book played a major part in one of the aspects of the novel that is highly praised by most reviewers: the importance of women’s work in producing cloth which is shown directly in the narrative and is one of Hild’s metaphors for her visions. It was also the impetus for creating the idea of a formal (and even political) relationship between women that is a major part of Hild’s, and other women’s, lives. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages, esp. 222–233, Drout, “The Influence of J. R. R. Tolkien's Masculine Medievalism,” and Kaufman, “Medieval Unmoored,” 4. Bartlett states, “the medieval terminology of race and ethnicity was no more straightforward than our own. Some of the key terms of medieval Latin usage, such as gens and natio, imply, etymologically, a concept of races as descent groups. Others, such as populus, do not. The actual semantic field of such terms can only be mapped by detailed investigation of individual usage.” Bartlett, “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity,” 42. “Exclusive Interview with Nicola Griffith,” paragraph 14. Griffith, Hild, 90. Luhrs, “Historical fiction and Nicola Griffith’s Hild,” paragraph 1. El-Mohtar. “With Nuanced Beauty, ‘Hild’ Destroys Myths of Medieval Womanhood,” paragraph 8.

Chapter 5

Reinventing the Past in European Neo-medieval Music Alana Bennett

Fantastical creatures twirl and dance on the stage, a deep tremolo builds from the orchestra, echoed by the pulsing from two enormous drum racks. A chariot drawn by four black horses enters, stage right. Driving it is a figure clad in Roman leather breastplate, plumed helm, and pteruges. Five men in gold and black robes alight from the chariot and, holding their bagpipes, take their places on the stage, while a choir of white-robed figures with hoods and long liripipes files in around them. This is the opening of “Cantus Buranus”—the epic opera of the Carmina Burana— and Corvus Corax are about to transport their audience to a completely new Middle Ages.1 The past few decades have seen a renewal of interest in the Middle Ages. Medievalist fantasy fiction fills bookshelves and screens, and


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historical fiction too has reached new audiences. Across Europe, a steadily growing scene of alternative music festivals, reenactment events and medieval markets is also testament to people’s fascination with the past, and within this scene has developed a new subgenre of music which adopts elements from Early Music, folk music, metal, and every style in between. This subgenre is neo-medieval music, in which musicians do not strive to create an authentic medieval sound but instead claim the Middle Ages as their own, updating and deconstructing the music and instruments of the past to create a new and unique sound.2 Alongside the reinvented medieval sound, bands often adopt historically inspired clothing and stage decorations and use medieval literature to provide musical material and inspire their performances. This music, as well as the historical settings in which it is commonly heard, attracts a diverse mix of people from historical reenactors to fantasy role-players, minstrels to pagans to goths. This chapter will examine various forms of neo-medieval music and the ways in which its different styles reinvent the Middle Ages, providing a survey of this little-studied subgenre and a basis for further investigation. Many historical festivals and medieval markets are roughly congruent with the American Renaissance Fair, with its eclectic fusion of history, fantasy and invention. For attendees of the Renaissance Fairs, the Middle Ages and Renaissance are times of romanticized chivalry, courtly virtues, and artistic freedom. The world of the Renaissance Fair is a modern makebelieve and an escape from the mundane world into the constructed authenticity of “histotainment.” For European musicians and reenactors, the past is more tangible. The Middle Ages is a perceptible presence which has left its marks on cities and landscapes as well as on European cultural identities. There is no need to construct a fantastical Middle Ages, a distant memory of a European heritage —the memory is preserved in the living cultural traditions. Neo-medieval music is in many ways a continuation of the past, keeping alive traditions, instruments and music, albeit in a form that concedes to modern tastes.

European Neo-medieval Music


Early Music and the Roots of Neo-medieval Music The Early Music revival, beginning in the 1950s, lies at the foundation of neo-medieval music. Although music from and inspired by the Middle Ages has been played practically since the Middle Ages ended, the Early Music revival sought to provide training and methodologies to accurately play historical material. An offshoot of Classical musical training, Early Music advocated the playing of historically accurate instruments in appropriate performance spaces and approached historical material with rigorous study and training to create an “authentic” performance.3 All too often, however, authenticity simply meant creating a different interpretation from the previous generation of Early Music practitioners.4 This fraught term has now been replaced with “Historically Informed Performance” (HIP). Whilst many neo-medieval musicians have a basis in HIP and Early Music, most are trained in other genres or have no formal training at all. Thus, neo-medieval music is rich with a variety of interpretations, arrangements, and styles and creates its own version of authenticity entirely. Modern neo-medieval music is not just playing medieval music in a post-medieval manner. All medieval music played by musicians since the end of the Middle Ages could be called “neo-medieval” in that sense. Modern neo-medieval music first emerged as a specific style in the early 1970s, with groups like Gryphon and Ougenweide, along with other folk bands adding to the popularity of reinvented traditional music from Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Alan Stivell, and Tri Yann. This new sound filtered into the mainstream too, influencing neofolk and progressive rock bands, resulting in songs like Jethro Tull’s “Broadsword” or Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, both of which describe Norse raids. The Australian group Dead Can Dance added to the worldwide popularity of the folk style influenced by the Middle Ages. However, it was not until the late 1980s that neo-medieval music established itself as a distinct and thriving subgenre. Although not the first band on the scene, Corvus Corax are widely regarded as the pioneers of the neo-medieval subgenre.


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New bands were quick to join this trend throughout the 1990s in Western Europe, which saw the genesis of Garmarna, Subway to Sally, Qntal, In Extremo, Omnia, Schandmaul, Schelmish, and Gåte. This era also saw the emergence of bands which combined folk music and historical themes with metal. Bands such as Cruachan, Korpiklaani, Ensiferum, Turisas, Finntroll, and Týr created yet another new sound for the past. Each of these subgenres—indeed each band—creates its own Middle Ages through its interpretations of historical material, its blend of history, folk, and fantasy, its dress and stage decorations. Moreover, each style in the subgenre brings certain audience expectations over from its parent style, influencing how bands depict and adopt the Middle Ages. The folk background of many musicians creates a more generalized sound for the Middle Ages, which blends European folk music freely with earlier material. Modern neo-medieval music and, in particular, the neo-medieval tradition that began anew in the late 1980s, specifically reclaims and reinvents the medieval past. Authenticity does not constrain interpretations of the material and bands allude to the Middle Ages of the popular imagination as much as the Middle Ages of historical fact. Deprived of its context, medieval music becomes emblematic of the notion of the past as a whole. For example, in their “Cantus Buranus” Corvus Corax happily mix these eleventh- to thirteenth-century songs with a modern symphony orchestra and costumes that range from Roman centurions, to pirate captains, to whitewashed monks and fantastical garments.5 In a similar way, Viking and Celtic metal bands claim to evoke an older past yet commandeer such disparate elements as thirteenth-century texts, nineteenth-century “traditional” melodies, modern guitars and percussion, medieval instruments, and clothing inspired by fantasy as much as history. Although their pastiche of the past is not strictly medieval in the eyes of a historian, their treatment of the past differs very little from other truly neo-medieval music, and indeed, is played within the same subculture, and hence will be discussed alongside it.

European Neo-medieval Music


Neo-medieval music is in many ways a neomedievalist deconstruction of the past; according to Harry Brown’s definition: “neomedievalism severs itself from history, often with conscious irony and anachronism, producing works refracted through the lenses of previous medievalism rather than rooted in a real sense of the Middle Ages.”6 Unlike pure neomedievalism, however, neo-medieval music is inspired by a keen sense of nostalgia. Musicians are brought to their repertoires by a desire to reconnect with their cultural heritage. As Francesca Nicoli, vocalist of Ataraxia, described in an interview with Gothic magazine: We feel enormous fascination for the past, especially for the period between the Greek antiquity and the Baroque. We can almost claim to have lived through this period of history in our earlier lives. Many memories have slowly risen to the surface, and we only need to nudge our subconsciousness, to strengthen it. With our music and our lyrics, we attack the ether of the past.7 Music is a way for people to enact the past, both by connecting on a personal level to their cultural heritage by engaging with its historical remnants, and by, in turn, creating a vision of the past in the minds of the listeners. But why does this heritage so often correspond to the Middle Ages? Medieval music is old enough to sound foreign, yet not so old as to be impossible to reconstruct. The sparse notation and uncertainties about arrangements, playing styles and instruments necessitate creativity on the part of musicians reconstructing medieval music. For neo-medieval musicians it is a small step to fill these gaps with modern instrumentation and material. Umberto Eco notes that—just like its music—the Middle Ages as a whole must be constantly reconstructed and it is the prospect of this “utilitarian bricolage”8 that makes the period so appealing. Furthermore, the pervasiveness of Tolkienian fantasy establishes the Middle Ages as a blueprint for the European national identities of popular culture and, combined with Victorian medievalism, has embedded an image of the romanticized Middle Ages of wandering minstrels, noble ladies


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and valiant knights into the European cultural consciousness.9 These romanticized constructions of the past dominate the popular conception of the Middle Ages and are given further life in neo-medieval music. In its reshaping of the musical material, neo-medieval music deliberately panders to modern popular tastes. If the Early Music movement focuses on refined, technical playing of highly skillful and predominantly courtly pieces, then neo-medieval music favors a style more like the peasant bransle—joyfully unrefined, simple music for the community. Early Music introduces the listener to new modes, new tunings, strange timbres, and often peculiar melodies. Neo-medieval music is a bridge that spans the gap between medieval and modern, delighting in the unusual sounds whilst making them more familiar and more accessible to the modern ear and hence simultaneously educating and entertaining the listener.

Fur, Blood and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Medieval and Folk Metal Of the styles of neo-medieval music discussed, folk metal has previously attracted the most scholarly attention. With its love of fur, alcohol and war, folk metal reconstructs a brutal, heathen past. To folk metal, the medieval era is the time of the warrior. The warrior stands apart and belongs to a strong, specifically masculine, brotherhood of arms. Many bands are drawn particularly to the Viking Age, with its bloodthirsty battle and raiding culture. No doubt this love of romanticized Norse culture is also due in part to the predominantly Scandinavian metal scene. The Viking in the popular imagination is a figure of excess: of freedom, unrepressed paganism, and unrestrained violence; clad in furs, leather, and armor; with hands occupied with either an ax or a brim-full drinking horn. Simon Trafford and Aleks Pluskowski suggested reasons why metal musicians are drawn to these “hyper-masculine” figures: Vikings are “the greatest sailors, the hardiest warriors, the biggest eaters and drinkers, the tallest and toughest men and so on. There is simply something about them that attracts superlatives.” 10 Metal, a genre of musical excess, is a natural partner for the brutal Norse warrior of popular culture.

European Neo-medieval Music


These (early) medievalist bands evoke the past in three main ways: playing historical or traditional material; writing songs inspired by history; and wearing historically inspired costumes. Metal as a genre relies on modern instrumentation and arrangements and hence the first method is the least common. Celtic metal band Cruachan update traditional Irish melodies (“Brian Boru”, “The Butterfly”) by combining acoustic instruments (whistle, bouzouki, harp) with electric guitars, keyboards, and metal drumming. Swiss group Eluveitie also draw on a variety of traditional melodies (particularly on their album “Evocation I: The Arcane Dominion”). Overall, folk metal tends to favor originality, structuring songs around short folky melodic riffs rather than updating traditional material. Bands that do adopt historical material do so to become closer to their musical exemplars or their cultural heritage. However, the combination of historical and traditional folk material with modern metal arrangements generalizes the sounds of the past. Relatively recent traditional tunes become culturally linked to the Middle Ages for the listening public and the sounds of medieval music becomes lost amidst traditional Celtic tunes and modern romantic ballads. The second use of the past sees bands continuously re-framing formulaic descriptions of fantastical medieval culture. Many songs are preoccupied with battle culture, as can be seen from their titles: Ensiferum’s “In my sword I trust” and “Into Battle”, Turisas’ “Battle Metal” and “Stand up and fight” or Eluveitie’s “Meet the Enemy” and “The Uprising”. The lyrics are rife with themes of bravery, glory in death, manly courage and the pagan afterlife. Swords and implements of war become almost fetishized, particularly by the Finnish band Ensiferum (the name itself means ‘swordbearing’): “In my sword I trust”, “Iron”, “Ferrum Aeternum”, “Raised by the Sword”. And after the war is won, there are folk metal songs for victory (Finntroll’s “Segersång” (Victory Song), Ensiferum’s “Victory Song” and “Ad Victoriam”) and the ensuing hard drinking (folk/party metal band Korpiklaani can offer “Tequila”, “Vodka” and “Beer Beer”). Folk metal is very much focused on the stereotypes of warrior culture: drinking, death and battle implements. The past becomes a sum of its


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emblematic objects—swords, shields, longships, drinking horns—recontextualized in a generic modern Middle Ages. The historically inspired costumes of folk metal bands are similarly stereotyped. Although horned helmets are a rare sight, folk metal bands embrace the image of the shaggy, barbaric warriors of popular culture by wearing fur, leather, assorted pieces of armor and body paint. Turisas take this look to an extreme with black stripes of face paint and liberal quantities of fake blood. A less-common sight is the mascot of Western Australian Viking metal band Wrath of Fenrir dressed in reenactment-standard Norse garb complete with chainmail, tunic, wickelbander, and Jorvik-style boots (although the look was spoiled by the addition of face paint and a coyote pelt), alternately waving a raven banner and a drinking horn. Some bands are more subtle with their historically inspired costuming, such as the kilts worn by Ensiferum. Even bands that retain modern dress on stage embrace alternative styles and historic aesthetics, particularly long hair, beards, and historically inspired jewelry. Historically inspired dress creates a deliberate visual link between bands and their cultural ancestors. Bands generally adopt one or two of the above methods, but it is rare to find all three together. This is partly because of the inescapable modernity of metal music and partly because too much historical excess swiftly passes into burlesque. Faroese metal band Týr sing traditional Danish and Faroese ballads accompanied by modern metal instrumentation (for example “Regin Smiður” or “Ólavur Riddararós”). They compose music inspired by Norse paganism and the heroic, mythologized past and also wear historically inspired outfits in promotional photos and in some stage appearances.11 For some folk music projects, historical reinterpretation is their underlying purpose. In their concept album Helvetios, the Swiss folk metal band Eluveitie retell the history of the Helvetians—a Gallic tribe who lived in what is now Switzerland—and their conflicts with the Romans throughout the Gallic Wars.12 The songs as well as the CD booklet

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follow the narrative of struggle and loss, featuring lavish depictions of Celtic landscapes, reenactors in Celtic dress, fire-and-battle imagery. The band’s frontman Chrigel Glanzmann explains, “there was a lot of reading between the lines in the historical literature, a lot of questioning, and quite a bit of scientific work—we tried to paint a picture of the story as it really would have been.”13 Although this example is not medieval, it clearly demonstrates neo-medieval music’s tendency to thrive in the gaps of history, to create a voice for those silenced by the Roman Empire or the Church and to claim to restore the “correct” version of the past by liberally combining historical facts with modern invention. It is an idea of the past as it should have been that is valued, not the past as it really was. Folk metal is often driven by the desire to make heard dissenting voices to the grand narratives of history. Ultimately, it is the aesthetics and the glorified tales of the past, rather than its sounds, that appeal to folk metal musicians. The Middle Ages of folk metal is a reconstruction of a reconstruction—a neomedievalist pastiche which radically recontextualizes texts, figures, and images of the early medieval and particularly Norse culture.

The Minstrel is King: Market Music and Neo-medieval Folk Music The major output of the renewed medievalist interest in the music of the past has been a close-knit group of bands, festivals, and reenactment events restaging the past for an audience. Music at these events is aimed at repackaging the sounds, instruments, and texts of the Middle Ages into a form accessible and enjoyable to a modern audience. They range in accuracy from living history standard to a romanticized pastiche of history and fantasy. If the prime figure of the Middle Ages for metal music is the warrior, then for neo-medieval folk the minstrel is the champion. The warrior embodies the metal values of masculinity, freedom, and chaos, and for neo-medieval folk the romanticized minstrel represents poetic sensitivity, delicate artistry, freedom of movement and speech, and


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the aesthetic pleasure of music. Romances of the Middle Ages perpetuated the mythology of the minstrel—an alluring figure who can enchant with music, can move hearts and minds, and cause frenzy and calm madness.14 Although some written notation preserves the music of the Middle Ages, romances, popular culture, and surviving oral folk traditions suggest that minstrels would freely interpret and improvise on songs with each performance. In reality, this improvisation operated within a prescribed set of rules.15 Knowledge of medieval music is limited such that in this subgenre the minstrel is synecdochically assumed to stand for the entirety of medieval music, thus justifying creative interpretations of Early Music. The minstrel is seen as a romanticized figure of freedom and irrationality: the wandering musician who can roam the land freely, playing songs to entertain the populace. In the same way that the warrior is “freed” by their exclusive membership to a brotherhood of arms, so the minstrel’s itinerant existence frees them from social classification and constraints. Corvus Corax, in particular, justify their rock-androll interpretations of medieval material by claiming to re-interpret the music “as the medieval minstrels would also have done” with the only constraints being the musical possibilities of the instruments.16 Unfortunately for these justifications, the reality of minstrelsy was far removed from the sentimental fiction. Minstrels were considered the lowest of the low—exempt from social classification only in the sense that there was nowhere lower to go. Furthermore, the wandering minstrel is pure invention: whilst they certainly travelled, they had a specific destination and they were usually employed as household musicians for feasts and celebrations. The troubadours and trouvères of France fared better than their English counterparts but were still far from the minstrel of popular culture.17 There are a number of different styles within this facet of neo-medieval music, determined primarily by the context for which the music is created and the musical backgrounds of the performers: acoustic medieval folk or market music, bagpipe bands, and neo-medieval folk music. Neo-

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medieval music can be heard at markets or at festivals held throughout Europe, including Castlefest, the Elf Fantasy Fair, Keltfest, Summer Darkness (all in the Netherlands), Wave-Gotik-Treffen, M’era Luna Festival, Mittelalterlich Phantasie Spectaculum (MPS) (all in Germany) and Festival-Mediaval (Selb). These festivals bring together a larger subculture of those with an interest in the aesthetic return to the past—historical reenactors, Goths, Steampunks, Live Action Role Players (LARPers), belly dancers, jugglers, fire performers, pagans, environmentalists, and geeks of every variety. Reenactment events and smaller festivals, especially in the German Mittelaltermarkt (medieval market) circuit attract bands playing acoustic medieval folk or Marktmusik (market music). Instead of attempting to accurately re-create the sound of the Middle Ages, market bands create a generalized sound for the past which makes medieval music accessible without sacrificing perceived authenticity. Subtle modern elements are introduced to make the material sound less foreign. The strange timbres of authentic medieval instruments are tempered by the use of folk instruments. Modern Celtic or lever harps replace the twang of the medieval bray harp. Smallpipes often stand in for the boisterous tone of larger medieval bagpipes and are also more suitable for accompanying other acoustic instruments. Although the vielle or rebec is used more commonly than the violin, modern violin tuning is retained rather than period tunings, such as those described in Jerome of Moravia’s Tractatus de Musica.18 This may be because the drone-heavy style of playing the fivestringed vielle clashes with the modern harmonies that tend to be used in arrangements. Vocal harmonies are often particularly modern, although many are limited to parallel fourths or fifths that sound “early” or “old” to the ear. The most notable modification to the medieval material is the emphasis on percussion. Percussionists draw on a variety of percussion traditions and techniques—from the modern drum kit to Middle Eastern or African drumming. The percussion provides a familiar sound and a means for the modern ear, accustomed to popular music (and therefore dance rhythms), to access medieval tunes. For example, the drummers


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of medieval reenactment musicians Rough Musicke use their samba training to draw in the listener with their “raucous percussion.”19 For the untrained modern ear, the use of traditional instruments is enough to signal a return to the music of the past and the use of percussion generates interest and makes medieval tunes more engaging. Market bands typically limit their repertoire to traditional and medieval music. Dance music (surviving from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), with its upbeat tempo emphasized by the percussion section, is particularly popular, and joining in with the dancing gives the audience a means to connect with the music. The most popular medieval music for reinterpreting comes from a limited selection of texts, notably the Cantigas de Santa Maria, the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, and the Carmina Burana. Those bands that do also play folk melodies retain their medieval sound when doing so. Danish band Virelai play medieval dance tunes alongside ancient Scandinavian tunes. They also sing Scandinavian children’s songs, for example “Ulv, raev, hare”, which can be traced back to the medieval Occitan tune “Ai vis lo lop.” Other bands, such as Percival (interestingly, the side project of folk metal band Percival Schuttenbach), attempt to re-create lost music of early cultures appropriate for a reenactment setting. Their new Viking music uses folk instruments and simple tunes to create a modern impression of the sounds of ancient music in a form appealing to modern listeners.20 Being an important part of living history and reenactment, market music is as much for education as it is for entertainment and performers tend to wear period clothing of a reasonable standard. Although the accuracy of the music and dress may vary as much as the accuracy of the events, market bands create a simplified version of the past to suit the setting and the expectations of a nonexpert audience. A more extreme offshoot of acoustic medieval folk are bagpipe bands —the hairier, barbaric cousin of military pipe and drum bands. Bagpipe bands play raucous and upbeat arrangements of medieval and traditional music with multiple bagpipe players and percussionists (often supple-

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mented by smaller reed instruments or boisterous string instruments like the hurdy gurdy or bouzouki) and are inspired by a creative mixture of history and fantasy. The percussion section provides variety and, to an even greater degree than market music, provides a rhythmic drive and hook to appeal to the ears of a modern listener. Their appearance as well as their music tends to the extremes favored by folk and medieval metal bands, with fantastical costumes that visually unite the ensemble.21 Smaller groups like Mermicolión, Cornalusa, Fafnir, or Les Compagnons du Gras Jambon will often be seen in vibrantly colored matching tunics or kirtles (particolored, or with contrasting gores). Larger groups like Corvus Corax or Cultus Ferox wear loincloths or kilts, leather and metallic (usually bronze) ornaments, pointy-toed shoes, and often add assorted pieces of armor (usually pauldrons/spaulders or vambraces). Market music and bagpipe bands create a sanitized version of the Middle Ages to accompany the medievalist settings of markets or historical festivals. The illusion of authenticity is maintained by the use of unusual instruments, historical costumes, and foreign texts and music, familiarized by the influence of folk traditions, arrangements, and the emphasis on percussion. Market music and bagpipe bands are designed to engage an interested but inexpert audience and promote the music and culture of the (modernized) Middle Ages as a way to experience the past. This is music for engagement, participation, entertainment, and for education. Finally, neo-medieval folk bands take the most liberties with their historic material, aiming to create an illusion of the romanticized past rather than an accurate depiction of medieval musical practices. These bands combine the influences of folk music with original material and more modern instruments, creating new music for the Middle Ages by setting surviving texts to music, radically reinterpreting extant music and musically retelling myths of the past. Neo-medieval folk tends to focus on stories and themes of the past, with the Middle Ages providing a setting for the arcane and the legendary. The Classical Age may provide the foundation for Western mythology, but it


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is in the Middle Ages—that bastion of irrationality, magic, (underground) heathenism, superstition and marvels—that one can imagine mythic creatures walking the earth. This romanticized, pre-Raphaelite-esque ideal for neo-medieval folk attracts the various influences of paganism, the New Age movement, and modern fantasy fiction. Whilst neo-medieval folk does re-interpret surviving music from the Middle Ages, a large proportion of this style of music consists of setting medieval texts to music and literature becomes the primary means of accessing the past. Oliver “Sa Tyr” Pade, frontman of the self-described “medieval pagan folk” band Faun, explains the appeal of the texts of the past: Although many details of the stories [of medieval stories] have changed over time due to its oral tradition, we enjoy diving in the adventurous world of ballads, being surrounded by dragons, heroes and trolls and wandering on enchanted paths. For us, it was ballads that awoke the desire to follow the way of the troubadours [sic]. 22 Similarly, the old languages of medieval texts provide a focal point for studying the past and reinterpreting it through music, as Michael Popp of Qntal describes: Latin and Middle High German are gateways to a past and hidden world that seems new to us today. Many people travel to Africa or to other cultures to gather new knowledge and experiences in a culture that is foreign to them. With our music style, we make a comparable discovery trip to the Middle Ages.23 Music provides a vehicle for the texts of the past to be given new life and allows musicians and audiences a snapshot of the medieval mindset preserved in writing. Comments such as these reflect the continuities and discontinuities inherent in neo-medieval folk. On one hand, the musicians set themselves up as successors of medieval musical culture and literature. On the other, in order to access this culture, bands must research, experiment, and remake the past.

