Thursday, July 19, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 6.2, "Razor's Edge"

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Love looms large as the Legendary Defender continues its sixth season.

6.2, "Razor's Edge"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

In the wake of their previous adventure, Keith and Krolia continue to travel through the cosmos, Keith barraging his mother with questions. She defers answering against current exigencies--and over Keith's objections. She has intelligence on a fuel source for a superweapon--and the "quantum abyss" that seems to give rise to it--and directs them thither.

Aren't they sweet?
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
Aboard the main Galra ship, Lotor confers with Allura again, prevailing upon her to replicate her father's work for his Empire. She believes his stated hope for peace, and there is some romantic tension between them broken by the arrival of Lance, Pidge, and Hunk. Lance views the situation amiss.

Keith and Krolia proceed to the abyss. The initial foray into it goes as smoothly as could be expected until local fauna makes itself known. Evasive maneuvers ensue, but the fauna continue to prove problematic--and the two abandon their ship. They are stranded amid the field, but they proceed--only to encounter more trouble as an energy wave approaches and envelops them.

It does seem strange.
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
Keith finds himself alone amid an energy field--and in civilian clothes. He sees his parents and confers with a distorted Shiro before returning to himself and asking Krolia about what he saw. She explains his visions as effects of the local distortions.

Lance, Pidge, and Hunk continue their work to integrate Galra technology into Altean. Lance remains disturbed, and the others tease him for it.

Keith and Krolia continue to navigate the abyss. It does not go well, and another vision presents itself to him. He sees Krolia's approach to Earth and her betrayal of her then-commander prior to her arrival on-planet. The Blade of Marmora's interference in the early search for Voltron's component lions is noted, and another energy wave reveals the continued secrecy of the lions, as well as the burgeoning involvement of Keith's parents. Krolia notes her regrets.

Lance continues to fret about Allura and Lotor. He considers his own emotions and his own inadequacy (along with his Cuban origins).

Keith and Krolia continue their progress toward the abyss. Difficulties are noted, and more local fauna presents itself--benignly. Another energy wave recalls the time after Keith's birth to him--and Krolia's return to service. Keith's father is injured amid a sabotage attempt, and Krolia interdicts the other Galra. The incident spurs her to return to the Galra to halt their progress toward Earth. After, the two of them use the local fauna to navigate toward the abyss, finding that the local fauna offer enough biosphere to sustain life. And more visions of the past present themselves as the two proceed, their time strangely dilated.

Allura continues her work, exhausting herself in it. The romantic tension between them emerges again, and Allura is advised by the Castle mice of Lance's feelings.

Keith and Krolia emerge to find a Galra base, which they investigate. It reveals a strangely bucolic scene, in which they find an Altean woman.

*insert dramatic music here*
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.


Discussion

While the dominant narrative thread of the episode is that between Keith and Krolia--and it deserves more explication and analysis than can be readily applied to it here--that with what seems the most obvious medievalist overtones is the romantic triangle among Allura, Lance, and Lotor. Lotor demonstrates romantic longings for Allura, in no small part because she is the heir of the magic Altean kingdom, not unlike his antecedent Mordred's covetousness of Guinevere (although without the overt incestuous overtones in play). Lance has long been infatuated with Allura, although much of that infatuation has been adolescent (generously) and/or partaking of the kinds of toxic masculinity that are rightly decried. For Lotor to act as though he has romantic feelings for her has the predictable results shown in the episode; Lance grows angst-ridden and acts out of sorts. And in doing so, he mimics his medieval Arthurian antecedent, Lancelot.

To a modern reader of Malory, Lancelot acts as a moody teenager writ large with regards to Guinevere. He does outsized deeds in the hopes of impressing her, despite the social mores that ought to bind them both (and the violation of which effectively enables the downfall of Logres), and when she expresses displeasure with him, he mopes and swoons in ways that far too closely echo those I recall from my own adolescence to be anything like comfortable reading. (I wonder how widely shared the sensation is of being embarrassed by the reminder of teenage folly offered by a book.) This is particularly pronounced at the end of Malory's text, when Guinevere rejects Lancelot's advances in favor of atonement for their misdeeds; in essence, Lancelot whines himself to death. And while Voltron's Lance is more comedic and less "heroic" than his medieval antecedent, he is clearly following the same pattern--and with possibly similar results, since a romance gone awry could imperil the continuing function of the Legendary Defender itself.

Given the context, it is not likely that Lance will lead Voltron to ruin--at least, not from thwarted lust. It can be hoped that the showrunners have learned from what has come before and will offer more satisfying endings for the characters than that.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 6.1, "Omega Shiled"

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The Paladins of Voltron begin their work to unite the Galra as the sixth season of Voltron: Legendary Defender begins.

6.1, "Omega Shield"

Written by Mitch Iverson
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

This sort of thing never bodes well.
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
With the Castle of Lions still near the Galra mothership, Lotor reaffirms his peaceful intentions to the Paladins, citing Allura's role. She commends him in turn, prompting sour expressions from Lance. As they continue to confer, returning to the Galra ship, they are confronted by a Galra disciplinarian, Lotor's former governess, Dayak. Lotor makes introductions all around, and Daia notes spread of news of Lotor's ascent through the Empire, exulting in the triumph of her former charge. Lotor commends her to the Paladins for instruction about the Galra--and she reveals the intensity of her belief. Hunk is tasked with undertaking the instruction, and the rest proceed to a briefing on the current state of affairs among the Galra. Sendak is noted as leading the most threatening splinter group, and Lotor purposes to address the issue of the splintering Empire via providing unlimited quintessence.

