Sunday, December 28, 2014

About _The Year's Work in Medievalism_ 28

On 15 December 2014, the International Society for the Study of Medievalism released Volume 28 of its journal The Year's Work in Medievalism online.* The volume is a special issue, Medievalism Now, one that seeks, in the words of editor E.L. Risden as he introduces the volume, to bring "marginalized medievalism into the center of our [scholarly] vision." In doing so, it deploys articles from Valerie B. Johnson, Amy S. Kaufman, Elena Levy-Navarro, Nickolas Haydock, Kevin Moberly and Brent Moberly, E.L. Risden, Karl Fugelso, Carol L. Robinson, Jesse G. Swan, Helen Young, and Richard Utz to argue for an expansion of medievalism's formal concerns and the body of scholars, professional and amateur, who contribute to the still-burgeoning field.

Valerie B. Johnson's "Ecomedievalism: Medievalism's Potential Futures in Ecocriticism and Ecomaterialsim" argues convincingly that medievalist study will benefit from deploying the tools common to ecocritical approaches. The article offers a useful list of readings that engage intersections that can be termed "ecomedieval," helping ease entry into their study and pointing out the contested nature of both ecocritical approaches and medievalism. The reminder that the environment is a long-standing socio-cultural concern is useful.

Amy S. Kaufman's "Lowering the Drawbridge" lays out (again) the tensions between the academic humanities and the "useful" world and between proximal disciplines. The article posits that medievalism itself remains a marginal, liminal space, partaking of multiple disciplines but welcomed by none, and finding itself marginalized in part because it is liminal not only within academic but also between it and the "regular" world. That it is one of the few disciplines in which amateurs are welcomed and even embraced vitiates against it for those who occupy the more traditional ivory tower. Medievalist studies are optimally poised to break down the barriers surrounding that tower, or at least to open additional gates in them through the resurgence of the medieval in entertainment culture and social structures.

Elena Levy-Navarro's "A Long Parenthesis Begins" argues that medievalist study needs to be more open to and accepting of non-professional scholars as a means to keep itself fresh and identify and explicate the connections--sometimes seemingly tenuous--upon which it depends. Opening up medievalist inquiry to more minds also allows for a richer historiography, one that rejects the absolutes of periodic and disciplinary boundaries to create a living understanding of how the world continues to use what it has used before.

Nickolas Haydock's "Medievalism and Anamorphosis: Curious Perspectives on the Middle Ages" points out how recapitulations of medieval figures and tropes in succession serve to highlight the unattainability of medieval ideals and of the ambiguous nature of those ideals themselves. In the article, refigurings serve to obscure, not only among receptions of the medieval but in the medieval itself. It is a useful reminder of the continuity of cultural fixtures, although the fixtures themselves are perhaps not ideal for continuation.

Kevin Moberly and Brent Moberly contribute "There Is No Word for Work in the Dragon Tongue," which explicates the manner in which The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim reinscribes the removal of medievalist treatments from the material conditions of the medieval. It also likens that removal to current first-world concerns of removal from production. Manual labor is distinctly non-privileged in the game as in the cultures of which it ostensibly partakes and among which its intended player-base is. It, along with other medievalist popular works, reflects the tension between nostalgia for "good, honest work" and the non-desire to actually do that work, and it calls for a better reflection of the actuality of that work in future medievalist works. (Notably, the Moberlys' article can be read against Johnson's to good effect.)

E.L. Risden's "Miyazaki's Medieval World: Japanese Medievalism and the Rise of Anime" notes that medievalism in Asia is insufficiently examined by scholars of medievalism. Miyazaki's 1997 film Princess Mononoke is used as a case study for how Japanese medievalism might function and be explicated; other works are suggested for further study. Risden's comments speak to something that this webspace has also addressed, and they could well serve as an impetus for treatments of other works entirely.

Karl Fugelso's "Embracing Our Marginalism: Mitigating the Tyranny of a Central Paradigm" reminds readers that any kind of centering motion necessarily implies a fluidity of categorization that vitiates against the effectiveness of categorization. The article highlights the liminality of medievalist study that derives from its disciplinary heterodoxy, but notes that even within the field, there is a centralizing push that unfortunately excludes too many. Some is structural; Fugelso makes the telling comment that "There is simply not enough time, space, energy, and money to air everyone's work, much less give it equal billing, much less make it easily accessible" to highlight that structural limit. Some, though, is merely the result of habit--and that habit is a dangerous thing to maintain for medievalism as a field.

Carol L. Robinson, a valued Tales after Tolkien Society member, contributes "The Quest for a Deaf Lesbian Dwarf (or Anyone Else that Might Have Been Excluded) in Medievalist Video Games: A Response to Karl Fugelso's Manifesto." In it, she argues that the exclusionary and oppressive practices seen in medievalist video games parallel and reinscribe those in medievalist studies as a whole, and that redress of them needs to be "radical, dramatic, abrupt, and thus acutely innovative." The reinscription derives from earlier receipt of benefits from the inscription, and the duty incumbent on medievalists is to reclaim those benefits in the service of a greater inclusivity and diversity of treatment.

Jesse Swan's "Relazation and Amateur Medievalism for Early Modernity: Seeing Sir Henry Yelverton as a Woman in Love and a Bureaucrat Threatened in the 1621 Parliament" takes the uncommon approach of explicating earlier medievalisms, likening the treatment of Yelverton to the treatment of Spencer and Gaveston in then-popular media. Although an elided preposition distracts, the explication of an earlier medievalism is of interest and serves as a reminder that the Middle Ages have long served as a lens through which to examine current culture. The article's early comments about relaxation enabling inquiry are also helpful, recalling Asimov's "The Eureka Phenomenon."

Tales after Tolkien Society founder Helen Young's "Place and Time: Medievalism and Making Race" continues her project of explicating the multiracial nature of medieval Europe and arguing in favor of reflecting that multiracial nature in medievalist works. The article references the common assertion of the Middle Ages as a generative time for racial and national identities, marking nation-building as an iteration of medievalist practice, and argues that the purported lack of a medieval, or of an interesting medieval, among non-European peoples accounts in part for the drive to subjugate them. The implication is one Young has made explicit before (here and elsewhere): medievalist scholars have a duty to correct the abuses perpetuated by medievalist materials.

The volume concludes with Richard Utz's "Can We Talk about Religion, Please? Medievalism's Eschewal of Religion, and Why It Matters." The article contrasts the notable lack of religious discussion in medievalist scholarship with the wide range of materials it tends to cover. Utz posits that the lack stems in part from uncertainty about how to treat religion, informed by disciplinary and periodic divisions as well as an undercurrent of anti-theistic thought (evoking Michael-John DePalma's December 2011 CCC article "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief"). It is, in Utz's view, a lack that needs to be redressed.

The eleven articles combine to present an impressive collective call to expand medievalist studies and will certainly undergird no small number of projects that aim to answer that call. The Year's Work in Medievalism 28 (2013) presents excellent scholarship, well worth deploying in further expansion of human knowledge.