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Along with the texts of the past, neo-medieval bands often use period instruments such as the hurdy gurdy, harp, nyckelharpa, recorder, shawm, and bagpipes. They also substitute folk instruments to add variation to the sound—such as the bouzouki or mandolin instead of a guitar. Violins are also used, and are commonly played with Scandinavian or Celtic fiddle techniques. As with the other styles of reinvented medieval music, percussion plays a prominent part in arrangements. Bands such as Qntal and Valravn (and, to a lesser extent, Asynje) even use electronic samples and soundscapes to modernize their medieval and traditional material further. Faun combines the electronic beats and samples of Niel Mitra with the virtuosic percussion playing of Rüdiger Maul, who plays in Middle Eastern, East Asian, Caribbean, African, and modern Western styles.24 Even though neo-medieval music does not concern itself with accuracy overmuch, in the context of these medievalist events, too often the illusion is taken as reality—medievalism becomes the medieval. This impression is supported by the need for bands to demonstrate scholarship undertaken, firstly, to access the music of the past and, secondly, to justify their interpretations. The Middle Ages is something that must be constantly renegotiated and improved upon—harkening back to Eco’s concept of “utilitarian bricolage.”25 In order to justify this reshaping, bands are eager to share stories of trawling through archives or perusing original documents in order to add to the “authenticity” of the music and thus their justified right to the Middle Ages. Omnia frontman Steven Evans-van der Harten described long hours of researching ancient music in the Utrecht University Library and studying with an Italian ethnomusicologist to re-create lost Iron Age music to a reenactment standard for the Dutch historical theme park Archeon.26 This research provided the foundation for the band’s new style of “neo-Celtic pagan folk,” influenced by folk and medieval music. Corvus Corax provide a detailed rationale for their interpretations of medieval material, describing the collections of extant melodies they have studied (such as the Carmina Burana, Manesse Codex, and Lochamer-Liederbuch) in support of their claims of authenticity. However, it becomes apparent that these melodies have been accessed


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through the lens of nineteenth-century scholarship, which certainly explains the band’s romanticized treatment of minstrelsy and limited use of medieval musical theory.27 Research often focuses on a perceived fault with the Middle Ages that must be corrected or a gap in the historical record. For Corvus Corax, this is the lost sound of secular minstrelsy. Their website proclaims: Worldly songs and dances were suppressed in official reports, historiography and in the music theory. The power of the Catholic Church and the Popes had even begun to expand the idea of a “Universitas Christiania” -a Christian world order - should be carried out … The music of the people was deleted from the chants, smoothed or changed in such a way that any worldly origin perhaps of a dance - was to be marked to them no longer directly.28 Thus, they create a counter-religious discourse for the past, emphasizing the creative irrationality of secular song to justify their reinterpretations of medieval music. Regardless of whether the research ultimately improved the authenticity of the music, by emphasizing the scholarly foundations of their musical output and inventing an intuitive connection between themselves and the medieval minstrels, bands represent themselves as guardians of the lost truth of the past, thus creating for themselves a new kind of authenticity. This tactic is all too effective, as this review of Corvus Corax’s CD Gimlie confirms: “this basically sounds like what anyone would imagine Medieval music to sound, regardless if that is what actual Medieval music sounded like or not. They certainly have studied this subject though, so I think it is safe to assume it is fairly accurate.”29 This is a worrying reminder to anyone who has experienced a historically informed performance that authenticity is subjective and that the past can be manipulated to suit the wishes of the present.

European Neo-medieval Music


Conclusions In order to understand neo-medieval music fully, it is important to situate it in relation to other medievalisms, such as a wider cultural fondness for the Middle Ages both as history and as fantasy. Neo-medieval folk music occupies a particular place in a market of historical tourism and “histotainment.” The historical sounds evoke an image of the lost past in the minds of the listener. Unlike the other senses, sound is particularly effective at inducing affective responses. By emotionally engaging an audience with the Middle Ages, neo-medieval music aims to inspire interest in the past and encourage participation in the wider medievalist and fantasy subculture. Music and sounds are ephemeral and only have true life in their moments of performance. This transience also alerts the listener to the temporal separation of the past, and this nostalgia inherent in neo-medieval music fuels the creation of further medievalist content. Yet neo-medieval music is not just about creating a simulacrum of the past. It is also a reaction to the Early Music revival, a conscious move away from accuracy and Historically Informed Performance. Ultimately, there can never be an accurate re-creation of the music of the Middle Ages; one can merely attempt to reconstruct it based on surviving evidence. Early Music and HIP strive to achieve accuracy in spite of this inescapable fact. Neo-medieval music, in contrast, deliberately explores beyond the bounds of historical accuracy, and its blend of medieval and modern is a useful reminder that even the most historically informed performance will never be truly accurate. Authenticity is a façade, based on subjective opinion rather than objective reality. Thus, as John Haines comments, “medieval music is its reception” for it can never truly be re-created now that the Middle Ages have passed.30 Neo-medieval music revels in this lack of certainty and creates the music of a new Middle Ages for today. It is history as one chooses to make it, a narrative of brave warriors, wandering minstrels, glorious deeds in battle, with all the comforts of modern instruments and arrangements. The Middle Ages


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is a source of inspiration as well as material, and musicians promote a deeper aesthetical appreciation of the past. One may well ask why have so many bands chosen to re-create the music of the Middle Ages in particular? What is it about this period of the past that is so attractive to the modern age? Medieval culture forms the foundation of modern fantasy fiction, and fantasy in turn provides the basis for the countercultures that are united in their attraction to neo-medieval music. The Middle Ages represents a time of pure and immediate experience, and, in the grand progressive narrative of history, humanity is in its post-Classical infancy. Hence, the medieval past is easily adapted to suit the purposes of the reconstructor. Neo-medieval musicians can present their medieval material to further particular beliefs, such as favoring underground paganism against the oppressive church, or idolizing the masculine prowess of the Viking warrior as a means to strengthen their own cultural heritage and identity as a Scandinavian. In turn, bands look to modern ideas of the Middle Ages to provide the justification for their treatments of the past, attempting to re-create lost performances of an oral poet, or to uncover music supposedly repressed by zealous piety. The medieval is something to be improved upon so that it can adhere to the Middle Ages of the popular imagination. Modern scholarship may shape the Middle Ages as an Other to the civilized, technologized, globalized present; however, neo-medieval music seeks to constructively reunite the medieval with the modern. Although it does so with a compromised sense of the medieval, it is surely a Middle Ages for today, showing the influence of intervening medievalisms and owing as much to modern musical traditions as it does to the music of the past. Neo-medieval music retains a strong sense of nostalgia for the past and reinforces romanticized stereotypes such as the wandering minstrel or the barbaric warrior in order to give the Middle Ages wider appeal to a popular audience. It retells stories of valiant deeds in battle, maidens rescued from danger, heroic brothers-in-arms, and encounters with fairies. The combination of historical material with modern influences

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blends scholarship, fantasy and pure invention. Neo-medieval music evokes an image of the past of one’s imagination, drawing on elements from Classical culture through to Victorian medievalism and modern fantasy fiction, yet the result of this pastiche of history is an illusion that is recognizable and unquestionably medieval.


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Notes 1. A full version of the concert has been made available online: MaciejZwanyCiastkiem, Corvus Corax – Cantus Buranus (Full Live Performance). 2. The term neo-medieval is not meant to imply a specific connection between this style of music and the theoretical construct of neomedievalism. Rather, the term acknowledges that the musical material is medieval in origin but has been updated and renewed. The relationship between neo-medieval music and neomedievalism will be addressed later in this chapter. For discussion of terminology of neomedievalism, see Brown, “Baphomet Incorporated: A Case Study in Neomedievalism”, 1–10 and Marshall, “Neomedievalism, Identification, and the Haze of Medievalism”, 21–34. 3. See, for example, Bowan, “R.G. Collingwood, Historical Reenactment and the Early Music Revival”, 134–158, and Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music. 4. Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music. 5. MaciejZwanyCiastkiem, Corvus Corax – Cantus Buranus (Full Live Performance) 6. Brown. “Baphomet Incorporated: a Case Study in Neomedievalism,” 1. 7. Original German quote appears in Gothic: Magazine for Underground Culture 21 (n.d.): 40 translated in Jerrentrup. “Gothic and Dark Music: Forms and Background”, 39–40. 8. Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, 67. 9. As Patrick Geary observes, the Middle Ages is central to political discourse and national identities throughout Europe and in the United States. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe, 6–14. 10. Trafford and Pluskowski, “Antichrist Superstars: The Vikings in Hard Rock and Heavy Metal,” 58. 11. Admittedly, Týr’s music video “Hold the Heathen Hammer High”, which depicts the band playing shirtless on the deck of a Viking longship intercut with scenes of a reenacted Norse raid, rather confirms the dangers of historical excess tending to the ridiculous. Napalm Records, Týr - Hold The Heathen Hammer High (Official) 12. Eluveitie, Helvetios. 13. “Eluveitie Interview with Chrigel Glanzmann” (emphasis added).

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14. See, for example, Boethius, Fundamentals of Music, 5-8 and Isidore of Seville in Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus and Isidore of Seville. Cassiodorus, Institutiones, Book II, Chapter V, Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book III, Chapter 15–23, 14. 15. Johannes de Garlandia, the thirteenth/fourteenth century musical theorist, describes a number of these techniques. Translated in McGee, The Sound of Medieval Song: Ornamentation and Vocal Style according to the Treatises, 8–10. 16. The full quote in loosely translated German from their English website: “the minstrels in the Middle Ages during their journeys snapped melodies and played it. Perhaps they forgot a passage or consciously changed it - to put e.g. around the melody of a French song a German text - or the writers made an error how it often happens if many copies of literary etc. were made. On the one hand it may be thus that other groups had another old handwriting than model, or another Transcription. On the other hand it is our thing to interpret just as generous a medieval piece, as the medieval minstrels would also have done that: to adapt it to the possibilities of our instruments and our experiences in playing.” “Extras” Corvus Corax: Die Konige der Spielleute. 17. Southworth. The English Medieval Minstrel, 61–77; Bowles, “Musical Instruments at the Medieval Banquet,” 41–51 and Shuffelton, “Is there a Minstrel in the House?: Domestic Entertainment in Late Medieval England,” 51–76. 18. Jerome of Moravia translated in Page, “Jerome of Moravia on the Rubeba and Viella,” 77–98. 19. Rough Musicke. 20. Percival Schuttenbach, Percival – Jomsborg viking and slavic music. 21. Bagpipe bands also create visual interest by accompanying their music with simple formation dancing, which tends to accentuate the melodic arrangement. Audience participation with clapping and chanting is encouraged and the loud, up-tempo music compels the audience to dance along to the re-energized medieval sound. See, for example, Hans Kayser, Cultus Ferox live in Weiden or DragonlordWarlock. Corvus Corax – Chou Chou Sheng (Live) 22. Faun, Buch der Balladen. 23. Originally in German in Gothic: Magazine for Underground Culture 24, 45 translated in Jerrentrup, “Gothic and Dark Music: Forms and Background,” 39.


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24. Worth mentioning also are the Mediaeval Baebes. They are influenced more by the Classical musical training of their members and fit more into New Age genre than true neo-medieval folk. They use a variety of period instruments and set medieval (and medievalist) lyrics to music, yet their arrangements are unquestionably modern, blending six or more female vocals in closely set, ethereal harmonies. 25. Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, 67. 26. “About us,” Omnia. 27. Corvus Corax: Die Konige der Spielleute, “Extras.” 28. Ibid. 29. “Corvus Corax – Gimlie” Heathen Harvest Periodical. Emphasis added. 30. Haines, “Living Troubadours and Other Recent Uses for Medieval Music,” 150.

Chapter 6

Neomedievalism and the Epic in Assassin’s Creed The Hero’s Quest Elisabeth Herbst Buzay and Emmanuel Buzay Desmond Miles: Where am I? Dr. Vidic: You’re inside the Animus. Desmond Miles: Which is?... Dr. Vidic: It’s a projector that renders genetic memories in three dimensions. Desmond Miles: Genetic memory?... Dr. Vidic: What if I told you that the human body not only housed an individual’s memory, but the memories of his ancestors as well? Genetic memory, if you will ... Our DNA functions as an archive. It contains not only genetic instructions passed down from previous generations, but memories as well. The memories of our ancestors.


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture Desmond Miles: And the Animus lets you decode and read these DNA files. Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft)

Science fiction is not the genre most obviously connected to the first installment of the popular Assassin’s Creed video-game series, Assassin’s Creed (2007); it forms, however, the very basis of this hugely successful game and the subsequent series. By entering into his ancestor’s “genetic memories” (a borrowing from Frank Herbert’s Dune series), the protagonist of the game is able to relive the past through the futuristic technology of the Animus. In the contemporary narrative of the game, the protagonist’s role is that of the detective who is seeking to understand the world around him; such detection is the basis of the poetics of science fiction.1 The majority of the game, however, takes place in the twelfth century, during which time the protagonist’s goal is a redemption quest for the hero. This quest plays on the notion of epic—not as it is traditionally and most narrowly perceived but rather epic in a transhistorical and enlarged perspective. In fact, throughout the Assassin’s Creed series, this transhistorical perception of the epic is the basis for the game. In this first installment of the series, which takes place during the medieval era, this transhistorical epic model is further influenced by the twelfthcentury setting in that the game’s progression closely mirrors the quests undertaken in many famous chivalric romances, such as those of Chrétien de Troyes. Furthermore, the two narrative layers are interwoven to such an extent that Assassin’s Creed can be analyzed from a combination of both perspectives—that of contemporary science fiction and that of the rewritten transhistorical epic with medieval romance influences— although the medieval aspect of the game is not truly medieval per se, but rather neomedieval, in the sense that it “engages alternative realities of the Middle Ages, generating the illusion into which one may escape or even interact with and control.”2 In this chapter, we concentrate on how in Assassin’s Creed the reshaping of the medieval heroic model and, more specifically, the hero’s quest is

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used in a combined neomedieval and science-fiction context. In order to do so, we will address this question in three parts. First, we explore how the role of the protagonist raises questions about the definitions of neomedieval and contemporary heroism. Second, an examination of the hero’s quest reveals the ideology inherent in the game, its world, and the gameplay. And finally, we examine how the worldview, the heroism, and the ideology of Assassin’s Creed intersect with contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.

“The Hero” and His Quest The player’s role in Assassin’s Creed is highly original because the gameplay involves two worlds—the contemporary era (2012) in Rome and the twelfth century (1191) in Masyaf, Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus —and a double avatar: Desmond Miles, the contemporary character, and that of Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, his twelfth-century assassin ancestor. As such, this role comprises both a neomedieval and a contemporary hero, and raises questions about how one can define such heroes. The archetypal literary medieval hero was ideologically linked to religion and moral order, particularly in relation to the Crusades, the historical setting of much of Assassin’s Creed.3 The game’s avatars, however, are tied to the ambiguous ideological pair of assassination for the greater good and ethical behavior, a combination that invokes the contradictions of many contemporary pop-culture heroes.4 The game is complex due to the two narrative levels that define the gameplay. It opens in a near-apocalyptic 2012 in which the world is in crisis,5 with Desmond Miles, a barman, who has been kidnapped by Abstergo Industries, a multinational corporate conglomerate, and imprisoned in their Rome laboratory.6 From Desmond’s perspective, the gameplay is one of detection, as he tries to understand why he is trapped and facing death. In the laboratory, Dr. Warren Vidic and his assistant, Lucy Stillman, force Desmond to relive one of his ancestor’s lives, through the use of the Animus.


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Desmond enters Altaïr’s memories, which encompass the secondnarrative level, a much more complex one which is more overtly a quest than Desmond’s contemporary story. All of Altaïr’s interactions take place in the context of the Third Crusade. When Desmond wakes up as Altaïr, he finds himself in the middle of a mission against the Templars, a mission that he fails because of his arrogance and his failure to follow the Assassin’s Creed. This entails three tenets: “Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent ... Hide in plain sight ... Never compromise the Brotherhood.”7 Breaking the Creed makes him incur the wrath of the Assassin’s leader, Al Mualim, who strips Altaïr of his high rank and weapons but then gives him the opportunity to redeem himself by fulfilling a mission of nine assassinations, targeting both Christians and Muslims. As Altaïr, the player repeats the same basic gameplay nine times, once for each of the assassinations: after Al Mualim identifies the victim, whose death is supposed to help bring peace to the region and to end the fighting resulting from the Third Crusade, Altaïr travels to one of three cities (Jerusalem, Acre, or Damascus); goes to the Assassin’s bureau to get more information; locates his victim and deduces the best way to assassinate him by solving puzzles and viewing the city from above—the viewpoint of an eagle,8 the meaning of “altaïr” in Arabic— assassinates them, after which he learns more about the victim and the overall situation when he speaks with the victim and hears his dying confession. Altaïr reports back to the Assassin’s bureau and Al Mualim, and he then learns more and receives his next assignment. During these cycles, Altaïr begins to question Al Mualim and his orders, as seen when he hears his victim’s confessions and interacts with Al Mualim. From Altaïr’s perspective, therefore, the gameplay consists of intrusion, adventure, and action. The two narrative levels and, consequentially, the double hero the avatars represent, provide an opportunity to interrogate notions of heroism.

Neomedievalism and the Epic in Assassin’s Creed


Altaïr as Neomedieval Hero, Altaïr as Contemporary Hero The concept of the neomedieval hero requires further exploration here. Jade Raymond, the producer of the game, explains the developers’ focus on the “epic feeling” of popular movies like Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven, saying that it is what “we are trying to achieve in Assassin’s Creed.”9 If Assassin’s Creed is viewed as a transhistorical epic narrative set in a particular time period, then players can relate this type of narrative to those of the Middle Ages, the historical period the game represents, or rather, distorts. Here the concept of neomedievalism once again comes into play. In this chapter we view this term in the following light: this notion of the conscious detachment from history and the consequent distortion of medieval material into something we no longer recognize as historical preoccupy recent attempts to define ‘neomedievalism’ as a peculiarly postmodern phenomenon … In … Assassin’s Creed …, medievalism ‘doubles upon itself’ to construct an illusion of the Middle Ages from the residue of previous illusions.10 Neomedievalism, thus, is an imagined vision of medievalism itself.11 As such, the neomedieval hero is one who does not necessarily include the characteristics of the medieval hero who appears in specific medieval texts, but instead such a hero serves as a representation of the Assassin’s Creed game developers’ imagined medieval hero. The qualities this type of imagined medieval hero holds include courage, loyalty, perseverance, and piety. We argue that this neomedieval hero is in fact a contemporary hero in (neo)medieval disguise, just as Desmond is a contemporary character disguised in a (neo)medieval body. While the figure of Altaïr certainly represents a subversion of the figure of the medieval hero, he also has many characteristics of the contemporary hero. More explicitly, we define the contemporary, post-9/11 hero as one who doubts himself and the general world order, experiences inner struggles, and sees the world in shades of grey instead of in black and


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white.12 In the case of Altaïr, these characteristics can be seen in particular in his doubt, conscience, and complexity. This is demonstrated in dialogue between Altaïr and Al Mualim: Al Mualim: There is a difference, Altair, between what we’re told to be true, and what we see to be true. Most men do not bother to make the distinction; it is simpler that way. But as an Assassin, it is your nature to notice, to question. Altaïr: Then what is it that connects these men? Al Mualim: Ah, but as an Assassin, it is also your duty to still these thoughts, and trust in your Master. For there can be no true peace without order, and order requires authority. Altaïr: You speak in circles, Master. You commend me for being aware, then ask me not to be. Which is it? Al Mualim: The question will be answered when you no longer need to ask it.13 In this exchange, not only does Altaïr doubt his Master, but he also raises questions tied to his conscience or awareness, thereby illustrating his complexity and an existentialist component of his quest, since one cannot forget that the Assassin’s Creed maxim is: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”14 One way in which one can see how Altaïr’s character is related to contemporary heroic figures is through the influences used by the game developers to create the game. Although the developers based the style of the game and their understanding of the Assassins on Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut,15 some of their other inspirations are more closely tied to the way in which the theme of the redemption quest is developed. To best portray the Third Crusade, the developers were inspired by both films and history books in an attempt to “remain as close as possible to the historical reality,” as Raphaël Lacoste, Assassin’s Creed’s artistic director, explains about one of the films, Kingdom of Heaven, which he calls “a

Neomedievalism and the Epic in Assassin’s Creed


historical film, but using a modern treatment.”16 This modern treatment also molds the redemption quest at the center of the film. In Kingdom of Heaven, the redemption quest undertaken by the main character, Balian of Ibelin, is simultaneously typical of transhistorical epic and medieval romance narratives and very modern. In archetypal romances such as those written by Chrétien de Troyes, when a knight loses his rank, honor, and the love of his lady, he then undergoes a redemption quest that espouses Christianity—given its role in chivalric codes—and requires that the hero undergo psychological development by displaying physical courage in battle in order to regain what he has lost. Altaïr’s redemption quest closely mirrors aspects of these medieval quests, with the exception of the lady’s love. However, in Kingdom of Heaven, the redemption quest focuses on Balian’s search to understand the meaning of the kingdom of heaven through his own experiences. The suicide of Balian’s wife serves as the catalyst for his quest as he decides to travel to Jerusalem as a member of the Third Crusade in order to save both his wife’s soul and himself. However, Balian’s redemption quest is not purely an unthinking religious one but instead is motivated by his almost-agnostic search for meaning and understanding, expressed in conversation between the hero and his dying father: Balian of Ibelin: What could a king ask of a man like me? Godfrey of Ibelin: A new world. A better world than has ever been seen. There, you are not what you are born but what you have it in yourself to be. A kingdom of conscience, of peace instead of war, love instead of hate. That is what lies in the end of a crusade. A kingdom of heaven.17 Here, the definition of a kingdom of heaven is not so much religious as philosophical, mental, and internalized. It is these notions that are mirrored in Altaïr’s redemption quest and his worldview. While in transhistorical epic and medieval romance narratives, redemption quests remain within a firmly enclosed realm of social and cultural acceptability,


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in both Kingdom of Heaven and Assassin’s Creed, one can see how the heroes reflect aspects of other contemporary heroes in their individuality, personal worldviews, and the interiority and relativity of their quests. While we have focused on Altaïr’s role as the hero thus far, it is important to emphasize that Desmond Miles doubles Altaïr: in the Animus, it is Miles who is experiencing his ancestor’s memories, not Altaïr himself. As such, the two share thoughts, perspectives, and characterization—and perhaps the contemporary heroic aspect of Altaïr is not as surprising in this light. But this doubling also brings to light a key notion of Assassin’s Creed, that of historical accuracy. Roger Travis characterizes this attempted accuracy thus: because [the animus] takes Desmond back to the “reality” of his ancestor’s lives, the view of the past it presents is prima facie to be taken as authentic … The discursive fiction embodied in the animus is that it re-creates the actuality of past events, through a granular reading of the subject’s (in the game, Desmond’s) genetic code.18 However, Altaïr is a fictional character in a world that, upon a closer look, is fictionalized, despite its claim of historical accuracy. In the next section we will explore this claim and its effects.