This also does not bode well.
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
Meanwhile, Hunk's instruction proceeds. The methods are much as one would expect for a people who were, even before their former leader's descent into evil, rigidly stratified and bellicose. He does, however, learn about the Galra history of conquest and genocide. Their combat-centric society is explicated amid the beginning stages of his training.

Lotor and Allura continue to confer about the need for her to follow her father's work. She is unclear of how to proceed, and is left to work as Lotor makes a speech to his people, claiming his throne openly and calling for their loyalty in exchange for receiving unlimited energy. There is resistance among the various Galra groups, and Sendak works to capitalize upon it, attacking those who would pledge to Lotor.

Hunk progresses in his training as Sendak's attack progresses. The Paladins intervene in the attack, expressing concern over Sendak's return. Shiro experiences some distress amid the conversation, which is noted by the others as their intervention proceeds.

It's a kind of magic.
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
Elsewhere, Haggar proceeds along the path to Oriande that Allura and Lotor had followed--and the interferes with Shiro as Voltron forms and joins battle with Sendak's forces. Sendak strikes at the civilian population and flees; Shiro continues to suffer from Hagar as efforts to protect the planet from natural phenomena begin. Voltron separates so that the individual Paladins can work to their strengths simultaneously, and repairs commence--as does a mutiny. Hunk's training emerges, and the Galra fall into line, averting the conflict. Hunk also awakens new abilities in the Yellow Lion, speeding progress. But Shiro's connection to Haggar also continues to cause problems; he experiences the assault of the White Lion, and the shield fails. Lance is injured, and Allura and Hunk respond. Allura heals Lance as Hunk tries to make a stopgap repair--that narrowly succeeds.

In the wake of the event, matters are eased, and the Paladins return to the Castle--with Shiro yet suffering. And Haggar emerges from Oriande greatly empowered and restored to her Altean self.

Discussion

There is not necessarily much of the medieval in the present episode, aside from the long-established patterns the Paladins. A bit may emerge in the (admittedly brief) cross-training program Hunk undertakes (reluctantly, it must be admitted--but then, yellow is associated with cowardice, and Hunk has frequently been described as fearful). There is something that echoes, if quietly, the practice of fosterage--the exchange of children across households, done as a lesser peacemaking gesture than marriage and in the interest of easing feudal succession. The cultural competency Hunk displays--which suggests that his training went on for some time; spans between scenes are not always clear--and that results from his training becomes useful to him in carrying out his work int he episode.

It also, by explicating some of the Galra history, serves to depict them as having been nobler warriors than they now are. That depiction is complicated, however, as are all warrior ethics, by the necessity of violence to them, and further complicates through the open admission of early genocidal practices among the Galra. That is, Dayak openly asserts that the Galra homeworld hosted multiple sentient species early in the Galra history--but those species do not seem to appear in the series, evidently wiped out long before. But that necessary, even horrific violence is not without its medieval--and earlier--antecedents; the knights of old were necessarily killers, and if the best of them pretended to be restrained by such codes as Malory's Pentecostal Oath, the pretense was thing and not engaged in by many.

Perhaps more fortunate a medievalism is in the interactions between Lance and Allura in the episode. While he still remains a lecherous adolescent, his unthinking, headlong rush to get her clear of an energy discharge bespeaks the best parts of the chivalric idea his name evokes--Lancelot readily and repeatedly entered into seeming danger, doing so because he knew at an intuitive level that it was his place to do so. Similarly, Allura's evidently magical healing of Lance's injuries speaks to the wondrous fantastic so often couched in medievalist settings. As the putatively virginal monarch, and one who has been empowered through a journey into a paradisaical realm, she is an amalgamation of no few tropes prevalent in medieval art and literature--Marian overtones abound in her, and the royal ability to heal is evident, as well.

As such, the sixth season of Voltron: Legenday Defender seems poised to continue to deploy the medievalisms that have populated the series previously. What will happen with them will be interesting to see.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.6, "White Lion"

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As the fifth season of Voltron: Legendary Defender ends, Allura seems to have found what she has needed--even as another threat looms.

5.6, "White Lion"

Written by Tim Hedrick
Directed by Steve In Chang Ahn

Synopsis

The Castle of Lions is again in transit through space, carrying Lotor along with it as the group seeks to follow the compass stone--found previously amid Haggar's apparatus--to Oriande, the legendary font of Altean alchemy. Some doubts are raised as to the veracity of the information involved, but Allura sets them aside. Lotor lays out the general idea of Allura traveling to Oriande to master Altean alchemy so that she can enable his ships to tap raw quintessence--his plan to stave off conflict amind the Galra and between them and others.

It does seem to fit in nicely.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
Allura activates the compass stone in coordination with the Castle's star charts to plot a course. Coran notes the dangers of the surrounding space, and Allura orders a cautious approach--to Coran's chagrin. As they do so, they find a plethora of ruined, wrecked ships, the Castle threading its way among them to a massive upswelling of power--a white hole, the inverse of a black hole, that makes the surrounding space dangerous. Lotor quotes from an old Altean poem, explicating it as their current route--and that the course sends them into the white hole. Amid more expressions of doubt, Allura bids them continue in, taking Voltron as the sole means of being able to enter with any sense of safety.