*All comments are taken from the volume as it appears online as of 27 December 2014, at which time I printed out copies of the articles for reading and comment.

Monday, December 15, 2014

About Student Papers and Anime

With apologies once again for the delay--this one imposed by end-of-semester work...

One of my undergraduate literature students from the spring has been working with me to revise and refine the conference paper I had his class write. It is flattering in itself, as having students continue to work on projects after their classes are done is a rarity and a mark of appreciation. But it is more validating that that alone, as the student's paper has been accepted for presentation in one of the Papers by Undergraduates panels at the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies. And it is of interest to the Society generally, as the student's paper is one explicitly concerned with the kinds of things the Society does; it examines the appropriation of a medieval source in a contemporary popular culture medium--in this case, an anime series. I do not want to tread upon my student's work by giving much specific detail, but I can note that the series he is examining is not the only one which deploys the medieval as generally understood (some discussion of which is here). I can note that I wonder along with him why that would be the case.

That anime makes use of the Western medieval is evident in a number of series; my own viewing leads me to recall Berserk, particularly, as well as some parts of Hellsing and even of Rurouni Kenshin. Cruciform swords and Gothic plate appear, as well as courts of kings and queens, mercenary bands, and the cut-stone castles familiar from history and legend instead of or, at least, in addition to katana and o-yoroi, daimyo and ronin, and shiro and kyuden. Some series even go so far as to deploy the occasional bits of language from the Western medieval, making for a somewhat jarring intrusion into the prevailing Japanese-language dialogue from time to time but marking the series in which they appear as partaking abundantly of the Western medieval.

Japan has a long feudal history of its own to deploy, however, and one that begs for reconsideration or further consideration of what is meant by "medieval." It is as heavily romanticized as the Western Middle Ages and indeed often identified as a parallel; samurai and chivalric knights largely run in tandem, as both are bound (nominally) by stringent codes of honor and fealty to military service in the name of their lord. Both exist as disparate states unified by shared language (Japanese among the samurai, Latin and perhaps French among the chivalric knights) and a centralized religious structure (veneration of the Emperor as the descendant of the Sun Goddess among the samurai, the Catholic Church among the chivalric knights). That anime--a distinctly Japanese cultural product--would partake as frequently of the Western medieval as it does thus makes sense, as the parallels lend themselves to deployment, as well as making less sense, as the parallels are not necessary. (The same is true of Western depictions of samurai culture; the parallels invite such treatments even as they would seem to argue against their necessity.)

A number of reasons for the deployment come to mind. One of them is one my student is pursuing in his own paper, so I shall set it aside so as not to tread upon him--although, for the record, I think his idea is a good one, and I look forward to addressing it more fully after he presents his paper. Another, though, seems to work in much the same way as Said's concept of Orientalism. To a Japanese audience, the Western Middle Ages is Other (although the correspondence is not entirely exact due to historical circumstances and what amounts to ongoing colonialist practice), therefore exotic to some degree and attractive therefore. At the same time, there are sufficient parallels in play to permit easy access into that exotic Other--or at least romanticized versions of it. Anime deployment of Western medieval imagery thus simultaneously facilitates Coleridgean willingness to suspend disbelief for its audience by maintaining a Tolkienian inner consistency of reality; it permits the creation of a "foreign" world that is unusual enough to allow for the uncanny while remaining accessible enough to viewers that they can immerse themselves in the narrative.

Yet another might be in the relative artistic freedom the deployment permits. A work that draws from its expected audience's history and culture subjects itself to critique based upon the perceived in/accuracy of that drawing, as appears even in several comments presented in this blog (those which treat "historical authenticity" and "Game of Thrones" are particularly relevant). Unlike those posed earlier in this webspace, though, many of the comments arguing about the in/accuracy will come from those who are perhaps trained otherwise than in the histories they would purport to discuss authoritatively, based upon what they were taught--not always by the best--or what they have "researched"--again, not always from the best sources. While artists are not obliged to consider the comments of their audiences, those who will seek to earn livings from their art are, and handling such comments can be tiresome. Drawing from the history and culture of another group than the expected primary audience, though, reduces the problem substantially; the audience will likely include far fewer who consider themselves experts on the history and culture deployed, and they are more likely to be able to demonstrate actual expertise than the armchair commentators common in other circumstances. While concerns of cultural appropriation can arise (albeit to a lesser degree than might otherwise be the case, given the explicit attempts at spreading Western--specifically United States mainstream--culture that have been and are still being made; it is hard to argue that culture is stolen by a populace when it is being shoved down that populace's collective throat), they occur far less frequently than those which assail works for their inaccuracies. Artists working with other cultures than those of their anticipated audiences thus have more room to take license--which suggests itself as a good reason for anime to make use of Western medieval constructions in its own storytelling.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

About "The Medieval Bishop Who Helped to Unweave the Rainbow"

With apologies for the long delay between entries...

On 27 November 2014, The Guardian posted Michael Brooks's article, "The Medieval Bishop Who Helped to Unweave the Rainbow." In it, Brooks reports that researchers have investigated the scientific works of thirteenth century bishop Robert Grosseteste and found that they in many senses anticipate later scientific understandings, particularly in regards to the behavior of light. Contextualized in an account of observing researchers at the Festival of Humanities at Durham Cathedral reproducing the bishop's experiments, the article accounts in a summary fashion for the provenance of Grosseteste's work, as well as the problems within it and the internal consistencies that, even if at odds with observed reality as currently understood by science, make for what one scientist calls a "curiously satisfying" understanding of cosmology. Brooks's article is well written and reasonably balanced, respectful of all parties concerned, and a worthwhile piece of journalism on both ongoing science and researches into history.

There are several things to note in the article. One that attracts a bit of amused attention is that the subject's name, Grosseteste, translates to "big test" or something similar from several languages, a bit of punning particularly appropriate given the association in Brooks's article between the man and science. More important, however, are the respect with which the journalist reports on the knowledge-base of the humanities scholars with whom he worked and what can be taken as the central theme of the article: the so-called Dark Ages are not so dark as commonly held.

A commonplace about those who study the humanities--the "historians, Latin scholars or theologians" [sic] Brooks notes in attendance at the Festival--is that their knowledge is irrelevant and their fields of study preclude them from having any understanding of the actual functions of the observable, material world. The commonplace fails to address those who apply humanistic methods to the sciences themselves, looking into the histories and socio-cultural contexts in which scientific understanding exists and the political entanglements that enmesh the pursuit of such knowledge. Brooks makes a nod to it in noting that for many of the humanities scholars, direct interaction with the hard sciences is a long-ago thing--but in the next paragraph, he notes that his own knowledge of the humanities pales in comparison to the scientific knowledge of those who are so far removed from scientific schooling as are those scholars. Further, he shortly afterwards notes relying heavily upon a humanities scholar for his reported understanding of some of the importance of Grosseteste's work. In doing so, he subverts the commonplace and acknowledges the hard-won knowledge of humanities scholars as being of value, as being necessary to a full understanding even of the most "scientific" of sciences: physics.