Ideology in Assassin’s Creed, Its World, and the Gameplay The Assassin’s Creed series has, over time, become more explicit in its claims to historical accuracy;19 however, even with the first game, the notion of accuracy and the narrative framework supporting and constructing the “reality” of this historical accuracy was evident. And yet, the very basic history presented in the game is false, whether it be the role of the Templars, the physicality of the locations, or the biographies of those historical figures included in the game. As Christopher Sawula argued: “the Assassin’s Creed series is not good history.”20 Nicolas Courcier and Mehdi El Kanafi are less judgmental, when they described

Neomedievalism and the Epic in Assassin’s Creed


the series as maintaining a “proximity between reality and fiction” and noted that the developers took advantage of the “confusion between real and fictive,” in the case of the Templars.21 As previously mentioned, Assassin’s Creed’s developers based their understanding of the Assassins and their medieval world on sources such as Bartol’s Alamut and films like Kingdom of Heaven; however, these sources are themselves fictions, and fictions with particular ideological stances that underpin them. This can be read as an example of the definition of neomedievalism cited earlier—the reimagining of someone else’s medievalism—and as such, historical accuracy should not be expected. This is evident, for example, in the case of Alamut: in 1938 Bartol published the story of the Ḥashshāshīn, a real order of Nizari Ismailis, with the goal of “denouncing the terrible misdeeds of the dictatorships that were, at that time, sadly recent (fourteen years after the rising to power of Stalin and five years after the nomination of Hitler).”22 An example of Bartol’s criticism appears in the words he places in the mouth of the character of Hasan in Alamut, who inspired that of Al Mualim in Assassin’s Creed: Essentially, the power of any institution is predicated on followers who have been deceived … So I divide humanity into two fundamentally different layers: the handful that knows what really is, and the vast multitudes that don’t know. The former are called to lead, the latter to be led … The former know that truth is unattainable, while the latter reach their arms out for it. What else can the former do, but feed them fairy tales and fabrications?23 This Machiavellian take on leadership can certainly be read as a criticism of dictators or, indeed, of any leader who denigrates those he leads. In this perspective, Alamut, while medieval in setting, plainly resonates with and begs for specific modern interpretations. In a similar fashion, in the case of Kingdom of Heaven, certain aspects of the film, despite their medieval(like) appearance, conform more closely to contemporary ideologies. The case of the film’s hero, Balian, is particularly noteworthy: on many levels,


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Balian can be seen as a contemporary hero, as opposed to a medieval one, such as in his rise from bastard to baron, his method of questing, and his individualism. Although Altaïr is not explicitly based upon him, the parallels between the two are striking. In sum, the sources and influences that helped the game developers create Assassin’s Creed certainly are not, nor do they purport to be, purely historical and factual ones. Looking at this apparent paradox in the light of the game’s medium, we can suggest a redeeming aspect of this lack of historical accuracy. Strangely enough, it lies in the game’s historical authenticity. A useful distinction between the two is made in the concluding chapter of Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History. Although Assassin’s Creed’s developers make a claim of historical accuracy, Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott call historical accuracy that which is based on fact,24 while they term historical authenticity “what audiences think the period looked like” or rather, “getting the experience and expectations of the past ‘right.’”25 Furthermore, they posit that “the veracity of games that engage with history is less about their ability to represent an accurate past and more about their ability to present what ‘feels’ like an authentic one.’”26 Read in this light, the Assassin’s Creed series can be seen as a successful instance of historical authenticity despite its lack of historical accuracy. Indeed, the basic background story of Assassin’s Creed involves the Third Crusade but focuses mainly on the significant role of the Knights Templar as the forces behind many historical events—a claim based on a fantasy of history or an alternate history, each of which are common approaches in the genres of science fiction and fantasy.27 Furthermore, the “piece of Eden” that Al Mualim (in the past) and Dr. Vidic (in the present) want to obtain ties into an overarching backstory that players only learn in other parts of the Assassin’s Creed series—in their own detective quest to understand the fictional world—which “as usual ... revolves around cultural pillars known to all, here the Bible, which it revisits in its own way.”28 This backstory reveals that members of the

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First Civilization, the technologically advanced humanoids who first inhabited the world, were the ones who created the human race and the “pieces of Eden.” A human rebellion was begun by Adam and Eve, eventually leading to the current world in which, after learning of the First Civilization and their technology, the Knights Templar longed to take this technology in order to subjugate the world, and in which the Assassins, descendants of Adam and Eve, opposed the Templars and defended their own convictions.29 This backstory, therefore, is the basis of the grand narrative that underlies the entire Assassin’s Creed series. The need to remain true to it further explains why the game could never be historically accurate.

(In)accuracy and its Effects In a similar fashion, the subject of multiculturalism presented in the game requires interrogation. One of the striking features at the beginning of Assassin’s Creed is that the game opens with the statement: “This game was developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.” Given the potentially controversial subject matter—the Third Crusade, which pitted Christians against Muslims—as well as the religious figures peppered throughout the game (for example the Templars, monks, and preachers of many religions), this statement appears to be Ubisoft’s statement of their ‘neutrality’ and multicultural perspective. An interview with Raymond clarifies this position: Knowing that our subject is controversial by nature we have dealt with religion as a purely historical background element … We have … worked with cultural experts throughout production to make sure that we treat sensitive topics with respect … In Assassins’ [sic] Creed, Crusaders (and the Saracens) are not the Assassins’ true enemy. War is—as are those who exploit it.30 However, in a less-obvious fashion than their fictionalization of history, Ubisoft’s characters in Assassin’s Creed are not necessarily as culturally


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appropriate as such a statement would lead one to believe. Magy Seif El Nasr, et al., analyzed how different personal, specifically personal cultural experiences, mediate a player’s understanding of a game, and more particularly of the character of Altaïr. They criticize the figure of Altaïr as “fail[ing] to convey the Middle-Eastern culture or behaviour,” and further argue that he appears to be “an all-American hero”: His actions, behaviours, mannerisms, complexion, and cleanshaved face portray him as an all-American hero. In fact, his accent betrays him the most, and one soon starts to wonder if such a design decision was deliberate, perhaps to gain acceptance amongst the Western audience, in the hopes of identifying themselves with the protagonist.31 They also present Raymond’s response to this critique, which explains this choice: Altair was played by an American born actor of Middle-Eastern origin. His name is Phil Shahbaz. The reason that Altair speaks with an American accent is related to the fact that it’s not really Altair talking; the whole experience is being processed by Desmond (a modern American guy) through the Animus. Desmond is trying to relive Altair’s life but is building on his own experience.32 While such an explanation may be unsatisfactory in terms of its relation to multiculturalism, it does provide useful insight into how and why Altaïr can be seen as a neomedieval and a contemporary hero. Beyond the character of Altaïr, other characters of many different origins also appear in the game. El Nasr, et al., suggested that the cultural accuracy of the portrayal of the secondary and background characters, particularly those of Middle Eastern descent, was variably accurate, and sometimes jarringly mismatched, such as when Egyptian accents and dialects were heard as part of the ambient dialogue, while the game was supposedly taking place in Damascus, Syria.33 Just as there are inaccuracies in the supposedly accurate historical aspects of the game, so too are there inaccuracies in the supposedly multicultural aspects of the game. Rather

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than raising a debate over accuracy, however, we will instead focus on the effects of such inaccuracies. Altaïr’s world, despite being a neomedieval one, is one that is foreign to many players and certainly is not the daily experience of the Montrealbased Ubisoft game developers who created it. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that Western influences and inaccurate multiculturalism occur and that their effects tend to help the Western player to identify more closely with the game and its protagonist. El Nasr, et al., for instance, close their analysis of Altaïr by concluding that due to a Westerner’s lack of knowledge about the accuracy of certain Middle Eastern aspects of Altaïr’s character, a Western viewpoint may increase a ‘foreigner persona’ and reinforce Altair’s pre-programmed detached and Americanized heroic behaviors … Unknowingly to the player, this may serve to further distance her or himself from the story being told.34 Yet we would suggest that while the player may be distanced from the story at a certain level, such a Westernization actually allows the player to more easily identify with the character of Altaïr due to his familiarity. Beyond Altaïr, other characters and aspects of the game are similarly familiar, often as the result of resonances with characters and situations familiar from popular culture. Courcier and El Kanafi, for instance, pointed out that players may remember the two major figures in the Third Crusade for this reason: Saladin was in Kingdom of Heaven and Richard the Lionheart played a role in tales of Robin Hood and in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.35 The Templars, too, have become well known in contemporary popular culture. From Revolution Software’s 1996 point-and-click game Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), the Templars have become a “cultural pillar known to all (permitting an instantaneous appropriation by the public) to subtly link the imaginary and reality,” and furthermore introduce a currently favored topic in cultural productions: the conspiracy theory.36 In fact,


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this topic is a common thread today, both in entertainment and in some extremist ideas and beliefs. As Christopher Partridge notes, there is a “public appetite for conspiracy narratives.”37 Finally, the player’s immersion in the historically and multiculturally inaccurate universe of Assassin’s Creed has the effect of masking the ideological stance that underpins it. The combination of the setting, the mix of fact and fiction, the double-narrative levels, the characterizations, and the gameplay work together to give a false impression of accuracy that requires a critical gaze. Roger Travis has proposed a reading of Assassin’s Creed whereby Desmond’s immersion in Altaïr’s universe via the Animus parallels that of the player into Desmond’s universe, causing a progressive naturalization due to the limits of the actions allowed to Altaïr—which Travis dubs the “verbs of the past”—for “the player’s identification with that ruleset within the broader ruleset of the game itself … in this way allegorizes the player’s own limited capacity to act in his or her real world as the limited number of verbs available to such characters as Altair.” He concludes that “in naturalizing the immersion that comes from playing that ruleset … it covers over the ideological nature of those mechanics.”38 Questions centering on the ideological nature of these mechanics, as well as on that of the game itself, beg further analysis.

Contemporary Political, Social, and Cultural Issues Assassin’s Creed was developed in a post-9/11 world, by a French company in their Montreal-based office. All of these conditions necessarily affected the ideological underpinnings of the game. It may not be a coincidence, either, that Assassin’s Creed’s developers chose to focus on the Third Crusade, given George W. Bush’s (in)famous post-9/11 “crusade” comment,39 which triggered strong public reactions in Europe and the Arab world. In short, the game truly puts into play (both literally and figuratively) contemporary issues—which may in part explain its worldwide success.

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Most obviously, Assassin’s Creed is set in a time and place in which tensions between East and West and between Christianity and Islam are the motivating factors for much of the game’s backstory. These tensions, however, are also relevant and timely in the contemporary world. The neutrality which Ubisoft’s developers vaunt, flawed though it may be, suggests that the game does not attempt to take sides on these issues but wants to show nuanced interpretations, not black-and-white ones. Nonetheless, we interpret the game as taking a certain number of political and/or cultural stances: the game’s explicit criticism of religious violence and extremism can be seen as a commentary that is relevant to the modern world, one that is strongly supported by French and Canadian values. Altaïr can be understood as a contemporary Western hero, if not an “all-American” one, which, too, is a taking of sides. Finally, the grand narrative underlying the game—the fight for free will in the face of those who try to control the world—is certainly a Western stance. The ultimate example of globalization in Assassin’s Creed is Abstergo Industries, “a multinational corporate conglomerate, and the primary front for the modern day activities of the Templar Order.”40 Abstergo Industries and the Templars, like Al Mualim and Dr. Vidic, constantly claim that their actions and control of important political and cultural figures are what have brought about progress in the world. This image of a multinational conglomerate and the far-encompassing control it has are particularly relevant in the contemporary world in which the balance of power between corporations and nation-states is changing. The game’s explicit stance is one that criticizes such conglomerates and instead argues that the fight for free will should win against those who try to exert total control. Commodification is one such type of control. Abstergo commodifies humans, like Desmond, and their memories via the Animus. This same type of commercialization of the world is a key topic in current thinking. One can see an instance of the fight against such commercialization in the recent European decision to allow individuals to petition Google to remove their digital memories or personal archive from Google searches.41


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As in the case of the Animus, through which technological advances allow an individual’s genetic memories to be accessed, the idea of globalization is closely tied to technology in Assassin’s Creed. This putting into play of contemporary debates on the morality of technological advances and in particular on those that touch humans and their humanity, as well as those pertaining to genetics and genetic coding, illustrates the ambiguity with which so many respond to such topics. In fact, one can even go so far as to see such topics as leading to questions concerning the development of a posthumanity. Thus, despite the historic and sciencefiction-related settings of Assassin’s Creed, the issues that the game raises are ones that are related to contemporary political, social, and cultural ones.

Conclusion Through the figure of the protagonist—a neomedieval and contemporary hero—Assassin’s Creed can be read as illustrating an ideology that interrogates notions of accuracy in the realm of history as well as in the realm of multiculturalism. Implicitly, however, the game also puts into play key contemporary political, social, and cultural issues. Just as science fiction ultimately speaks more of current fears than of the futuristic and imaginary concerns it literally includes,42 so, too, does Assassin’s Creed. In today’s changing, challenging, and sometime fear-inspiring world, such reasoning may well explain this game’s (and the series’) huge success,43 despite some complaints that the quest itself is quite repetitive.44 But that is not all: in a similar fashion to the ancient technique of ars memoria, in which a speaker associated memories with specific locations, in Assassin’s Creed Altaïr’s memories are associated with specific locations as well and, furthermore, access to these memories is accelerated when the player views locations from above—eagle-eye vantage points. In this way, Assassin’s Creed allows for a conquering of memories, a technique which can be read as giving the player a satisfying sense of control that s/he does not have in the real world. Indeed, one aspect of this lack of control

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is tied to concerns about the commercialization of our own memories, as can be seen more recently in the game Remember Me (2013).45 Thus, when the notion of science fiction as a treatment of current fears is combined with another major theme of science fiction, that memory defines humanity,46 as well as with the concept of the redemption quest, it can be seen that Assassin’s Creed is actually Desmond Miles’ search for his own identity. Players can participate in this search, which continues in future iterations of the series. Thus, the game fundamentally guides players on the ultimate quest: understanding of oneself and one’s origins.


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Notes 1. Langlet, La science-fiction: lecture et poétique d'un genre littéraire. 2. Robinson, “Introduction: Neomedievalism in a Vortext of Discourse: Film, Television, and Digital Games”, 7. 3. For example, Richard the Lionheart in the fourteenth-century English romance Richard Coeur de Lion (RCL). 4. The series Dexter may include the ultimate example: “Both ‘Dexter,’ the program, and Dexter, the character challenge us to join in, if we dare, for a journey along the razor's edge separating the cleansing execution of moral justice from the sticky evil that oozes from numbed slaughter-and, frankly, from the numbing depiction of killing.” Ryan. “Being Dexter Morgan.” 5. Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed, 68. 6. “Abstergo Industries.” 7. “The Creed.” 8. Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed, 19. 9. El Nasr, et al., “Assassin’s Creed,” 13. 10. Additionally, Carol L. Robinson and Pamela Clements, for example, call neomedievalism an “alternate universe of medievalisms, a fantasy of medievalisms,” created by manipulating the “illusion” rather than the reality of the Middle Ages. Neomedievalism, they continued, demonstrates that “all medievalisms are constructions, made from prefabricated materials.” Amy S. Kaufman likewise suggests that “[n]eomedievalism is thus not a dream of the Middle Ages, but a dream of someone else’s medievalism. It is medievalism doubled upon itself.’” Quoted in Brown, “The Consolation of Paranoia: Conspiracy Epistemology, and the Templars in Assassin’s Creed, Deus Ex, and Dragon Age”, 236. 11. “Medievalism is the study of responses to the Middle Ages at all periods since a sense of the mediaeval began to develop.” “International Society for the Study of Medievalism.” 12. “Les héros entre mémoire et histoire”, Héros, d'Achille à Zidane, edited by Juhel and Labordeire, accessed November 1, 2014, 13. Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed. 14. “The Creed.” 15. Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed.

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16. Our translation (“‘un film historique, mais utilisant un traitement moderne[...’ ...] pour rester aussi proche que possible de la réalité historique”). Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed, 16, 26. 17. Ridley Scott, Kingdom of Heaven. 18. Travis, “Epic Life: The Verbs.” 19. Sawula, “Assassin’s Creed.” 20. Ibid. 21. Our translation: “la proximité entre réalité et fiction” and “Les Templiers profitent de cette confusion entre réel et fictif”. Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed, 154–155. 22. Our translation: “denoncer les terribles méfaits des dictatures qui sont, à cette époque, tristement récentes (quatorze ans après l’accès au pouvoir de Staline et cinq ans après la nomination de Hitler).” Ibid. 19. 23. Bartol and Biggins, Alamut, 202-203. 24. Kapell and Elliott, “Conclusion(s): Playing at True Myths, Engaging with Authentic Histories,” 358. 25. Ibid., 361. 26. Ibid. 27. See Schanoes, “Historical Fantasy.” 28. Our translation: “Comme à son habitude, [...] tourne autour de piliers culturels connus de tous, ici la Bible, qu’il revisite à sa manière.” Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed, 109. 29. “First Civilization.” Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed, 56-59. 30. El Nasr, et al., “Assassin’s Creed,” 13. 31. Ibid. 32. Ibid. 33. Ibid. 28. 34. Ibid. 26. 35. Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed, 152–153. 36. Our translation: “un pilier culturel connu de tous (permettant une appropriation instantanée par le public) pour lier subtilement imaginaire et réalité”. Courcier and El Kanafi, Assassin’s Creed, 154. 37. Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, 316. 38. Travis, “Epic Life: the verbs.” 39. “This is a new kind of – a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” “President: Today We Mourned, Tomorrow We Work.” 40. “Abstergo Industries.”

132 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46.

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“Forget-Me-Now.” Dyens, La Condition inhumaine, 195. “Facts & Figures | About Ubisoft | Ubisoft Group.” McLaughlin, “The History of Assassin’s Creed - IGN.” “Capcom.” This is an ongoing theme since the appearance of Philip K. Dick’s works.

Chapter 7

The Cyberpunk Road Away from Middle-earth Toward Virtual Atonement Gender and Sexuality in William Gibson’s Fiction and the Wachowski Sibling’s Films Carol L. Robinson “I am not now at all sure that the tendency to treat the whole thing as a kind of vast game is really good, cert. not for me, who find that kind of thing only too fatally attractive.” – J. R. R. Tolkien1 Words like ‘cyberspace’ hang as it were on the edge of everyday experience, recognized instantly as filling a gap, but also betraying the existence of the gap. Sometimes they make one wonder why such a gap should exist. Why, for instance, is there in English no neutral-sex third-person singular pronoun – all our other personal pronouns are neutral-sex – equivalent to ‘one’ but not including


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture the speaker, nor being impersonal? Its absence notoriously often gives offence, or leads careful writers into clumsy formulations like ‘he or she’ or ‘(s)he.’ Yet the gap usually goes unnoticed, or is accepted as natural. – Tom Shippey2

Beyond Tolkien’s Medievalist Bodies That J. R. R. Tolkien has inspired an explosion of fantasy and sciencefiction novels, short stories, films, video games, and other media is without doubt. In 2003, Ethan Gilsdorf observed, “Tolkien has spawned a whole international subculture of escapism and fueled a boom in science fiction and fantasy that’s now 10 percent of the total trade-book business.”3 Indeed, the fantasy as social commentary is also derived, in part, from the works of Tolkien. In The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey observed that Tolkien was in good company of several fantasy and science-fiction writers during the first half of the twentieth century —William Golding, T. H. White, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, among others—and that perhaps more than the writings of these other authors, “The Lord of the Rings in particular is a war-book, also a post-war book, framed by and responding to the crisis of Western civilisation, 1914–1945 (and beyond).”4 For Tolkien, “the crisis” was as much about the ripping up of the soul as it was about the ripping up of the body.5 While war is certainly a central influence in Tolkien’s works, Shippey’s concept of the crisis of Western civilization in the first half of the twentieth century involves much more than that, certainly much more than what Tolkien could have conceived (as is true of anyone caught within the zeitgeist of his experiences). War is an indicator of a larger issue that involves the greater transition from medieval lifestyles into the industrial and global lifestyles of now: mass production, mass communication, mass pollution, mass destruction. Tolkien’s works (perhaps unwittingly) hold a yet unopened treasure trove of metaphors and analogies for how medievalism preserves and destroys the body and soul. In his introduction to The Body in Tolkien’s

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Legendarium, recognizing that “investigations into how bodies are constituted, employed, and mythologized have been underutilized in Tolkien Studies,”6 Christopher Vaccaro notes that “Tolkien scholars have begun to examine the body in Middle-earth in relation to sex, gender, desire, and power.”7 This is exciting scholarship that should have a powerful impact upon the scholarship over post-Tolkien fantasy works. This is especially of interest in terms of Tolkien’s interests in philology, Roman Catholicism, and other (older) belief systems—particularly Germanic (including Old Norse) and Celtic mythologies. Anna Smol writes: As a liminal figure—as someone who has crossed the boundary between a familiar peaceful world and an unknown world of war —Frodo struggles to resist the disintegration of other boundaries that shore up his sense of self: those between human and animal, animate and inanimate, life and death. The relentless process of ‘fading’ that Frodo undergoes reveals the permeability of those boundaries, bringing him face to face with the uncanny and the abject. His experiences have much in common with those of World War I soldiers who, in their writings, describe physical and psychological trauma and the difficulty of reintegrating into peacetime society.8 Moreover, it might also be beneficial to recognize that both the Tolkien scholar and the scholar of Tolkien-influenced works (each type now rooted in the beginnings of the twenty-first century) are influenced by the values and perceptions of another time and place. For example, issues of sexuality and Christian theology have been deeply influenced (in both revolutionary and reactionary ways) by values shared via a drastically more global and faster communication system and in a world that has thrived (and not thrived) for more than a half-century since the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and since the book publication of The Lord of the Rings. In Western civilization in particular attitudes towards sex, sexuality, gender, and the body have all come under strenuous


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public debate, and cyberpunk science-fiction works have been among the forerunners of such open discourse. In other words, Tolkien’s twentieth century, including both World Wars and the ensuing Cold War collection of cat-and-mouse military games, marks a period of transition. By transition, I do not mean a progression (forward or backward), nor any real growth or decline of any kind; transition here is used in the same ways that evolution is supposed to be used: to mark changes, for better or for worse, from one state of being into another. This particular time’s evolution or transition of general (societal) thought has been from the mostly analog to the mostly digital, from mechanical to the computerized, from the blackand-white to the colorful. With few exceptions, such as the Amish in the United States, actions and states of being have changed from the overly simplistic and strictness of right-or-wrong ideology to various minute degrees of rightness and wrongness, from the pastoral medievalism of the nineteenth century to the virtual neomedievalism of the twentyfirst century, from the comfortably unquestionable to the aggressively questioned. Likewise, gender identity and sexuality have also changed: from boy-or-girl to a wide spectrum of gender identity, from embracing heterosexual norms to no denial of any sexual norm whatsoever. The only transition/evolution that seems to have moved backwards has been theological—from an anti-medievalist secularism to the nearly fanatical religiosity of the European Crusades in the Middle Ages. Indeed, issues of sexuality and medieval Christian theology come into a subtle debate in both the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson and the films of Andy and Lana (formerly known as Larry) Wachowski: a debate of the body and its environment, such as how does the “right” body conform to (or destroy) the “right” environment? In each set of works, the body tends to be little more than an image component of the environment, one that coexists with other images of the environment, helping to shape the milieu architecture: subdued, flamboyant, sexy, reserved, beautiful, ugly, romantic, celebratory, tragic, pathetic, and weird. In each, the

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confessional is ever-present, like water, unholy or holy, flowing cold and detached, almost meaningless. While one can see medieval Christian overtones in both works, both have revised these gothic impulses to conform to a unique blending of contemporary alternative ideologies (Americanized Buddhism, secular-capitalist humanism, and New Age spiritualism). In each, the environment begins upon the body a humbling experience. Both sets of works, too, reflect and respond to, for better or for worse, the loss of the mystical and of the sacredness of the secret, particularly in terms of gender identity and sexuality—a price for the liberation from fundamentalism and neoconservatism and the pseudomedievalist attitudes each American movement has adopted in more recent times, when a woman's body is fought over for ownership by various political and religious factions. In the early Middle Ages of Europe, existence was limited to within a duality of demons and saints, evil and good, but in later medieval times, the body became a sort of vehicle for moral law. The cyber body has become a vehicle not for amoral, a-law but for alternative-moral, alternative-law: the illusion of ultimate freedom, perhaps even to the point of anarchy, certainly likely to the point of revised morals and ethics.