They clearly need it.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
Entry is difficult, taxing Voltron's systems and the Paladins themselves, but they are able to make some progress--until an ethereal white lion assails them. Battle is joined, to no avail--and Lotor recognizes that the lion is a guardian, inhibiting the progress of non-Alteans. Voltron retreats and is broken into the component Lions, powerless and set adrift with the Castle. Shiro calls for a manual evacuation back to the Castle to regroup and confer. Coran restores power temporarily, and changes to Lotor's appearance are noted--as are those to Allura. They share the "mark of the chosen," bespeaking a peculiar Altean ancestry that should allow them access to Oriande. The two proceed alone via the Castle's personal craft--despite objections.

It's pretty...
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
Their progress is easier, and the ethereal lion appears again. They are allowed to pass and emerge into something like a pocket dimension. They survey it, marveling at its beauty, and make landfall.

Meanwhile, the Paladins and Coran seek to restore full power to the Castle. Work proceeds slowly, and Lance frets about Allura. Shiro takes him into another room, confessing that he recalls little from an earlier experience. Lance reports what he can, expressing concern about Shiro; Shiro himself notes feeling confused and distracted.

Among the Galra, Lotor's former lieutenants explicate circumstances and discuss the possibility of carving out a piece of Galra space for themselves. Exor and Zethrid stalk off to amuse themselves, while Acxa ponders.

Clearly, a site to investigate.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
Allura and Lotor proceed, conferring about their fathers as they go. Lotor notes his regrets and some of Zarkon's atrocities, as well as his own heritage. Allura commends him, the two seeming to bond over the experience as they come upon a shining beacon in the wilderness. They make their way there, finding it a massive pyramid--guarded by another ethereal white lion. It leads them in, guiding them towards their intended goal and through images of their mighty forebears--that prove to be another test for them. Allura holds them at bay, and they are allowed to proceed yet further. Another test greets them, and Allura passes it. Lotor finds himself alone, confronted by the white lion. Allura does, as well. Both are obliged to fight, and Lotor is beaten, while Allura succeeds; his pride overtakes him, while Allura's humility prevails.

This seems to be something of a trope this episode.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.

Following the test, Allura finds herself in yet another alternate realm. A voice speaks to her, saying she is home and knows what she needs to know; she is embraced by the power.

Outside, the Castle remains depowered and adrift. Pidge and Hunk falter, and Lance marks the return of Allura and Lotor to the Castle. She reeengages the ship's systems, and she commends a slightly embittered Lotor. Shiro looks on, Haggar looking on through him before ordering her own ship to the Paladins' location.

Discussion

Some of the Edenic implications of the previous episode are realized in the present one; a guardian wielding something not unlike flame bars entry to a largely empty paradise from which a people claim an origin. Similarly, as a passage into a place not unlike "the Orient" and in which mystical power inheres, entry into Oriande seems to align with the medieval European (and later) tropes of a hidden magical kingdom; that the entry is associate both with racial purity and particular class status serves to deepen the unfortunate overtones thereof, however, even if it does seem to align with medieval/ist ideas about who gets to get shiny magical objects. Malory's Galahad, as a virginal descendant of Joseph of Arimathea, is the one to achieve the Grail, after all, just as Allura, the virginal, pure-blooded descendant of the Altean royal line is able to achieve the knowledge in Oriande.

There is also something of an inversion of Dante to be found in the episode. In Dante's Purgatorio, Beatrice leads the protagonist Dante through the eponymous corporeal-but-otherworldly region to a paradise on high; in the episode, Lotor leads Allura though a corporeal-but-otherworldly region to a paradise that, being in space, has to be considered on high--but the guide cannot go the whole way with the protagonist, as is the case in Dante. Still, through trials that display the allaying of putative sins, Allura is able to advance much as those who labor in dante's Purgatory are, and there is reward at the end, so there is some connection to be found, for those who would look. There is, then, another link to the medieval European in the episode and the series--one of many to be found.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.5, "Bloodlines"

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Family emerges as a significant concern again as the fifth season of Voltron: Legendary Defender approaches its end.

5.5, "Bloodlines"

Written by Mark Bemesderfer
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

The Castle of Lions travels through space, preparing to see off Pidge and Matt's father. He reminds the Paladins of his mission amid the exchange of goodbyes, and he agrees to carry messages back to Earth. Lance is shaken by thoughts of returning to Earth and his extended family, uncharacteristically, and Pidge and Matt's father departs.

Elsewhere, the Blade of Marmora discuss acquired intelligence. Keith is sent to extract its source--Krolia--and act on the intelligence in the wake of the debacle at the Kral Zera, withdrawing the Blade's asset amid Galra infighting. The stakes are high and are noted to Keith, who is cautioned not to let his emotions get in his way of his mission.

The charge is made.
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
The Castle approaches the Galra flagship, the Paladins noting the oddity of their doing so as they arrive at what is now Lotor's stronghold--and at which they are welcomed by the new Galra leader, with flowery words. Difficulties with the intended transition are noted, and Lotor's plans for ending Galra belligerence are noted. Lotor offers assistance and open access to his facilities as he and Allura go off to attend to their own plans. Lance, Pidge, and Hunk begin what promise to be silly machinations.