It is easy for those writing in the twenty-first century to look back at the intellectuals of earlier centuries with scorn and derision (although neglectful of the debt owed to those same intellectuals). Their ideas are strange to contemporary readers, and they are in some cases flatly wrong--usually owing to limited observational ability. Brooks avoids the aspersive look in his article, however. Although he acknowledges the places where Grosseteste's research is in error--chiefly in incorrect assumptions prevalent at the time--he does not heap scorn upon the man for sharing the beliefs of his time (in no small part because all too many still share those beliefs despite confirmed evidence to the contrary); instead, he lauds the bishop's insight into the workings of the natural world and the potential for cross-cultural discourse through scholarship that his work embodies. Indeed, Brooks goes to some length to reference scholars who similarly praise Grosseteste and his work and to note the similarities between the bishop's situation and his own, remarking that the passage of time may well invalidate current understandings as thoroughly as current understandings undermine those held by Grosseteste and his contemporaries. His doing so is a reminder that the medieval world was as vital as the current, its thinkers as concerned with understanding the universe around them as current thinkers are theirs. It is an indication that there is still much to learn from centuries gone by, whatever the field, and that such learning is something well worth having in the forefront of public consciousness.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

About _Labyrinth_

Early in October 2014, there was a great deal of online hubbub about a proposed sequel to the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth. While it seems, according to Lindsey Bahr, that the excitement is unjustified, its presence suggests that the nearly-thirty-year-old film remains a current concern in mainstream popular culture. Certainly, it prompted me to re-watch the movie (a belated continuation of something I describe as begun in the summer of 2014), which my wife and I did with great joy. As we did, I was reminded that medieval, and particularly Arthurian, references appear throughout the piece; Sarah's favored bear is named Lancelot, her dog's name is Merlin, and another "character" played by that same dog is named Ambrosius (a name connected with Arthuriana through some of its older instantiations such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and Gildas's De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae). And there is Sir Didymus, who rides Ambrosius (humorously, usually away from battle) and is himself much in the mold of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and similarly extreme examples of the perceived trappings of later medieval chivalry. But while his behavior evokes the Arthurian, and his name sounds like something that would appear in Arthurian legend, he is not an explicit figuration of a character from Malory or other Arthurian works. Instead, the name partakes of the religious, which, although certainly embedded in the medieval, is not necessarily consistent with the medievalism other figures in the movie convey.

The disjunction is not something most moviegoers would likely notice, admittedly, although those who caught the Arthurian references might be prompted to look (case in point, this essay). Its insertion might therefore be indicative of a belief of the producers, tacit or explicit, that the audience would need nothing more than a veneer of the medieval in its fairy-tale-like entertainment--and, indeed, Labyrinth does not seem to set out to be medievalist so much as a play upon fairy-stories. The medievalism that it deploys can be read, therefore, as a nod to the conventions of the genre and the popularity of medievalist films as Labyrinth was initially released. Yet such a reading seems disingenuous; given the care which Henson and his colleagues usually take with their work (as witness, for instance, The Dark Crystal), merely making a nod to prevailing conditions (rather than making a joke of them explicitly) is out of place. It is more likely that there is another explanation for the name as applied to the character to which it is given than simply reinforcing a veneer of medievalism not strictly necessary to the movie and which would be equally well served by calling the character by another medievalist name such as Galahad or Roland.

One possibility arises in the religious resonance of the name; Didymus is another name accorded to the Doubting Thomas of Scripture. His entry in the online Catholic Encyclopedia notes that he is reputedly among the furthest-traveled of the Apostles, having been sent to India and encountering "strange adventures from dragons and wild asses" in his ministry there--not out of line with the kind of encounter typical of the chivalric figure the movie's Didymus embodies. Alternately, the Didymus being referenced could be one noted in the Reverend Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints; the Didymus of Butler's piece appears in the guise of a soldier who substitutes himself for Theodora in a successful attempt to preserve her chastity and an ultimately unsuccessful gambit to save her life. Butler claims to be working from older records and the writings of St. Ambrose, both of which would have been nearly as well known to the medieval mind (insofar as such a construction can be asserted to have existed) as Thomas the Apostle. And in that theoretical medieval mind, Didymus would have exhibited characteristics that came to typify the knight of chivalric romance: valor and extravagance in the defense of a woman's sexual integrity. As such, for its resonance with the wide-ranging, dragon-meeting, extravagantly lady-saving Didymi of medieval lore, it is an appropriate name for the hyper-chivalric caricature that is Sir Didymus of Labyrinth.

Yet even that explanation does not wholly suffice. The references are markedly obscure; the journey of Thomas to India is apocryphal, and Butler's commentaries were buried in older printings before the advent of the internet. How accessible they would have been to Henson and his colleagues as they put together their film is questionable; it seems to me to be fairly unlikely they would have reviewed the texts in question as they would have existed in the middle of the 1980s (although I will admit that I may be mistaken). Too, their fit to the chivalric tradition Sir Didymus seems almost to satirize (almost because he is a character of some effect in the film; a true satire would have had him bluster wholly impotently) is somewhat tenuous; they partake of the medieval chivalric, but they are not themselves medieval or chivalric in fact. The religious resonances alone cannot account for the applicability of the name to the character, although they may well influence it in some way. Something else has to be at work in the choice to name the character Didymus (perhaps a pun through the evocation of Thomas the Apostle of the Sir Thomas Malory through which readers of English typically encounter the Arthurian), although what it is likely lies outside the scope of this paper to ascertain wholly.

What is of more importance, at least for this piece as it appears in this venue, is what the context of Sir Didymus reveals. He is himself a medievalism, albeit a somewhat tangled one that calls back to the late Roman Imperial / Late Antique, and he is surrounded and accompanied by other medievalisms. Their collected popularity nearly thirty years after their appearance in film suggests that there continues to be an avid thirst for figurations of the medieval, not only among scholars who delight in seeing what they study continue to enjoy relevance (even as and if they may seethe at what they see as inaccuracies in the presentations), but also among the general public. Helping to slake that thirst offers some hope for those scholars that they can find some use in working at the wells to draw up histories that are yet beneath the present surfaces of things.

Works Cited
  • Barh, Lindsey. "Labyrinth Sequel in the Works? Not Exactly." Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, 10 October 2014. Web. 30 October 2014.
  • Butler, Alban. "April 28. SS. Didymus and Theodora, Martyrs." The Lives of the Saints., 2010. Web. 30 October 2014.
  • The Dark Crystal. Dir. Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Sony, 2006. DVD.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About a Trope of Medievalist Movies: Empty Countrysides." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 28 July 2014. Web. 30 October 2014.
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. and ed. Michael A. Faletra. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2008. Print.
  • Gildas. On the Ruin of Britain. Trans. J.A. Giles. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 4 February 2012. Web. 30 October 2014.
  • Labyrinth. Dir. Jim Henson. Perf. David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly. Sony, 2006. DVD.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dir. Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman et al. Sony, 2001. DVD.
  • Thurston, Herbert. "St. Thomas the Apostle." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight, 2012. Web. 30 October 2014.

