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 http://themamo.org/,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 http://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienresearch/.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

About the Sale of a Caxton Printing

A 17 July 2014 BBC.com 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 Marvel.com. 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 Time.com 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." NYTimes.com. 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 http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/index.html An abstract of 250-300 words accompanied by a Participant Information Form, available from the submissions website, should be sent to Helen Young at helen.young@sydney.edu.au 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.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Kalamazoo 2015

The Call for Papers for the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies is up.* The Society has two sessions:
  • From Frodo to Fidelma: Medievalisms in Popular Genres (A Roundtable)
  • Martin and More: Genre Medievalisms
More information is, of course, forthcoming. In the meantime, however, paper proposals can be sent to the following:

Helen Young
Univ. of Sydney
John Woolley Building A20
Sydney, NSW 2006

The Society looks forward to contributions.

*It has been for a bit. I apologize for the delay in updating the blog.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Drinking after Tolkien

Helen Young posted a link to the Society's Facebook feed not long ago. The link connects to information about the Hobbit Pub in Southampton--something of decided interest to the Society for obvious reasons. Having the Hobbit Pub pointed out also brought to mind Bilbo's Pizza in a Pan, one of the attractions frequented by those who find their way to Kalamazoo for the International Congress on Medieval Studies (at which the Society will have two events; keep looking here for more details). It also brought to mind one of several pubs called the Green Dragon, specifically the one in Matamata, New Zealand, which is included in the Hobbiton tours of the movies' filming locations. And those several establishments beg the question of authenticity in "medieval" pubs and taverns.

There is, of course, something of the timeless in sitting with a pint or two of ale, lager, or cider, having a hot bite to eat, and occasionally joining in a bit of song and dance. And it is, of course, the case that modern health standards and brewing practices are quite removed from the medieval--and even the less medieval environment of the hobbits (mentioned here). What would be needed to investigate the authenticity of the various establishments involved would be to visit each (a hardship, certainly), determine the milieu it seeks to emulate, and then simply compare features. I have only been to Bilbo's, and I have enjoyed it each time I have been. But as a mimicry of Tolkien's Shire or even of Bree, it lacks. While I have no doubt the hobbits would enjoy pizza and the beer brewed by the establishment (as I very much do), I think the portion sizes likely a bit small for them. Too, the architecture is a bit off; too little is round, and none of it is doors or windows.

Still, the idea of going from establishment to establishment, traveling the world to see the places and eat and drink of their offerings before writing up each and using those write-ups to identify major trends in the re/presentation of the medieval among drinking places intrigues. How funding for such a thing could be acquired...