Meanwhile, the intra-Galra conflict continues, fleets waging war as commanders try to establish themselves as the supreme Galra power.

The silliness proceeds, with a Galra sentry suborned to the Paladins' whims. Juvenile fun and games ensue until petty officials seek to intervene.

Keith infiltrates the battle, making for Krolia. His superior piloting skills serve him well until he is struck by battle debris and makes hard planetfall. When he wakes, he is some distance away from his intended target; he proceeds thence, entering a Galra facility on alert and quickly identifying Krolia. They surprise one another, and Keith makes to extract her in haste.

Lotor and Allura confer in Haggar's former workshop. He seeks to have her work with Haggar's apparatus to replicate their fathers' distillation of quintessence. She expresses misgivings amid the horrors of the workshop, but she still agrees to proceed, soon finding an Altean log. It was Honerva's, and Lotor's Altean ancestry receives some comment. Haggar's access to the material is questioned, and both work on matters.

Silliness continues. The petty officials continue to pursue Pidge, Lance, and Hunk, to no avail, and matters are amended--all was in fun.

Something seems familiar...
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
Keith and Krolia confer about her extraction and its motives. Keith reports the surrounding circumstances; Krolia reports on the nature of the weapon on which she had been working. The facility's defenses are failing, however, and they move to evacuate amid the worsening situation.

Lotor, meanwhile, reviews Honerva's old logs, noting their oddities. Allura voices the idea of Honerva's connection to Lotor--which he rejects out of hand. He proceeds to look for other information, and Allura's own mystical abilities are put to use. They uncover a hidden piece of material taken from an Altean outpost, one which Lotor explicates as a possible map to the source of Altean alchemical power, the legendary Oriande. Lotor avers its reality and purposes to seek it.

Keith and Krolia contiunue to exfiltrate, coming under attack. They defend themselves ably for a time, but are taken. Krolia speaks of having left Keith before and offers to trade the weapon for themselves.

Allura and Lotor work with the material, a compass stone. Allura expresses doubts of her abilities, but Lotor exhorts her to the task--and the stone activates. Their path forward is revealed.

The silliness continues, with Pidge, Hunk, and Lance launching their suborned robot into space in a glorious shower of sparks.

It truly is beautiful, worthy of honor.
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.

Keith berates Krolia for her seeming betrayal. She relates an activation code to her erstwhile captors, and she and Keith flee. The code opens the weapon, and the captor makes to kill the escapees; Keith makes to evade at speed, dodging the incoming fire and ongoing battle, and the weapon wreaks ruin on the captors; it is a raving beast that slays them. And in the wake of the action, Krolia reveals that she is Keith's mother.

Discussion

Among the many, many investigation-worthy items in play in the current episode is the revelation of Oriande, a hidden source of mystic power. There is an unfortunate acoustic connection to earlier stereotypical ideas; "Oriande" sounds not unlike "Orient," the latter of which has often been cited as an exotic, foreign place full of mystical wonder--among the European medieval as in other places and times. (Said has more to say on the subject, of course.) But, leaving that aside, the notion of an ancestral, removed place from which magic flows evokes no few Arthurian and associated tropes, the more so given the already-established Arthurian and chivalric overtones of the series. The lands of the Fisher King in von Eschenbach come to mind, as does Avalon. Other possible antecedents emerge in the general otherworldliness of fairy-lands (by whatever spelling), with a perhaps more explicit medievalist touchstone being the legends of Prester John and his kingdom--at various places far to the east. And the Edenic overtones of such a place cannot be ignored, either--although that particular image suggests itself as ripe for subversion, given prevailing attitudes towards religion on display in mainstream fantasy and science fiction (about which the Society is trying to organize work; please consider contributing).

Knowing that the fifth season is drawing to a close--there is one more episode, and, as of this writing, there are no further seasons available--there is limited time to explore how what is implied in the current episode will be developed. But that development is eagerly anticipated, even so.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Doing More to Get Ready for #Kzoo2019

𝔗he sneak preview of the call for papers for the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies is live, and it has the following in it:


It seems therefore a good time to return to an earlier post and to expand upon it. As noted, the Society has proposed two sessions, about which more below:
The first session, a paper session titled The Legacy of Tolkien's Medievalism in Contemporary Works, will examine the continuing influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on conceptions of the Middle Ages and medieval prevalent in academic and popular cultures. As has been amply attested, Tolkien’s medievalist work in his Middle-earth corpus has exerted an outsized influence on subsequent fantasy and medievalist popular culture, and, following Paul B. Sturtevant’s assertions in The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination, it is largely or chiefly through popular cultural engagement with the materials that people—both the general public and those who become the students and scholars of the medieval—develop their early understandings of the Middle Ages. Decades on, Tolkien’s influence on popular culture—books, yes, but also movies, tabletop games, video games, television series, music, and other elements of popular understanding—continues to be felt, and continued examination of that influence is therefore warranted.