Monday, October 13, 2014

CFP: Studies in Medievalism

Helen Young notes the following:

Studies in Medievalism, a peer-reviewed print and on-line publication, seeks 3,000-word essays on how medievalism supports, parallels, resists, complicates, disrupts, denies, or otherwise relates to modernity. How, if at all, do postmedieval responses to a middle ages intersect with the respondent’s and/or our assumptions about absolute and/or relative modernity? How have the terms “medievalism” and “modernity...” come to be defined in relationship to each other? Authors are encouraged to structure their essays around one or more examples and to consider not only whether medievalism could exist without modernity but also whether modernity could exist without medievalism. Please remember that our wide-ranging audience comprises generalists as well as specialists, and please send submissions in English and Word to Karl Fugelso ( by August 1, 2015. For a style sheet, please visit the website

This seems like the kind of thing the Society and its membership would do well at. Please consider submitting.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

About "Avianca's Bezel"

Matthew Hughes's novelet "Avianca's Bezel" appears in the September/October 2014 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction as an example of the former; it is a fantasy piece set in a future version of Earth and follows the continuing travails of Raffalon the thief. In the text, Raffalon finds himself imprisoned for attempted breaking and entering, in debt because of expenses accrued during incarceration, auctioned off to pay the debt, and ensorcelled into attempting to retrieve the eponymous bezel. It allows him to escape his ensorcelment, but at the cost of altering his body substantially; he is able to secure assistance in undoing the damage done to him and eventually comes away with exquisite goods to sell as he makes his way away. It is an entertainingly episodic piece, and it is one that, as is typical for the fantasy genre, deploys a medievalist milieu--even if it is one so far in the future that Sol has grown orange and dim, as an earlier Raffalon story notes ("Stones" 160).

A number of features of the setting establish it as partaking of the medieval. One is its carceral practice. In the piece, Raffalon is taken into custody for "intent to commit depredacious entry" (170), a charge that evokes wording attested as far back as 1483 in works printed by Caxton ("Depredation") and thus connects back to the end of the English medieval from which much of the popular understanding of the Middle Ages derives. His being taken in "Nooses and manacles" and being held in a tower whose sanitary facilities consist of a bucket he has to empty himself also evoke stereotypical images of medieval dungeons--and his being charged for his upkeep does, as well (170). One of the features marking the late medieval prison--again familiar through association with Caxton by way of Le Morte d'Arthur and its author--is its permeability, as a number of scholars have asserted.* That permeability is largely enabled by the ability of prisoners and those who care for them to pay for such luxuries and even staples as they receive; without that payment, the late medieval prison is a dreary place indeed, but with it, it could be reasonably comfortable. That the prison into which Raffalon is cast functions similarly (170-71) marks it as aligned with medieval carceral practice, highlighting the conformity of the novelet's milieu to the expected medievalism of fantasy narrative.

Another connection of the milieu to the medieval or medievalist is in its evocation of Dante. The Florentine poet is, of course, best known for his intimately detailed biting commentaries couched as descriptions of the multi-leveled underworld (which depictions are often appropriated and refigured for comic effect as well as in the occasional interactive media production); he accords his Purgatory and his Heaven no less detail than his Hell, offering for each a nine-part division. Hughes offers what appears to be a similar cosmology in the novelet; it exists within a creation of nine planes (178), each of which exists at a higher level of intensity than that which lies "below" it. "Higher" levels are generally only accessible by the higher faculties, and that only after intensive preparation (181); the process is not unlike the atonement for sins in Dante's Purgatory. Hughes' fictional milieu operates much as the tripartite division of Dante's spiritual world--and in both cases, the world the reader occupies is the reality that stands apart from what is described in the text. One character remarks that "'Virtually anything from the Fourth Plane is valuable on the Third [the "real" world of Raffalon]. Pebbles there are gems here'" (196), and "a twig from which sprouted a blossom [taken from the Fourth Plane]....were quite the most beautiful objects Raffalon had ever held, seemingly made of polished platinum and flakes of pure gold" (208). Too, the Fourth Plane cannot safely be viewed without normally-opaque protections against being "eye-staggered" or suffering a terminally self-destructive "Euphoromania" (202). It is a region of "rarefied energies" that threaten to consume "lesser" souls that enter it (204), not unlike the increasingly bright and brilliant levels of Dante's Heaven. Approaching the Seat of the Most High entails continuously growing removal from the terrestrial and exposure to divine radiance unendurable without marked assistance--save for those who have made themselves ready for it through what can be called intensive spiritual training. In that similarity, then, is a connection between Hughes's work and the medieval ideal prevalent in English-language popular culture.

More could possibly be taken from "Avianca's Bezel" to tie it to the medievalist setting frequently adopted by fantasy literature; consideration of the series of stories featuring Raffalon would doubtlessly provide yet more to tie the stories to medieval antecedents. The appearance of the stories in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction serves to mark them as representative of quality work in the fantasy genre; the magazine has high publication standards, and its endurance in print, even if somewhat reduced from years past (with bimonthly issues having succeeded eleven issues annually a few years ago), bespeaks the regard in which it has been and continues to be held. That Hughes's story evokes medievalism in is milieu thus serves as an indicator that, despite the increasing divergence of societies and analogues of societies presented in fantasy writing, the medieval still serves as a primary, still-ever-acceptable venue for the presentation of that writing which relies upon magic for its effect.** It indicates that at least one of the dominant threads of fantasy readership still looks to the medieval, for reasons I have motioned towards yet which I know are not so thoroughly explicated as they could be or ought to be ("Thoughts"). And thus it shows that the kind of work the Society seeks to promote remains relevant, as does the work of the more traditional medievalist upon which the Society happily relies.

*I discuss some of this in my dissertation (69n11).

**I have a piece under review as of this writing that works towards an effective definition of "magic" for use in fantasy literature. I realize it is an open question.

Works Cited

  • "Depredation." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, 2014. Web. 7 October 2014.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. The Establishment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as the Standard Text of English-Language Arthurian Legend. Diss. U of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2012. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 2012. Print.
  • ---. "Thoughts about Why We Still Look to the Medieval." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 24 June 2014. Web. 7 October 2014.
  • Hughes, Matthew. "Avianca's Bezel." The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction September/October 2014: 169-208. Print.
  • ---. "Stones and Glass." The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction November/December 2013: 156-97. Print.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

About "Race in Online Fantasy Fandom"

As has been noted, Helen Young's "Race in Online Fantasy Fandom: Whiteness on" was published in Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies on 12 August 2014. In the article, Young asserts that the online community at overwhelmingly conflates a particular "authorized" fandom (reliant upon acceptance of specific views including deliberate avoidance of racial discourse) and whiteness with varying degrees of explicitness. As she does so, she invokes treatments of the racist overtones of Tolkien and much fantasy literature and its fandom and argues that the ways in which whiteness is encoded into the fandom are primarily concerned with avoidance of accusations of racism on the part of Martin and his readers.