A Desire for Changes in the Digital Womb for the Digital Body and Soul Escapades into cyberspace are considered virtual journeys, then one might make the argument that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit anticipate the great amount of science fiction and fantasy quest stories that were written, filmed, and (in particular) programmed in the past fifty years. J. Leore Wright argues that: Like the philosophical inquiry, Tolkien’s journey motif moves in two directions: it is a movement outside the dark cave of illusion and into the light of knowable reality, and it is a turning away from the facade of the self into the innermost psyche. The journey inward into the psyche presupposes an existential freedom that


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture is itself part of the structure of authentic human existence. The characters’ inward investigations of their own psyches is a journey toward radical freedom—a recognition that life is defined by events without purpose or meaning.9

In other words, a quest does not have to be external; it can be internal. It can be within the mind. It can be within the body. It can be within both. A matrix is within both. The word matrix originally held the late-medieval Latin meaning “womb” or an environment for growth and development.10 Perhaps it is ironic, then, that the meaning has moved toward a more unnatural (manmade) meaning: a rectangular array of elements in rows and columns that is treated as a “single entity” (à la mathematics) or “a grid-like array of interconnected circuit elements” (à la computers).11 Computers, including video-game consoles and servers, which are actually logic machines containing much matrix-like circuitry, are “womb[s] into which the primary materials/code is planted/programmed to create an illusionary world into which a gamer might escape”;12 cyberspace is an inorganic digital womb. Indeed, IBM engineers originally referred to the main board of a personal computer CPU as the motherboard,13 clearly alluding to the medieval Latin matrix conception of the womb —a very sexy allegory indeed! Allegories, particularly dream allegories, are common in medieval literature. Allegory is also a primary element in both the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix and Gibson’s Sprawl and Bridge stories; there is much to compare. The idea of living for eternity in cyberspace is only apparently heavenly and highly addictive. The virtual body in its virtual environment is initially more attractive, desired, than the physical body in the physical world. That desire to exist, even thrive, in the virtual world, winds up being an impractical, or even an enslaved, choice. The dystopian, postapocalyptic cyberpunk view of life sharply mirrors the dark, preapocalyptic medieval European view of life. The virtual body can be drastically different from the physical body, including in terms of sexuality and gender. The identity

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of that virtual body can also be drastically different from the identity of the physical body, both outwardly (the body’s gender) and inwardly (the sexuality soul). Both are dream allegories: cyberspace (which is produced by an inorganic CPU) is a digital replacement for the dreamscape (which is produced by an organic brain). The Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix functions as a twisted dream allegory, a parody of a dream allegory. Neo, Morpheous, Trillium, and the others wake up (or are woken up) from the dream of life set in the late-twentieth century, a dream that has been programed into each brain of human society. In this dream allegory, dreamers are not good folk visited by the appearance of a heavenly spirit (such as an angel or an animated version of Christ’s cross). Instead, dreamers are bad folk (ones breaking the laws of the dream world), haunted by the appearance of a programmed agent (such as police or, worst of all, Agent Smith). That The Matrix is a parody of the medieval dream allegory is taken a step further by the character Judas, an allegorical allusion to the betraying disciple of Jesus in the Bible; he is also suggestive of anyone who makes a pact with the devil (in this case, Agent Smith) in order to gain something (in this case reentry into the Garden of Eden, into the heaven of the matrix). But once fallen, never will he return: he is killed (ultimately erased) instead. The twist is that the viewer knows he should not want to go back because this matrix “heaven” is actually hell and the alluded-to Garden of Eden is actually the toxic wasteland of Anti-Eden. Thus, The Matrix is a truly distorted mirror reflection of the medieval Christian dream allegory. In The Matrix, Judas betrays his friends (his “family”) in exchange for the return to his addiction, cyberspace, a place where he is promised he will never remember the reality of his life on the Nebuchadnezzar. It does not matter to him that he will be living in his head while in reality he is, as Sterling put it, “meat on a ruined moonscape whose sky is falling and whose gods are mysterious, capricious, malign and all-powerful.”14 Judas is comparable to William Gibson’s character, the Dixie Flatline (Neuromancer), for both represent the originally medieval theological


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desire to exist in heaven (to live in cyberspace). For example, in Neuromancer, Case is presented as a cyber cowboy who, like others before him, has become addicted to jacking-into (connecting in order to live mentally in) cyberspace. Such an addiction to this apparent heaven can be literally deadly, as is an addiction to a heavenly hallucinogenic drug. Case “lived for the bodiless exaltation of cyberspace”15 and felt lucky that he could call this living a job in the physical world. This almost suggests the passionate chivalric knight, whose code dictated that he must be willing to die for God above all else so that he may join God in his heavenly abode. A cyber cowboy’s code, however, dictates that he must have gone crazy to die for any reason whatsoever: trying to stay in the heaven of cyberspace is passionate self-delusion. The Dixie Flatline emphasizes this point given how it is a program construct of the brain of McCoy Pauley—of the brain of a cyber cowboy once addicted to cyberspace existence. Now physically dead, he exists forever in this digital “heaven,” and he does not seem to like it; indeed, the situation seems to have made him a bit cranky: “Hey asshole,” the Flatline said, when the Finn had gone a dozen paces. The figure paused, half turned. “What about me? What about my payoff?” “You’ll get yours,” it said. “What’s that mean?” Case asked, as he watched the narrow tweed back recede. “I wanna’ be erased,” the construct said. “I told you that, remember?”16 One might argue that this cyberspace heaven has become, for McCoy Pauley, a cyberspace hell or even a kind of purgatory: punishment for the sin of having trespassed too far into the “heaven” of cyberspace, the release from which seems to only be made by a fellow cyber junkie in the form of an erasure. In her book, The Shock of Medievalism, writing of

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Gibson’s first trilogy of novels, which includes Neuromancer, Kathleen Biddick observes that: Like a well-trained humanist, Gibson separates memory from history in his trilogy and confines history to the archive. When characters need to learn some history in cyberspace, they access their cyberdeck for an encyclopedia-like entry on a desired topic. History exists in Gibson’s cyberspace as facts, dates, information in dead storage. Critics of humanist history will recognize its archival discipline at work in the trilogy’s confinement and ordering of the historical knowledge to a fixed place.17 However, all of the storage is “dead” and sometimes characters must access seemingly living entities in order to gain this information, and so Gibson’s works are celebrated by contemporary humanists and secularists alike: “experts developing hardware and software for cyberspace, whom Gibson’s writings have also inspired, anticipate this virtual technology as a ‘New World.’”18 Thus, the ultimate departure is to escape heaven, which has actually become a hell—too much of a good thing, like chocolate, alcohol, or heroin. Like the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix, dystopic perspectives in Gibson’s cyberspaces point to the ultimately unhappy existence in cyberspace heaven—only a villain, such as Judas, and a cyberspace junkie, such as the Dixie Flatline, would initially wish to thrive there. In The Matrix, Neo seems to wish to abandon his body indefinitely, though under the pretext of intending to save others from the hellish heaven of the matrix. Like some of the portrayals of the European medieval Jesus, Neo and Case are warrior-knights.19 Neo is no less innocent as he clearly becomes addicted to the superhero powers he acquires in the matrix. Sterling concludes: “small wonder that Neo runs back into the fantasy. He’s living in the pixels, stepping out of the phone booth, and flying. That is his victory, limited and illusory though it is. The cybermessiah didn’t change a thing, not really; when it came to the crunch, it was all smoke and mirrors.”20 Unlike the European medieval messiah


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(Jesus) Neo and Case (the neo-messiahs) have returned to this cyber heaven angry. Indeed, more like the archangels of Milton’s Paradise Lost, each is battling demons (Agent Smith or Wintermute) to seemingly save cyberspace heaven. Ultimately, while most medieval allegories show a path to God and heaven, these two allegories cynically show the code of the path. Cyberspace may seem like a heaven, but it is all smoke and mirrors, postmodernist blends of mythos with logos, blends of medieval mysticism with modern secular humanism, special blends of fantasy and science-fiction cynicism (disillusioned romanticism). Much of cyberpunk fiction and film is neomedieval, which in this case refers to an image of a slightly futuristic Information Age world mirroring an image of a pseudomedieval Christian world, which in turn is mirroring that slightly futuristic Information Age world: it is a mirroring of mirrors. A purview of the novels and short stories of Gibson, supplemented with a small comparative study with Andy and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix trilogy, demonstrates this point, as well as clearly shows just how much inspiration The Matrix trilogy has taken from previously written cyberpunk works, including those created by Gibson. One fundamental difference between the Wachowski’s films and Gibson’s fictions is that Gibson’s works contain, as Biddick argues, humanist impressions, while the Wachowski’s Matrix films display traces of Buddhist sophism.21 Ironically, however, each set of works—be they full of humanist impressions or Buddhist sophism—reflect European medieval Christian theology.

Media as Forms of Penance for the Virtual Body, the Fantasized Soul, and Their Realities Another influence that might have come from Tolkien’s fantasy works into these later cyberpunk works is the exploration between internal growth and its relationship to the external world around the self. Wright asserts that The Lord of the Rings is about personal transformation:

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A key step in the transition from enslavement to freedom is personal transformation. Once we break free from our inner chains, we are free to grow as individuals. For example, Gandalf’s transformation from “Gandalf the Grey” to “Gandalf the White” begins in the bowels of Moria while battling a Balrog. When he reappears in The Two Towers, he represents a new beginning, the dawning of a new day.22 This seems to be as much vision quest as a quest for adventure, in other words a pilgrimage for penance, offering the same therapeutic or internal growth effect. Indeed, the quest-pilgrimage of writing a journey-fantasy novel as a means of creatively channeling and even transforming inner fears and desires, is also a form of (constructive) penance. In the medieval morality play, Everyman, the allegorical character Everyman takes a journey in his preparations for the afterlife.23 Toward the end of his journey, he meets Confession, who is a “clensynge ryvere” and yet also a “holy man” who “dwellyth” in “the House of Salvcyon” (ll. 536–540). In the late medieval Christian or modern Catholic traditions, to confess is to admit one’s faults or sins, including sinful thoughts, and then to be forgiven for such sins through penance. A sin, moreover, is a violation of the Christian God’s will or laws. Even secular confessions are considered culpability to some sort of criminal activity (or to the planning of that activity). However, to confess has also come to mean admitting to a taboo in order to make it acceptable, such as coming out as gay or being an unwed mother. Some might argue that this is antithetical to a confession as because the intended outcome is to embrace the so-called sins rather than to wash them away, rather than to take penance for atonement, which is almost a parody of Christian traditions. However, this is not quite the case, or rather, while some may find it satirical and/or trivializing, it is often not intended to be so. Instead, it is a continuation of the mirroring between reality and virtual reality. In general terms, the Information Age cyberpunk world view parallels the worldview of the European Christian Middle Ages. In this latter


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medieval view, the goal is to get out of physical existence in order to attain the desirable existence, heaven. In the cyberpunk view, heaven is the abstract matrix of cyberspace—all in one’s head—and the desirable existence is to get out of one’s head (i.e., get out of heaven) and back into the physical reality of earth. In the medieval European Christian view, life is surrounded by death: existence on earth is merely a preparation for the next, more important, and real existence, which is after death and with God. One does not live for the now; one lives to go to heaven. In the futuristic Information Age cyberpunk view, life is also surrounded by death: yet, existence here on earth does matter because, while one’s existence on earth may be pointless, it is ultimately better than the illusionary heaven of cyberspace (better than the abandoning of one’s “meat”—one’s body—for the consensual hallucination of cyberspace). Medieval works address the gloriousness of leaving the physical body behind for the abstract existence in heaven, while much of cyberpunk fiction and film address the opposite, the ingloriousness of leaving the physical body behind for an abstract existence in the heaven of cyberspace. One view is a mirror of the other. However, these opposites are still the same medieval European Christian dualist perspective of earth and heaven, of life and death.24 And yet, it is also neither Christian nor medieval. Between these two mirror worlds is the medium for the act of penance. This medium, in turn, can take alternative media forms. Thus there is rather Milton-esque wordplay: from medium in the sense of spiritual guidance to medium in the sense of a means of a form of communication.) Penance is the means for gaining atonement for sins in order to move from one world (earth/reality) to another (heaven/fantasy. For example, the fictional characters in Gibson’s Sprawl and Bridge stories and the fictional characters in The Matrix films actively seek out simulated realities, and these simulated realities replace the environment of a reallife act of penance for an alternative virtual environment. In other words, while the allegorical medium for penance in Everyman is in a performed reception of punishment from God; the allegorical medium penance for

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Gibson and the Wachowski siblings is in cyberspace, which is actually a multimedia environment. Now, the act of penance, however is no longer a punishment, especially if one remembers that the medieval meaning of the word patient (used rather than criminal for such procedures): the penance is a form of surgery upon the soul. In the late Middle Ages, the more that one is tortured in body, the better repaired one’s soul becomes. Hence, the tortures, which were often performed in public by an executioner back then, were valued much as the operations performed in a hospital by a doctor today. Each has a positive intention for the outcome, be it a healthier soul or a healthier body, regardless of the actual outcome.25 This surgical penance becomes a declaration of factual being—I exist; therefore, I am—which thus becomes a bodily acceptance of the soul—I am sexually attracted to people of the same sex; therefore, I am homosexual or in my soul, I am a woman and this surgery will fix my male body to reflect my soul. Both Neo (The Matrix) and Case (Neuromancer) go through a ritual of penance after a fall from grace. His body disabled from too much time spent on the net, Case’s fall from grace is a fall into reality. “In the bars he’d frequented as a cyber cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.”26 Neo literally falls, and his fall is more of a battle of the mind and spirit than of the body’s struggle for life. And yet the body does struggle. When Neo is unplugged from the matrix, back into reality, the process is clearly a baptism of the highest cynical order: flushed like waste down a toilet, into the “purification” of the sewage system. Case is also baptized, though through the fire of pain when he is granted reconstructive surgery after his “fall” from cyberspace: Cold steel odor. Ice caressed his spine. Lost, so small amid that dark, hands grown cold, body image fading down corridors of television sky.


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture Voices. Then black fire found the branching tributaries of the nerves, pain beyond anything to which the name of pain is given.27

However, when he awakens, he wants to plug his newly remapped brain (with its newly rebuilt body—new pancreas, new nervous system) back into the heaven of cyberspace. Once a junkie, always a junkie? Perhaps, or perhaps this is more of a Buddhist or Hindu rejuvenation, a reincarnation of sorts? This blending of one religion with another is not a new concept; it is much easier to do in the Information Age when one might learn sufficient bits and pieces of any belief system within a matter of hours. Thus, one might build a belief system designed to one’s liking. “The final element of Gibson’s vision of cyberspace,” notes Tim Jordan, “is that it raises the possibility of immortality.”28 However that is all that his vision raises: the possibility of changed sexual and gender identity, the possibility of sex, the possibility of a new (better) digital afterlife (really an alternate life), the possibility of superhuman powers and immortality, the possibility of escape from one’s fears and failures into fantasies and forgeries. For Gibson, however, it is all mucked up. In Gibson’s narratives, it never quite works out. One can never successfully find freedom in cyberspace; one can never successfully find penance and freedom from sin. For Gibson’s Sprawl and Bridge stories, one “jacks” into cyberspace. Symbolically, it is the male genitalia (regardless of gender or sexual identity) that must plug into the womb of cyberspace. Thus, the physical body’s brain connection to the computer is a kind of digital-cerebral jacking off. For Gibson, the architecture of the real (nondigital) body may also be altered, but such alterations hold greater permanence and less flexibility for further change. The Magnetic Dog Sisters in Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic” are an example of this to the gender identity/sexuality extreme (perhaps): “they were two meters tall and thin as greyhounds. One was black and the other white, but aside from that they were as

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nearly identical as cosmetic surgery could make them. They’d been lovers for years and were bad news in a tussle. [Johnny] was never quite sure which one had originally been male.”29 Alternatively, consider the architecture of the digital body in Idoru. In the case of the marriage of Rez and the idoru, the possibility of their marriage and an actual consummation of it can only be found in the idoru’s digital world, which is contained inside a small box of digital programming. Rez permanently “jacks in” (figuratively inseminates his soul) into the idoru’s digital box. He puts himself into her digital womb, into which she also exists: the novel thus at least suggests that this digital marriage can take shape any way the couple wishes because either can change who/what they are in an instant. Even Rez and the idoru are, like the Dixie Flatliner, imprisoned inside a digital box. Thus, these explorations of cyberspace become little more than the exploration of digital dreams. Rez, in permanently escaping into his digital dream, has literally killed his physical body (destroyed the medium containing his soul) and becomes eternally a part of the confessional medium (of cyberspace), which is madness, like the madness of Judas in The Matrix, a denial of reality and overpowering desire to exist in the virtual (rather than allowing the virtual to exist in the reality). It is a symbolic return to the womb when returning to the womb is not possible. The Wachowski siblings explore immortality, gender identity, and sexuality in a very different way, as is emphasized by one of their more recent films, Cloud Atlas (2012), codirected with Tom Tykwer. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same title (2004) by David Mitchell, who once said of his work, “As I was writing … I thought, ‘It’s a shame this is unfilmable.’”30 Indeed, it is clear that the screenplay, coauthored by the Wachowski siblings and Tykwer, recognized the challenges of making such an adaptation. However, as Martin Paul Eve declares that “it is no secret that Russel Hoban’s (1925–2011) masterwork, Riddley Walker (1980), is a strong central reference point for David Mitchell’s virtuoso, genre-shifting, six-part novel.”31 “Indeed,” continues Eve,


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture within Mitchell’s Russian-doll structural premise, itself a mirror of the many sub-narratives of Riddle Walker and other post-modern fictions, the final diegtic layer is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where the inhabitants speak a mangled, phonetically transcribed language much akin to the “Riddleyspeak” within Hoban’s novel.32

Perhaps, then, it is safer to argue that this adaptation is only mimetic in the ways in which the plots have been visually interwoven to generate the powerful theme of interconnectivity. In other words, the film Cloud Atlas is not much more like Mitchell’s novel than Mitchell’s novel is like other metafictions. Gregory Chad Wilkes argues, In the Wachowskis’ signature trilogy, Neo is told by the Architect that the Matrix has been rebooted a total of six times, which is suspiciously similar to the number of plots in Cloud Atlas. Patterns recur in each version of the Matrix, but slight novelties arise, as well. (For example, in Neo’s sixth visit to the Architect, he chooses to save his girlfriend Trinity, rather than Zion.)33 While The Matrix films never demonstrate the ability to change gender and/or sexual identity in cyberspace—even Agent Smith is always the same-looking and being Agent Smith(s)—Cloud Atlas makes the argument that such bodily changes happen in reality, all the time, throughout the ages. Or rather, it rises above such changes. For example, they have actor crossdressing throughout the film: • Hugo Weaving (male) plays Haskell Moore, Tadeusz Kesselring, Bill Smoke, Nurse Noakes (female), Boardman Mephi, and Old Georgie. • Halle Berry (female) plays a native Pacific Island woman, Jocasta Ayrs, Luisa Rey, an Indian party guest, Ovid (male), and Meronym. • Ben Whishaw (male) plays a cabin boy, Robert Frobisher, a store clerk, Georgette (female), and a tribesman. • Susan Sarandon (female) plays Madame Horrox, Ursula, Yosouf Suleiman (male), and an abbess.

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Some of these characters are clearly heterosexual; others are clearly homosexual; however most of the characters’ sexualities are ill-defined, vague, and unimportant. Race-crossing is also a feature in this film. Make-up is used to alter eyes and other facial attributes, recalling the multiple races of Star Trek and Star Wars films and shows, ultimately deemphasizing the importance of noting race as it becomes clear that dress identifies a class of being as much as (or even more than) the color of skin or shape of eyes. In purposely placing actors (regardless of their race, nationality, gender, or known sexuality in their real lives) into the roles of various characters (regardless of their race, nationality, gender, or apparent sexuality in their fictional lives), the directors use the film itself as a literal and spiritual medium that both shows and declares that it does not matter what the body is; the soul stays the same, always. The film is the matrix, the womb, of ideas. This matrix/womb of ideas is one created and nurtured by the filmmakers (directors, actors, cinematographers) and shared with the members of the audience (who are passive participants, journeying from the seats of the theatre or their living room furniture). Ben Whishaw describes acting for the film as putting “you in a dreamy-woozy space because it’s expanding your mind in some way.” Tom Hanks calls the script “this high-falutin piece of art” and when asked if he understood the script his answer was vehement “No!” Yet he also obeserves: “So many movies say one thing and they pursue that one thing. This [film] as a scope that’s bigger than anything I’ve ever seen.” According to Lana Wachowski, “We live in this age where everyone tries to separate thrilling, exciting romance from ideas. It’s like some kind of violation that if you are making something exciting then somehow the ideas are not worthy of being considered.”34 It is not just the fact that so many roles are played in six different stories that merge together to create an epic plot. It is the fact that the motif of the shooting-star birthmark moves from one character of one generation to the next, regardless of gender identity or


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sexuality. Within that matrix of ideas is another matrix, a matrix of life, including reincarnation and genetic anomaly inheritance. Cyberspace in this film, such as the broadcast communications system used to share Sonmi-451’s message regarding slavery and exploitation, is thus revealed as the virtual matrix that it is.

Dream Quest-Penance Sex in the City-wombs of Medieval Heaven and Cyber-heaven The early-twentieth-century fantasy writers, including Tolkien, were writing confessional journeys in response to the crisis of the twentieth century: world wars, economic depression, genocide, and famine. “All these men were writing obviously, or even self-declaredly,” observes Shippey, “about the nature of evil, which they thought had changed in their time, or about which the human race had gained new knowledge.”35 Shippey also notes that “books, like words, do not stay where they started.  They may be put in new contexts, stir new feelings, and have new results.” He hopes/thinks this is what has happened with Tolkien’s works, “via his host of imitators, most of whom have no war experience and no clear sense of what he was writing about: what they get from him is different, not from what he put in, but from what he thought he put in.”36 The writings and films of William Gibson and Lana and Andy Wachowski are cerebral surgeries made in response to a different crisis of woundedness, one of the late twentieth century and the early twentyfirst century. Indeed, one might argue that the body is the womb for the soul, regardless of gender or sexuality. “Only when we base our beliefs on immediate experience and innate ideas,” argued Wright, “can we know reality absolutely and with certainty.  Like Descartes, the Ring-bearer and his fellows must break free from their assumptions and false beliefs if they wish to be transformed by the journey inward.”37 While this is journey is very medieval, this  “break[ing] free from their assumptions and false beliefs” is also in a very druggy-mid-to-late 20th-century American mode, which ties in rather well with the initial

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popularity of Tolkien’s works.  To underscore how journey-pilgrimages are never linear (straight), I provide the example of the rock-music group, The Doors, which made possibly the earliest live-music recordings in rock-music history. They were  recorded  in 1967 at the Matrix Club (San Francisco, California); the album is called Live at the Matrix 1967 and includes a great recording of “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” (lyrics by Jim Morrison): You know the day destroys the night Night divides the day Tried to run Tried to hide Break on through to the other side Break on through to the other side Break on through to the other side, yeah. Indeed, to revise Wright’s observation slightly, “Like Descartes, the Ring-bearer and his fellows,” Gibson and his readers, the Wachowski siblings and their film viewers, and Jim Morrison (even though he is no longer alive) and his band, “must break free from their assumptions and false beliefs if they wish to be transformed by the journey inward.”   Such pilgrimages of penance and exploration almost become a joke, an adolescent  zeitgeist of absurd proportions.  (“The Dude  abides.”) However, taken seriously, the transformation, the journey inward, is a continual collective quest-pilgrimage: painful, sweet, horrible, beautiful, neverending.