The second session, a paper session titled Afterlives of Medieval Religion in Contemporary Works, will look at how the post-Tolkien works that are the Society's focus appropriate and misappropriate medieval religious constructions. That formal religion was a central element of the European medieval, broadly conceived, is a conventional wisdom that is reflected both in the typical programming of the Congress and in the pages of Speculum, among others—yet many medievalist works, particularly those in mainstream popular culture, neglect or shy away from overt religiosity, or else they invoke it partially and only to specific effects, and in ways that do not appear to align well to the functions of the medieval church. Untangling the uses, misues, and avoidances of a key element of medieval culture in works that purport to be medieval or medievalist in their intent bears examination, and papers in the proposed session would be directed to those ends.

The Society will be happy to entertain submissions for either session. Personal information forms (which the Congress requires) should be available on their website beginning in July; please send yours along with an abstract of 100 to 300 words, and Society President Geoffrey B. Elliott will be happy to read it. Submissions to The Legacy of Tolkien's Medievalism should go here; submissions to Afterlives of Medieval Religion should go here--or they can go by post to the address noted above.

Get your submissions in, and spread the word!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.4, "Kral Zera"

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Fractiousness among the Galra becomes outright war, and the Paladins find themselves pulled into intervention as Voltron: Legendary Defender continues.

5.4, "Kral Zera"

Written by Mitch Iverson
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

A Galra fleet begins to assemble, and the Blade of Marmora works against the assembly, raiding a dock. The raid moves clandestinely, infiltrating ships within cargo. An inside agent assists them, and the Blade operatives overhear talk of an archivist inhibiting the beginning of a ceremony.

It is a common tactic.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
At the Castle of Lions, Lotor continues to plead his case for aid in participating in the transfer of power among the Galra. He notes the imminent fracturing of the Empire in advance of the Kral Zera--upon which he expounds: it is the ascension of a new Galra to the throne, held on an early Galra conquest. More details follow, with likely candidates described and their strengths compared. Haggar's involvement is noted as likely and quiet--and she represents a continuation of Zarkon's reign. Shiro asserts the position that Lotor should be supported, citing the danger of a fracturing Empire--and Lotor suggests being escorted by Voltron. The motion is rejected, and concern about Shiro's behavior is expressed.

Galra forces continue to assemble, with the Kral Zera drawing nearer. The Blade purpose to intervene and overthrow the Empire at the event, at which the likely candidates for the throne assemble and begin to bicker. The ceremony begins, with a recitation of rulers and history preceding the call to relight a sacred flame, and candidates begin to attempt the task, to declare themselves--and to kill one another. And Haggar presents Sendak as a candidate, obviously intimidating the others.
It's understandable.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.

A fracas ensues, during which the Blade begins to sabotage events. They are unmarked--even as, far away, Hunk and Pidge work on the local technology before noting Shiro's odd behavior. He is soon marked as absent--along with Lotor and the Black Lion.

Sabotage continues as Sendak secures his victory and makes to relight the Galra flame. More challenges come, and Sendak defeats them handily, forestalling others--until the Black Lion arrives and disgorges Lotor, who claims the throne. Keith marks the arrival and calls for a halt to the Blade's action--which cannot come.

The man who would be king, or something like that.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
Lotor declares his intent to rule, which Sendak rejects--and Haggar disqualifies him based on his blood, which Lotor rejects. A fight ensues as Keith works to disable the charges, and the Blade intervenes, saving Lotor from the blast that takes many other Galra. Sendak claims it as a betrayal, and the conflict expands, with Shiro taking a hand as a general melee erupts. Amid it, one of Lotor's lieutenants saves Keith, and Haggar declares the Empire fallen. The other Paladins arrive and assist Shiro, and Voltron is formed. The melee ends shortly after, with Sendak escaping Lotor at the expense of other candidates. In the end, Lotor lights the flame as Voltron observes.

Hail to the chief, because he's the chief and he needs hailing.
Image taken from the episode, used for critique.
His reign is legitimated, but it begins in ruin.

Discussion

Although it mixes and muddies some characters' resonances to make the assertion, there is something like the selection of Arthur as the "rightwys kynge borne of all Enlond" in the events of the episode. Fractious, belligerent rulers all gather at a ceremonially important location and contest with one another for the right to rule in both, and in both, the not-wholly-legitimate child of the previous ruler emerges un-looked-for and seizes power--which occasions no small amount of violence and the withdrawal of other rulers, presumably to plot their own ascensions to overall power. If the series will follow the Arthurian, then, there will be more fights among the Galra to come, with Lotor having to subdue the rest--and what the Paladins do alongside him will be of interest, as it appears to force them into a difficult ethical position. Lotor is hardly a "good" character, so by aiding him, they are aiding the wrong. Yet he is also the least bad option available--as was demonstrated in the previous episode and discussed in the current, attacking Voltron and the coalition around it serves to cement power and stature among the Galra. They will be forcibly involved in any event.

Too, the question remains about influence on Shiro. That Haggar can use him as a listening device is suggested in the previous episode; if it is the case, then Shiro's out-of-character action to deliver Lotor to the ceremony without aid or support bespeaks her more overt influence upon him. Yet she speaks against Lotor as he makes to ascend to the throne. It seems a convoluted game she plays, one reminiscent of popular depictions of Morgan le Fay (and of more "literary" ones, as well). More to trace out the relevant antecedents of her own work in the series would be welcome--as will seeing how her influence on the second Black Paladin continues to manifest.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination by Paul Sturtevant


Paul B. Sturtevant, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Full disclosure: Paul is a friend and colleague; we work together at The Public Medievalist. Nevertheless, I have endeavored to be as objective as possible in this review.