The article is, overall, convincing. Young makes excellent points and supports them well, and her reports seem to correspond with a number of other popular manifestations of racism that seeks to disguise itself as non-racism through obfuscation or avoidance. And her article is particularly relevant because of the increasing cultural cachet of Martin's fantasy series; criticism of that series and of the communities that grow up around it is tied to better understandings of the prevailing popular culture which generates and consumes it. That said, some issues do come to mind for further consideration, perhaps in a revision of the article as part of a larger collection, or perhaps in another paper altogether:

  • Given the US origin of Martin's text and Young's own comments regarding the entanglement of Martin and Hollywood, the question must be asked of how much of the fanbase is in or from the US. The tactics used to construct/encode whiteness among the "authorized" fans seems to run parallel to those used in mainstream US culture; the parallel suggests that the fans are themselves predominantly of the US.
  • The question of to what extent other largely online fanbases encode whiteness in ways parallel to that of also arises. The bronies offer one example, with one discussion of the fraught construction and "authorization" being discussed in Christopher Bell's Humanities Directory 1.1 article "The Ballad of Derpy Hooves: Transgressive Fandom in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic." (There is some overlap in the the demographics Young reports of fantasy fandom and what Bell identifies as those of bronies.)
  • The fandom seems to take on an almost religious nature in the descriptions Young provides. The extent to which it parallels the formation of religious communities and identities may be worth consideration; putting it alongside the more evangelical/proselytizing groups suggests itself as a useful exercise.
Admittedly, an article cannot treat all avenues of inquiry, and it is not a fault that it selects one focus to pursue and not another. It is, again, a well written piece that makes solid points worth consideration and offers a lens through which to examine other medievalist works and their receptions. (The thought occurs that Martin is spawning imitators much as Tolkien did, and examining their responses to fantasy/medievalist tropes as Martin iterates them suggests itself as worth doing.) And insofar as it provokes further questions and thus, it is to be hoped, more discussion, Helen Young's "Race in Online Fantasy Fandom: Whiteness on" is a piece of scholarship well worth attention.

Friday, September 12, 2014

CFP Reminder

Do note that the deadlines for submissions to MAMO and Kalamazoo (notably one or two sessions) are both this Monday, 15 September 2014. It is not too late; if you've got ideas, send them in!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Three Surveys

In an attempt to get a better feel for the opinions of the Society regarding ongoing and upcoming events, we offer the following surveys:

Results will be published and discussed when enough are generated to enable a discussion.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Random Bits of News

After something of a break in August, there are a few news items that need to be brought to Society attention:

Helen Young reports that the Society Constitution was ratified by an email vote of 4-0 (1 abstention). The text as ratified is up on both the Society webpage and a page of this blog.

Helen also reports that she had an article, "Race in Online Fantasy Fandom: Whiteness on," come out in Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies last month. She also has a monograph coming out through Routledge: Race in Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Congratulations are in order for both.

I can boast signing on as a contributor to the New Chaucer Society's Annotated Chaucer Bibliography.

It is not too late to send in abstracts for the International Congress on Medieval Studies or other recent CFPs that have been posted to the blog. If you have ideas and would like to travel to exotic locations such as Michigan, send them in!

We are always looking for member news and additional contributions to Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Email them to

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

CFP: There and Back Again: Tolkien in 2015

This event may be of interest:

There and Back Again: Tolkien in 2015
February 20-21, 2015

The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the Ohio State University invites abstracts and panel proposals for its second academic conference on Popular Culture and the Deep Past, devoted this year to the works of and world surrounding J.R.R. Tolkien: "There and Back Again: Tolkien in 2015." In keeping with the PCDP idea, this will be a full-fledged conference, itself nested in a broader 'carnival' of popular and traditional cultural events and activities, including food- and culture-ways demonstrations, exhibits of artwork, books, and manuscripts, combat, gaming, and cosplay. (If you wish to submit a proposal for a non-academic presentation or activity, or otherwise participate in 'Tolkien Day' as an organizer or volunteer, please see our separate 'Tolkien Day' CFP at

Given the release in December 2014 of Peter Jackson's final Hobbit movie, we will be particularly receptive to proposals that draw on themes evoked in or growing out of Tolkien's 1937 novel; but we invite submissions involving research on any topic related to the Tolkien phenomenon, ranging from historical and cultural identities to linguistic, writing, and media systems, folkways and cultural expressions, fantasy and gaming, and popular or artistic manifestations of all kinds. As with last year's PCDP conference on the Game of Thrones, this one aims to explore the interface between historicity and contemporaneity: preference will be given to proposals in which this element is manifest.

Conference papers will be limited to 20 minutes' duration, followed by 10 minutes of discussion; they will be organized thematically into two-hour sessions of 4 papers each, ranging across two days. Submissions for entire conference sessions are welcome, in which case a session title and abstract should be submitted, along with individual paper titles and abstracts for the session from the different presenters.

Abstracts for sessions and individual papers should be limited to 250 words. The submission deadline for abstracts and panel proposals is October 1st. Submissions after that date will be happily received, but cannot be guaranteed full consideration. Please contact us at with any questions you might have.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

About Paul B. Sturtevant's Website

Online discussions of the Society pointed out Paul B. Sturtevant's website The Public Medievalist some weeks ago. Sturtevant describes himself as "a Public Historian--a Public Medievalist....most interested in how people learn about and use history in their lives" and notes "This has traditionally only encompassed historical institutions for public education--archives, historical-heritage sites, museums or universities. I conceive of it as being broader than that: anywhere that people engage with and learn about the past is a part of public history." Despite some few issues of concern, the site does well to support his stated mission; although missing some points, it presents helpful insights into how contemporary popular culture engages with medieval history

His 18 July 2014 article, "If 'Chivalry' Isn't Dead, Let's Kill It," illustrates the point nicely. In the piece, Sturtevant rails against the cries voiced by The Daily Telegraph and others that "chivalry is dead" and that it was killed by feminists, among others. He does so in large part by pointing out that the definition of chivalry commonly used is not the same kind of chivalry attested in medieval writings; instead, it evolves from Victorian medievalist understandings of the term. In that sense, he asserts, it perhaps ought to be allowed to pass unmourned, given the oppressive heteronormativity of the construction. In the prevailing medieval sense, he also remarks, it is not particularly unique, so that distinguishing "chivalry" is perhaps according too much distinction to the medieval European feudal warriors.

