Wednesday, December 16, 2015

About a Pilgrimage

A BBC report notes that one Steven Payne of Petersfield is undertaking a pilgrimage mimetic of one taken by an Italian teacher in 1365, going with papal blessings from Southampton to Canterbury. The report makes much of the efforts Payne has gone to to make his pilgrimage authentic, noting among others that he will not sleep in any buildings not dating back to 1365 and that his travel kit, with only a few exceptions, is true to the period (which is mislabeled, as it calls 1365 part of the 13th century rather than the fourteenth). The article joins a number of others that have received attention in this webspace--this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one--that suggest continued interest in the medieval, which is a good thing for the Society, as it implies that there will remain much work to be done.

I am glad of such things, to be sure, but I am concerned about possible inaccuracies in Payne's presentation. The article notes that his clothing--and I am impressed by the commitment to period dress down to the underclothes--is based on a peat-preserved Scandinavian body. The body is not given a time-frame or an identification of finding, and so, given how the report is framed, it could be a body from a wholly different time than contemporary with Chaucer, potentially rendering Payne's recreation inaccurate. Similarly, the astonishing lack of alcohol in his described kit rings as other than medieval, given what is described of travelers' practice and what is known of sanitation standards of the time.

Perhaps the matter is merely one of reporting, rather than Payne misapprehending source materials. In many ways, reporting errors would be worse. If it is only Payne who is wrong, then it is one person; if the report is wrong, coming from what many regard as a reliable source, then more people are likely to be led into error. Inaccuracies in depictions of the medieval are problematic for more reasons than the simple inaccuracy, as has been attested repeatedly in this webspace and elsewhere; they conduce to a notion of the medieval as not only less technologically advanced than our present, but also less intelligent in several of the ways that intelligence is commonly measured. The simple truth is that people were no less intelligent then than now; they were misinformed in many respects, owing in large part (although not exclusively) to a lack of refinement of measuring devices, but many people now are just as ill-informed and without the valid reason of lacking access to data and the ability to collect it. When the medievals are presented other than our (continually developing) best understandings of how they were, we do a disservice to people no less human than we, and we do a disservice to ourselves, creating a false impression of "how far we have come" in the centuries since and a concomitant overestimation of our own capabilities and refinement. Neither serves us well.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

About the Society Blog and Website

Thanks to the efforts of Carol Robinson, the Society has a WordPress site in place of its old website (the news is a bit dated, I know). As many will be aware, WordPress is at its core a platform for blogging, and the thought occurs that consolidating this blog into the website might be worth doing. Since I administer the blog (if perhaps poorly), I thought it appropriate that I would poll the Society membership for thoughts on whether or not to do so. A survey asking after opinions is linked below and will remain open through the end of the year. Results will guide what happens with the Society's online presence moving forward.

Thank you for your advice and support. Please continue to send in submissions; I will be happy to post them, wherever they may need to go.

-Geoffrey B. Elliott
Vice-President (USA), Tales after Tolkien Society

The Poll:

A copy of this announcement appears on the Society webpage, as well.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

About "The Lord of Ragnarök"

Many of the pieces Albert E. Cowdrey writes for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction take place in New Orleans, Louisiana, a venue entirely appropriate for stories involving magic of various sorts. His contribution to the September/October 2015 issue of the magazine, "The Lord of Ragnarök," however, takes a somewhat different path. Set for the most part in and around Mont Saint-Michel--a location prominent in medieval history and literature--and during or soon after the reign of William the Bastard in England (99), the story is clearly marked as a piece of medievalist work (and a well-written one, to be sure). While a fair bit of the medievalism on display in the work is reasonably accurate, there are divergences from the "real," both in terms of geography and in the observable presence of the supernatural. The divergences are typical of fantasy literature, suggesting that, despite the prevailing reliance of fantasy literature on the Western medieval, the genre requires recourse to something outside verifiable history to make it work.

Like most successful fantasy literature, Cowdrey's piece follows one of Tolkien's dictates and grounds itself in the real. In "On Fairy-stories," Tolkien famously asserts that works depicting the kind of fictional world that fantasy literature needs have to partake largely of the observable world of their expected readers; they cannot be so far removed from what the readers know that they cannot be understood by them. Situating his work largely amid history and geography accessible to readers through travel and study--or even a quick Google search--allows Cowdrey to do such a thing. "The Lord of Ragnarök" is embedded in the documented and (largely) verifiable, imbuing it with an authenticity that allows the supernatural elements of the text to occur without straining credulity beyond tolerance and breaking the Coleridgean willingness to suspend disbelief upon which all narrative fiction depends. Additionally, the title itself evokes a fairly familiar concept; Ragnarök is hardly an arcane term, particularly to the audience most likely to read fantasy literature or that most likely to examine treatments of the medieval.

Further, depictions of the peasantry are hardly atypical or inauthentic. In the text, they are left without defense by the exodus of fighting folk to the Crusades--and imperiled by those who have returned therefrom, bereft of lords and governance and honor (80). Their children are bent and misshapen by the hard physical labor they are forced to do (81), subject to conscription and abusive training (81-82), and subject to threats of torture when they are captured as a result of fighting that they do not necessarily wish to do but perceive as one of the few available methods of advancement (82-83). At the same time, the privations of peasant life provide certain skills--such as the ability to wait patiently (89)--and a simple ideation of justice (94-95), as well as a particular practicality utterly unbound by concerns of chivalric codes. That practicality allows the low-born protagonist, Richard, to save himself both after being captured by an enemy force (83-89) and after the battle turns against that same force (91-93). Even after he is knighted through chance (95), the practicality does not desert him; he keeps largely to himself and away from boasting, using quiet diligence as a way to avoid jealousy at being jumped up in social standing (95-96), listening to much but saying little (99-100). In each, as in the many other lingering traces of his peasant background, Richard displays the kind of fortitude and practical cunning often associated with the lower classes, serving as a sharp contrast to the poorly-idealized noble-born and ringing of the kind of truth that makes the story accessible to readers.

Some of the inaccuracies in the text also serve to familiarize it to its readers. For example, the eponymous lord in the story exercises droit du seigneur, the purported right of a feudal lord to copulate with a vassal's wife on the wedding night (103, 116). It is a mainstay of medievalist fiction, and even of supposedly historical fiction, so that its deployment connects to common conceptions and therefore serves backhandedly to connect the text to readerly expectations of the "authentic" medieval. The practice in its supposed medieval manifestation, however, is fiction; there is no direct evidence of the first-night right being exercised, although there are many accounts of neighboring or antagonistic communities partaking of the practice. That is, it is negative propaganda about "those people," far from factual even if embedded in popular conception sufficiently that it has a force not unlike truth.

Other inaccuracies to the known medieval in the text serve less to authenticate it than to imbue it with features that seem necessary for the function of fantasy literature. For example, while there is much of "real" geography at work in the story--the details of Mount Saint-Michael correspond to what is known--there is also much that is less verifiable. The antagonistic nobleman against whose depredations Richard is conscripted into service is described as "Count of the Dry Hills and Dusty Valleys" (82), an area described as easily accessible from Mount Saint-Michael, yet the climate in the surrounding areas is temperate. "Dry Hills and Dusty Valleys" hardly comes to mind as an accurate descriptor, although it is a fitting land for an antagonistic figure to rule; the inaccuracy therefore helps the work to correspond to long-standing readerly expectations. It indicates that fantasy literature needs something else for its functions, even as it benefits from solid grounding in the medieval.

So does the yet more unreal geography of the Hidden Isles from which the eponymous character takes his name. Reached by Breton-crewed longship after a northward journey of just over a week (78-79, 93, 105-106), the area is inhabited by people who speak "a harsh, guttural language that might have been Norse" and ruled from a formerly volcanic island (107). While the description perhaps evokes the decidedly real Faroe Islands, there is no mention of other land being seen along the journey, and it seems unlikely that a craft traveling between the two "real" places would utterly avoid the sight of land along the way. Too, the Faroe Islands were Christianized (admittedly coercively) before the ascent of William the Bastard to the English throne; by the time of the story, the Faroes would likely not be so overtly pagan as the Hidden Isles are described as being (107). The Hidden Isles, then, suggest themselves as being another place, not likely a "real" one, pointing again to the need to deviate from the medieval to make the fantastic happen.