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Notes 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.

12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.

20. 21.

Tolkien, personal letter; quoted by Gilsdorf. Shippey, “Hard Reading,” 16. Gilsdorf, “The Lord of the Gold Ring.” Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, 329. In this work, I am using all possible meanings of the word soul—be it the spiritual (religious) aspect of a person or the psychological (scientific) nature of a person. Vaccaro, “Introduction,” 6. Ibid., 3. Smol, “Frodo’s Body: Liminality and the Experience of War,” 39. Wright, “Sam and Frodo’s Excellent Adventure: Tolkien’s Journey Motif,” 197. Oxford English Dictionary . “1526 TINDALE Luke ii. 23 Every man chylde that fyrst openeth the matrix shalbe called holy to the lorde” and “1555 EDEN Decades 31 margin, Mountaynes are the matrices of golde.” Oxford English Dictionary. In 1851, James Joseph Sylvester “used the term ‘matrix’ in its conventional usage to mean ‘the place from which something else originates’ (Katz 1993)” for the purposes of “uniquely representing and working with linear transformations.” Weisstein, “Matrix.” Robinson and Clements, “Plays upon Playing with Tolkien’s Playing with Language,” 99 Apple referred (and still refers to them) as logic boards. Sterling, “Every Other Movie Is the Blue Pill,” 28 Gibson, Neuromancer, 6. Gibson, Neuromancer, 206. Biddick, The Shock of Medievalism, 167. Ibid., 165. In “The Dream of the Rood,” the cross portrays Jesus as a “þa geong hæleð” (“young warrior” line 39) and as “modig” (“brave, proud” line 41). In the Ancrene Rwille, Jesus is portrayed strong, chivlaric knight who has wooed our soul like a noble suitor (Part Seven). Sterling, “Every Other Movie Is the Blue Pill,” 28. See, for example, Wagner Flannery-Dailey’s “Wake Up! Worlds of Illusion in Gnosticism, Buddhism, and The Matrix Project.”.

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22. Wright, “Sam and Frodo’s Excellent Adventure: Tolkien’s Journey Motif,” 198. 23. Although Tolkien denies that The Lord of the Rings is allegorical, he admits that it is applicable, that is, that it can be applied to our earthly situation. In a letter to Rhona Beare, for example, he writes: “If I were to ‘philosophize’ this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control.” Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letter 211. 24. It is noteworthy that, while Gibson’s fiction has been placed within the cyberpunk science fiction canon, clearly most of his works have progressively moved farther and farther away from a futuristic setting to return to an environment set mostly back into the present. Yet, even here, the present is full of medieval ideology and medieval Christian theology, which Gibson (knowingly or not) even suggests in Pattern Recognition (2003), when the central character, Cayce, refers to England as the “mirror world” of the United States. 25. For more detailed discussion of the “treatment” of criminals (“patients”), see the first chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish; the Birth of the Prison. 26. Gibson, Neuromancer, 6. 27. Gibson, Neuromancer, 31. 28. Jordan, Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet, 28 29. Gibson, “Johnny Mnemonic,” 2. 30. Anon. Cloud Atlas: Filmmaking Pulls Together Epic Story,” 112. 31. Martin Paul Eve, “some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us”: David Mitche, Russel Hoban, and Metafiction after the Millennium,” 1. 32. Ibid. 33. Wilkes, “Film Review: Cloud Atlas.” 3. 34. “Focus Point: A Film Like No Other” on the Cloud Atlas DVD. 35. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, 329. 36. Ibid. 37. Wright, “Sam and Frodo’s Excellent Adventure: Tolkien’s Journey Motif,” 198.

Chapter 8

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit Anne McKendry

In 1977, Ellis Peters published the first novel in her Brother Cadfael series and thereby established the popular subgenre of medieval crime fiction. Initial sales of her books were not promising, but that changed significantly after the 1983 translation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose into English and its subsequent global success.1 The combination of detective narrative and medievalism continues to appeal to a readership large enough to support the surprising number of authors who have embraced Peters and Eco’s enthusiasm for murder in the Middle Ages.2 These authors capitalize upon the familiar quest motif of medieval romance by continuing its concern with restoring social order through the modern detective’s determination to seek justice. But some authors seem unaware—or choose to ignore—the impact that the detective’s modernity causes to the medieval landscape. By maintaining


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a meticulously constructed medieval setting, these authors generate an unavoidable paradox between the detective’s rational investigation and the credulous conditions that he or she must navigate in order to complete the crime-solving quest. In his exemplar of postmodern historiographic metafiction, Eco relished this incongruity, demonstrating how the rational detective fails to operate successfully within a medieval world. However, most other authors suppress postmodern irony in order to depict an idealized Middle Ages, untroubled by the machinations of their conventional Golden Age or hardboiled detectives. This chapter first reveals the close connection between medievalism and crime fiction, most clearly realized by the quest motif of medieval romance. Then, through three case studies of the authors Ellis Peters, Peter Tremayne, and Bernard Knight,3 it investigates the consequences of inserting the modern detective into a premodern landscape.

Crime Fiction, Medieval Romance, and the Quest Critics have often noted the similarity between the work of the detective and the work of the historian. As Robin Winks observed early on in scholarship on crime fiction, “[t]he historian must collect, interpret, and then explain his [sic] evidence by methods which are not greatly different from those techniques employed by the detective, or at least the detective in fiction.”4 Ray B. Browne and Lawrence A. Kreiser have neatly reversed Winks’s analogy in their collection, The Detective as Historian, demonstrating crime fiction’s ability to contribute to the reconstruction of the historical past. To create a realistic setting, historical crime-fiction often depicts the minutiae of daily life, including details about clothing, food, housing, bathing, amongst many others. However, as John Scaggs observes, this “pursuit of verisimilitude” may generate complications: “[h]istorical fidelity to the beliefs and values of a radically different time and culture can result in characters who are unsympathetic, and even repugnant to modern readers.”5 Hence, it is perhaps not surprising that medieval crime fiction authors create protagonists who are suited to

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 157 their premodern setting and yet behave in a manner that conforms to a contemporary-detective prototype, whether the armchair amateur, the hardboiled loner, or the resourceful spy. Martin Priestman has claimed that most British crime writers now combine the “police procedural” model with more traditional detective fiction.6 The resulting hybrid applies to most contemporary crime fiction: “[t]hough it is not unknown for criminals’ identities to be revealed early on, enough secrets are retained to invest the hero with the mantle of detective genius, discreetly concealed under the plain clothes of the Detective Inspector (or above) somewhere outside London.”7 Despite a premodern setting that precludes the existence of procedures, police forces and Detective Inspectors, many medieval crime fiction novels rehearse this formulation. The “plain clothes” of the medieval detective’s occupation as monk, nun, or knight does indeed conceal his or her investigative genius, and these detectives also follow certain methods that may not be “by the book” but are nevertheless codified in a consistent approach to each case. Notwithstanding this pseudoprocedural formulation, medieval crime fiction consistently privileges the authenticity of its landscape over the verisimilitude of its investigative process, as Scaggs explains: “the historical crime novel is as much characterised by its search for realism as the police procedural, albeit an historical realism that foregrounds the narrative relationship at the heart of most crime fiction: the relationship between the past and the present.”8 The most critical feature of crime fiction is its detective. As Ken Gelder observes, crime fiction needs you to stay with its investigator, following the particularities of his or her career from novel to novel. It means that crime fiction is as ‘individualized’ as a genre can be: a massmarketed genre that turns on the details, the idiosyncrasies, of an investigator’s personality, history, circumstances … approach or method, and environment.9


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This characterization is particularly germane to medieval crime fiction. Medieval detectives are beloved by their readers: Sister Fidelma enjoys a devoted and impassioned following, as does Brother Cadfael. These detectives range in status and occupation from Margaret Frazer’s travelling player Joliffe, to Kate Sedley’s chapman Roger, to Candace Robb’s Owen Archer (Captain of Archers turned apothecary). However, the most numerous are the religious detectives, comprising an extensive range of nuns, monks, prioresses, priests, and friars. Carole M. Cusack asserts that the increasingly secularized society of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries replaced the traditional religious confessor with the figure of the detective, “in the process of ascribing meaning to the otherwise random minutiae of existence.”10 The authority of both religious confessor and secular detective thus combine to elevate the status of medieval crime fiction’s clerical sleuths. Of course, allowing a member of the medieval church to undertake an investigation into unnatural death presents challenges that are not easily overcome. The detective searches for a rational, secular solution to the crime, necessarily discounting divine or diabolical intervention in order to reveal the all-too-human perpetrator. Medieval crime-fiction also follows the generic trope of matching the nature of the detective with the conventions that characterize the narrative. For example, religious medieval detectives such as Brother Cadfael and Sister Fidelma resemble the armchair amateur detectives of the Golden Age, observing from a distance and (mostly) avoiding violent confrontation. Medieval knights such as Sir John de Wolfe, in contrast, appear eminently more suited to the hardboiled tradition, following an investigative path that involves a significant amount of fighting and harsh interrogation methods. All medieval detectives, however, share a determination to seek justice and restore social order and in this way they closely resemble the questing knight of medieval romance. Helen Cooper demonstrates how the motifs of medieval romance, which she describes as “memes,” are able to transcend time and cultures because they not only “replicate faithfully and abundantly, but also on occasion [they] adapt, mutate, and therefore survive.”11 Consequently,

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 159 Cooper notes, “[t]he clash of good against evil, quests, protagonists of mysterious birth, monsters, the supernatural are more extensive a part of culture now than they have been since the seventeenth century.”12 Even during the Middle Ages, these motifs could adapt to suit the requirements of particular tales. Geraldine Barnes observes that the early English romances, Havelok the Dane and The Tale of Gamelyn, “frequently employ the conventions of chivalric romance in a non-chivalric register.”13 Furthermore, English medieval romance distinguished itself from the Old French chansons de geste by, amongst other generic variations, “a concern less with the communal good than with the individual hero’s inward thoughts, feelings, and aspirations, and, frequently, those of the heroine too.”14 For Christopher Cannon, chansons de geste “tend to focus on exemplary action (the geste) and to envision the mounted soldier as an embodiment of the qualities and destiny of large armies and peoples.” Romances, in contrast, narrow their focus and “tend to reduce the social and political world to two combatants.”15 This is precisely the formulation of crime fiction, in which the detective and the criminal contend with each other to generate the underlying force of the narrative. Moreover, crime fiction’s concern with contemporary issues of injustice and social order continues the cultural work of medieval romance as Cooper notes, “early romance insisted on its social relevance, and it was always rooted in a recognizable this-worldly society, even if voyages to exotic lands or the Otherworld were allowed.”16 The synergy between medieval knight and modern detective strengthens through a shared system of values embedded in their characters and shaped by a strong sense of justice. As Cooper points out, the chivalric ethos developed in order to channel masculine “aggression into socially useful roles: the support of the weak, the support of the king, the support of God and the Church.”17 In other words, the knight “vows to protect the Church and the weak (especially women), to keep faith and uphold justice.”18 This vow is not dissimilar to the unspoken oath of the detective; leaving aside, of course, a protective concern for the Church: scientific advancement requires most contemporary investigators to eschew religious faith.


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Amongst other romance motifs, the quest features as medieval crime fiction’s most important device in terms of both structuring the narrative and characterizing the detective. Cooper describes the function of the quest in medieval romance in a way that could equally apply to crime fiction: The aim of the quest, its poetic as well as geographical end, is integral: that is, it defines what the entire story is about and ensures that the journey is something more than random, even though it may start haphazardly, ‘by adventure’, and proceed with adventures that appear equally adventitious. The achievement of the quest, or even a failure to achieve it, will be not just another episode but the informing principle of the whole romance.”19 The detective’s investigation, or quest, informs the crime narrative and provides the motivation for the main protagonist. Indeed, even failure to solve the crime—achieve the quest—is a recognizable tradition within the postmodern crime fiction of writers such as Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Paul Auster. In addition to the quest for justice, the detective often undertakes a personal journey towards self-awareness, mirroring the physical and ontological crises faced by the questing knight of medieval romance. Eco’s William of Baskerville, for example, famously uncovers the perpetrator of the murders, while nevertheless conceding that he has misinterpreted the signs: “I arrived at Jorge through an apocalyptic pattern that seemed to underlie all the crimes, and yet it was accidental.”20 Despite the fact that “the pertinacious and inquisitive detective did find the villain,”21 William finally despairs because his investigative method insisted he pursue “a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.”22 William’s ontological dilemma is one confronted by all religious medieval detectives (as will be demonstrated shortly in the cases of Brother Cadfael and Sister Fidelma): they look for secular solutions in a world that has absolute faith in divine (and diabolical) intervention, causing internal conflict between knowledge

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 161 and faith. However, amongst medieval detectives, William alone appears sufficiently self-aware to be conscious of this postmodern dilemma. William’s epistemological and ontological concerns recall Sir Gawain’s journey to face the Green Knight in the well-known Middle English romance. While Gawain achieves his physical quest and survives the return blow of the axe, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also describes the knight’s quest to understand and accept his weakness in acquiring the green girdle from Lady Bertilak. Similarly, in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the knight’s quest “is primarily about what happens inside him” rather than his year-and-a-day journey seeking to discover what women most desire.23 Medieval romance’s investment in the character of its questing knight emerges in crime fiction’s concern with depicting a detective whose personal development appeals to readers as much as the investigative process.

Brother Cadfael Upon viewing the body of a Welsh landowner who had objected to the bones of Saint Winifred being taken from her local burial site to the Benedictine monastery in nearby Shrewsbury, Prior Robert diagnoses divine intervention: “Behold the saint’s vengeance! Did I not say her wrath would be wreaked upon all those who stood in the way of her desire? … Saint Winifred has shown her power and her displeasure.”24 But one of the onlookers objects to Robert’s assessment: ‘I don’t believe it! … What, a gentle virgin saint, to take such vengeance on a good man? … If she had been so pitiless as to want to slay—and I do not believe it of her!—what need would she have of arrows and bows? Fire from heaven would have done her will just as well, and shown her power better. You are looking at a murdered man, Father Prior.’25 Brother Cadfael agrees and diplomatically offers his observations through the same otherworldly frame: “And the young man’s right. This arrow


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never was shot from heaven. Look at the angle of it, up from under his ribs into the heart. Out of the earth, rather! A man with a short bow, on his knee among the bushes? True, the ground slopes.”26 Importantly, Cadfael does not deny that Saint Winifred could strike down a man who had displeased her; she simply was not responsible in this particular case. Thus, Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael carefully manipulates his medieval surroundings, creating enough critical distance to attain a modern detective’s perspective on the murder. In conventional crime fiction, the best detectives are outsiders (clearly a challenge when living in a closed monastery) and Peters develops a credible history for Cadfael that explains his difference, or even alienation, from his fellow monks. As a young man, Cadfael went on crusade to the Holy Land, where he later worked as a mercenary soldier, gaining experience in battles, relationships with women and medical training.27 Furthermore, Lesley Jacobs notes, “Cadfael’s Welshness in the disputed border region of Shropshire gives him the ability to comment on English values and offer alternatives to them.”28 However, it is Cadfael’s distinctly modern attitude towards medieval religion that truly distinguishes him from his premodern context. As Edward Rielly observes, Cadfael resembles “a post-Vatican II Catholic” in his tolerant and pragmatic approach to religious doctrine.29 For example, Cadfael admits to “private reservations” regarding the teachings of Saint Augustine, believing there to be “a certain unbending rigidity about Augustine that offers little compassion to anyone with whom he disagrees.”30 Cadfael also expresses a rather anachronistic tolerance of alternative religions: “I have always known that the best of the Saracens could out-Christian many of us Christians.”31 Cadfael deploys his pragmatic theological convictions to notable success in his investigations—in A Morbid Taste for Bones, he exploits the medieval belief that a corpse will bleed if touched by its murderer. While the rational detective in Cadfael discounts this superstition, he nevertheless engineers the touching of the corpse by several of the

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 163 suspects in order to observe their reactions, in an astute manipulation of medieval psychology: [I]t would have mattered less if Cadfael had firmly believed that the murdered bleed when the murderer touches, but what he believed was very different, simply that the belief was general among most people, and could drive the guilty, when cornered, to terror and confession. That very terror and stress might even produce some small effusion of blood, though he doubted it.32 In The Rose Rent, Cadfael makes a careful wax imprint of a footprint discovered at the scene of the crime (a thoroughly modern forensic exercise), and his subsequent interpretation of the positioning of the body and weapon dispels the initial assumption of suicide.33 In addition to his religious tolerance, Cadfael is similarly unmedieval in his attitude towards women. Each of the novels presents strong female characters that mirror Cadfael’s own innate androgyny. Indeed, Cadfael is “as close to being a feminist as a medieval monk can be.”34 Cadfael expresses his belief in gender equality in the first book of the series: Both men and women partake of the same human nature, Huw. We both bleed when we’re wounded. That’s a poor, silly woman, true, but we can show plenty of poor, silly men. There are women as strong as any of us, and as able.35 Rosemary Johnsen discusses the challenge a medieval setting presents to feminist authors, pointing out that “accuracy must not be sacrificed, or the feminist motivation will not be well served, but the medieval world’s circumscribed roles for women can make it difficult to generate any feminist material at all.”36 Johnsen’s work focuses on the female medieval detectives of Sharan Newman, Margaret Frazer and Candace Robb, but Peters here has demonstrated that feminist narratives are not necessarily restricted to female characters. Cadfael occupies a space generated by the tension between his medieval setting and his modern perspective, allowing him to achieve a critical


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distance from his surroundings while remaining firmly embedded in the Middle Ages. This ability to critique from within seemingly conforms to the ironic demands of postmodernism.37 However, rather than allowing this irony to dismantle her medieval world, Peters instead invokes the conventions of Golden Age or clue-puzzle detective fiction. Peters’s crimes are often contained within the closed confines of a priory, abbey, castle, or walled town, ensuring that the number of suspects remains small. Cadfael himself is an example of the talented amateur trope made famous by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey, amongst others. Cadfael’s ingenuous assistant is the local sheriff, Hugh Beringar, who often defers to the monk’s wisdom and experience when investigating crime in Shrewsbury and is as useful in dangerous situations as Dr. John Watson is to Sherlock Holmes or Captain Arthur Hastings to Hercule Poirot. Peters also presents the reader with the same evidence as her medieval detective, encouraging her audience to perform the “mental gymnastics” required for solving the crime; a task that has been compared to completing a crossword puzzle.38 Finally, the Brother Cadfael chronicles recall Golden Age detective fiction’s project of providing a sense of security and prevailing justice to a society still reeling from the impact of World War I. Cadfael’s community is also traumatized by violent conflict: Cadfael’s quest for justice and social order is juxtaposed with the bitter civil war between Matilda and Stephen that forms a powerful backdrop to many of the novels. Thus, Peters’s re-creation of the Middle Ages and her deft deployment of Golden Age detective conventions prevent Cadfael’s secular rationality and modern perspective from destabilizing the medieval world he inhabits.

Sister Fidelma Peter Tremayne has carefully constructed a Celtic world of learning and enlightenment that greatly assists his seventh-century Irish nun’s performance as a medieval detective. Sister Fidelma, in addition to being a nun, is a dálaigh (representative) of the Irish law courts committed

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 165 to prosecuting or defending cases and discovering “truth.” She is also sister to Colgú of Cashel, King of Muman, one of the five kingdoms of Ireland. Fidelma’s royal blood, her position as dálaigh, and her religious status afford her authority in almost every situation; indeed, at times the incredulity expressed by some of the characters regarding this young woman’s accomplishments is understandable. However, Tremayne’s meticulous research insists that Fidelma is a realistic portrayal of what was possible for a woman to achieve in seventh-century Ireland.39 Like Peters’s Cadfael series, Tremayne’s novels generally conform to Golden Age conventions: the action is often contained within an abbey or a castle or on a ship, so that number of suspects remains small; the reader and Fidelma uncover clues together; and at the conclusion of the books, Fidelma regularly presents her solution to an assembly of the suspects in a manner similar to Hercule Poirot. Fidelma displays all the characteristics of a successful detective. She is observant, intelligent, rational, brave, and determined. She is also an interesting combination of Celtic mysticism and Christian faith, and she is more likely to engage in meditation than the daily religious offices. Fidelma’s determination to seek secular solutions to apparently insoluble conundrums is characteristic of her fellow medieval detectives and, like Peters’s Brother Cadfael and Eco’s William of Baskerville especially, she discounts the notion of divine intervention. One of her favorite maxims is “what is the supernatural but nature that has not yet been explained?”, which is in keeping with Tremayne’s depiction of a Celtic enlightenment.40 But Fidelma also has her faults—she is arrogant and aloof, and she becomes waspish when frustrated with the progress of her investigation or the stupidity of others. The main victim of Fidelma’s shortness of temper is Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk she meets while attending the Council of Whitby (664 CE) as a member of the delegation representing the interests of the Irish Church. Tremayne’s first novel featuring Fidelma, Absolution by Murder, chronicles the events at Whitby, in which the author establishes important tensions that continue throughout the series.41 These include the conflict between the Roman and Irish Churches


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over issues such as clerical celibacy and the date of Easter, the animosity between what is portrayed as the barbarian Saxons and enlightened Irish, and the perennial opposition between men and women. Eadulf is a member of the Roman Church and a Saxon, two patriarchal systems despised by Fidelma. However, despite this apparent incompatibility, Fidelma and Eadulf eventually become betrothed, have a son, and marry. Furthermore, the series is overtly political, challenging historiographic assumptions about gender, religion, and the Saxon colonization of Britain from the perspective of an idealized Celtic civilization. Peter Tremayne is the pseudonym for the London-based Celtic historian and journalist, Peter Berresford Ellis. In addition to medieval crime fiction, Ellis is a prolific author of Celtic history for a predominately general audience. Ellis’s nonfiction books promote the same Celtic ideal that characterizes the Sister Fidelma series. According to Ellis, the combination of barbarian invasion by Germanic tribes and the encroaching influence of patriarchal Roman Christianity destroyed the enlightened, liberal civilization of the Celts. Particularly concerned with revising the history of Celtic women, Ellis insists that theirs was a significantly more valued and easier existence than that of their Saxon cousins, pointing out that women were able to own property, receive the same inheritance as men, participate in higher education and citing examples of women as war leaders, physicians, artisans, poets, and judges—“there seemed few professions that women could not join, nor was there any barrier to their rising to prominence in such professions as they chose.”42 However, other historians challenge these assertions and, indeed, Ellis’s broader depiction of early Irish society.43 In Tremayne’s historiographic project, the quest of his medieval detective is amplified. While Fidelma’s overarching mission is her crusade for truth, she also displays a relentless intolerance for the narrow-minded bigotry of the Roman Church and the Saxons. Poor Brother Eadulf, as representative of both systems, frequently suffers under Fidelma’s scornful criticism. The couple often conducts religious, cultural, and

