The Chameleon Principle: Reflections on the Status of Arthurian Studies in the Academy

Article excerpt

As an historian of the disciplines of medieval philology, medieval studies, and medievalism, I am used to a certain amount of 'cloaking.' After all, I often abandon recognized academic work on the so-called 'nitty-gritty' of literary or linguistic study 'proper' for the somehow 'improper' realms of meta- or paraliterary observations. In order to be accepted by those who stay within the established boundaries of literary and linguistic study, I have to make sure that the grail keepers at the gates delimiting those boundaries (journal editors, publishers, bibliographers, indexing specialists, conference organizers, hiring committees) realize that I am capable of wearing two hats: one that makes me recognizable as one of theirs (Uther Pendragon's normal headgear, so to speak), and one that I may put on when I write 'on' linguistic and literary study (Merlin's camouflage gear). Securely grounded in this, my own, academic role playing experience, I should like to propose that the status of Arthurians in the academy is intimately entwined with the interdisciplinary, international, and non-class specific nature of Arthuriana on the one hand and with the history of the academic study of literature and language on the other. What I would like to suggest, then, is that Arthurians, in order to survive in the competitive scientistic habitat of the academy, tend to practice a form of chameleonic mimicry. Although Arthurians investigate what may well be the largest thematically unified body of secular literature in what is commonly universalized as the western tradition, they often shift academic identities until they are hired and/or tenured, upon which time they feel at liberty to uncloak and reveal themselves as the motley-colored 'saurian reptiles' they often are.1 I should like to make three short observations to support my thesis and historicize the current situation:

1) The study of Arthurian texts suffers from the separation of academic from nonacademic reading and interpreting practices accompanying the birth of the modern university in the early nineteenth century. Thus, while Arthurian texts themselves thrive and reach large reading audiences nonspecific to social class and education, the very popularity of these texts appears to be an obstacle to their open and acknowledged study at the university. The career paths of Tolkien scholars in the contemporary academy (I am thinking for example of Jane Chance, Verlyn Flieger, Tom Shippey) provide an illuminating parallel.

2) The separation of serious academic 'work' from the non-academic enjoyment of Arthurian literature by more or less educated dilettantes and journalists (those who write on the quotidian matters of the 'jour' instead of producing 'lasting' texts for posterity, i.e., scholarship) begins-at least for English Arthuriana-during the Renaissance, when proponents of the New Learning (commencing with Polydore Vergil and Roger Ascham) expose the mythographic nature of foundational Arthurian texts from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae through Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur and attack the problematic morality propagated by medieval romances as unfitting for the ideal of the educated gentleman. John Leland's and Michael Drayton's desperate attempts at bridging the emerging chasm between the popular/national attraction of Arthuriana and Renaissance scientism are fascinating case studies which demonstrate this process.2

3) While recent and current cultural climates outside the academy and the advent of postmodernism in the academy would allow for scholars' reading and studying of the various historical and contemporary popular Arthurian traditions, the longue durée of academic mentalities still suggests to scholars that they select those areas, periods, genres, or authors within their respective disciplines commanding sufficient cultural capital for finding jobs, securing promotion and tenure, or obtaining a book contract with a publisher. …