That the Hidden Isles are described as pagan is justified within the text. The eponymous character, who is also known as "Sieur Drangø des Iles Occultes, Comte de Mont Saint-Michel" (99), describes himself as the son of the Master of Tides, "a great magician [who] raises storms to drive ships onto the rocks" (85) and possessed of great wealth therefore--evidence of which is presented in the text. Both are otherworldly. Drangø is possessed of scaled skin taken by many as being evidence of leprosy (80, 100), viewed by the standards of the time as a supernatural affliction; he is in some senses crocodilian, with large scales, an armored back, slit-pupil eyes, and claws (108). His reptilian appearance is not something that is to be found in the "real" world despite the protestations of many conspiracy theorists; its inclusion marks the text as supernatural, out of accord with the observable. So does his transformation into "the reborn Master of Tides" whose "crimson scales glinted, its whiskers had become long, trailing spines, and its huge green eyes...with unwinking gaze" look out on a domain inherited from the mystically-charged father (109); so, too, do the later sending of storms to conclude a campaign and to reveal how an earlier one had been concluded (113). That the text ultimately demands Drangø for its function places difference from the real at the heart of the story. I have argued before that the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction can be taken as representative of the genre as a whole ("About 'Avianca's"); what the magazine endorses stands as exemplary of the fantastic. That the magazine, through its publication of the story, endorses the contents thereof suggests that it takes a view of fantasy as working best when deeply rooted in the real (particularly the medieval, as "About 'Avianca's Bezel'" also notes) but demanding the insertion of something else for its effect.

That fantasy literature seems to need such things, however, does not mean that it should not ground itself in as much accuracy as it can. Artists and scholars both retain the duty Helen Young notes to get things right. The more that is done well and correctly, after all, the more that can be done to go into something else, since that other needs a solid frame of reference in which to exist.

Works Cited

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


As noted in the report on the 2015 meeting of the Society at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Society voted to propose a session for the 2016 South Central Modern Language Association (SCMLA) conference, to be held in Dallas, Texas, USA, on 3-5 November 2016. Those who attended the 2015 iteration of the conference, just concluded in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, were given a form to propose special sessions at the 2016 conference, in which 30-word descriptions and contact information for session organizers is requested. In accord with the Society's (thwarted) desire to see an "Unconventional Medievalisms" panel at the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies and the aforementioned decision to pursue a panel at the 2016 SCMLA conference, the following text is being sent to SCMLA officers for inclusion in forthcoming newsletters:
The medieval appears in historical, fantastic, and speculative fiction--and other places seldom investigated. The less-investigated is the focus of the proposed panel. More information appears at and
The "More information" is this:
That the medieval appears in historical, fantastic, and speculative fiction is a commonplace--and sensibly so. Historical fiction that situates itself in the centuries between the fall of Western Rome and the emergence of the traditional Renaissance will necessarily work with the medieval. Fantastic fiction, following Tolkien and the more recent Martin, also makes much of the medieval, deploying its tropes to various purposes but in effect making medievalism a convention of the genre. Something similar happens in much speculative fiction, if less often. But the medieval also appears in other places--in a variety of contemporary musical genres, in amusement parks, in other fictional genres than the commonplace, in body modifications, and elsewhere. For a special session at the 2016 South Central Modern Language Association conference--3-5 November 2016 in Dallas, Texas, USA--the Tales after Tolkien Society requests abstracts (100-300 words) of papers looking at how the medieval manifests in one unconventional place or another. Please send them to Geoffrey B. Elliott, Tales after Tolkien Society Vice-President (USA), at before 1 February 2016.
This text also appears on the Society website, proper.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

About SEMA 2015

Some time ago, the CFP for the Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA) conference went up in this webspace (here). Society member Brian Brooks attended the event and has provided a short report of it, which can be found as a PDF here.

His exhortation to send to the next iteration of the SEMA conference is worth following.

About the Battle of Agincourt

As several news outlets have remarked (here, here, and here, among others), today, 25 October 2015, marks the sexcentenary of the Battle of Agincourt. Notably depicted with a stirring bit of battlefield rhetoric in Shakespeare's Henry V, it is remarked upon as a high point for England in the Hundred Years War, another in which the common folk of England emerged triumphant over a numerically superior and better-provisioned French force. And because it does make such a presentation of common folk fighting and winning against substantial odds, it is a piece of the medieval that lends itself to refiguration, not only by Shakespeare and those who have continued to produce his plays, but also in more "accessible" writing--as Linda Davies's comments, linked above, indicate.

The medieval English reliance on the longbow in the conduct of war, particularly the Hundred Years War that factors heavily into understandings of "the medieval," emerges in the most prominent twentieth-century refiguration of the medieval, and one that exerts substantial influence on works still emergent: Tolkien's Middle-earth. Their effectiveness plays out in Peter Jackson's movie adaptations of the relevant works, certainly, as this scene demonstrates--but the Elves are not the analogs of the English in Tolkien's works. It is instead the Númenóreans and their descendants who are the analogs of the English,* and their association with the longbow expected of the later medieval English emerges in some of the peripheral materials of the corpus. Unfinished Tales makes the note in "A Description of Númenor" that "it was the bows of the Númenóreans that were most greatly feared" by the enemies of that people, describing as a standard military practice something not unlike the withering repeated volleys of arrow-fire the English armies released at Agincourt, Crécy, and Poitiers.

How Agincourt and things like it continue to emerge in figurations and presentations of the medieval--not only the fantasy literature that frequently admits of overt medievalism and the historical fiction and fictionalized histories that strive to be "authentically" medieval, but also other presentations of the medieval in other guises and genres--bears examination, to be sure. That Agincourt still attracts the attention it does suggests--along with relatively recent attention to a Caxtonian incunabulum, medieval optics, Richard III, medieval antibiotics, and the Holigost--that the work the Society does, tracing the manifestation of the medieval in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (and beyond, perhaps?) is of some value to the world at large. People outside the academy remain interested in what happened centuries in the past, and they remain captivated by the ways in which what happened in such times is presented anew; the Society remains interested in examining the accuracy of such depictions, and so it must remain interested in developing and refining standards against which to assess that accuracy.

Continued study of what is left of what has been is therefore necessary, and contributions to Society materials of such studies--no less than those which explicitly examine medievalism--are welcome. Please send submissions along.

*See "Moving beyond Tolkien's Medievalism: Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies," my chapter in Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones, 185 and 196n3. (Why would I not plug a Society volume or my contribution to it?)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

About Henry V's _Holigost_

A 12 October 2015 note from Historic England comments on the likely discovery of Henry V's great ship Holigost, and while it would be expected that an organization with that name would concern itself with such discoveries, the attention it has received from news agencies indicates the continuing regard in which the medieval is held. Among others, the BBC, the Independent, the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph discuss the find; the various outlets, each addressing different (if overlapping) audiences, bespeak a wide interest in the England of the Hundred Years War, which event serves as one of the defining events of what "medieval England" means.

That there is some room to question what "medieval England" means is noted, at least in part, here. While the comments I make in "More about Short-form Medievalist Scholarship"--which identify likely ends of the medieval in England as 1476, 1485, and 1534--would clearly put the ship, which fought for England between 1415 and 1420 (as Historic England notes) among the medieval, the thought occurs that the medieval in England could be said to register with the differentiation of the English royalty from the French nobility. That differentiation is a consequence of the Hundred Years War, so that later parts of it could be said to have removed England from the medieval (if perhaps only by the virulently anti-Gallic).