One knee-jerk tendency for medievalists when confronted with pop-culture medievalism is to pick it apart for accuracy. We tend to look for how well the film portrays medieval battles. Whether the armor that SCA member is wearing follows known production methods and uses only materials available in the 12th century. Whether that TV show accurately exemplifies the socioeconomic factors of 11th century Britain. And then we follow fans of such things around yelling “No!” at them.

But whether these pop culture texts are “wrong” or “inaccurate,” people learn from them and create an idea of what the Middle Ages looked like. And they do so through all sorts of medievalist and neomedieval texts, from Disney princess films to Game of Thrones. Frequently, this is the only exposure people have to ideas about the Middle Ages. In The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination, Paul Sturtevant has tackled the big question of how people take in these ideas and integrate them with previous views of the Middle Ages or reject them.

He begins with an analysis of the malleability of the medievalist “Middle Ages”—those popular ideas we have about the historical period and the fact that those ideas change when we’re faced with new information. In order to explore this tendency, he created a study designed to explore the intersection of popular culture and historical consciousness.

The first chapter examines (and gripes about) the way historical consciousness has been studied so far. Mostly, it’s been journalists and politicians breathlessly complaining about how Millennials (or Gen X, or Gen Y, on back and back) know nothing about history and they’re obviously stupid idiots with no sense of culture and it’s amazing they can put their pants on in the morning. But, as Sturtevant points out, they get their “data” from scientifically invalid surveys that treat history like a bullet-pointed list of names and dates. Instead, he argues, this sort of study needs to focus on how people understand the past and what they do with it. This chapter also includes the methodology for his study—19 students at the University of Leeds were recruited and placed in one of three groups. Each group was interviewed about their existing ideas about the Middle Ages, then watched three films (Beowulf, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and were debriefed afterward about whether they felt these films were “medieval.”

Chapter 2 kicks off the study with the description and analysis of what the students thought of as “medieval.” Interestingly, it turns out that they don’t think “medieval” and “the Middle Ages” mean the same thing, and they have slightly different ideas about what traits and keywords would go with each. (Side note: while writing my dissertation, I had a fellow grad student tell me that I couldn’t use “medieval” and “Middle Ages” interchangeably because they weren’t the same thing and “real medievalists” would get mad at me if I mixed them up. I was baffled. My director made A Face. I’m less baffled after reading this chapter.) Of course, their ideas about the Middle Ages were pretty much what you’d expect—a blend of knights in shining armor, dirty peasants, feudalism, hardly any travel, no culture to speak of, pretty much exclusively European, etc. In fact, one student admitted that when she thought of the Middle Ages, everything outside Western Europe was fuzzy in her brain; she knew that it existed because of course it did, but it might as well have been on the moon. This chapter is incredibly important not only for establishing a baseline for the study, but also for medievalists and medievalismists who have worked in the field for so long that we might forget that other people honestly don’t have the knowledge about the era that we do. Nor should we expect them to.

Chapter 3 provides more context for the way that the public in general views or approaches films considered “medieval.” The public’s ideas about historical films of any kind tends to be muddled; they are aware that the filmmakers’ primary concern is entertainment (well, that and money) before any kind of historical accuracy, and thus tend to not trust films, yet that appears to be where they get most of their ideas about the Middle Ages. Therefore, this chapter introduces some important psychological concepts regarding learning and cognition: the sociological nature of knowledge and schema theory, in particular. Sturtevant also examines how historical films can be used for good—to illustrate certain eras, people, or concepts in the context of a classroom or other setting in which an expert can guide the students. Otherwise, people who encounter these films “in the wild” tend to be far less critical of them.

In chapter 4, we get a bit more specific with the history/film thing, looking particularly at films coded “medieval,” whether historical or high fantasy (which tends to be pre-industrial and therefore lumped into the blurry watercolor of “the Middle Ages”). This chapter tackles some film theory as well as examining what traits cause a film to be considered “medieval” and how the perception of the “medieval” in popular culture has changed over the decades (spoiler: it’s gotten darker and grittier. See Game of Thrones). This is also where Sturtevant drops the Big Question at the heart of the study: “do the ways in which the Middle Ages are depicted in film today (with an aesthetics and politics that freely mixes the medieval, the medievalist, and the hypermedieval) actually influence viewers’ ideas about the period?” And if so, how?

Chapters 5 and 6 detail the students’ experience of watching the three films and their thoughts about how they were more or less medieval. Chapter 5 is pretty close to raw data, while chapter 6 collates that data to discuss major trends and themes in the way the students discussed the films and the Middle Ages. These are the chapters that will make medievalists unleash their inner pterodactyls and shriek in frustration at the students’ ideas—Beowulf isn’t medieval enough because there are no knights. Orlando Bloom is too pretty to be a medieval hero—but it’s important to, again, remember that these students are reacting entirely on instinct and pop-culture fueled versions of the Middle Ages, not a formal education or even informal historical research.

