Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy

Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy

Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy

Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy


Empire of Magic offers a genesis and genealogy for medieval romance and the King Arthur legend through the history of Europe's encounters with the East in crusades, travel, missionizing, and empire formation. It also produces definitions of "race" and "nation" for the medieval period and posits that the Middle Ages and medieval fantasies of race and religion have recently returned.

Drawing on feminist and gender theory, as well as cultural analyses of race, class, and colonialism, this provocative book revises our understanding of the beginnings of the nine hundred-year-old cultural genre we call romance, as well as the King Arthur legend. Geraldine Heng argues that romance arose in the twelfth century as a cultural response to the trauma and horror of taboo acts -- in particular the cannibalism committed by crusaders on the bodies of Muslim enemies in Syria during the First Crusade. From such encounters with the East, Heng suggests, sprang the fantastical episodes featuring King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle The History of the Kings of England, a work where history and fantasy collide and merge, each into the other, inventing crucial new examples and models for romances to come.

After locating the rise of romance and Arthurian legend in the contact zones of East and West, Heng demonstrates the adaptability of romance and its key role in the genesis of an English national identity. Discussing Jews, women, children, and sexuality in works like the romance of Richard Lionheart, stories of the saintly Constance, Arthurian chivralic literature, the legend of Prester John, and travel narratives, Heng shows how fantasy enabled audiences to work through issues of communal identity, race, color, class and alternative sexualities in socially sanctioned and safe modes of cultural discussion in which pleasure, not anxiety, was paramount. Romance also engaged with the threat of modernity in the late medieval period, as economic, social, and technological transformations occurred and awareness grew of a vastly enlarged world beyond Europe, one encompassing India, China, and Africa. Finally, Heng posits, romance locates England and Europe within an empire of magic and knowledge that surveys the world and makes it intelligible -- usable -- for the future.

Empire of Magic is expansive in scope, spanning the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, and detailed in coverage, examining various types of romance -- historical, national, popular, chivalric, family, and travel romances, among others -- to see how cultural fantasy responds to changing crises, pressures, and demands in a number of different ways. Boldly controversial, theoretically sophisticated, and historically rooted, Empire of Magic is a dramatic restaging of the role romance played in the culture of a period and world in ways that suggest how cultural fantasy still functions for us today.


In the Beginning Was Romance…

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

—“Kubla Khan,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

ROMANCE, OF COURSE, has no beginning, no identifiable moment or text in which it is possible to say, here is the location of the origin.

Before the Middle Ages, and the first usages of the Old French grapheme, “romanz,” to signify an expanding category of fabulous narratives of a literary kind, something, we feel, existed that was already romance-like, that preceded the medieval concretions. Casting back in time, we speak of “Ancient” or “Greek” “romances,” of the Odyssey (but not the Iliad) as a “romance,” and of the “romances” of Alexander the Great that descend from the third century of the Common Era (or perhaps as early as the fourth century B.C.E.), as if we intuitively know what romances are, and are not. Yet there is a fringe of indecision: Are the fabulous Greek travel stories featuring the magical Wonders of the East, and especially India—the genre of the “Indika” of Ctesius and his literary descendants— romances? Can geography and place be a subject of romance, along with human actors engaged in love, quest, and marvelous adventure?

Casting forward in time, past the Middle Ages and the revivals of medieval, and medieval-like, romances in the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Victorian, and modern eras, can we say that certain kinds of narrative modes continue which we still think of as romance—specialized . . .

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