If it is, though, the French motto Historic England reports emblazoned on Holigost would serve to medievalize her. More to the point, however, the technologies employed on the ship mark the vessel as medieval. Clinker-built ships in northern and western Europe find their most prominent examples in the Viking longships of history and legend--and, at least in popular conception, the raiding Viking is one of the key figures of the medieval. (Indeed, it is a figure that caused me no small amount of trouble in the initial papers from which the Society sprang, which I detail in my contribution to Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones.) The single-mast construction is similarly evocative, despite an evident lack of oars to maneuver the ship or propel her in calm weather. Too, the limited reliance on gunpowder weapons and the heavier employment of the thrown gad suggest a more proximal, personal killing of the sort typically associated--again, in popular conception--with medieval warfare, even if prevailing (and incorrect) ideas of medieval warfare are of armies facing one another in shining armor, blades bared in the sunlight and dimmed by spilled blood soon after.

In any event, the seeming rediscovery of Holigost promises to offer more insight into what is "true" about some facets of medieval life--for the popular conception of medieval life is not incorrect in noting the prevalence and influence of violence in and upon it, and Holigost is a vessel of war. And that it has received the attention it has argues that there is yet value perceived in learning more about the medieval, that there is relevance still about the events of some six centuries past--a relevance we can hope for our own lives six centuries in the future.

-With thanks to Society member Brian Brooks for bringing this to attention

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

About Oklahoma ScotFest

On Sunday, 20 September 2015, my family and I went to ScotFest in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On a purely personal level, it was a fun outing and a good way to spend time with parents and wife and child, a wholesome activity well worth doing. But it was also more than simply a pleasant daytime affair; it was one among a great many events in the United States that celebrate a particular view of heritage and history extending back into the medieval (although attending significantly to the post-medieval, as well).

There were some things, certainly, that the festival had "right," things that accorded with what is known of medieval practice and the British Isles. The weather on the day we went agreed with the event; it was overcast when we attended and had rained heavily before we got there. Not much of the area was paved, so muddy shoes were common. The festival organizers can hardly be credited for the weather, however, even if they took advantage of a happy coincidence. They can be credited, however, with having a double line of temporary vendors arrayed on the path between the major plazas at the festival site, traveling merchants hawking their wares from under tents and lean-tos (and at least one of the vendors, a sculptor, had what looked a rough-hewn setup in place, something not made from a lumberyard's offerings). And the food seemed more or less authentic, insofar as local health codes and the differences in what was available then and what is available now allow.

It must be noted that ScotFest does not advertise itself as reflecting older practice, necessarily. It celebrates heritage rather than reproducing the circumstances that give rise to that heritage. But in celebrating that heritage, it tends to fall into the same problem of accuracy as many such festivals do; it presents the middle and higher reaches of society only, neglecting the great majority of people in the world at the time. Rarely, if ever, does the peasantry figure at such festivals; more frequently, events and attendees figure themselves as being among the gentry and minor nobility, eating food and drinking drink that presuppose the ability to pay for them in currency or in kind, wearing frequently-cleaned clothing meant to resemble the long work of hands that is not able often to be washed for lack of another and the inadvisability of standing naked under the open sky in the cold and wet and wind. While it is the case that those in the lower reaches of medieval societies had time to themselves and found ways to enjoy life, it is also the case that they had much less with which to do so than did those above them--and that less is hardly ever shown at festivals such as ScotFest.

It makes sense, actually. Peasant life is unattractive, particularly to those whom depictions of it might point up their own equivalent status.* Festivals have to make some money to keep themselves going, and so the marketing aspects of the presentation need some attention. Too, they are not necessarily intended to be accurate representations of "how things were," although the problems with negotiating that intent remain as they have been discussed in earlier blog entries. But I think something else is at work in the depictions of older forms offered by such festivals, more than the other something else I note in an earlier post. I think there is some longing for exaltation at work, some thought that participation in the festival is in some ways participation in a past perceived as glorious when the present, for whatever reason, is not. As an escapist fantasy, taking on the trappings of the "medieval" allows for the re-presentation of an aspect of the self in elevated form, perhaps with the thought that "Had I been there then, I'd have done better," and maybe with the addendum that "Things would be better now, too." And if it is the case that festival-goers look to the medieval to make themselves feel better and provide themselves with images of how they can be better, that is surely something worth more than even a good day at a park with family.

*As ever, I write from a relatively mainstream United States perspective. Other perspectives' results may differ.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

CFPs and News from Helen Young, and Business

Society Founder and President (2015-2018) Helen Young sends reminders, to which some emendations are made for the current medium:

There is still time to submit to our TAT panel at Kalamazoo next year: A Session of Ice and Fire: Medievalism in the Game of Thrones Franchise. Send an email to or by 15 September (abstracts and information forms will help).

Another Kalamazoo CFP, "Knights Errant and Private Dicks," on medievalism and crime fiction is at Space may be available, and it is of possible interest to Society members.

A TAT panel may be forming at Leeds IMC for 2016 (4-7 July 2016). Those interested in participating should let Helen know before 11 September; abstracts are not needed, but some indication of what will be treated (title and a few sentences) should be sent along so the panel can be proposed.

The blog always needs contributions! Send them along.

Publication News
Gillian Polack has had two books come out: Langue[dot]doc 1305 and, with Katrin Kania, The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300--a wealth of knowledge aimed at helping authors.

Society Business (which does not come from Helen)
Long-time readers may have noted a new page on the blog, a Member List. It emerges from the 2015 Society meeting; please review it to see if the information posted is accurate, and if changes need to be made, email the curator ( with "Tales after Tolkien Membership Update" in the subject line and the changes in the text.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

About "Heroes and Demons"

It should not come as a surprise that I am a long-time fan of the Star Trek franchise, having watched the various series with some regularity since 1987 and the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That watching has most recently been through streaming video services rather than catching the various series and movies in syndication and theaters, and that streaming video watching turned not long ago to Star Trek: Voyager. One of the less-popular Star Trek properties, it ran from 1995 to 2001 (per and follows Kathryn Janeway and the crew of the eponymous ship through abduction into the Delta Quadrant and travel back to the Federation space from which they came. Suffering the effects of franchise fatigue and, perhaps, a reaction to the darker atmospherics of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Voyager languished on minor networks through its initial run and now attracts attention primarily as a negative example (if not so much as Star Trek: Enterprise). Its deployment of medievalism in the early episode "Heroes and Demons" is one encapsulation of the phenomenon; it serves in some ways to underscore its utility as an image of what not to do.

In the episode, the eponymous starship comes across an unusual photonic phenomenon and stops to investigate it. Meanwhile, one of the senior bridge crew, Ensign Harry Kim, is taking recreation in the holodeck, the illusory suite that will replicate a number of experiences for its users. When he is summoned to duty and does not appear, his crewmates begin to search for him; they find that he has vanished amid his holodeck program, an adaptation of an adaptation of Beowulf. In the event, the photonic phenomenon encountered by Voyager is a home for photonic life forms who interact uncomfortably with the holographic constructions of the holodeck; those life forms had used the cover of Grendel in the holodeck program to abduct ship's crew in retaliation for the (admittedly inadvertent) abduction of their own from the phenomenon by the starship's investigation. The ship's holographic doctor is able to carry out what amounts to a prisoner exchange, returning the abducted photonic life forms and retrieving the stolen ship's crew.

Many avenues of critique of the episode and the series of which it is part present themselves, and they are well worth exploring. That most relevant to the work of the Society, however, attends to how the episode presents the purported milieu of Beowulf. That there will be changes to the work for its representation is understandable and even necessary; the original work, cast in Anglo-Saxon verse, would necessarily need alteration to suit the in-milieu new medium of the holodeck (particularly with its interactive elements), as well as the narrative medium of the television series. Too, the program Kim runs is explicitly labeled as "based on" the Anglo-Saxon epic; it is overtly a derivation and deviation within the milieu, rather than a re-creation of the poem. Some "inaccuracies" in the presentation are therefore to be expected and to be "forgiven," if such changes are indeed to be regarded as erroneous (and there are good arguments why they should be, to be sure, such as Helen Young's "Who Cares about Historical Accuracy? I Do").