Several more such studies could be incredibly useful to the field, especially with different demographics. For example, how do American students’ view of the Middle Ages differ from these English students’? What about history majors? Middle Eastern students? Older adults who remember the pre-9/11 world?

Somebody get on that.

But read the appendices first.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.3, "Postmortem"

Read the previous entry here!
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Into the power vacuum left by the defeat of Zarkon, many Galra seek to go--and other forces seek to manipulate events.

5.3, "Postmortem"

Written by Todd Ludy
Directed by Steve In Chang Ahn

Synopsis

On the Alcari homeworld, construction continues as the Alcari leader, Pidge, Matt, and their father look on. The Alcari leader explains the construction as the emergent capital of the Voltron-allied coalition, and Pidge's father notes the rapid changes. Noted are that the conflict with the Galra is not yet ended and that the Alcari defenses are not yet fully in place.

Among the Galra, news spreads that Zarkon has fallen and that Voltron is on the Alcari homeworld; it is to be the next target. On that world, Lotor and Allura confer about recent events; Lotor is not thrilled to have slain his own father. Not all are pleased to see Lotor in place as he notes the looming contest for leadership of the Galra--and his desire to participate. Doubts are expressed about the plan, although Shiro notes the utility of placing Lotor on the Galra throne. Shiro asserts his authority as the leader of Voltron over the objections of the others, growing increasingly angry.

Haggar observes events from afar, seemingly through Shiro, and clearly longing for her son before interrupted by an assassination attempt she is able to thwart with ease. The assassins are sent back in shame, and Haggar enacts her reprisal. She also frees Lotor's erstwhile lieutenants, conscripting them to her own cause.

This is another not-good sign.
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
Meanwhile, a Galra commander attacks the Alcari homeworld as a tactic to secure power over the other Galra. The attack makes planetfall as a weapon of mass destruciton, and Voltron is summoned to aid; Shiro responds first, finding the Alcari biotechnology suborned by the attack.

Haggar lays out her concerns to Lotor's former lieutenants. She is not out to secure her own position, but the Empire.

Lance, conducting target practice, finds himself overwhelmed and unlocks strange new abilities. Allura notes the similarities to her father's performance, and the two confer about Shiro's difficulty. Lance offers such counsel as he has. And Pidge explains her accomplishments to her father, who exults in them--and the need to fight on is noted, to her father's sadness.

Shiro continues his investigations, a new horror arising before him and attacking. Shiro summons the other Paladins, and the Galra advance slowly as their plans proceed and the Alcari suffer. Matt and Pidge's father confer with Corran as the attack continues with difficulty. The nature of the Galra attack begins to become clear, and Pidge enlists her family to analyze the attack as the whole of Voltron is deployed--and swiftly trapped. The attack proceeds toward the Alcari capital, draining power from the Alcari. Matt and Pidge's father work to overthrow the attack as Voltron struggles against capture by the Galra--and Corran realizes who has attacked.

The Paladins other than Shiro appear in a strange communion. Lance receives an odd, partial vision before Voltron breaks free; he returns to himself amid the ongoing battle as the Galra are thwarted. The ongoing attack is halted and the Galra weapon overthrown--by Lance.

Guess who's back...
Image taken from the episode, used for reporting.
In the wake of the battle, Pidge's father notes pride in his children. He will return to Earth, though he commends his children's dedication. And Lance confers with Shiro; matters ease between them somewhat, although Lance is still concerned. And Lotor's former lieutenants, now Haggar's agents, return to her with Sendak, retrieved from his unceremonious ejection into space.

Discussion

There is much going on in the episode, a number of plots working simultaneously and in some relation to one another, but with participants not necessarily aware of one another's actions. The parallel to the braided narrative typical of such romances as Malory's prevalent throughout the series is therefore particularly prominent in the current episode--as is the parallel to early passages in Malory, when an appointed tournament to determine who will next hold the throne is in progress. (Admittedly, the Galra exercise is likely to be more vicious than even medieval tournaments; even prior to the Arthurian Round Table Oaths, there were codes ostensibly observed, as seems not to be the case with the "victory or death" ethos promulgated by the Galra.)

The nature of the power struggle itself also seems to ring of prevailing concepts of medieval history--namely that a bunch of belligerent warlords rush to fill a power vacuum, with one of them having the imprimatur of organized religion. The Holy Roman Empire comes to mind as a possible antecedent, perhaps in the late ninth century or in the run-up to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. (Given the reforms occasioned in the latter case, it seems a more likely antecedent.) That is, admittedly, a first-blush impression, and more work would need to be done to confirm or deny it--if a neat historical parallel can be drawn, which may well not be the case. But even if there is not a single underpinning event, the episode seems to be borrowing from the ideas at work, and that is worth more consideration.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Getting Ready for #Kzoo2019

t is, perhaps, a bit early to do much to prepare for the 2019 International Congress on Medieval Studies on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Still, "not doing much" is not the same as "doing nothing," and, as many of the Society teach, we ought to model the behaviors we ask of our students--and do we not tell them to start on their work early? Thus, the text sent to the Congress in asking for two sessions for 2019, so that all of us can get started on putting things together for it:

The first session, a paper session titled The Legacy of Tolkien's Medievalism in Contemporary Works, will examine the continuing influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on conceptions of the Middle Ages and medieval prevalent in academic and popular cultures. As has been amply attested, Tolkien’s medievalist work in his Middle-earth corpus has exerted an outsized influence on subsequent fantasy and medievalist popular culture, and, following Paul B. Sturtevant’s assertions in The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination, it is largely or chiefly through popular cultural engagement with the materials that people—both the general public and those who become the students and scholars of the medieval—develop their early understandings of the Middle Ages. Decades on, Tolkien’s influence on popular culture—books, yes, but also movies, tabletop games, video games, television series, music, and other elements of popular understanding—continues to be felt, and continued examination of that influence is therefore warranted.