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 167 philosophical debates that reflect Ellis’s historiographical project. In one case, Eadulf attempts to prove to Fidelma that the art of “divination from the stars” is contrary to the teachings of Christianity by quoting various biblical authorities. Fidelma’s response is typically condescending: Fidelma smiled softly. She always had a tendency to smile when Eadulf began to argue theology for, by his adherence to the new teachings of Rome, he and she found many points of difference in their attitudes to the Faith. Fidelma was a woman of her own culture.44 A heated exchange ensues in which Eadulf becomes more frustrated and Fidelma ultimately (and inevitably) gains a grudging concession from him, albeit a secular one: “Why do I think that I can win an argument with a lawyer?”45 Like Brother Cadfael, Fidelma also discounts either divine intervention or sorcery as an explanation for events: Fidelma regarded Eadulf across the refectory table, at which they were breaking their fast the next morning, with a[nother] slight smile. ‘You seem alarmed by this mystery of Brother Mochta,’ she observed, as she tore a piece of bread from the loaf before her. Eadulf’s eyes rounded in perplexity. ‘Are you not alarmed? This borders on the miraculous. How can it be the same man?’ ‘Alarmed? Not I. Didn’t the Roman Tacitus say that the unknown always passes for the miraculous? Well, once the matter ceases to be unknown it ceases to be miraculous.’ ‘Are you saying that there must be some logical explanation for this mystery?’ Fidelma looked at him in a reproach. ‘Isn’t there always?’46


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In this scene, Tremayne’s nostalgia for a vanished Celtic utopia is unable to suppress the irony of Fidelma’s adherence to the logics of modern detection. Fidelma’s unwavering faith in logical explanations troubles her premodern context, a context that incorporates divine intervention and supernatural superstition into its cultural belief systems. Tremayne’s overtly skeptical detective not only threatens his idealized Celtic enlightenment but also jeopardizes his realistic portrayal of Irish women in the first millennium. In an effort to justify the authenticity of their medieval landscapes, many authors include an author’s note at the beginning or end of their text. These notes explain the historical background of the novel and outline the meticulous research undertaken to ensure the utmost accuracy. Authors embark upon this quest for authenticity with a fervor that rivals their detectives’ quest for justice. Tremayne, especially, embraces this opportunity: his historical notes are more like essays, sometimes stretching to fifteen or more pages. These notes detail the historical context for each novel and pointedly inform the reader that it is completely conceivable that a character such as Fidelma could have existed in seventh-century Ireland. Occasionally, Tremayne’s notes adopt a somewhat defensive tone when challenged on historical veracity: The author often receives letters from readers wondering if he is simply inventing the social background and technology of Fidelma’s world, and, indeed, one recent reviewer seemed to believe that he was claiming a technology which they felt was beyond Irish capability at that time. It might interest readers to know that the following sources have been drawn on for the background to this particular story.47 Tremayne cannot conceal his irritation at this critique, referring to himself in the third person perhaps to create the illusion of an objective response. However, this passage also indicates the extraordinary investment that readers pour into medieval crime fiction. For both author and reader, it seems, the overriding objective is an authentic re-creation of the Middle

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 169 Ages. The author notes sections that frame these novels launch them into a pseudoscholarly realm of reliability and authority, in which the vigorous referees are a canny and dedicated group of informed readers. Moreover, Tremayne’s comments reveal his denial of the paradoxical core of medieval crime fiction: Fidelma’s adherence to the role of modern detective inevitably disrupts the authentic medieval landscape that he so strenuously defends. Tremayne’s re-creation of an enlightened Celtic utopia suits his detective and works to suppress the ironic conflict between medieval and modern. However, Fidelma’s resolute skepticism of the miracles and superstitions she encounters undermines Tremayne’s insistence that she is a woman of her time. Even acknowledging a certain liberality, it is nevertheless difficult to accept that a seventh-century Irish nun would not hold some tenets of faith, such as a belief in miracles. Tremayne’s novels conform to his version of Celtic history, as depicted in Ellis’s nonfiction works. In this way, Tremayne has transformed the medieval quest motif into a dual concern with the conventional detective’s crusade for justice as well as the historian’s desire to engage with contemporary historiographic debates.

Sir John de Wolfe In medieval romance, “the quest places the focus of the story squarely on the knight as an individual.”48 In the private-eye or hardboiled crimefiction tradition, the investigative quest directs a similar level of scrutiny towards the detective. Dennis Porter neatly summarizes the task of the hardboiled detective: “in brief, the private eye is held up to be the stubbornly democratic hero of a post-heroic age, righting wrongs in a fallen urban world in which the traditional institutions and guardians of the law, whether out of incompetence, cynicism or corruption, are no longer up to the task.”49 This description easily applies to Bernard Knight’s Sir John de Wolfe, who behaves in the manner of the jaded detective made famous by American authors Dashiell Hammett and


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Raymond Chandler in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, Chandler’s main character, Philip Marlowe, exemplifies the knight of the streets that the hardboiled form of detective fiction celebrates. However, this knight is tarnished by the city he traverses in a futile, singlehanded fight against the encroaching decay of corruption. While the heroes of medieval romance are not quite as marginalized, certain medieval detectives similarly engage in a seemingly hopeless fight against social and institutional malfeasance. However, unlike Marlowe, they are rarely aware of the futility of their efforts and so are able, with the possible exception of Eco’s William of Baskerville, to avoid his cynicism. Sir John de Wolfe is a Norman knight who spent years fighting for Richard I in campaigns across France and Ireland and on crusade. He has returned home to Exeter and accepted the position of coroner, recently created by Richard both to counterbalance the often-corrupt sheriffs of the counties and to generate more funds for the king through the collection of fines. “Crowner” John is responsible for recording all serious crimes and deaths (including accidents, executions and murders) and for other legal activities on behalf of the Crown Courts. John is grumpily scrupulous at performing his duties, and each procedure is meticulously explained, from the witnessing of executions and state-sanctioned torture to the evidence of the first finder of a corpse, to the appropriation of any “royal” fish that may be found (whale or sturgeon).50 John is aided by Gwyn of Polruan, his imposing Cornish man-at-arms, and Thomas de Peyne, an intelligent and self-effacing defrocked priest who serves as secretary to the illiterate coroner. While religion is still an unavoidable part of daily medieval life, John’s secular role assists in overcoming superstitious distractions that may derail his investigations. Knight carefully builds his medieval landscape, following the tradition of the “barbaric” Middle Ages identified by Eco’s well-known taxonomy.51 His descriptions of the poverty, squalor, and violence that tarnish Exeter and its surrounding villages contrast significantly to the more sanitized depiction of medieval life in the novels of Peters or Tremayne. Details of

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 171 Knight’s medieval world include descriptions of John’s personal bathing routine, which comprises a weekly “perfunctory wash in a leather bucket of cold water in the yard,” a weekly change of clothes and a twice-weekly shave.52 John is married to Matilda, a snobbish and sour middle-aged Norman woman, chosen by John’s father. De Wolfe compensates for his loveless marriage by keeping a permanent mistress, Nesta, landlady of the Bush tavern, as well as at least three casual lovers, including his housemaid, Mary. Knight’s depiction of the Middle Ages is one of (literally) soiled streets and survival in a harsh and crooked environment. Sir John is the disillusioned knight who faces a never-ending quest to seek justice for his victims and combat the corruption embedded in the feudal hierarchies that surround him. He growls his way through his investigations using a combination of intimidation and bravado, and he is quick to resort to physical force to extract information. Like many hardboiled detectives, John stumbles upon much of his evidence by chance rather than through the ratiocination process favored by Golden Age amateurs. Gwyn’s discoveries while playing dice with castle soldiers and Thomas’s keen ear for clerical gossip frequently direct John’s investigations. In one example of optimism overcoming practicality, John wanders around the enormous Exeter fair accompanied by the surviving victim of a murder-robbery crime in the hope that the traumatized man will recognize his attacker. The victim and John do indeed spot and apprehend the perpetrator during a pause to watch a morality play performed by one of Exeter’s guilds.53 Albeit somewhat clumsily, such a detail thus presents an important aspect of medieval life that combines the secular and religious while simultaneously developing the detective narrative and condemning the immorality of murder. The systematic corruption faced by Chandler’s Marlowe and other conventional hardboiled detectives also characterizes Knight’s re-creation of late-twelfth-century Exeter. In many of his investigations, John’s brother-in-law, Sir Richard de Revelle, the sheriff of Devon, impedes


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his progress. Like most sheriffs, Sir Richard resents the threat that the new office of coroner represents to his monopoly on law enforcement. Sir Richard is not only corrupt but also a traitor, having supported Prince John’s uprising against King Richard and only narrowly escaped punishment thanks to John’s intervention for Matilda’s sake. Sir Richard has no desire to uncover truth or to administer justice, consistently opposing John in order to promote his own financial and political interests. John is an outsider to Sir Richard’s tainted system of authority, and a trace of hollowness marks John’s quest against corruption that mirrors the traditional hardboiled detective’s futile fight against the modern city’s decay. John’s own secularity reflects the modern detective’s suspicion of divine intervention. He faces religious interaction daily: with his priestly clerk Thomas; with his good friend John de Alençon, the Archdeacon of Exeter; with his wife’s frequent visits to the Church of St. Olave’s; and with crimes involving priests. However, in spite of such engagements, Crowner John remains determinedly unspiritual. He rarely attends mass or any religious services, he never performs the act of crossing himself when talking of death or seeing a corpse as other medieval characters do, and he never prays, even when in grave danger. The importance of religion to medieval daily life is not denied in Knight’s works; indeed, he has researched sacred rituals and church politics as meticulously as other aspects of his medieval world. But the lack of interaction between his detective and any devotional practices suggests Knight’s uneasiness with his attempt to straddle the unavoidable religious discourse of the Middle Ages and the insistent secularity of the modern detective. John treats the religious practices that surround him as another irritation that he must minimize or avoid altogether, equating them with the corrupt justice system he must also overcome. Consequently, his quest for justice and the restoration of order denies the piety displayed by knights of medieval romance such as Arthur, Gawain, and Galahad, and which imbue their quests with a divine purpose.

Medievalism, the Detective, and the Quest for Whodunnit 173 Knight’s medievalism not only echoes Marlowe’s soiled knight of the modern city, it also recalls the chivalric ideals depicted by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe. Scott’s medievalism resuscitates the code of chivalry in an effort to reinforce the conservative political ideologies and class structures of Hanoverian Britain.54 But the deep nostalgia that infuses Ivanhoe cannot preclude the occasional incursion of irony created by Scott’s critical distance from the medieval world he is revisiting. For example, a sentimental description of the glories of a medieval tournament concludes in the following manner: Thus ended the memorable field of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, one of the most gallantly contested tournaments of that age; for although only four knights, including one who was smothered by the heat of his armour, had died upon the field, yet upwards of thirty were desperately wounded, four or five of whom never recovered. Several more were disabled for life; and those who escaped best carried the marks of the conflict to the grave with them. Hence it is always mentioned in the old records, as the Gentle and Free Passage of Arms of Ashby.55 The irony of this conclusion lies, of course, in the narrator’s awareness that these tournaments could never have been “Gentle” or gallant. Like Ivanhoe, Sir John de Wolfe is honorable, chivalrous, and fanatically loyal to the absent King Richard. While obviously lacking the chastity of the knightly ideal, John nevertheless champions the weak and defenseless in a manner that modern ‘knights’ can poorly replicate. In Crowner’s Quest, John challenges Sir Jocelin de Braose to a trial by battle on behalf of the young son whose father de Braose had murdered. Despite John’s more advanced years, he vanquishes his opponent in a jousting contest, sacrificing his old warhorse in the process.56 In Figure of Hate, the medieval tournament circuit is described as dangerous, expensive and, on at least one occasion, an opportunity for murder.57 Like Scott, Knight has tempered the nostalgic glamor of these chivalric episodes with a touch of irony that reveals the author’s inability to relinquish completely his contemporary perspective. But Knight’s ironic hints cannot dislodge his


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nostalgic re-creation of medieval Exeter; instead, they work to tarnish Sir John de Wolfe’s chivalric ideals just enough to conjure the image of the hardboiled detective.

Conclusion Medieval crime-fiction is an illustration of the medievalism that infiltrates contemporary culture. This desire to revisit the Middle Ages is so prevalent in art, literature, television, cinema, architecture, and popular fiction that Catherine Brown suggests that if the Middle Ages hadn’t existed, people might have had to invent them, just so that we could safely be non-medieval, and have someplace exotic to fly to when modern life got too, well, modern.58 Using the Middle Ages as an escape from the frenetic pace of modern life is a convincing modus operandi for medieval crime-fiction, in which the narratives necessarily avoid the saturation of scientific techniques that characterize contemporary investigative procedures. This fiction “medievalizes” the detective’s desire to apprehend perpetrators of crime and to seek justice for their victims. It does so by harnessing the cultural capital of the quest motif of medieval romance. Like the knight of medieval romance, the medieval detective undertakes a quest that presents intellectual challenges, physical dangers, and ontological dilemmas. However, the detective must maintain enough critical distance from his or her medieval context so that magical, divine, or diabolical explanations cannot impede the rational investigative process. The unavoidable modernity of the detective often disrupts the carefully constructed medieval landscape and most medieval-crime-fiction authors remain unaware or dismissive of this irony: the instrument tasked with restoring order is itself a destabilizing force. Nevertheless, the popularity of medieval crime fiction evinces its successful amalgamation of medievalism and crime fiction, most evidently through the closely analogous figures of the detective and the knight sharing their quests for justice.

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Notes 1. Fichte, “Crime Fiction Set in the Middle Ages: Historical Novel and Detective Story,” 54. 2. There are very few surveys of this type of literature. In Browne and Kreiser’s collection, The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction, over one-third of the critical essays examine novels set in the Middle Ages, more than any other period. In Burgess and Vassilakos’s bibliographic volume, Murder in Retrospect, medieval Britain and Ireland again dominate, representing one in six of all settings. Presently, there are close to one hundred authors who have written detective stories set in the European Middle Ages. The majority of these choose England, Wales or Scotland for their narratives and nearly all continue to publish or remain in print. 3. Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series (1977 to 1994); Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series (commenced in 1993 and ongoing); Bernard Knight’s Crowner John series (1998 to 2012). 4. Winks, The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, xiii. 5. Scaggs, Crime Fiction, 126. 6. The police procedural emerged in the 1950s in the work of authors such as John Creasey. In these novels, the reader often discovers the perpetrator’s identity early in the narrative so that the investigative process becomes the primary focus. 7. Priestman, “Post-war British Crime Fiction,” 178. 8. Scaggs, Crime Fiction, 32. 9. Gelder, Popular Fiction: the Logics and Practices of a Literary Field, 63. 10. Cusack, “Scarlet and Black: Non-Mainstream Religion as ‘Other’ in Detective Fiction,” 161. Cusack goes on to quote John Wren-Lewis’s argument that “[t]he detective emerged as a saviour-image as people began to lose faith in those more traditional saviours, the holy man, the righteous ruler, and the knight in shining armour” (162). 11. Cooper, The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare, 3. 12. Ibid., 8. 13. Barnes, Counsel and Strategy in Middle English Romance, 47. 14. Cooper, The English Romance in Time, 10. 15. Cannon, Middle English Literature: a Cultural History, 16.

176 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21.

22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39.

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Cooper, The English Romance in Time, 8. Ibid., 41. Ibid., 42. Ibid., 47. Eco, The Name of the Rose, 492. Knight, Secrets of Crime Fiction Classics: Detecting the Delights of 21 Enduring Stories, 178. Stephen Knight has recently described The Name of the Rose as “one of the modern high-water marks of crime fiction,” reflecting Eco’s enormously successful combination of medievalism and the detective narrative (Secrets 178). Eco, The Name of the Rose, 492. Cooper, The English Romance in Time, 49. Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones, 93. Ibid., 94. Ibid. One of these relationships produces a half-Syrian son, as Cadfael himself discovers in The Virgin in the Ice. Jacobs, “Idealized Images of Wales in the Fiction of Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters,” 91. Rielly, “Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael,” 71. Peters, The Heretic’s Apprentice, 17. Peters, The Leper of St. Giles, 198-99. Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones, 147. Peters, The Rose Rent, 83. Christian and Lindsay, “The Habit of Detection: the Medieval Monk as Detective in the Novels of Ellis Peters,” 282. Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones, 197. Johnsen, Contemporary Feminist Historical Crime Fiction, 22. Johnsen is critical of Robb’s and Frazer’s feminist content, while believing that Newman “gives readers new insight into women’s historical roles,” 58. Hutcheon, “The Power of Postmodern Irony,” 37. Knight, “The Golden Age,” 88. In a recent essay collection concerning the series, several authors grapple with the situation of women in Celtic Ireland, including Christine Kinealy, “Hidden from History: Fidelma of Cashel and Lost Female Values,” 50–59, Mitzi M. Brunsdale, “Fidelma of Cashel: the Plight of the Learned Lady,” 109–117, and M. E. Kemp, “Who Wears the Pants? Role Reversal in the Sister Fidelma Mysteries,” 182–188. All are found in Rielly

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40. 41. 42.


44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58.

and Wooten, eds., The Sister Fidelma Mysteries: Essays on the Historical Novels of Peter Tremayne. Tremayne, The Haunted Abbot, 131. Tremayne, Absolution by Murder. Ellis, Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature, 161. Ellis’s view of Saxon women, on the other hand, differs greatly: “… [Saxon] women do not appear to have been allowed any prominent role. They are shown as passive, suffering hardship and discrimination but doing little about it … Women, at all levels of society, could be bought down by men … The woman’s place in Saxon society was in total contrast with the happier position of her Celtic sisters,” Celt and Saxon: The Struggle for Britain, AD 410-937, 53-54. Lisa Bitel, for example, opens her review of Celtic Women with “Peter Berresford Ellis has written a rather silly book about women in Celtic societies.” She describes the book as “pseudo-scholarly,” “historiographically unsound,” and his use of sources as “inconsistent” and “misinterpreted,” in Bitel, “Review of Celtic Women by Peter Berresford Ellis,” 247. Cusack also denounces Ellis’s historiographic practices, arguing that Ellis had deployed his scholarly evidence out of context in a deliberate attempt to promote his own version of “history.” Cusack challenges the authenticity of Sister Fidelma’s world, “created in part by Tremayne’s distortion and manipulation of historical and legal sources,” in “Fiction, Feminism and the ‘Celtic Church’: The Sister Fidelma Novels of Peter Tremayne,” 315. Tremayne, The Monk Who Vanished, 70. Ibid., 72. Ibid., 103. Tremayne, Act of Mercy, xiv. Cooper, The English Romance in Time, 50. Porter, “The Private Eye,” 97. Sturgeon and whale were considered property of the crown. Eco, Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, 68-72. Knight, Crowner’s Quest, 30. Knight, Figure of Hate, 111–112. Dyer, “Ivanhoe, Chivalry and the Murder of Mary Ashford,” 393. Scott, Ivanhoe, 115. Knight, Crowner’s Quest, 308 and 325. Knight, Figure of Hate, 252. Brown, “In the Middle,” 549-550.

Chapter 9

King Arthur and the Knights of the Postmodern Fable Folding the Dead Molly Brown Yoon Ha Lee’s story “Ghostweight” compares history to origami. Her narrator observes that “[i]t is not true that the dead cannot be folded. Square becomes kite becomes swan; history becomes rumor becomes song. Even the act of remembrance creases the truth.”1 Anyone interested in medievalism will recognize the validity of Lee’s assertion, which foregrounds her awareness of the ways in which competing acts of pseudoremembrance or idealized medievalism may continue to shape awareness of a shared historical or mythical corpus.2 Similarly, Amy Kaufman has used the image of folding and refolding to illustrate how neomedieval versions of the Middle Ages may draw on multiple past versions of a single theme.3 This is nowhere more apparent than in the multiple retellings, evocations, or glancing allusions to Arthurian legend that permeate much contemporary fantasy. Yet despite the popularity of this material or perhaps even because of it, the Arthurian theme in


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young adult or children’s literature has not received as much scholarly attention as one might have expected. Even critics who do consider it rarely acknowledge its complex potential for encouraging reflection on or interaction with conventional depictions of both medieval worlds and their emblematic texts. John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, for instance, assert that retelling Arthurian material is generally an ideologically charged response to “the challenges to traditional culture posed by modernism and postmodernism.”4 They thus view Arthurian works for younger readers largely as ways of transmitting an “affirmation of cultural heritage” or mediating what they describe as “the Western metaethic.”5 Similarly, Aaron Jackson argues that “mythological narration offers a way of reasserting artistic authority over subject experience and time” and suggests that this “accounts for the perpetual recycling of Arthurian mythology at times of cultural crisis throughout English history.”6 Convincing though these equations of Arthurian tales with the hegemonic task of writing cultural identity may seem, what Jackson, in particular, has also defined as the traditional stories’ unvarying focus on concerted physical action and the promotion of male bonding is clearly restrictive in its denial of the possibility of more radical reworkings of Arthurian material. Other critics avoid making any judgment about the functions of these tales by limiting themselves to formalist analyses in which texts containing Arthurian material are set in simple, causal relationships to each other and to either medieval source texts such as Malory or to historical and archaeological attempts to re-create a fifth-century Britain in which a Romano-Celtic war leader possibly battled Saxon invaders. Such approaches are of dubious value even when examining works like Rosemary Sutcliff’s The King Arthur Trilogy, in which she has claims that she “followed Malory in the main,”7 and are even less useful when dealing with more complex, postmodern treatments of the theme in works like Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy or Catherine Fisher’s Corbenic,

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in which the links with canonical Arthurian material are neither linear nor overtly jingoistic. In considering postmodern works like these one needs to recognize that while approaches like those of Stephens, McCallum, and Jackson may confirm current ideas about either the protection of intellectual property or the existence of pervasive methods of social control, they are also at odds with the generic conventions of both medieval Romance and much contemporary fantasy. Brian Attebery, for instance, claims that the traditional materials of fantasy have always been “partly individual invention and partly communal property” and that the genre thus encourages readers to make sense of a work’s otherness by assimilating the text to what is already familiar while simultaneously recognizing its originality.8 Such an approach to fantasy allows Arthurian retellings a privileged position in a world in which critics like Christine WilkieStibbs have suggested that it is becoming crucial for young readers to learn early that the fictional worlds in literature are “representations and constructions which refer to other texts that have been normalized: that is, those texts that have been absorbed into the culture and are now regarded as ‘natural’.”9 Wilkie-Stibbs also suggests that it is possible to identify three main types of work allowing intertextuality to operate in children’s literature: genre texts in which literary conventions form patterns that can be recognized and even looked for in other texts; imitative texts which use techniques like paraphrase or occasionally parody and which may either attempt to liberate their readers from an overinvested admiration for canonical texts or, more simply, function as the pretext of the original for those who read it later; and texts of quotation which allude to other works in both direct and subtle ways. The first of these types clearly applies to the broad category of fantasy works incorporating Romance memes, while the second and third are more applicable to the numerous retellings of Arthurian legend for younger readers.