That some changes are to be expected and set aside as necessary to translations across media does not mean that all of the present changes are good, however. The insertion of the character Freya into the story serves as an example of a less-than-ideal alteration. While there are certainly accounts of shieldmaidens in legends and contemporary "historical" reports (which are not always accurate in the sense that we commonly understand accuracy), and there were certainly warriors who happened to be women among the people of the time and place depicted in Beowulf, the replacement of the unnamed coast-warden--who is explicitly labeled in masculine terms (and who is not unaccompanied, having retainers to order to hold Beowulf's ship against his return [ll. 293-300])--with Freya comes across as an imposition of a female character for the express purpose of having a female character in a more active role than the poem presents (much like the "enhancement" of Arwen's role in Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies or the insertion of Tauriel into his Hobbit films). That she seemingly exists as a love interest whose death inspires heroism from the male protagonist reinforces the impression of Freya as a sop to particular interests, an inclusion made to fill a particular diversity slot rather than as an important part of an amended story. The name, as well, betrays a sense of "oh, this sounds medieval and female; it fits a hole we need." While the overtones of the name--it is one of a goddess of love and war, among others--are perhaps appropriate to the character's function, the relative ineptness of the character herself suggests that the name was chosen for ease of speaking rather than authenticity of depiction. As a change to the source-text, is it one one that responds to prevailing misconceptions about what it true and what needs "fixing" in one medieval culture, making it a model of what to avoid in medievalism.

Problems inhere in matters that are less "change" and more "typical presentation," as well. The problem of the "monochrome Middle Ages" that Young decries in "Who Cares about Historical Accuracy? I Do" and elsewhere is painfully present in the episode (although the argument could easily be made that the relative remoteness of Heorot and the poem-stated identification of the Danes sworn to Hroðgar could make for homogeneity in the population). Aside from the Voyager crew who enter the holodeck and the photonic life form that is regarded as villainous, the characters in the program are white, almost exclusively male, and bearded (with little-kept beards)--fitting a common and ultimately inaccurate image of the medieval. The architecture of Heorot in the episode accords little with what is known of mead-hall building, but it fits the half-timbered construction associated with "lesser" buildings in common understandings of the medieval--a style of building common to later periods than that discussed in Beowulf. As with the half-hearted inclusion of Freya, the depiction of Heorot and its inhabitants seems more calculated to accord with generic medieval ideas than with the best information available at the time about how the early medievals lived. It is something that is not to be expected from the demonstrably scholarly Starfleet personnel depicted across the Star Trek franchise, and it is not something that should be taken as a model of medievalist storytelling.

There are other problems to be found with "Heroes and Demons" and Star Trek: Voyager, to be sure, and some that are far worse than the mis-depiction of the medieval in a single episode of a series that has an interesting premise and the ultimately unrealized possibility of excellent storytelling. The particular issue of the inept handling of the medieval, though, serves as a useful indicator of what else is wrong with it, one of many flaws that has led to prevailing disdain for the show. That disdain does much to argue against the value of a franchise that has offered much to many across decades, which is saddening to see, even if, in such a case, deserved.

Friday, August 14, 2015

About a Society Member Publication

Our own Helen Young has had a book come out, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. It can be found here; it promises to be well worth the reading.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

About a Video

Our own Helen Young noted the video below. It is worth watching.
Let's see if we can get more.

Friday, July 10, 2015

About "Two Cheers for the Middle Ages!"

On 9 July 2015, Eric Christiansen's "Two Cheers for the Middle Ages!" appeared in the online New York Review of Books. (Find it here.) In the piece, Christiansen reviews three substantial publications that treat the medieval, giving context for each before assessing their comparative quality. To do so, he situates them in a prevailing and long-standing discourse of aspersion upon the medieval, citing condemnation of the period by intellectuals and public figures alike--but he also figures the condemnation as farcical in vivid simile. The piece comes off as an excellent review of three texts, of which two are singled out as particularly useful--but that is not all it does.

As noted above, in providing context for his review, Christiansen points to prevailing attitudes of derision towards the medieval. The use of the term to indicate the backwardness or idiocy of a thing is, as Christiansen notes, entirely too prevalent and bespeaks an all-too-common ignorance of what the medieval, variously defined, actually offers. Christiansen's review is useful as an argument against that ignorance, and one in a wide-reaching venue that may actually do some sort of good. He is correct that current culture maintains many medieval holdings, as this webspace and the scholarship promulgated by the Society and many of its members as individuals hold, and his writing in so prominent a publication as the New York Review of Books works to spread that message further than the currently-limited reach of the Society allows. (We are working on it.)

There is some hope that the kind of rethinking called for by Christiansen (less explicitly), the Society, and other organizations of similar scope (more so), is underway, both within academia and without. Discussions not too long ago within the Modern Language Association of America resisted the collapsing of Middle English sections into a single discussion forum (although how long the resistance will continue to be successful is far from certain, admittedly), and the increasing presence of medievalism studies at academic conferences suggests that there is increasing recognition of the continuing influence of the medieval on what has followed it. Little of it that I have heard or read interprets that influence as a negative quality; rather the opposite is true, and those treatments that deride works for their use of the medieval do so because the works use the medieval badly. The focus is on the misuse, which suggests that "getting it right" is as important as Helen Young avows in an earlier post to this blog. And that suggests that the medieval is valued by the academy as much as the kinds of things this blog has treated suggest the medieval continues to be valued outside academia.

There is more to do, of course. Again, Christiansen is correct in identifying a prevailing disparagement of the medieval--and while it can be argued that the medievals did have some bad ideas and performed wrong actions, they are not worse off in those respects than we who sit in judgment over them by much if at all. It ought to be kept more in mind, and "Two Cheers for the Middle Ages!" helps to place it there.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

CFP: Kalamazoo 2016

Per the sneak preview of the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies call for papers, the Tales after Tolkien Society will be offering one session at the 51st annual gathering of medievalists in Kalamazoo. That session is "A Session of Ice and Fire: Medievailsm in the Game of Thrones Franchise," one of the two ideas proposed at the 2015 Annual General Meeting of the Society. It is exactly what it looks like; analyses of how Martin's most popular series of books and television engage the medieval will be welcomed.

While we can hope that future versions of the Congress call for papers will expand to include more sessions for the Society, ideas for the session we do have should be sent to Helen Young (1/363 B Lygon St., Sydney, NSW2006, Australia;

About Just Medieval Things and Related Things

I am perhaps a bit late to the party, but in some of the idle online reading I do, I recently came across Memebase's post, "Just Medieval Things." A quick search turned up a subreddit dealing with much the same thing, and the two together call to mind the older series of memes playing with the Bayeaux Tapestry. Each, with varying degrees of "accuracy," reinterprets the medieval, juxtaposing actual and perceived medievalisms with current practices in the evident pursuit of funniness (a pursuit which is sometimes successful and sometimes not). Several ideas appear to be at play in the various meme treatments, some of which can be explicated (at least tentatively), others of which require further study.