There are some problems in the way he makes his argument. One that stands out to my eye is an omission. In explicating the Victorian medievalist origins of chivalry as a normative set of heterosexual politeness practices, he lists such sources as Malory, the Gawain poet, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Walter Scott. Lacking is Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose Idylls of the King enjoyed more currency among Victorian readers than any of the medieval Arthurian sources and, quite likely, Scott.* Tennyson is hardly an unknown author; not mentioning him is an oddity.

Even so, the article does much well. It is framed nicely as a response to a series of articles in a major newspaper and a study published by a major academic group, grounding the discussion firmly in popular culture; the invocation of relatively popular films also does so. The systematic dismantling of popular arguments about the killing of chivalry is good to see, as is the corollary argument that chivalry is not a static category taken from a monolithic Middle Ages. Sturtevant is correct in framing it as a still-dynamic descriptor, the use of which has changed substantially and which at its best can still offer people something worth having. And if his "If 'Chivalry' Isn't Dead, Let's Kill It" is representative of his public medievalist work, then his ongoing efforts in The Public Medievalist will be well worth continued attention.

*See my dissertation, pgs. 182-86.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Whiteness and Westeros

A few days ago I came across this article online which quoted George R. R. Martin invoking the medievalism of his books to explain why there are few major characters of colour either in them, or the TV series. It quotes Martin's Livejournal, where he responds to a reader's question about the absence of Asian characters in A Song of Ice and Fire: "Well, Westeros is the fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its world, so it is a long long way from the Asia analogue. There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either." It's a response that directly parallels comments made places like the fan site which I wrote about in an article that went online last week here.* It's hard to argue directly with that kind of statement; taken by itself it's factually true. But it also masks the fact that the Middle Ages, even within Europe, were culturally, lingustically, and racially diverse.

* visit our Facebook page for a link to a free download if you don't have access to the journal Continuum through a university library

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

CFP The Middle Ages in the Modern World 29/6-2/7 2015

The Middle Ages in the Modern World conference, held in St Andrews last year, will be hosted by the University of Lincoln next year from 29th June to 2nd July. The CFP is now being circulated and early bird submissions are open. You can find details at the website,which also has social media links. It was a really excellent conference last year, and I'm sure it will be again. I'll look at putting together a TAT session, so keep an eye out on the mailing list for details of that. For anyone consisdering international travel, the Leeds International Medieval Congress will be the following week, so there's a good opportunity to combine them in your trip.

Monday, July 28, 2014

About a Trope of Medievalist Movies: Empty Countrysides

My wife and I have recently been rewatching a number of movies set in analogues of medieval Europe, movies such as 1982's The Last Unicorn and The Dark Crystal and 1988's Willow. As we watched the last, the thought occurred to me that there appears to be a trope of setting among them, a trope seen in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, as well, and in others I could name but have not watched recently enough to discuss. In each, the populations appear to be quite low to sustain the military forces seen; there do not appear to be enough people to feed all of the fighting folk, and there seems not to be enough housing to hold them all in the structures that are in place. (For the most part; there are, of course, individual exceptions within each milieu.)

I have to wonder if the persistence of medievalist milieu as largely empty has to do with a concept of the European Middle Ages as really being after the Black Death, when much of the population of Europe had succumbed to disease. David Whitton notes in his contribution to The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, "The Society of Northern Europe in the High Middle Ages, 900-1200," that forests were cleared, marginal agricultural land put into production, and the sea driven back to make room for a burgeoning population, and trade among the various people increased greatly during the period. For some of the European medieval, at least, there were more people about than films that echo or try to recreate the broader concept of the time display. Military technologies tend to be more advanced than to fall before the High Middle Ages; Willow, for instance, shows a number of weapons that smack of the later Middle Ages (not to mention an interesting combination of mail and plate on Madmartigan), and Lord of the Rings features gunpowder at Helm's Deep. Thus, such films appear to work from a view of the medieval as following the Black Death.

I am aware that Tolkien's mythic history accounts for a plague. I am also aware that following Tolkien is a thing to do. So perhaps that is part of the why such choices are made. And part also is the need to keep costs in line--and populating a place requires people, who must be paid. (Or, more recently, CGI artists, who must be paid.) But it is telling even so that the vision of the medieval/ist as taking place in a depopulated world is one that persists with abundant cultural force. It surely says something about the expected audience that the trope would continue as it does in major multimedia projects that attract significant attention from mainstream audiences. Perhaps it points to an assumption of feelings of isolation among the expected audience, and while many people feel cut off from others at various times, it must be considered that stereotypes of certain populations perceived as enjoying the medieval/ist are at play. Perhaps it points to other things entirely. But it points to something in enduring, and teasing out what it signifies that medieval/ist works tend to feature milieus of low population density would be worthwhile.

New Scholarly Journal

A new publishing outlet, the Journal of Tolkien Research, is seeking submissions on an ongoing basis. Find the details at

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

About the Sale of a Caxton Printing

A 17 July 2014 article, "First Printed Book in English Sold for Over £1m," notes that a copy of Caxton's Recuyell of the Histories of Troye was auctioned off by Sotheby's, through which it had been offered by the Duke of Northumberland in an attempt to offset costs of flood damage. The article offers a brief summary of the book's plot and history, highlighting the role of Caxton in bringing printing to English and England from the Continent and Continental languages. It also serves to indicate the continued valuation of the medieval--even at the fringes of what can be called the medieval--by contemporary popular culture; that the sale of such a thing occasions public comment, and that the sale of such a thing commands the price, both bespeak the importance of it.

Insofar as it does those things, the piece is good. The provision of historical context is always helpful in enhancing understanding, and the reiteration of the idea that what has gone before matters even now is appreciated. There is a possible problem in the article, however; the assertion in the final two paragraphs that the Recuyell that the work told on Caxton, based on his statement in the epilogue that he was wearied and fatigued, may not be entirely correct. While it is certainly the case that those who engage in long works of translation may find themselves tired at the end of the projects, it is also the case that the medievals--even at times late medievals such as Caxton--indulged in the trope of humilitas, protesting their unworth as a backhanded means of either securing patronage or self-aggrandizing. While Caxton was not necessarily in a position to need additional patronage--he was, as the article notes and I have discussed elsewhere, in several positions of power and influence--he was steeped in the culture and traditions that made the pursuit of patronage by scholars obligatory. And, as I discuss in the earlier "elsewhere," Caxton continued to deploy phrasings consistent with humilitas although not with the demonstrated qualities of his printing work. That he does write as he writes in the epilogue to the Recuyell may therefore be less an honest admission of his incapacity than a common rhetorical maneuver of his and his contemporaries' and thus situation of himself as a fully engaged member of his culture. The latter seems far more consistent with the successful public servant, businessman, and cultural touchstone that was William Caxton than the mewling whiner connoted by the former.