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Some works belonging to the second category of imitative texts, like Sutcliff’s King Arthur Trilogy, draw on clearly defined sources and attempt to maintain a quasimedieval linguistic tone while considerably simplifying the complex language and plots characteristic of their originals. Other imitative texts such as Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon attempt to blur the borders between history and fiction by removing the Arthurian story from its traditional late-medieval setting and recasting it in a muchearlier and less-chivalric time. Alarmingly, this endeavor is occasionally presented as an attempt to reclaim the truth of Arthurian myth: Eric Eller, for instance, argues in a review that “Sutcliff uses a talent for accurate portrayal to produce a novel that leaves you convinced … this must be the way events really occurred.”10 Such an assertion denies both the fact that any historical material underlying this mass of narrative is no more than a seed crystal hidden in and no longer distinguishable from subsequent layers of imaginative accretion and the understanding that, as Keith Jenkins has points out, history itself is a “narrative form in which historians construct and communicate their knowledge of the past as actually being the past’s own; … the only stories the past has,” he notes, “are those conferred on it by historians’ interpretative emplotments.”11 It is this postmodern awareness of the storied nature of history that permeates some of the more complex Arthurian texts for contemporary young adults. Works like CrossleyHolland’s Arthur trilogy or Fisher’s Corbenic thread Arthurian themes through other tales in ways that continuously affirm that the novels should not be read as “imitative texts” in Wilkie-Stibbs’s phraseology but rather as “texts of quotation” in which the source tale illumines another which carries as much or even more weight than the original. In the first volume of Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy, Arthur: The Seeing Stone, the reader is introduced to thirteen-year-old Arthur de Caldicot, a boy growing up in a small manor on the Welsh Marches at the close of the twelfth century. Early in the novel, Merlin, a mysterious

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figure who lives on manor land, gives Arthur a flat, black piece of obsidian, claiming that from that moment until the day of his death, the boy “will never own anything as precious as this”12. Arthur soon finds that at times the darkness of the stone clears, allowing him to watch and hear key scenes from Arthurian legend. From that moment until the end of the trilogy almost a thousand pages later, the twin narratives of Arthur de Caldicot, a tale inscribed against a minutely detailed and historically informed background, and that of his royal namesake, whose adventures flash into fragmentary existence within the shadowy and undefined depths of the obsidian lens, are intertwined in such a way that they interpenetrate and illuminate each other while not only foregrounding but seemingly deliberately reversing the two different approaches to historical narrative outlined above. Thus it is the tale of the thirteenth-century Arthur that is located in a precisely determined historical moment while the adventures of his predecessor seem to occur in a mythical time free of specific temporal references.13 At the end of The Seeing Stone, Arthur learns that Sir John de Caldicot and his wife are not his real parents but have only fostered him. Like King Arthur, he then leaves his childhood behind and assumes his place in the world. In the second volume, Arthur: At the Crossing Places, Arthur is taken on as a squire to the local overlord, Sir Stephen de Holt. While serving Sir Stephen, he learns that his mother, who was one of his father’s tenants, is still alive and that his father, Sir William de Gortenore, like Uther Pendragon before him, took the woman he desired by force from her legal husband whom he then had killed. During this time Arthur also meets and is attracted to Winefred de Verdon (Winnie), while in the stone, King Arthur falls helplessly in love with Guinevere. At the end of The Crossing Places, Arthur and Sir Stephen travel to France to join the ill-fated Fourth Crusade just as King Arthur’s knights begin the quest for the Holy Grail. The third volume, Arthur: King of the Middle March, follows Arthur, now formally betrothed to Winnie, to Venice and then across the Adriatic to Zara. As the crusaders succumb to violence and internal dissent, the obsidian shows the Round Table also beginning


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to disintegrate. Arthur, who is knighted in Venice, inadvertently kills his own father while attempting to rescue Sir Stephen from a violent attack. Sir Stephen’s injuries then force them to abandon the crusade and return home. Here Arthur finds that Winnie is now in love with his best friend and half-brother, Tom. Sadly he relinquishes her and returns the stone to Merlin, but he is cheered by the prospect of learning to manage Catmole, the manor he has inherited from his biological father: “Catmole. I’ll remake it. My pillar. My cloud of dust and, within it, a grail of sunlight. After Venice, after the crusade: my own March Camelot.”14 In some ways, the visions contained in the seeing stone become, in a bookstarved, twelfth-century context, an obvious metaphor for a far more contemporary reading experience. When Merlin first gives the stone to Arthur, the boy asks what it is for and Merlin replies: “That depends on you … The stone is not what I say it is. It’s what you see in it.”15 Meaning is thus not conferred by either authorial or wizardly intention but by a process of intertextual interaction in which, as Arthur observes that “what happens in my life and what happens inside the stone are often connected like sounds and echoes, or like my left and right eye which overlap but can each see more than the other.”16 Interestingly, King Arthur’s round table is presented in the trilogy as a giant lump of crystal. When thirteenth-century Arthur looks closely at it he observes that its surface is a mass of tiny silver threads, and this makes him think “how everything in the world turns out to be connected, even if we don’t realise it is at first.”17 Similarly, the web of gossamerfine connections between Arthur and his namesake shifts and remakes itself perpetually so that, while some correspondences are easily grasped, others are more difficult to unravel. For instance, Arthur clearly identifies with his royal namesake, thinking, “I’m not Arthur-in-the-stone, but I know I’m seeing part of my own story,”18 yet, in the dark days of the final volume, there seems to be a suggestion that his involvement in his own father’s death also shadows Mordred’s betrayal of the King. Similarly, Tom and Winnie’s love is perceived by Arthur as a betrayal but, movingly, also as an inevitable result of the gulf of experience which

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now separates them from him, so that they become emblems of unfallen innocence rather than of corrupted loyalties. Arthur’s observation of them in the manor orchard thus incorporates a biblical reference that becomes an oblique gloss also on the behavior of Malory’s King Arthur, who is often a shadowy onlooker seemingly aware of his wife’s betrayal but unwilling to act against either her or her lover: They were so free. So … at ease. They don’t know how people tear each other to pieces. They haven’t smelled death. They don’t have nightmares that ride you when you sleep. Winnie and Tom: they looked so young! I wished I could be like them. I wished I could just go away. Tom was Adam and Winnie was Eve and I was the apple of the knowledge of good and evil, and I thought if only I could go away, and not trouble them with love and pain and guilt, they could stay in the orchard blind and innocent and delighted, and live forever.19 Crucially, Arthur is given the stone when, at thirteen, he himself is about to throw off the innocence of childhood. Throughout the trilogy, the transitional and liminal qualities of adolescence are emphasized by the recurrent image of crossing places. Merlin asks Arthur if he has ever thought of crossing places such as fords and the foreshore and draws his attention to the horizon where ‘… England ends and Wales begins.’ ‘It’s trembling,’ I said. ‘Exactly,’ said Merlin. ‘Between-places are never quite certain of themselves. Think of dusk, between day and night. It’s blue and unsure.’20


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Later, Arthur comes to understand that he is also in a liminal space, saying, “‘I’m between my child-self and my man-self. My squire-self and knight-self. Between Caldicot and Gortanore … Between my life here and the world of the stone … I’m at the crossing places,’ I said.”21 In some ways, Arthur mirrors the obsidian which he comes to appreciate is also “a kind of between-place: between me and everything I can see in it.”22 Similarly, Arthur’s story becomes for the twenty-first-century adolescent reader a between-place in various ways. Like the piece of obsidian, the book as an object stands between the reader and what unfolds on its pages, but Arthur and his precisely and almost obsessively rendered thirteenth-century life also become a crossing-place into Arthurian myth with all its archaic mysteries, timeless experiences and alien symbols. As Arthur learns more about the world in the stone, he finds that his new knowledge provokes difficult questions about knightly obligations, social organization, the relationships between the sexes, and the extent of filial obligations while also suggesting sometimes uncomfortable answers to them. Similarly, contemporary readers may find themselves responding not only to the world of the legendary Arthur-in-the-stone but also to that of the very realistically depicted Arthur-in-the book, seeing in both figures part of their own story. The metanarrative awareness infusing the Arthur trilogy may initially appear too sophisticated for younger readers to grasp, but CrossleyHolland subtly develops the responses he needs by constantly foregrounding the nature and functions of the words he uses. He is aided in this by the fact that Arthur is himself a writer who secretly records the details of his life while supposedly copying out the scriptures. The link between art and life is also wordlessly captured by the tapestry on which Lord Stephen’s wife continually works, showing all the events of her husband’s life. Looking at it one day, Arthur finds himself represented in it and is then pointedly told by Lady Judith that he is “part of the story already.”23

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The trilogy continually resounds with other intertextual references as fragments of charms, incantations, festival songs, and medieval lyrics infuse its events with layers of associations, which appear to suggest these may, like Arthurian myth itself, carry profound meaning even when their full import is not rationally grasped. Thus every year at Easter, Lord Stephen both attends a sunrise mass and dedicates the Easter hare to the pagan goddess of spring, saying, “Eostre, Eostre, this is your hare. Keep us all in your green care.”24 When questioned he admits that he does not know who Eostre is, but that the lines have always been said before eating the traditional hare pie and that continuing to repeat them is important in that it links him not only to his grandfather but to all the generations that have preceded him. Significantly, in At the Crossing Places, Arthur is taken to the scriptorium at Wenlock where he sees monastic copyists meticulously reproducing ancient texts. However, he subsequently meets Lady Marie de Meulan, a French writer, who points out that old stories are not only for preserving but can and should be given new significance by being creatively remade. She says, “I reshape them like clay. So that they say what I want them to say.”25 By both consciously living and creatively shaping his own story in relation to that of King Arthur, the medieval Arthur gradually grows to adulthood. By the time King Arthur is borne away to Avalon, his young namesake can respond without dismay to Crossley-Holland’s version of the dying king’s parting words to Bedivere, ‘“I can no longer help you …. You must trust in yourself.”26 By contrast, in Fisher’s Corbenic, the distinction between the contemporary world and the mythical past is neither mediated through a thirteenth-century interlocutor nor an obsidian screen. Instead the Arthurian material is refracted and interrogated by means of a dialogic relationship between the experiences of a contemporary British teenager and those of Perceval, the Grail knight. The reader is immediately alerted to these links by the book’s cover design, which shows a ruined castle outlined against a stormy sky. The novel’s title and the name of the author appear


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below this while the prominent position at the top of the page is taken by a black ribbon reading “DEFINITIONS: CORBENIC (kɔ:bзnɪk) n. the castle of the Grail Kings.” Furthermore, the opening line of the novel, “Who drinks from the Grail?”27 alludes quite directly to the Grail story though the question is quickly dismissed as a dream fragment evoked by the drowsy central character’s subliminal awareness of the arrival of a refreshment trolley beside his train seat. Arthurian allusions aside, the novel can be read as a fairly standard coming of age tale focused on the experiences of Cal, who is the only child of an alcoholic and unstable mother and is travelling from Bangor, where he has grown up, to Chepstow to live with his uncle, who has offered him accommodation and a job in his accounting firm. In Chepstow, Cal is mugged but is rescued by members of a group that reenacts medieval battles. Despite his uncle’s disapproval of what he describes as Cal’s “New Age friends,”28 Cal finds himself spending more and more time with this company, which is led by the suggestively named Arthur and his sophisticated seneschal, Kai. Throughout this period, Cal is regularly contacted by his mother, who is undergoing therapy and begs him to return home for Christmas. At the last moment Cal lets her down, and she dies after taking a possibly deliberate overdose of pills. After her funeral, Cal wanders the countryside driven almost mad by grief and guilt. Following an unexpected encounter with a mysterious homeless man, Merlin, whom he has previously met among Arthur’s company, Cal returns to Glastonbury where he almost drowns. Here Kai revives him, and the book ends with a final brief chapter which suggests that Cal has been healed of his psychic wounds, thus evoking the resurrection trope so typical of Romance happy endings. Stripped to its essentials, then, Cal’s story is an utterly modern one set in the graffiti-bedaubed streets of twenty-first-century Wales. Cal’s most treasured possessions are his Walkman and a pale grey silk tie, both of which conjure up the only alternative world he is able to envisage, a world summed up by his uncle’s sterile home:

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This was it. This was what he’d dreamed of ... Sofas of the softest cream leather, paintings, delicate curtains, big arty-looking vases. A huge, open-plan room, nothing out of place. Warm. Clean. His uncle’s computer on an ebony desk. Television. State-of-the-art sound system. Leatherbound books, all matching. He even felt classier as he looked at it.29 Yet behind the contemporary veneer a Romance world of dream and shadow is gradually established, and it is the resonances of this mysterious complex, which do not simply contrast with “materialistic culture” in the way Stephens and McCallum suggest,30 that ultimately transform Cal’s story into an intricate reworking of the Grail legend that interrogates both the contemporary plot and its source texts. One evening, Cal asks Trevor who Percival was and his uncle’s succinct reply neatly encapsulates the similarities between the medieval knight and the contemporary youth: “He left his mother behind and went off to be a knight.”31 The parallels between the two stories are also implicit in the activities and names of the members of the company and made rather more explicit in a number of elusive sequences which may or may not reflect dream visions. The first of these occurs when Cal accidentally disembarks from his train at a small rural halt named Corbenic. Seeing a sign for The Castle Hotel, he goes in and is given a room which combines the amenities of a luxury hotel with discordant details such as a porter wearing a robe trimmed with fur and a hot, sweetish drink made with lemons in lieu of a mini-bar. When he goes down for dinner he finds a feast in progress. At its end, a boy enters carrying a bleeding spear. He is followed by two more boys holding candles and then by a girl holding a battered cup that burns and quivers in her hands. As she passes through the room, Cal is almost overwhelmed by feelings of transcendent joy. When music and festivity are restored, Cal is asked about what he has seen, but terrified that he has just experienced a psychotic episode like those his mother endures, he denies the vision and replies flatly, “I didn’t


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see a thing.”32 When he wakes the next morning he finds himself lying on a grey mattress in an abandoned building. This episode haunts Cal throughout the book. One of his new friends, Hawk, never questions that it was real but another, Shadow, is more cautious, saying only: ‘I think you stayed the night at some hotel. That you saw … some people carrying things. It must have been a bit odd.’ ‘A bit odd!’ Aghast he stood up and stared down at her. ‘I thought you at least would understand.’ Shadow bit a nail. ‘It’s like Hawk. He thought he was someone from the past. They all had this game, that they were immortals. I never knew if they were winding me up. Then I thought, they believe this. So I believed it. If you believe something hard enough, it comes true. In a way. What he said to you about the Grail is just another old story.’ He came and sat down. ‘You think I’m going the way my mother did.’ ‘I think you’re looking for something that’s not here.’ 33 Shadow’s final comment points to the thematic core of Fisher’s novel. Cal is living in an emotional wasteland and is looking for a redemptive grace that is neither to be found in silk ties nor “uncreased” retellings of familiar tales. Apart from his initial fully realized vision of Corbenic, Cal is granted only fleeting glimpses of the Grail world until the book’s conclusion. This means that the narrative mode flickers unsettlingly between mimetic realism and its fantastic alternative. The precarious balance between these mirrors all the divisions between action and reflection, dream and reality, order and chaos that polarize the human condition. Cal learns that it is not possible to deny either mode or that, if one does, the result is pain and sterility. As even Shadow finally observes:

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‘There are two sorts of life aren’t there? The one that seems ordinary, like this and then the reflection from it. Curved, shiny. All mixed up.’ 34 One of the ways by which the dream vision is maintained is through a recording of Parsifal that Cal is forced to buy to avoid being charged with shoplifting. The scene in which he acquires this disc blends his two worlds in a way which fails to offer reconciliation but instead distorts both. Cal is in a department store when he thinks he sees the Grail Maiden. Chasing after her, he stumbles into the kitchenware department where he stares at “her face, twisted in the shiny handle of a kettle. In milk jugs and sugar basins she watched him, seeming young and then old, warping and changing, her hair fair, like his mother’s.”35 The link between the Grail Maiden and Cal’s mother is a significant one. In the story of Percival, the emphasis falls on the youth’s knightly adventures rather than on his abandonment of his mother. Fisher changes the focus so that in Cal’s tale it becomes clear that until he forgives himself for his act of filial betrayal, he will never accomplish his quest. For this reason too, Fisher equates Cal’s mother with the Grail. When Cal is allowed to see the Grail procession for the second time, he recognizes its bearer: She was younger, his age. Before the nightmare, the drink, before everything had gone wrong with her. She was young and calm and strong, and she carried the vessel without fear.36 Cups and bowls are traditional emblems of the feminine and if one reads the Grail as being archetypally associated with rebirth then it seems apt that Cal’s mother should carry it, thus allowing it to become a symbol not only of what she is lacking but of what is missing in her son’s world too. Interestingly, Fisher uses this transfiguration of Cal’s mother to blur the Romance dichotomy set up by Northrop Frye between the hero and his enemy. Both Cal and his mother are initially associated “with winter, darkness, confusion, sterility, [and] moribund life” yet finally


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both become emblematic of “spring, dawn order, fertility, vigour and youth.”37 In a sense, the redemptive blood of Christ, which was contained by the original Grail, is replaced by more biological forces of regeneration since Cal himself was once contained and borne in the miraculous cup of his mother’s womb. The bond between Cal and his mother is also emphasized when Cal meets Merlin in the Chapel Perilous and is helped to descend into the dark and womb-like cauldron of his own unconscious, to face the rage and hurt binding him to the past and preventing him from finding any path out of the psychic Waste Land that traps him. Both Percival and Cal thus first betray their mothers and then the Fisher King of Corbenic because both fail to ask the questions needed to heal the Waste Land. Other parallels between the two would be readily apparent to anyone who does a web search for the Grail legend. For instance, when Percival arrives at Arthur’s court, he begs to be knighted but is told by Arthur that he first has much to learn. He then gains his armor by defeating and killing the famous Red Knight. Similarly, when Cal asks to become a full-fledged member of the company, he is told that he must first challenge one of the other knights to a real fight with real weapons. Cal challenges Kai, whose Armani jacket and suave manners represent all he desires. Though he does not defeat the older knight, he acquits himself well. Like Percival, Cal is given a sword before leaving Corbenic. Percival’s sword breaks the first time he uses it, but it is later made whole again. In the same way, Cal’s sword shatters when Arthur asks him to swear on it that he has no dishonor in his heart, but the sword is later restored to wholeness by his mother. When Percival returns safely to Arthur’s court, a three-day feast is declared in his honor. However, at this feast, a hideous woman appears and attacks him publicly, listing his failings, chief of which is the failure to ask the healing questions required by the Fisher King. Similarly, after Cal’s sword snaps, a grotesquely aged version of the Grail Maiden appears and attacks him, claiming that he cannot make a new life on the ruins of the old and that until he returns to his mother and heals himself he will never be able to find Corbenic.

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Both Percival and Cal then commit themselves to seeking the castle. Percival searches for twenty painful years. In chronological time, Cal wanders the wilderness for three months but the time seems to have been much longer. Certainly, when he tells Merlin that he has walked for three days in the Waste Land, the wizard replies: “If you say so … Maybe much longer. Maybe years.”38 This Easter encounter with Merlin similarly parallels Percival’s Easter visit to the forest hermit, who, after hearing his confession, reveals the way to the Grail castle. Significantly, it is Merlin in hermit guise who tells Cal to go to Glastonbury where he tumbles down the tor and throws himself into the dark lake around the Abbey, only to be pulled from it by Leo, Bron’s giant fisherman. Leo takes Cal back to the ruins of Corbenic where he finds only decay and the ghostly figure of his mother. By an act of will he re-creates the ruined staircase that separates them and knows, as he does so, that he has let go of his anger, “that he had made the world be as he wanted it to be, because the world was inside him.”39 Together he and his mother fit the pieces of his broken sword together, and he then moves into the restored banqueting hall where he, again like Percival, can then ask the question which needs no reply because the willingness to embrace the Grail mystery is itself all that is needed to heal the land, its king and, in the case of Fisher’s novel, the questioner himself. More intriguingly, though, Cal, unlike Percival, is also identified with the Fisher King. After his mother’s neighbor calls him to tell him how much his mother is depending on his return at Christmas, he dreams that he is sitting in a golden chair in the wreckage of the banqueting hall at Corbenic and has been there so long that he is covered in ivy. As he pulls the ivy suckers from his body, he tries to rise but cannot: Pain shot through him. It seared him, like a spear thrust. Like a heart attack. Tears blinded his eyes; he felt sick, and then the intensity of it ebbed and it was a dull, endless ache down every channel of his body, every vein. And looking down he saw that the chair had wheels.40


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Cal thus shows the reader that the achievement of meaning is a psychological process, an internal rather than an external quest. By shaking the narrative loose from precise time and space, Fisher allows the reader to join Cal in achieving J. R. R. Tolkien’s recovery of the familiar.41 She does this all the more effectively because her narrative interweaving of myth and realism subtly echoes the experience of reading itself; the magical is spliced into the known world in such a way that it shortcircuits conventional expectations and limitations to create new and individualized opportunities for response. Fisher’s identification of Cal with both a redeeming knight and a redeemed king, thus elegantly revisions the Grail myth, stripping it of overt Christian symbolism and using it instead to emphasize the importance of the Arthurian story to contemporary readers, not by reviving nationalist dreams of a lost heroic past but by demonstrating that, as Derek Attridge puts it, every work of art is “a performance in which the authored signature, alterity and inventiveness of the work … are experienced and affirmed in the present, in a creative and responsible reading”42. As Kai says when Cal asks him why Arthur and his men are not sleeping in a cave until they are needed: Ah, the dear old cave. Trouble with that was people always need us. They need someone to fight their nightmares for them, the dragons, the black knights. They need dreams to dream, quests to follow. Or they get trapped in the world like you.43 Ultimately then, I would argue that the increasing complexity of twentyfirst century young-adult fiction has allowed authors like CrossleyHolland and Fisher to revisit Arthurian myth in ways that resist facile interpretation. Instead their works provide access to a sophisticated reading experience in which the links with canonical Arthurian material are neither linear nor reverential, but instead oblique and fractured, pointing to a more dynamic and dialogic relationship between writer, reader, text, and context.

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Works like these thus encourage readers to access what Roland Barthes describes as “the circular memory of reading” by foregrounding a need to refer back to specific intertexts now being used either metaphorically or metonymically. 44 Seen in this way, revisiting the Arthurian corpus in works for young adults becomes not merely a nostalgic or jingoistic enterprise but rather a means of emphasizing the role of storymaking in readers’ efforts to invent integrated selves and a comprehensible world. The works by both Fisher and Crossley-Holland encourage readers to interrogate past, present, myth, and story in books that resist the illusion that fiction can in any way function as a mirror reflecting a “real” past; instead their novels revisit Arthurian material in ways that allow the narratives to operate as dialogical mechanisms, ways of creasing and therefore increasing indeterminate truth so that history indeed “becomes rumor becomes song,” and thus ultimately the property of the person who chooses how to “fold the dead” or even simply pauses to observe the unfolding incarnations of a story that refuses to die.


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Notes 1. Lee, “Ghostweight,” 7. 2. In my own teaching of multicultural English classes, for instance, I have found that it is unwise to assume any knowledge of Greek mythology, but that almost all of my students appear to have at least heard of King Arthur. 3. Kaufman, “Medieval Unmoored.” 4. Stephens and McCallum, Retelling Stories, Framing Culture, 129. 5. Ibid. 163. 6. Jackson, “Writing Arthur, Writing England: Myth and Modernity in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone,” 45. 7. Sutcliff, The King Arthur Trilogy, 8. 8. Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature from Irving to Le Guin, 15. 9. Wilkie-Stibbs, “Intertextuality and the Child Reader,” 170. 10. Eller, “Rosemary Sutcliff: Sword at Sunset,” Green Man Review. 11. Jenkins, “On What Is History”: From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White, 51. 12. Crossley-Holland, The Seeing Stone, 54. 13. In response to readers’ demands, a fourth book was later added to the original trilogy: Gatty’s Tale. I have chosen not to deal with this work here, since Arthur’s role in it is minimal and it contains no overt parallels with Arthurian myth. 14. Crossley Holland, At the Crossing Places, 362. 15. Crossley-Holland, The Seeing Stone, 53. 16. Crossley-Holland, At the Crossing Places, 219. 17. Crossley-Holland, King of the Middle March, 22. 18. Crossley Holland, At the Crossing Places, 130. 19. Crossley Holland, King of the Middle March, 335–336. 20. Crossley-Holland, The Seeing Stone, 52. 21. Crossley-Holland, At the Crossing Places, 191. 22. Crossley-Holland, The Seeing Stone, 131. 23. Crossley-Holland, At the Crossing Places, 65. 24. Ibid. 164. 25. Ibid., 292. 26. Crossley-Holland, King of the Middle March, 374. 27. Fisher, Corbenic, 1.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Postmodern Fable 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41.