An admittedly brief initial survey suggests that the class of memes under discussion takes the form of a presentation of medieval1 artwork with text superimposed over it. The nature of the text varies somewhat across presentations, however. The older Tapestry memes tend to attempt "medieval" English2, deploying the art and seemingly older phrasing of contemporary song lyrics or references to other prevailing popular culture items such as online games. Those on Memebase and Reddit, though, tend to eschew both the phrasing-changes and the references to lyrics, presenting the images with text in contemporary modern English (with varying degrees of "correctness"3) that comment on events in the artwork in ways consistent with current standards of humorous response. Each blends the medieval and the modern to achieve humorous effect, the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike things eliciting laughter or some similar response. Each also suggests that the medieval remains sufficiently embedded in mainstream popular conception that it can be used as a referent. Jokes, after all, are not funny if they need to be explained; they can only work, they can only exert broad appeal if their contexts and references are sufficiently obvious as to need no overt effort to parse. The popularity of such memes, enduring for at least a decade if the accounts of Know Your Meme are to be accepted, is another indication that the medieval remains an important cultural touchstone. Accordingly, Helen Young's assertions that those who study the medieval are obliged to "get it right" remain in force, for even as reappropriation carried out in good fun need not operate under the auspices of rigorous scholarship, and even such scholarship can be found to be in error by later research, there is need to be vigilant against the tendency for the wide-spread to become accepted as "truth." Prevalence and influence can become blinding, as I argue in my chapter in Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones. Scholarship should work against such blindness--if perhaps after laughing at the joke.

Something to consider in the memes, and in similar productions such as Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog and Geoffrey Chaucer Doth Tweet, is the difference of effect the various deployments of language have on the humor. What differs between describing a video game in "medieval" English--runst ryȝtlic and jumpst myȝtylic vppon þe þinges or somesuch thing4--and having "plain" text overlaying images taken from Psalters and saints' lives? For there is surely a difference in the effect if there is a difference in the construction of the joke, and one may strike the fancy more powerfully than the other--but why and how needs consideration. In the former case, is it a matter of juxtaposition alone, the "modern" concept in "older" phrasing coming off as funny because there is no way old illuminators could have known that ye daye wiðout þe longe hast ben, freonde min? In the latter, is it an issue of accessibility, "plain" language making the joke easily understood (and accounting in part, perhaps, for the selective "aging" of the "older" phrasings in other memes and in the online Chaucers, whose authors do, in fact, know better)? My own studies do not focus in such ways as will allow me to treat such questions, and I am not nearly funny enough to be able to treat them from praxis. Others will have to look into the differences and the effects of the differences.

Whatever those differences may be, however, there is a common indication--another than that the medieval remains a cultural touchstone. One thing the applicability of medieval images to situations centuries later suggests, among many possible implications, is that we who act now are still very much the same people as those who acted then, whose putative deeds are depicted in the images repurposed. If some of the particulars differ--I doubt that the medievals had much access to fat blunts5--many of them remain in place in a world where beheadings and vivisections still occur in life and in entertainment and the specters of death by plague and violence still loom large, where the images of those in power are polished and those out of it besmeared, where people work to go about the business of living from day to day with some nebulous prospect of a future reward that may or may not ever come. If we are still able to use the medieval to make sense of the world, to manipulate it in some way that makes it more palatable to us, to make light of it and so take some joy from it, it is perhaps because we are still in some ways the medievals, the "post" in which we fancy ourselves living not nearly so distant from the thing we think ourselves well and truly past. And if we are so, then it certainly behooves us to know more about who and what they were who went before. If nothing else, there is joy in it, and more such joy would be welcome.

1. Not all of the artworks used are "medieval," properly speaking; although the definition of "medieval" is flexible, as noted here, it typically does not encompass Western works from the 1600s or later. Since some of the art deployed in the memes appears to derive from those later periods, indicating a possible misunderstanding among the meme-makers, the term is somewhat fraught in this context.

2. Since the "medieval" in this case is an uneven use of informal second-person pronouns (i.e., "thee" and "thou"), rather than more "typical" medieval English fixtures such as æ, ð, and þ, or older vocabularies, it is more like early modern English than medieval. Again, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what is medieval among meme-makers.

3. "Correctness" in terms of language use is no less fraught than "medieval," and may, indeed, be more so. The prescriptive/descriptive argument is not one that need be rehashed here, however, although noting its existence seems responsible writing.

4. I am well aware I am mangling the language, despite the earlier injunction to "get things right." Take the joke.

5. If I am wrong, I would like to know. Please exploit the features of the blog and offer comments.

Friday, June 12, 2015

About _Travels in Genre and Medievalism_

It has been a bit more than a year that the Tales after Tolkien Society has been maintaining its blog, Travels in Genre and Medievalism. In that time, there have been fifty-seven entries made to it (this is the fifty-eighth), making an average of approximately one update weekly. Entries have not been consistently spaced, however, coming in fits and starts more often than not.

They have also proceeded from only two contributors: Society founder and current President Helen Young and Vice-President (USA) Geoffrey B. Elliott. Other contributors will be greatly appreciated; an earlier post speaks to submitting.

A number of calls for papers remain active. One is discussed in the post linked above. Two others--for "Heaven, Hell, and Little Rock" and Studies in Medievalism--are also still open. Note also that the Society will attempt to sponsor a session at the 2016 South Central Modern Language Association conference, and suggestions about topics to consider will be welcome; please send them to under the subject line "Tales after Tolkien at SCMLA 2016 Suggestions." Please also note that the Society is happy to advertise its members' other calls for papers, even if they are not strictly related to the Society; send them along.

As we move forward, the Society hopes to make updates more regular and to include more voices in them. That does not mean, however, that we do not appreciate the attention we have already received; we hope you'll stay with us.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

About the Release of a Tales after Tolkien Volume

Our own Kris Swank reports that the release of Tales after Tolkien's Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones will happen on 18 June 2015. Rumors of copies already floating about abound, but any purchases of the book will be greatly appreciated.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Society News and Updates

A few items to bring to Society attention:

More discussion of Society activities at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies is forthcoming. Some information has yet to be reported about those activities (although many have responded already, which is greatly appreciated); when it comes in, it will be posted to the blog. It is the summer, though, and the many Society members who are academics may well be about other business; updates are forthcoming.

Planning for the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies remains underway. The topics survey ( remains open; if you are a member of the Society and have not filled it out, please do so. It will help us make the next Congress a better one yet--and our sessions are already high-quality and attended well, so making them better will make them excellent, indeed.

Another survey, asking after member opinions about the Society blog, remains open, as well. Again, if you are a Society member and have not responded to it, please do so. It will help the Society direct the blog to its members' interests and benefit.

We are always interested in having new members. Joining is easy and free; send an email to with "Tales after Tolkien Society Membership,"your name and a note asking to join, and you will be added to the mailing list and membership roll soon.

Also, we are always seeking contributions to the blog. If you are a member and have something you'd like to see on the blog, email it to either or with "Tales after Tolkien Society Blog Submission" in the sbuject line, and we'll see about getting it posted.

If you'd like to be a regular contributor (which would be most welcome), send an email to one of the addresses above with the subject line "Tales after Tolkien Society Blog Contributor," and we'll see about getting you authorized to post away.

If you'd simply like to comment on what we already have up (which would also be welcome), please feel free to do so. And if you'd simply like to continue to read what gets posted, that's just fine; we're glad to have you do so.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

CFP Survey for a Society Roundtable at the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies

As noted here, the Society will be proposing a roundtable for the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies: Unconventional Medievalisms. At the meeting where the idea was voiced, comments noted that some guidance in the CFP will be helpful; the survey below seeks to elicit member responses to help form that guidance. Please take a few moments to fill out and submit it; it will help the Society do its work.

Tales after Tolkien at Kalamazoo 2015: Introduction and the Meeting

As the Society webpage notes, the Society formed from work at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. As such, the Society does tend to privilege that conference, and in 2015, it sponsored two sessions and conducted, somewhat informally, the Annual General Meeting called for in the Society Constitution 5.1. Reports on the sessions are forthcoming; information needed for those reports is still outstanding. A report on the meeting, however, appears below.

The AGM was held in Kalamazoo but away from the conference site at approximately 6pm EDT on 15 May 2015. In attendance were Stephanie Amsel, Geneva Diamond, Judy Ann Ford, Alexandra Garner, Jewel Morow, and Kris Swank; Geoffrey B. Elliott presided.