Even so, having the piece appear in major news media is refreshing. If nothing else, it says that the Tales after Tolkien Society continues to have work to do looking at how what is medieval continues to be presented.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Regarding (Female) Thor

On 16 July 2014, Brett White's "A New God of Thunder Debuts in Thor This October" appeared on In the piece, White notes the announcement that the role of the Nordic thunder-god will be assumed by a female character of unknown identity, following the comic-universe paradigm of Mjolnir being wielded by whoever is worthy. It is an announcement that has attracted much attention; Alex Fitzpatrick's 15 July 2014 piece "Here's Why a Female Thor Makes Total Sense" discusses it, as does David Betancourt's 16 July 2014 Washington Post piece "The New Female Thor: From Asgard to New Guard, Five Things to Know about Marvel's Bolt from the Blue." So, too, do Paris Lees's 16 July 2014 Guardian piece "A Female Thor is Good--A Feminine Male Superhero Would Be Better" and George Gene Gustines's 16 July 2014 New York Times piece "Marvel Will Introduce a Female Thor This Fall." The announcement has also been made a vehicle for satire, as in Rex W. Huppke's 17 July 2014 Chicago Tribune piece "The Female Thor Sits down with Human Resources." The presence of pieces on the subject of the character in many major United States newspapers bespeak the significance of the decision and of the character, generally; the refiguring of Þórr in popular culture is a matter of broad interest. And as comments, particularly on White's piece, note, it is one that prompts some of the...less fortunate tendencies in people to emerge.

That the assumption by a female character of the attributes of the most famous son of Oðinn irks so many betrays sexist leanings amid the comic's readership, which is both deplorable and worth exploring so that the underlying causes can be examined and worked against.* Perhaps more relevant to the specific goals of the Society is that the consternation with the way in which the character is being reshaped ignores the ways in which the character has already been reshaped, not only in multimedia presentation (the need to alter concepts for different presentation venues is a commonplace) but also in its core conception in the dominant Marvel comics continuum. While Marvel keeps Thor the son of Odin (using modern Anglicized versions of the names), the seeming punishment Thor endures of being mindwiped and embodied in a blond-haired, blue-eyed medical student of differing ability is an...interesting appropriation, yet one embodied in the beginning of the character's presence in the continuum. Is not the character "supposed" to be red-haired and bearded? Whence the flying through the power of the hammer (an early instantiation of troll physics, perhaps)? Whither the children the character is supposed to have? Yet such changes from the "source materials" pass without comment from the comics' fanbase (I imagine that medievalists who have turned their attention to the work do complain, as did one folklorist of my acquaintance in regards to the 2011 Branagh film), although they are hardly insignificant.**

Underlying that lack of complaint is likely a lack of awareness of the older materials. How many know Þórr from the Eddas and sagas is unclear to me; how many know him from the older materials not...inflected by Christian recording practices is likewise unclear to me, although I expect the number is far lower. For the great majority of the comic's readers, then, the Marvel version of the character is likely to be the "real" one, much as many children in the United States view the Disney version of Cinderella as the "real" one and react to the much earlier Grimm version as somehow a perversion of the story. It becomes a foundational narrative through which other concepts are filtered, particularly when introduced to people in their youth as comic books tend to be (like what I discuss here). As such, it assumes a privileged place in popular conception and alterations to it are met with resistance, as evidenced by the comments section of the White piece. And I have to wonder how much of a portal to further examination of the medieval by the readership it becomes. There is, after all, significant overlap between comic-book readership and RPG playership, as trips to comics conventions, gaming conventions, comics shops, and RPG sessions will quickly reveal, and the RPG is sometimes such a portal, as I note. There is similarly overlap between comic book readership and fantasy readership, and fantasy readership also serves as such a portal. How comic books serve such a function might be worth investigating, and the results of that investigation used to help determine how much effort needs to be put into "correcting" the presentation of the medieval in the comic, as there have been calls to do.

Whatever the cause, the figuration of Marvel's Thor as a female does much to highlight the fraught nature of appropriation and adaptation. How changes to seemingly "settled" intellectual units function and how audiences react to them surely reveal much of the cultures that enact such changes and the audiences that react. As I write, what seems said of the former is that there is an effort to be more gender-inclusive, which is surely a good thing in principle even if the execution may be somewhat contestable. What seems said of the latter in general is less pleasant. Yet even that unpleasantness suggests that there is something about the way in which the medieval is presented and represented that is of particular importance to popular audiences in the United States; the vehemence of the reaction argues in favor of the centrality of the medievalist to popular culture no less than does the ample mainstream media attention mentioned above. This means, of course, that the medieval itself remains in a position of privilege, which is good news for medieval studies scholars; if it is important, then there will be continued need for the work we do.

*Three things come up here:

  1. Helen Young addresses something along the same lines here;
  2. harryfisher87 leaves a telling comment on the White piece that speaks to the sexist issue; and
  3. I am not sufficiently well equipped in feminist theory to do the necessary explicatory work for such a project, although I would very much enjoy reading the efforts of those who are, perhaps following up on Helen Young's work.
**This issue seems to keep coming up in this blog, as evidenced by the pieces linked above, this piece, and this piece. There is tension between accuracy and story and between accuracy and audience expectation, the negotiation of which is delicate, indeed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

CFPs: More Kalamazoo Goodness

Our own Carol Robinson points out additional CFPs for the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies here. In addition to that of the Society, there are sessions hosted by the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization and the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. There is overlap among our organizations, certainly, but we are all dedicated to much the same goals and can work together easily and well.

Society members and others are encouraged to look over all three CFPs Carol brings up and to submit to any of them. The Society hopes to see a great many people at Kalamazoo in May 2015!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Regarding Gilsdorf's D&D Piece

On 13 July 2014, the New York Times published Ethan Gilsdorf's "A Game as Literary Tutorial: Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers." In the piece, Gilsdorf reports that a number of authors in both fiction and nonfiction, in prose and drama, came to writing through D&D. The author focuses mostly on Junot Díaz, but makes mention of a number of other writers (including Martin, with whose work the Society engages) and such critics as Ball State University assistant professor Jennifer Grouling, whose work examines narrative practices in roleplaying games. It is a valorization of a genre of game* that has its ultimate roots in the fundamental storytelling practices of humanity and its specific roots in a perhaps half-drunken playing of a miniatures wargame** and the principal iteration of which has reached forty years despite opprobrium from fearful fundamentalist groupsthe grief-stricken mother of a mentally unstable son and her followers, and law enforcement agencies that listened to both.

Commentary on D&D bears in on the work of the Society. The default setting of the game has long been one modeled directly on the Tolkienian tradition of fantasy literature, following the practice of the first RPG campaign: Dave Arneson's Blackmoor (Schick 18). Too, the RPG feeds back into fantasy literature (Mackay 20), not infrequently reinforcing the Tolkienian tradition. I have motioned toward some of the features of the tradition in this blog (see my 12 June 2014 post); among them is a focus on something like Northern and Western Europe during what is commonly regarded as the Middle Ages, meaning that the RPG is often a recapitulation or reinterpretation of the medieval, and thus exactly the kind of thing to the study of which the Society is devoted. More to the point, however, is something Gilsdorf notes and to which I can from my own experience attest; RPGs, and D&D specifically, serve as a means through which (some) people begin to engage directly with the medieval. I am not alone in finding my way to looking at Arthuriana and the Crusades by way of polyhedral and other kinds of dice rolled to aid and abet telling lies in the name of fun.

