Approaches to Medievalism: A Consideration of Taxonomy and Methodology through Fantasy Fiction

By Young, Helen | Parergon, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Approaches to Medievalism: A Consideration of Taxonomy and Methodology through Fantasy Fiction


Young, Helen, Parergon


Methodologies for examining medievalism commonly rely on considerations of a text's relationship with medieval sources, but such approaches are limited because they do not take into account the ways intervening years have influenced modern concepts of the Middle Ages. An approach which includes both the historical and imaginative 'medieval' and examines the purpose and effects of medievalism offers scope for more comprehensive interrogations. Investigation of modern fantasy writing such as the genre fiction of Katharine Kerr and the more literary works of Neil Gaiman demonstrates the usefulness of such a methodology.

Medievalism, although it is a growing field of scholarly interest--or, perhaps, because it is--is a very slippery concept. Despite the significant body of writing on many forms and manifestations of medievalism, it is difficult to find a clear statement about precisely what it is. A broad, inclusive approach would suggest that any post-medieval form of cultural expression that engages with the culture or society of the Middle Ages might be included under its rubric. Speculative fantasy fiction is one very popular and populous genre which references the Middle Ages but is nonetheless at times excluded from definitions of medievalism. Michael Alexander offers a definition of this kind, in which medievalism is 'some historical reference to a set of medieval texts or facts', excluding fantasy as more imaginative than historical. (1) This paper explores some of the difficulties of approaching medievalism through taxonomies based on direct use of medieval material and argues that a more fruitful methodology considers the effects of engagements with the Middle Ages through a consideration of fantasy fiction. Three illustrative case studies will be discussed: the fantasy novels of Katharine Kerr, and two short stories by Neil Gaiman, 'The Monarch of the Glen' and 'Chivalry'. Gaiman's work is among the more literary manifestations of fantasy fiction, while Kerr's is broadly representative of the conventions of medievalism in popular fantasy.

The fantasy genre is one way in which modern audiences come into contact with medieval material, through their experience of media such as literature, film, video and role-playing games; this paper is specifically concerned with the literary realms of the genre. Umberto Eco once dismissed such writing as an 'avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp in paperbacks' unworthy of serious discussion as medievalism. (2) More recently, Alexander treated it in a similar if less strident fashion: he gives little space even to the fantasy works of the professional medieval scholars J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and makes it clear that he does not think fantasy fiction contains engagements with the Middle Ages that are worthy of study. He opposes 'genuine' medievalism with 'Gothic fantasy'; works in the second category engage imaginatively but not historically with medieval material. (3) Because the two are not mutually exclusive, this is, however, a problematic distinction. Many fantasy fiction texts, for example, draw on historical elements from the Middle Ages, such as feudal political structures and the swords, spears, and shields of medieval warfare, but have no direct source material or concern with medieval 'texts or facts'. Such works do not engage directly with the medieval past, but, rather, are shaped by the conventions of the present and intermediate years, which themselves engage with the Middle Ages both historically and imaginatively. A considerable portion of what is grouped under the very broad banner of fantasy does warrant the attention of medievalists, and this is recognized in a significant amount of scholarly work. (4)

Medieval material is so common in fantasy fiction as to be a cliche, and its presence is one of the defining features of the genre. Two detailed taxonomies have been constructed for fantasy engagements with medieval material. Kathryn Hume, for example, identifies five kinds of similarity between medieval and modern fantasy literature: specific borrowing of names and characters; nonspecific borrowing of political structures, fighting methods, and so on; 'the continuity of the heroic mould'; 'monomyth family resemblance', where narrative trajectories such as those surrounding the hero are similar; and the function of popular literature to entertain with sex and violence. …

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