The second session, a paper session titled Afterlives of Medieval Religion in Contemporary Works, will look at how the post-Tolkien works that are the Society's focus appropriate and misappropriate medieval religious constructions. That formal religion was a central element of the European medieval, broadly conceived, is a conventional wisdom that is reflected both in the typical programming of the Congress and in the pages of Speculum, among others—yet many medievalist works, particularly those in mainstream popular culture, neglect or shy away from overt religiosity, or else they invoke it partially and only to specific effects, and in ways that do not appear to align well to the functions of the medieval church. Untangling the uses, misues, and avoidances of a key element of medieval culture in works that purport to be medieval or medievalist in their intent bears examination, and papers in the proposed session would be directed to those ends.

There'll be more information to come, of course, but having something of an advance will help. (And we mean to make the second the nucleus of a book, anyway, so ideas for it will be a good thing to have around.) We'll look forward to reading!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 5.2, "Blood Duel"

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Concerns of family loom large as the fifth season of Voltron: Legendary Defender carries on.

5.2, "Blood Duel"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

The Castle of Lions hangs in orbit over a rocky planet, sending a shuttle down to it. Shiro and Pidge bring Matt to a pre-arranged location to meet with Zarkon, who had offered to trade Lotor for Pidge and Matt's father--though there is no trust for Zarkon on the part of the Paladins. Shortly after, a Galra shuttle arrives, delivering Zarkon--and earlier comments from Lotor are presented, in which Lotor offers to ally with the Paladins, and they (pushed by Pidge) express doubt of his sincerity as he presses upon Allura and reminds them of Zarkon's perfidy.

Lotor makes his case to the Paladins.
Image take from the episode, used for commentary.
Zarkon demands Lotor, only to be countered by a demand for Pidge and Matt's father. The latter is presented, and Lotor demanded again.

Elsewhere, Haggar works a strange ritual, recalling the difficulty of her pregnancy with Lotor and moments from his infancy and youth. The visions recall her maternity to her, even as a bound Lotor is produced to Zarkon.

As the Paladins watch from the Castle, they fret about circumstances as the prisoner exchange commences. Shiro remains wary, as well, as the exchanging prisoners pass one another. Pidge cannot restrain herself and rushes forward--only to find a hologram where her father should be. He remains in Galra captivity--which prevents the Paladins from acting against Zarkon.

Haggar questions Zarkon's motives and moves to interdict him as Zarkon tries to press his advantage--and Lotor attacks. A melee ensues between the two, and the Paladins attempt to retrieve Pidge and Matt's father while it goes on. The Galra attempt to flee, and a broader fight begins to develop. Shiro, Pidge, and Matt confront Lotor's erstwhile lieutenants as Lotor and Zarkon continue to fight, and the two trade barbs and hateful words amid their fight. Lotor fares worse than the others as the rescue attempt continues.

Lotor is able to land a telling blow, however, staggering Zarkon. The rescue attempt succeeds, leaving Lotor's former lieutenants stranded and Pidge and Matt's father with the Paladins--and Lotor defeats his father.

Discussion

There is something of Mordred in Lotor. Both present themselves as representing advancement and forward thinking--Mordred's followers are condemned by Malory for being "new fangill," and Lotor is decried for trying to change the patterns Galra society had followed for millennia. Both are products of illicit unions (although Mordred's origin is far less savory than Lotor's, which only became illicit later), both are elevated to their father's positions while their fathers yet live (though Lotor always refers to himself as a regent while in power, rather than as the outright ruler), both are born of users of unpleasant magics--and both run their fathers through in battle, leaving them gravely wounded but not yet dead.

As the Paladins are moderations and modernizations of their chivalric romantic forebears, though, so is Lotor one of Mordred. As noted, his origins are less sordid than Mordred's; Arthur's nephew-son was conceived outside marriage and, in Malory, by machinations of his mother (admittedly, with problems inherent to the transmission of the story through Malory), while Lotor emerged from what had been an evidently loving marriage and, presumably, a consensual and knowing intimate encounter. Too, his thirst for power is not as pronounced as his antecedent's; Mordred falsifies reports of Arthur's death in Malory and attempts to take Guinevere as his own queen, while Lotor retains at least the fiction of Zarkon's overlordship and makes no marital overtures toward Haggar. And, at least on the surface of things, Lotor's governance is more inclusive and gentler than Zarkon's, while Mordred but replicated the power structures of his own father--with all of the problems thereto appertaining.

There are other points of interest in the episode, to be sure: the flashback structure and Haggar's sudden recollection of maternity are examples. The latter, particularly, invites attention--though I am not a specialist in such things and so not the person to give that attention; I welcome it from others. And how each develops in the succeeding episodes, as well as Lotor's own Arthurian overtones, will be worth examining.