One thing that my own earlier research (admittedly much in need of revision) tells me is that one way in which the RPG tends to embody the medieval, more subtly than in the surface trappings of kings and knights in chainmail armor, it the figuration of alterity. The "standard" perspective on the medieval (and one much subject to critique, as I well know) is that it is a Euro-centric phenomenon; rightly or wrongly, prevailing popular conception in the United States (which produces most tabletop RPGs) runs that way. Within that (and this is true whether or not the Middle Ages is regarded as Euro-centric), medieval Northern and Western Europe clearly possessed a schema to differentiate itself from all that was not Northern and Western Europe. Typically, this could be seen as (at least nominal) religious allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church; at one level, a large swath of the continent looked to the same source for a basic confirmation of humanity. Outside it were others of varying otherness; presumably, Eastern Orthodoxy was not as alien as various branches of Judaism or Islam, and those not so distant as Greater or Lesser Vehicle Buddhism or any of the many forms of Hindu practice. Within it, too, were marked distinctions; while a Frenchman and a Spaniard would recognize each other as brothers in faith, and would likely unite to oppose outside threats, in the absence of an external enemy, they would not necessarily regard one another as really akin.

The same is true of D&D. In its third and third-and-a-half editions (I try to ignore the fourth, and I have yet to get the new set), there are seven assumed player "races," with marked physiognomic and biological differences among them. There is exchange among them; there are nation-states and organizations that transcend the "racial" boundaries, and the various "races" are interfertile with one another (as witness the half-elves) and with yet other "races" (witness the half-orcs). But there are also tensions among them; elves and dwarves do not always get along, and most other people look at half-orcs askance. Within them, there are tensions, as well. Most races have multiple realms, and those realms are no more frequently at peace than were France and England during the Middle Ages. And the various "races" in their realms may be at war with one another, as well. Too, there are clear lines between player races and savage or brutal races not necessarily "less" than the player races--except within the racial schema perpetuated by the player races themselves, which tend to stereotype entire populations of thinking, feeling, sentient beings as "good" or "evil," "lawful" or "chaotic."† It rings of medieval European understandings of the divisions of the population of the world among three "races" descended from the three sons of Noah and the "other" population descended from demons and other forces of darkness.

There is more to do, of course. D&D has forty years of rulebooks, novels, television series, video games, and movies to investigate, as well as the untold numbers of narratives that its many players could relate and the many derivations and parodies that have grown from it. In each, it works with some erroneous ideas and against others; it both subverts and reinforces some of the worse ideas of the medieval and some of the better. And in each, it serves as a reminder that what has been done is still done, that what the people of the Middle Ages did, we yet do, so that there is still abundant reason to study it.

*The genre distinction is one that needs clarification. There are many sorts of RPG, from the vastly informal pretend-play of children (that still prompts cries of "That's not fair!" despite a lack of formal rules) to the intensely algorithm-driven MMORPG typified by World of Warcraft. This discussion focuses on the tabletop, pen-and-paper style of RPG.

**Fine, Mackay, and Schick all note that the origin of the role-playing game as such came from a tabletop miniatures wargame played in Minneapolis-St. Paul (Mackay 14; Schick 17), during which a spell was cast on a whim and accepted by the other players (Fine 13-14).

†This is complicated by the presence of "thinking, feeling, sentient beings" that are demonstrably "good," "evil," "lawful," or "chaotic," hailing as they do from parts of existence that represent and enforce such perspectives and attitudes.

Works Cited
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "Regarding a Feature of Common Fantasy Milieus: Formal Social Hierarchy." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 24 June 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.
  • Fine, Gary Alan. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002. Print.
  • Gilsdorf, Ethan "A Game as Literary Tutorial: Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers." The New York Times, 13 July 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.
  • Mackay, Daniel. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland P, 2001. Print.
  • Schick, Lawrence. Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 1991. Print.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kalamazoo 2015 CFP - further information

The Tales After Tolkien Society will be sponsoring two sessions at the Kalamazoo ICMS, May 14-17th, 2015: one of papers, and one round table. Twenty-first century popular culture is structured by genres; they shape its processes, products, and reception. Neomedievalisms permeate most if not all major pop culture genres, from historical, fantasy, and crime, to children’s, science fiction, and westerns. In these two panels, the Tales After Tolkien Society seeks to explore the profound ways in which genre influences contemporary representations an readings of the Middle Ages, and, conversely, how ideas about the Middle Ages might shape genres. Both sessions will ask, for example, how contemporary social and cultural trends and concerns intersect with the medieval in genre fiction.

Proposals from scholars and professionals at any stage of their careers with an interest in these topics are welcomed. People of color, LGBTQ people, and members of other marginalized groups are encouraged to propose papers. Submissions must follow the rules as set out by the Medieval Institute An abstract of 250-300 words accompanied by a Participant Information Form, available from the submissions website, should be sent to Helen Young at by Monday, September 15, 2014. Submissions should clearly state which of the following panels they are intended for.

Session of Papers: Martin and More: Genre Medievalisms
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are among the most visible and popular medievalist works in the present day, but they are not the be-all and end-all of genre medievalisms. The session of papers, focused on genre fiction, seeks in-depth explorations which focus on a single twenty-first-century work, series, or author’s corpus. They may consider Martin’s work, compare and contrast it with that of another author, or examine a completely different contemporary literary re-imagining of the Middle Ages. Questions which might be considered include, but are not limited to the following. How do genre conventions shape the use of medieval material and vice versa? How do technological developments and the explosion of multi-media genre products including film, television and video-gaming engage with literature? How do representations of race, gender, and class intersect with medievalism in contemporary fiction genres? Papers examining cross- and multi-genre works are welcomed, as are interdisciplinary approaches.

Round Table: From Frodo to Fidelma: Medievalisms in Popular Genres
The round table aims to compare and contrast the medievalist conventions and practices of a wide range of genres, which might include but are not limited to not fantasy, children's television, crime, role-playing games, and romance literature, examining examine genre conventions, phenomena and trends. By doing so, the session seeks seeks to identify cross-genre trends, as well as to highlight the multiplicities of contemporary medievalisms. Presentations focusing on the medievalisms of a single genre – which may be loosely or closely defined – across a decade or more of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries are sought. Tightly focussed explorations of, for example, medievalism and gender, violence, race, or dis/ability in a given genre or across multiple genres are also welcome. Presentations may take a single work/series/corpus as an example, but these should illustrate broader points about the given genre. Papers in the session witll be 7-10 minutes in length.