Ibid., 124. Ibid., 38. Stephens and McCallum, Retelling Stories, Framing Culture, 129. Fisher, Corbenic, 105. Ibid., 27 (italics original). Ibid., 193-194. Ibid., 195. Ibid., 50. Ibid., 216. Frye, The Secular Scripture: a Study of the Structure of Romance, 187–188. Fisher, Corbenic, 175. Ibid., 213–214. Ibid., 109–110. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf; Smith of Wootton Major; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, 58-59. 42. Attridge, The Singularity of Literature, 136. 43. Fisher, Corbenic, 120. 44. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 36.


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accuracy historical accuracy, 2, 39, 107, 120–122 Africa, 87, 101, 104–105 A Game of Thrones, 1 allegory, 138–139, 142–144, 153 animals, 44–49, 53, 62 agency, 4–5, 13–14, 23–24, 28, 30–31, 36, 40, 43, 46, 49, 59, 63–66, 69, 71 anachronism, 81–82, 86, 88, 95, 162 Anglo-Saxon, 52, 77, 83, 89 animation, 11, 14, 30, 37, 39, 139 Assassin’s Creed, 4, 6, 121, 123, 130–131 Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, 115–120, 122, 124–128 Desmond Miles, 113–117, 120, 124, 126–127, 129 authenticity, 2–3, 5–8, 75, 81, 85, 87, 89, 92–94, 101, 103, 105–107, 120, 131, 138, 157, 168–169, 177 historical authenticity, 76, 80, 122 authority female authority, 63, 69 male authority, 56, 58–61, 63–66, 68–71 Arab, 116, 126 archery, 37, 42–43 arranged marriage, 35–36, 38, 40–43, 47, 49, 52, 58, 68–69, 81 Asynje (band), 105 Ataraxia (band), 95 Atwood, Margaret, 81, 88

Avalon High, 14–15, 26–27, 30, 33–34 Allie Pennington, 24–25 avatar, 115 bagpipes, 39, 91, 101, 105 Balian of Ibelin, 119, 121–122 Baroque, 95 Blackadder, 20 Berresford, Ellis Peter. See Tremayne, Peter Bradley, Marion Zimmer The Mists of Avalon, 12, 182 Brother Cadfael. See Peters, Ellis body, 6, 22, 27, 64, 98, 113, 117, 134–137, 141, 144–147, 149–150, 152, 161, 163, 193 virtual body, 138–139, 142 bouzouki, 97, 103, 105 Bradley, Marion Zimmer, 12, 182 bransle, 96 Brave, 5, 35–49, 51–52, 107, 152, 165 bride, 16, 58, 60–61, 69, 74 Britain, 8, 14, 20, 25, 51–52, 77–80, 84–87, 89, 157, 166, 173, 175, 177, 180, 187 Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 8, 15, 19, 26–27, 33–34 Camelot, 11, 13, 16–20, 22, 25, 32, 34, 184 Cantigas de Santa Maria, 102 Carmina Burana, 91, 102, 105 Castleville, 1 chansons de geste, 159


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture

children’s television, 4 and socialization, 14 See also Avalon High, The Legend of Prince Valiant, and Sir Gadabout: The Worst Knight in the Land chivalry, 12, 26, 92, 173, 177 See also knight, knighthood Chretien de Troyes, 114, 119 Cloud Atlas, 147–148, 153 comedy, 14, 20–21, 25 commercialization, 127, 129 commodification, 127 confession, 116, 143, 163, 193 convention, 3, 38, 80, 88, 158–159, 164–165, 181 Corbenic, 7, 180, 182, 187, 196–197 Cornalusa (band), 103 Corvus Corax (band), 91, 93–94, 100, 103, 105–106, 110–112 courtship plot, 55, 57, 61–64, 66–67, 73 components of, 15, 58, 70 masculinization of, 56, 58, 60, 68–72 trope, 58 crime fiction, 7, 155, 159–162, 166, 168, 175 Golden Age crime fiction, 156, 158, 164–165, 171, 176 hardboiled crime-fiction, 156–158, 169–172, 174 Crossley-Holland, Kevin, 7, 180, 194–195 Arthur de Caldicot, 182–183, 186 Arthur: At the Crossing Places, 183, 187, 196 Arthur: King of the Middle March, 183, 196 Guinevere, 18–20, 22, 34, 183

Crossley-Holland, Kevin (continued) Seeing Stone, The, 182–184, 196 Sir Stephen de Holt, 183 Sir William de Gortenore, 183 Uther Pendragon, 183 Winefred de Verdon (Winnie), 183 Cruachan (band), 94, 97 Cultus Ferox (band), 103, 111 cyberpunk, 6, 133, 136, 138, 142–144, 153 cyberspace, 133, 137–142, 144–148, 150, 153 dance, 74, 91, 93, 101–102, 106, 111 Dark Ages, 76–78, 85, 87 Dead Can Dance (band), 93 defamiliarization, 13 detective, 7, 114, 122, 155–162, 164–166, 168–172, 174–176 Denmark, 98, 102 digital womb, 137–138, 147 See also womb Disney, 1, 3, 8–9, 24, 40, 49 Disney princesses, 14, 37–38, 43, 47, 51–52 DNA, 113–114 drum, 91, 101–102 Early Music, 92–93, 96, 100, 107, 110 Eco, Umberto, 2, 8, 40, 52, 95, 105, 110, 112, 156, 160, 165, 170, 177 Name of the Rose, The, 155, 176 Egypt, 124 Eluveitie (band), 97–98, 110 Ensiferum (band), 94, 97–98 epic, 91, 113–114, 117, 119, 131, 149, 153

Index ethnicity, 81, 86, 89 Europe, 35, 39–40, 44, 52, 74, 76, 91–92, 94–96, 101, 110, 126–127, 136–138, 141–144, 175 Excalibur, 20, 24, 26 exceptionalism, 40, 43, 49, 86, 88 Fafnir (band), 103 Fair Unknown, 22 fantasy, 1, 8–9, 12–13, 33, 36, 43, 49, 53, 56, 75–78, 81, 84–85, 87–88, 91–92, 94–95, 99, 101, 103–104, 107–109, 122, 130–131, 134–135, 137, 141–144, 150, 179, 181, 196 Faun (band), 104–105, 111 Feminine, 14, 19–20, 22–24, 29, 31, 191 feminism, 12, 15, 25, 76–78, 80–82, 85–87, 163, 176–177 film, 1, 3–5, 8, 13–14, 20, 24–30, 33, 36–38, 40–43, 45, 47–48, 51–52, 117, 119, 121, 130–131, 142, 144, 147–153 Fisher, Catherine Cal, 188–194 Corbenic, 7, 180, 182, 187, 196–197 Grail Maiden, 191–192 Hawk, 190 Kai, 188, 192, 194 Parsifal, 191 Percival, 102, 111, 189, 191–193 The Castle Hotel, 189 Waste Land, 192–193 Fisher King, 192–193 folk metal music, 96–99, 102 folk tale, 35, 37–38 forest, 193 France, 39, 51, 77, 100, 111, 126–127, 159, 170, 183, 187

223 gameplay, 115–116, 120, 126 Game of Thrones, 1, 76, 85–86 Garwood, Julie, 5, 55–57, 63, 65–66, 71–72 Bride, The, 58, 61, 74 Castles, 70 Clayborne Brides,The, 68, 73 Fire and Ice, 74, 76 For the Roses, 74 Gentle Warrior, 60, 62, 74 Gift,The, 69–70 Honor’s Splendour, 60 Hotshot, 64 Ideal Man,The, 64 Killjoy, 74 Lion’s Lady,The, 73 Mercy, 67, 74, 177 Murder List, 67, 74 Prince Charming, 69, 74 Prize,The, 60, 62, 74 Secret,The, 59, 74 Shadow Dance, 74 Shadow Music, 74 Sizzle, 74 Wedding,The, 61, 74 gender, 4, 6–7, 12–14, 16, 18, 21–23, 31, 34, 37, 40, 42–43, 45–52, 67, 71, 75–76, 79, 86, 88, 133, 135–139, 146–150, 163, 166 genre, 3, 5–7, 9, 35, 55, 72–73, 75, 80, 84, 87, 96–97, 112, 114, 130, 147, 157, 181 Germany, 39–40, 101, 104, 110–111 Gibson, William, 6, 133, 136, 138, 142, 144, 150–151 Idoru, 147 Johnny Mnemonic, 146, 153 Neuromancer, 139–141, 145, 152–153 girlpower, 14–15, 25


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture

Glastonbury, 188, 193 Globalization, 127–128 God, 140, 142–144, 159 Google, 81, 85, 127 Gothic Revival, 29 Griffith, Nicola, 77, 79, 81–83 Hild (novel), 5, 75–76, 78, 80, 84–89 Gryphon (band), 93 Guinevere, 18–20, 22, 34, 183 habit, 3, 8, 176 harp, 97, 101, 105 Harry Potter, 1 hero, 8, 17, 24–27, 30, 56–58, 60–68, 70–74, 113–117, 119–122, 124, 127–128, 157, 159, 169, 191 heroine, 28, 33, 47, 53, 56–71, 73–74, 88, 159 heroism, 6, 32–33, 115–116 Hild, 5, 75–89 Historically Informed Performance (HIP), 93, 106–107 historical novel, 5, 76–78, 85–87, 175 Hollywood, 36 Holy Grail, 20, 183–184, 187–194 homosexual, 145, 149 homosociality, 23, 82 humor, 13–14, 21, 26–27, 63 hurdy gurdy, 103, 105 hybridization, 81–82 hypermasculinization, 5 identity, 5–6, 14, 22, 25, 27, 29–30, 32–34, 56, 58, 60–66, 68–71, 86, 108, 129, 136–139, 146–149, 175, 180 ideology, 4, 7, 27, 88, 115, 120–121, 126, 128, 136, 153

Idoru. See Gibson, William imitative texts, 181–182 In Extremo (band), 94 intersectionality, 6, 78–79, 81, 86 Ireland, 83, 89, 97, 164–166, 168–170, 175–176 Iron Age, 105 irony, 27, 95, 138, 156, 164, 168–169, 173–174, 176 jingoism, 7, 181, 195 Johnny Mnemonic. See Gibson, William King Arthur, 11–12, 14–15, 25–27, 29–30, 32, 34, 179–180, 182–185, 187, 196 King Arthur Trilogy, The, 180, 182, 196 Kingdom of Heaven, 117–121, 125, 131 Knight, Bernard, 7, 156, 169 Church of St. Olave’s, 172 Crowner’s Quest, 173, 177 Figure of Hate, 173, 177 Gwyn of Polruan, 170 John de Alençon, 172 King Richard, 172–173 Sir Jocelin de Braose, 173 Sir John de Wolfe (Crowner John), 172, 175 Sir Richard de Revelle, 171 Thomas de Peyne, 170 knighthood, 18–20, 26 See also chivalry knights female knights, 11, 15 and homosociality, 23 Knights Templar, 122–123 Korpiklaani (band), 94, 97

Index Korpiklaani (band), 94, 97 Led Zeppelin (band), 93 Legend of Prince Valiant, The Aleta, 19 Arn, 13, 15–19, 32 Prince Valiant, 11–20, 25, 30, 32, 96, 108 Rowanne, 11–13, 15–20, 25, 31 Little Red Riding Hood, 37, 51 Lycanthropy, 46 lyrics, 30, 95, 97, 112, 151, 187 Machiavellian, 121 magic, 30, 37, 39–40, 43–46, 49, 52, 104, 174, 194 male identity, 60, 62–63, 65, 70 Malory, Sir Thomas, 180, 185 Le Morte Darthur, 12, 32, 34 market bands, 101–102 Marktmusik (market music), 101 Marriage, 23, 35–38, 40–44, 47, 49, 52, 57–62, 64–70, 73, 79, 81–82, 88, 147, 166, 171 See also courtship plot Martin, George R. R., 2, 76, 83 A Game of Thrones, 1 masculine, 4–5, 12, 19–20, 22, 27, 76, 80, 89, 96, 99, 108, 159 masculinist, 18, 55–56, 71–73 material culture, 14, 39, 80 Matrix, The. See Wachowski siblings matrix, 6, 138–139, 141–142, 144–145, 147–149, 151–152 medievalism, 2–4, 8, 13, 25, 33, 39, 43, 53, 55–56, 71–73, 88–89, 95, 105, 109–110, 117, 121, 130, 134, 136, 140, 152, 155–156, 173–174, 176, 179

225 medievalism (continued) See also neomedievalism memory, 47, 92, 113, 129, 141, 195 Merlin, 18, 20, 22–23, 27–30, 182, 184–185, 188, 192–193 Mermicolión (band), 103 metafiction, 148, 153, 156 Middle Ages, the, 1–2, 4, 6–9, 13, 17, 21, 25, 31, 35, 38–40, 43–45, 51–52, 77, 81, 83, 85–86, 88–89, 91–101, 103–108, 110–111, 114, 117, 130, 136–137, 143, 145, 155–156, 159, 164, 168–172, 174–175, 179 monster, 27, 35–36, 40, 43–44, 49, 52, 159 moral, 44, 115, 128, 130, 137, 143, 171 minstrel, 99–100, 108, 111 Mittelaltermarkt, 101 music, 1, 6, 18, 39, 74, 91–112, 151, 189 Muslim, 6, 127 mysticism, 142, 165 neo-medieval music, 6, 91–96, 99–100, 105, 107–110 neomedievalism, 2, 4, 6, 8–9, 38–40, 49, 51–52, 76, 84–85, 91–96, 99–100, 103–105, 107–110, 112–115, 117, 121, 124–125, 128, 130, 136, 142, 179 Neuromancer. See Gibson, William New Age, 25, 104, 112, 137, 188 Norse, 93, 96, 98–99, 110, 135 nostalgia, 95, 107–108, 168, 173 nun, 157–158, 164, 169 nyckelharpa, 105 Omnia(band), 94, 105, 112


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture

Ougenweide (band), 93 pagan, 96–98, 104–105, 108, 187 parody, 21, 139, 143, 181 pastiche, 94, 99, 109 patriarchy, 19, 21–22, 25, 41, 49, 73, 80, 88, 166 pauldrons, 103 Pentangle (band), 93 Peters, Ellis, 7, 156, 170 Brother Cadfael, 155, 158, 160–165, 167, 175–176 Hugh Beringar, 164 Morbid Taste for Bones, A, 162, 176 Rose Rent,The, 163, 176 Percival Schuttenbach (band), 102, 111 percussion, 94, 101–103, 105 Pixar, 38, 51 popular culture, 1–4, 7–8, 15, 17, 51–52, 55, 85, 95–96, 98, 100, 125 popular romance novels contemporary settings, 57, 64–72 medieval settings, 1–2, 5–9, 13, 16–17, 20–22, 25–27, 29, 33, 35–36, 38–46, 48–49, 51–53, 55–60, 62–63, 65, 67–68, 70–78, 83–89, 91–97, 99–112, 114–115, 117, 119, 121–122, 134, 136–139, 141–145, 150, 153, 155–166, 168–176, 180–182, 187–189, 196 regency settings, 57, 68–69, 71–72 western settings, 57, 68–69, 71–74 prefeminist, 25 premodern, 26–27, 156–157, 162, 168

priest, 40, 44, 82, 84, 158, 170, 172 princesses, 14, 19–21, 23, 34–38, 43, 47, 49, 51–52, 70 pseudomedieval, 142 Quest, 5–7, 11, 46, 113–116, 118–119, 122, 128–129, 137–138, 143, 155–156, 160–161, 164, 166, 168–169, 171–174, 177, 183, 191, 194 Qntal (band), 94, 104–105 race, 6, 8, 79, 83, 86, 89, 123, 149–150 rape, 76–77, 85–86, 88 rebec, 101 reception theory, 3 re-creation, 6, 18–19, 101–102, 105, 107–108, 111, 120, 164, 168–169, 171, 174, 180, 193 Red Riding Hood, 5, 35–47, 49, 51 reenactment, 92, 98–99, 101–102, 105, 110, 188 religion, 6, 83, 87, 106, 115, 119, 123, 127, 137, 146, 152, 158–160, 162–163, 165–166, 170–172, 175 Remember Me (game), 129 Renaissance Fair, 92 romance, 1, 4, 12, 15, 22, 27, 36, 40, 55–58, 60–61, 63–65, 68–69, 71–74, 88, 114, 119, 130, 149, 155–156, 158–161, 169–170, 172, 174–177, 181, 188–189, 191, 197 See also popular romance novel Round Table, 11–12, 15, 18, 20, 26, 30, 183–184 science fiction, 78, 84–85, 114, 122, 128–129, 134, 137, 153 Scandinavia, 96, 102, 105, 108 Schandmaul (band), 94

Index Schelmish(band), 94 Scotland, 37, 39, 57–61, 72, 175 Scott, Sir Walter, 79–80, 125, 131, 173, 177 secularity, 106, 137, 141–143, 158, 160, 164–165, 167, 170–172, 197 sexuality, 6, 16, 19, 37, 84, 86, 88, 133, 135–139, 146–147, 149–150 shape shifting, 45–46 See also lycanthropy, were-bear, and werewolf shawm, 105 sin, 140, 143, 146 Sir Gadaboout: the Worst Knight in the Land, 24 Princess Elenora, 14, 20–21, 23 Sir Knight, 14, 21–22 Sir Gadabout, 14–15, 20–23, 25, 32–33 Sir John de Wolfe, 158, 169–174 Sister Fidelma. See Fidelma slave, 79, 82–83, 150 smallpipes, 101 spaulders, 103 Spice Girls, 15 spirituality, 144, 149, 152 Steampunks, 101 Steeleye Span (band), 93 St Hilda of Whitby, 77 Subway to Sally (band), 94 superstition, 104, 162, 168–170 Sutcliff, Rosemary, 180, 182, 196 teenage, 14, 26–27, 32, 34, 36, 151, 186–187 television, 1, 4–5, 8–9, 11, 13–15, 19–20, 25–26, 30–31, 34, 49, 52, 75–76, 130, 145, 174, 189 texts of quotation, 181–182 Third Crusade, 116, 118–119,

227 Third Crusade (continued), 122–123, 125–126 Tolkien, J. R. R., 43, 73, 83, 133, 152, 194 Gandalf, 143 Lord of the Rings, The, 1, 134, 137, 142, 153 transhistorical, 114, 117, 119 Tremayne, Peter (Peter Berresford Ellis), 7, 156, 170 Absolution by Murder, 165, 177 Brother Eadulf, 165–166 Brother Mochta, 167 Colgú of Cashel, 165 King of Muman, 165 Sister Fidelma, 158, 160, 164–169, 175–177 Tri Yann (band), 93 Turisas (band), 94, 97–98 Twilight, 36 Týr (band), 94, 98, 104, 110 Ubisoft, 114, 123, 125, 127, 130, 132 Valravn (band), 105 video game, 6, 8, 34 Vielle, 101 Violence, 2, 6, 16, 37, 76–77, 85, 88, 96, 127, 158, 164, 170, 183–184 violin, 101 Virelai (band), 102 Vikings, 1, 18, 39, 94, 96, 98, 102, 108, 110–111 Wachowski siblings (Andy and Lana), 6, 133, 136, 149–150 Matrix, The, 138–139, 141–142, 144–145, 147–148, 151–152 Wales, 83, 161, 175–176, 182, 185, 188


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture

war, 19, 48, 61, 83–84, 96–97, 119, 123, 131, 134–136, 150, 152, 164, 166, 175, 180 Warner Brothers, 36 warrior, 19, 60, 62, 65, 74, 86, 96–97, 99–100, 108, 141, 152 were-bear, 43, 46, 48 werewolf, 36–37, 42, 44–48, 52 Whitby, 77, 80, 83, 87, 165 wickelbander, 98 womb, 137–138, 146–147, 149–150,

womb (continued), 192 See also digital womb women, 5, 12–13, 15, 19, 23–25, 28, 32–33, 35–36, 40–43, 45–47, 49, 56, 59, 61, 63, 67, 71, 73, 76–78, 81–82, 84–89, 159, 161–163, 166, 168, 176–177 Wrath of Fenrir (band), 98 Young Adult (YA), 12, 17, 36, 73, 180

About the Editor and the Contributors

About the Editor Helen Young is an Honorary Associate of the Department of English at the University of Sydney, Australia. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Sydney and a Bachelor of Arts/Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong. Her other publications include Race in Popular Fantasy Fiction: Habits of Whiteness and Fantasy and ScienceFiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones, as well as articles in journals such as Studies in Medievalism,  Extrapolation, and Games and Culture.

About the Contributors Alana Bennett is an MA student and future Wolfson-funded doctoral candidate at the University of York. She holds a BA (Honours) from the University of Western Australia, where she has also lectured and taught. She has previously published with Limina Journal and is a cofounder of Ceræ Journal. Clare Bradford is the Alfred Deakin Professor at Deakin University in Melbourne. Her books include Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children’s Literature, which won the ChLA Book Award and the IRSCL Award; Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature; New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature: Utopian Transformations; and The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature. She has published more than eighty book chapters and journal articles in journals including Ariel, Children’s Literature, Australian Literary Studies, and Children’s Literature Association Quarterly.


The Middle Ages in Popular Culture

Molly Brown is a Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Pretoria and her primary research interest is in fantasy whether written for adults or children. She has published articles in a number of peer-reviewed journals including The Lion and the Unicorn, Mousaion, The English Academy Review and Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature. Emmanuel Buzay is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut. He holds a PhD from the University of Connecticut, a D.E.A. from the Université de Paris XIII–Villetaneuse, and a Maîtrise from the Université de Paris III–Sorbonne Nouvelle. Dr. Buzay has published in journals such as Contemporary French & Francophone Studies: SITES, Nouvelles Francographies, and Sciences Humaines. Geneva Diamond  is an assistant professor of English literature at Albany State University, Georgia. She holds a PhD, two MAs, and a BA from the University of Kansas. She has presented on medievalism in Harlequin romance novels and Julie Garwood romance heroines at the Georgia Medievalists Group Conference and the Kalamazoo International Congress on Medieval Studies. Judy Ann Ford  is a professor of history at Texas A&M University–Commerce. She holds a PhD and an MA from Fordham University and a BA from St. John’s University in New York City. Dr. Ford has published in several journals including Tolkien Studies, Journal of Popular Culture, and Renaissance and Reformation. Dr. Ford also codirected two National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes for School Teachers on Tolkien. Elisabeth Herbst Buzay is a PhD student in the French section of the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut. She holds a D.E.A. from the Université de Paris III–Sorbonne Nouvelle and a Maîtrise from the Université de Paris IV–Sorbonne. Herbst Buzay has published in L’Esplumeoir and given talks at the 49th

About the Editor and the Contributors


International Conference on Medieval Studies and the 2015 International Colloquium of 20th and 21st Century French and Francophone Studies. Rebecca Hutton is a PhD candidate in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Melbourne. She has authored or coauthored papers on young adult texts that have been published in Interjuli, The Encounters: Place, Situation, Context Papers, and Deletion. Anne McKendry holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne and an MA from the University of Sydney. Her publications include “Mateship in the Middle Ages: The Australianness of William Wallace, William Thatcher, and Robin Longstride” in International Medievalism and Popular Culture, edited by Louise D’Arcens and Andrew Lynch (Cambria Press, 2014). Robin Anne Reid is a Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages at Texas A&M University–Commerce. Her research interests include queer theory, intersectionality, digital literary studies, fan studies, and Tolkien studies. Dr. Reid edited the first encyclopedia on Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Carol L. Robinson is an associate professor at Kent State University. She holds a PhD and an MA from the University of Georgia. Her publications include Neomedievalism in the Media: Essays on Film, Television, and Electronic Games, as well as articles in journals such as Studies in Medievalism.