The initial agenda of the meeting was to confirm office-holders, per the Society Constitution 3.2.1, and to elect officers to the positions of Secretary and Social Media Officer, per the Society Constitution 3.2. Items added to the agenda during the meeting were proposals for sessions to be sponsored at the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies and a proposal to have the Society sponsor a session at a regional conference in 2016.

The initial agenda was completed without difficulty. Helen Young was confirmed as President of the Society. Molly Brown was confirmed as Vice-President (At-large) of the Society. Geoffrey B. Elliott was confirmed as Vice-President (USA) of the Society. Stephanie Amsel was acclaimed as Secretary of the Society. Kris Swank was acclaimed as Social Media Officer of the Society--although Geoffrey B. Elliott continues to be tasked with curating the Society blog.

The items of the added agenda were concluded without difficulty. Suggestions for sessions to be proposed for the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies were made and voted upon by the membership present at the AGM. Desired sessions include a paper panel focusing entirely on Martin's Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones and a roundtable titled "Unconventional Medievalisms," per member suggestion, focusing on medievalism outside fantasy, science fiction, and period pieces. A survey to determine the exact headings to be suggested for the latter was promised and is forthcoming. (The suggestions have since been reported to Helen Young, who will compile the necessary paperwork for submitting the sessions to the Congress; a CFP is forthcoming, pending their approval by Congress staff and results of the survey.)

Membership discussed sponsoring a session at a regional conference. The specific conference will be the 2016 South Central Modern Language Association conference, to be held 3-5 November 2016 in Dallas, Texas. Geoffrey B. Elliott and Stephanie Amsel will be heading the sponsorship efforts.

Questions were raised during the AGM. A list of Society members, to be posted either to the Soceity blog or the Society website, has been requested; one member noted having been asked to prove membership, and a directory would be helpful to that end. (Work on such a list is forthcoming.)

The meeting was adjourned at approximately 645pm EDT.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

About "5 Horrifying Realities of Daily Life Edited out of History"

On 5 May 2015, Chris Fox's article "5 Horrifying Realities of Daily Life Edited out of History" appeared on As the title suggests, the piece details five facets of life common to earlier periods that purport to strike the expected readership of the website as terrifying or otherwise abhorrent. It moves away from the typical discussion of military technologies, seigneurial depredations, plague, and famine to the more quotidian toilet humor and unemployment troubles, as well as to the more esoteric spice trade. While some mention is made of both late imperial Roman and early modern English practice, the bulk of the article is focused on presentations of the Western medieval, depicting some of the less-commonly-understood challenges that the people of the European Middle Ages faced.

There are some problems, of course, with the presentation of the medieval offered by Fox's piece. It is somewhat sensationalist, although such is perhaps to be expected from offerings of a self-styled comedy website. It is also presentist in its biases, portraying the past as a time of terror from which current readers are likely to be excepted--although that, again, is perhaps to be expected. More locally to the article, though, the ordering of points is less than optimal. The excesses of the European spice trade do not seem to be more terrible than beatings for unemployment or the daily or more frequent occurrence of risky defecation--despite the rhetorical privileging afforded them by their placement at the end of the article.

Even so, Fox does a number of things well. The mere fact of reminding early twenty-first century readers of the European medieval serves as a useful, if small, counterpoint to prevalent short memories. The piece also usefully roots itself in current scholarship, working from the best available understandings at the time of its writing, and the involvement of ongoing research in the comedic piece helps remind readers that new knowledge of older events and activities is still being developed. (Admittedly, not all of the sources used are of equal scholarly quality. Again, however, the article is an offering on a comedy website.) Further, although perhaps unwittingly, the text accords with some of the most commonly studied written humor of medieval England; in moving to the scatological early, Fox's piece follows Chaucer's pattern in The Canterbury Tales, in which the jesting begins with fart jokes and references to cunnilingus or analingus in the ribaldry of the Miller.

In essence, then, Fox's piece may not be the best presentation of the medieval in current popular culture, but it is far from the worst that can be found.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

About a Recent News Piece on Martin and Coursework

An April 2015 Associated Press piece appearing on, "Game of Thrones- College Course," notes that Northern Illinois University will be offering a course on the as-yet-ongoing television series. Among the comments made in reference to the course are that its subject offers relatively realistic presentations of the European Middle Ages and that it provides a useful example of the continuing manifestation in the past within the present. Also noted in the article is the popularity of the course, which filled quickly and will be offered in consecutive semesters.

The three points identified deserve some comment, with the first speaking to a topic not seldom treated in this webspace (see the Game of Thrones entries and the comments made on them). How "realistic" the presentations are is hardly a settled matter, as Helen Young and a number of other scholars have argued at great length. While some consideration must be made for the fact of reporting and the constraints of journalistic prose, the article's presentation conduces to the idea of the matter as fixed and established, beyond contestation. In facilitating such a reading, the article does a disservice to the body of scholarship that continues to examine Martin's work and the television series deriving from it--as well as to the work and likely to the activities of the class as a whole.

The exemplification of how the past continues to manifest in the present is also something this webspace treats; it is, indeed, the avowed purpose of the Society. That a major media product does invoke and involve the medieval--and not only the "traditional" medieval patterned after the European High Middle Ages--is a good thing, surely. The problem, though, is that the past Martin refigures is not the past as it has been recorded as being or that the physical evidence increasingly available suggests is true. Again, Young and other scholars detail the problems in Martin's portrayals in great detail, and it is admittedly true that "refiguring" is far from the same thing as "accurate reporting." It is not to be expected that a fictional world, even one based more or less loosely on the "real" world, would adhere completely to the "real" world. When a work is presented as being authentic, however, it is obliged to be authentic, or as authentic as it can be (i.e., reliant on the current best knowledge of the medieval as asserted by scholars of the medieval, since it is not necessarily to be expected that a non-specialist will have the same level of knowledge of a specialty as a specialist); to misidentify authority and authenticity, whether willfully or inadvertently, is not helpful.

The popularity of the course, if perhaps less targeted to the interests of the Society itself, may well be of interest to many of the members of the Society, who are themselves students and teachers. Popular courses would seem to argue well on behalf of those who teach them; a popular instructor ought to be someone to be valued. Some scholarship on popularity among instructors and courses, however, raises concerns; among others, Nate Kordell addresses the matter in a 31 May 2013 Psychology Today piece, "Do the Best Professors Get the Worst Ratings?" Many of those who have spent time in the college environment can offer up anecdotal support for the idea that popularity does not always indicate the relative value of a course; many students openly avow taking courses based on the seeming promise of an "easy A." This is not to say, of course, that the class offered at Northern Illinois University will be the "easy A"; Professors Garver and Chown are without doubt pushing their students to excel. But there is a perception that classes treating popular culture materials are less substantial than those treating more traditional subjects, a perception addressed perhaps most prominently among reactionary media but exerting some influence even so. How many students seek to take the course because of the perceived ease of watching television--and it is only perceived, as watching for scholarly purposes is far more dynamic and demanding than watching for entertainment only--or because they will be able to look at a number of attractive people in various states of undress is unclear, but it does likely vitiate against the use of popularity as a rubric for the course's success--something the article neglects, to its discredit.

That the article reporting the course deserves critique does not mean that the course is not worth offering, of course. Again, the Society does attend to Game of Thrones and to the novels which inform it. It does laud continued engagement with the past, particularly the medieval past, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It does work to promote accurate understandings of the medieval past by those who create and consume the products of contemporary popular culture. And so it does stand to reason that the kind of course being offered at Northern Illinois University is the kind of course that the Society could well endorse and support. (I am not in a position to offer such an endorsement on behalf of the Society, although I would encourage such a thing if it became an issue.) But it also stands to reason that, as a group invested in such things, the Society would like to see them accurately reported--particularly when the report appears in a venue so tightly concerned with the scholarly community as is The medieval and its refigurations deserve better than a glossed, summary treatment.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

About an Anglo-Saxon Eye Salve

A number of news reports have avowed that an Anglo-Saxon topical ointment has substantial antibacterial properties. As pieces from ITV News, Claire Wilson of New Scientist, and Vanessa Heggie of The Guardian all note, the ointment, or rather its recipe, derives from Bald's Leechbook, held in the British Library, a tenth-century collection of medical knowledge and recorded practice. As the ITV and Wilson pieces both note, the ointment is as effective as the best modern medicines against MRSA, and the prospect of finding more such gems in the works of old offers an answer to some of the questions frequently voiced by students--undergraduate and graduate both--who find themselves obliged to take coursework treating the medieval: Why do we need to study this? Why does this still matter? Haven't we moved past this?

We study the medieval because it has more to teach us about the world, as an earlier entry to this webspace notes no less than the study on which the three news releases report. And when we do, we are reminded that the medievals were not less intelligent than we. They were in some ways less informed, certainly, lacking knowledge gained only by way of technology to which they did not have access. And they had bad ideas, to be sure. But the same is true for us; we cannot know what we lack the capacity to perceive, and not all of our ideas are good, as the still-sad state of the world makes clear.

The things for the Society to attend to as bear in on the current revelation, then, are these:

1) How will current science continue to deploy the medieval? Will it look to medievalists for their expertise on it? Will they continue to test out what the medievals did to see how much sense their ideas still make? How will such trials be taken up into the prevailing popular consciousness of the world? In effect, what will science prompt the non-scientist to appreciate about the medieval?

2) How will medievalist popular media begin to integrate the revelations of current science into its refiguration of the medieval? As knowledge of the medieval progresses and develops, treatments of the medieval in mainstream media can easily be enriched, nuanced, complicated, and thereby made more authentic and compelling. Or they may not be. Either has implications for what the continued deployment of the medieval means.

3) While interdisciplinary work is valued, and valorization of the humanities departments in which much medieval work is done is welcome, the Society and its members should be wary of the subordination of the humanities to STEM fields, as the comment with which Heggie concludes threatens to imply. Those who work in humanities fields are already too-much seen as adjunct or servitor to STEM fields, and while they are worthy endeavors, they are not more worthy than the humanities. While an instrumental reason to maintain humanities studies is helpful, it must not become the only reason offered for that maintenance.

The medieval manifests in many ways in the post-medieval. Many of them need celebrating. All of them need examination.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

About Richard III

Much was made this week just past about the re-internment of Richard III, following excellent work at the University of Leicester. The BBC, understandably, had somewhat to say about the matter, as have the Richard III SocietyNPR's Scott Simon, and many others. Among the many things that the discovery of the old king's remains and their reburial suggests is continued appreciation of the medieval--for the event would not have attracted the media attention it has or the number of attendees at the surrounding ceremonies did the medieval it represents not still command the regard of many in the world.

Or it at least can. As an early post to this blog notes, the end-date of the medieval in England can be argued across several dates. One of them is the ascent of the Tudors after the death in battle of Richard III in 1485, and if that is the date accepted, then Richard III is the last medieval king of England as well as the last (as yet) to die in battle.* If the end of the English medieval is taken as the 1534 Act of Supremacy, then Richard III is still a medieval king, although not epoch-ending as the 1485 date makes him. If the end of the medieval in England is, instead, the 1476 introduction by Caxton or printing to England, though, he is not: Edward IV would be, and Richard III would be the second early modern English king if the usual succession of cultural and historical periods is followed in such a case. But it is more likely that the 1485 date continues to apply (discussion of the issue is still worth having), and it is thus more likely that the death of Richard III marks the end of the medieval in England--at least in an "official" sense. Commemoration of that death, then, would also be a commemoration of the medieval, an acknowledgement of its importance centuries after the fact even if there are potentially problematic metaphors involved in celebrating the internment of the last medieval king of England.**

Another early post to this blog notes that part of why the medieval continues to occupy contemporary thought is its correspondence with current concerns. Divisive power struggles seem to remain concerns, as do the seesawing of power among two groups of dynastic elites effectively indistinguishable from one another by those over whom they rule and concerns over shifts in language. Political corruption does, as well. The life and times of Richard III speak to all such things, and celebrating him (as happens at burials) serves as a reminder of such speaking, arguing again in favor of keeping the medieval in mind.

The ceremony itself can be parsed, of course, with the changes from the rites Richard III would have recognized noted (the shift to Protestantism being among them) no less than the continuities, the unifying formal serving as synecdoche for the broader cultures which enfold it and offering once again a lens through which to understand ourselves the better. And that seems something well worth doing.

*Note that this is not an expression of hope. It is, instead, an acknowledgement that there are likely yet to be kings of England, and one of them might well die in battle.

**Joy at interring the last medieval king can easily be read as joy at interring the medieval, in a sense putting it entirely in the past. Simply enacting the burial cannot effect the change in fact, of course, but it can conduce to a blindness to the continuations of medieval practice that occur, as well as to the many good things that were present among the medieval that would be good to retain or return to in the modern and post-modern.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

CFP- South Central Modern Language Association 2015, English I: Old and Middle English

The South Central Modern Language Association is holding its annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, 31 October through 3 November 2015. Those who want to attend the conference are encouraged to submit abstracts. Those with ideas relating to Old and/or Middle English are asked to send abstracts of 300 words or less, along with contact information, to the chair of the English I: Old and Middle English sessions, Geoffrey B. Elliott (, or the secretary of those sessions, Brian Brooks ( The panel (and possibly more than one!) is wide open at this point, and abstracts are due by 31 March 2015. More information can be found here:

Please pass along to colleagues and independent scholars who may be interested.

Monday, March 9, 2015

CFP: Heaven, Hell, and Little Rock

Jay Ruud sends the CFP linked below:

For those for whom the URL does not work, the Southeastern Medieval Association is hosting its 41st annual conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, 22-24 October 2015. The text of the CFP is below:

You are cordially invited to participate in the 2015 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association. This year’s meeting will take place at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock, Arkansas on Thursday, October 22, 2015 through Saturday, October 24, 2015, and is sponsored by the University of Central Arkansas.
The theme of this year’s meeting is “Heaven, Hell, and Little Rock,” in celebration of a host of anniversaries celebrated this year (the Fourth Lateran Council, the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth, the burning of Jan Hus, the signing of the Magna Carta). We welcome submissions and encourage panels related to these anniversaries or on other medieval topics.
Further, in acknowledgment of the pivotal role that Little Rock, this year’s conference location, played in the American civil rights movement. In the spirit of this significant step in; the civil rights movement, we would like to encourage for this conference an emphasis on the “Other” Middle Ages, and encourage panels on East Asia, South Asia, and Islam at the time of the European Middle Ages, as well as panels on the “Other” within medieval Christendom (e.g., Jews and other non-Christians, Norse encounters with “Skraelingas,” or the treatment of the disabled, diseased, sexually “deviant,” or “mad” in Christian society).
In addition, this year’s meeting will include several sessions devoted to undergraduate research. Please encourage students who have done especially good work to submit abstracts.
Please submit proposals for sessions and individual papers using the link at no later than July 1, 2015.
Plenary Speakers:
Dr. Peter S. Hawkins of the Yale Divinity School (author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays on Scriptural Imagination and Dante: A Brief History among others) will give a plenary address called "Dante's 'Other': Thinking outside the Christian Box."
Dr. Thomas A. Fudge of the University of New England (author of Heresy and Hussites in Late Medieval Europe and The Trial of Jan Hus: Medieval Heresy and Criminal Procedure, among others) will give a plenary address on Hus and his martyrdom.
Dr. Stephen Owen of Harvard University (author of The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860) and The Making of Early Chinese Classical Poetry, among others) will give a plenary address on Tang poetry and culture.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

About Legend of the Five Rings

Not too long ago (although longer than it should have been since the last entry in this webspace), the Society co-sponsored an event at the 2015 Tolkien Days at Ohio State University, acting in concert with the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization and the nascent UNICORN Cloud Conference and Virtual Museum of Medieval Studies and Medievalism. The focus of the event was the Lord of the Rings Online MMORPG, and several papers were presented in person and online; they can be found here. My own contribution to the event offered some perspective on the history of the gaming property, tying it back through its direct subject matter and the history of the RPG, generally, to Tolkien and thus to recapitulation of the medieval.

Not too long ago, also, this webspace saw comments on The Year's Work in Medievalism 28, which includes an article by E.L. Risden that treats the Japanese medievalism exhibited in Miyazaki's animated films and calls for more consideration of how the Japanese medieval is deployed. In those comments, I invoked an earlier piece in which I note the deployment in anime of the Western medieval despite the easy access of Japanese artists to a rich history that, because it is caste-based and feudal under the (often nominal) oversight of a centralized religious authority, can easily be considered medieval as Risden asserts (with medieval remaining a fraught term). The reverse also occurs, not seldom in the RPG, with Western audiences recapitulating (romanticized and simplified) figures and tropes from the Japanese medieval--as is the case in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG.*

Legend of the Five Rings, or L5R, is both a CCG (following loosely the model of Magic: The Gathering) and an RPG. In both cases, it is based largely in Japanese culture, taking its name from Musashi's treatise, the Book of Five Rings, and deploying an iteration of Japanese myth, legend, and history that is as true to its sources as Lord of the Rings is to Tolkien's or Foundation is to Asimov's. That is, it makes free use of the "truth" while deploying some obvious fictions and occasionally mixing in things that are not in the originals but still make for interesting storytelling. For even in its CCG iteration, the game makes much of telling a story that is driven by the player base; official events such as card tournaments and sanctioned RPG events are taken up as parts of the ongoing storyline that has been in continuous evolution since 1997. Generations have passed in the game's milieu, and that milieu has changed as the result of player decisions, corporate concerns, and shifts in the prevailing cultural standards of the player bases--but it still retains in large part the trappings of the Japanese medieval in which it was initially grounded.

Several reasons for that grounding suggest themselves. The personal interests of the game's initial designers--most notably John Wick--do much to shape it, of course, and the thought that some desire to not overlap overly closely with other CCG and RPG properties (notably the aforementioned Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons) informs the choice is a sensible one. the notion that the Western audience of L5R is less likely to be steeped in Japanese and other Asian medieval cultures than Western, and thus less likely to be attuned to deviations therefrom, an inversion of an idea advanced in "About Student Papers and Anime," may also obtain. And the feudal Japanese system, with easily identifiable social standards (bushido, social stratification, and traditional and contemporary dojo structures), lends itself to the kind of quantification typically seen among RPGs, as well; promotion up the ranks of a martial arts system comes off as more authentic than the level-based advancement in such games as D&D.

Whatever the reasons, though, there are things to consider about the deployment by L5R of its Japanese medieval tropes, particularly in its RPG iteration. The complexity of the in-milieu social structure is welcome. While it is ostensibly strictly ranked and tightly controlled, the practice of the game is such that there are many methods to circumvent the prevailing social controls at almost all levels. Competing chains of command and webs of loyalty pervade the setting, and attempts at negotiating them effectively inform many of the stories the game tells both at the individual game level and in the canonical storyline. Combat and tactics necessarily inform the game, both owing to the historical influences on the RPG and the specific social setting of L5R, which focuses on the deeds and doings of a warrior caste, and such concerns are differentiated from one another substantially among the various martial arts schools present in the game's world. The plethora of religious practices present, although formally united under the aegis of a central authority, also provides an authentic narrative complexity to the world, and it joins the variety of martial and sociocultural practices present in the game to present a recapitulation of feudal Japan that, if far simplified from the "reality," is still far more complex than many depictions of the medieval admit.

This does not mean, of course, that there are not problems in the depiction. The validity of the sources that inform the game can certainly be questioned in terms of their historical authenticity. If Musashi and Sun Tzu inform the game substantially, so does Shogun, and so do the films of Akira Kurosawa. As histories, they are not necessarily the best sources, and the latter's presentations of the samurai are directed towards audiences that follow the feudal period by quite some time. How much of the presentation of figures and tropes in the game have to be considered culturally apporpriative, how much of it serves the colonialist purposes Davis and Altschul's Medievalism in the Postcolonial World identifies as at work in the description of non-Western cultures as "medieval," and how much of it is set up specifically to accord with Western expectations of the medieval all need to be investigated. That is to say, how authentically L5R represents what can be called a medieval Japan bears further study--and where it is inauthentic needs to be critiqued. As Helen Young has noted, how true a presentation of the medieval is to the medieval it claims to represent matters, and those of us who study the medieval, either directly or in re-presentation, have a duty to look at those presentations. What they get right, what they get wrong, and how and why they get it wrong all tell us much of ourselves, and that is surely worth all the attention that it can be paid.

*I have been involved with the L5R RPG for some years now, having participated as a player and a GM in various incarnations of the online Winter Court game and having contributed informally to some of the now-canonical storyline.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

About "Three Surveys"

In September 2014, I posted links to three surveys here. The questions on them are still valid; they still need answering. If you are a member of the Tales after Tolkien Society and have not answered them, please do; it will help us to have some understanding of what the membership wants to see us do.

For ease, the surveys are linked below, as well:

Blog Content Survey
Kalamazoo 2015 Survey
Directory Survey

Your information is appreciated.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

About News from Texas

Society member Carol Robinson pointed out a New York Daily News article on the Society Facebook page on 2 February 2015, Nicole Hensley's 31 January 2015 "Texas Boy Suspended for Saying He Could Make Classmate 'Disappear' with Lord of the Rings Sorcery." The piece and a 30 January 2015 article from the Odessa American (much closer to the incident in question), "Parent: Fourth-grader Suspended after Using Magic from The Hobbit" both note that the child in question was suspended from school after saying to a classmate something about using a ring to make the classmate disappear. The articles raise several points for discussion, including one that goes very much to the heart of what it is that the Society does.

Given the location of the incident--the oil-driven dry and windswept lands of West Texas, known not only for their oil production but also for football and a peculiarly romanticized and execrated public culture--the reaction is unsurprising. Texas, after all, is roundly accused (and with some justification) of being prevailingly backward and insular, of trumpeting entrenched attitudes that did not serve well even when they were new, and are far less wholesome now. Further, schools in the United States, generally, trend towards absolutist, non-nuanced policies that make reflexive overreactions--and suspending a child for a backhanded and patently fictitious comment is an overreaction--obligatory, the threat of lawsuits for unequal treatment and the paranoid fears of relaxed controls being as they are and all too present.

But that the reaction comes as no surprise should not mean that it is condoned. If nothing else, it smacks of a perilous reactionary impetus that corresponds both with "Christian" fundamentalism--something else unfortunately correctly associated with the Lone Star State--and the fears from the late 1980s of a sprawling spiritual threat contained in fantasy literature and its offshoots--materials to which those involved in medievalist study seemingly must attend, given their pervasive figuration of the medieval. Reading that teachers reacted as they did to comments that surely stopped short of the literary Ash nazg dubatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul called to mind the discussion in Michael A. Stackpole's 1990 "Pulling Report," The paranoid fear that I recall from my own youth, not so many miles from Kermit, centering around those very things seems to have resurfaced, if it ever indeed submerged, unfortunately bubbling up around the child in question. I find that I wonder now whether the child will ever again be inclined to be excited about what he reads or to discuss it. Will he do as many others have done and assign shame to learning, and either rack himself with guilt over the love of reading or turn away from in in hate and anger? Will he become yet one more who is placed and places himself beyond the reach of such mystery and wonder as what the Society studies offers, and will those who have seen him in such straits follow him away?

It is, as Robinson points out, "not a very nice tale after Tolkien." One can hope, though, that the next chapter turns it towards a better story.