Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Thoughts about a Children's Program

I have the great pleasure of being a father to a young daughter. In trying to be good at it, I spend a fair amount of time reviewing the media my daughter consumes, whether that be in the form of children's books or television and movies. One such that I recently watched "with" her--meaning that it was playing while she moved among watching, playing with blocks, chasing the cats, eating strawberries, and begging for oranges--is Manuel Sicilia's 2013 Justin and the Knights of Valour. In the movie, the eponymous character leaves a home where his prominent father pushes him to go into the practice of law, choosing instead to become a knight in the image of his grandfather, the heroic knight Roland. Doing so sends him to a remote monastery for training under a retired knight and two markedly disparate monks; it also sees him return to his hometown, ostensibly rejected from candidacy for knighthood. While there, he learns that his putative lady, Lara, has been kidnapped, and he rushes out to retrieve her. In doing that, he comes not only to find companionship from the former bar-maid Talia and the schizophrenic magician Melquiades, but also to confront his grandfather's killer, who is plotting to take over the kingdom where Justin lives. After a brief battle, the takeover plot is thwarted, Roland is avenged, and Justin is elevated to the dignity of knighthood, the first in a generation to receive the honor. It is a movie that ostensibly celebrates the medieval, but it does so in an unfortunately inaccurate way that conduces to the continued transmission of wrong-headed ideas about how things were and what they mean now.

There are some things that the movie gets right about the medieval, or at least has in accordance with the records and literatures left by the medievals. For one, Justin takes an article of Lara's clothing (admittedly incorrectly and in a bit of humorous dramatic irony), a sock, as a token of her courtly affection--a commonplace of chivalric literature and one that could be read as particularly charged, following Evelyn Meyer. As an emblem of the exposed foot and leg, it would both come across as "masculine" forwardness and as an expression of particular intimacy, given courtly prohibitions against showing the (lower portions of) women's bodies. It also comes across to Justin as an endorsement of his endeavor, and in the finest knightly tradition, he vows to do particular deeds in honor of the award--they are done, and he returns the token to an unsympathetic, disdainful figure who is also in keeping with at least parts of the courtly-love model,* as N.M. Heckel succinctly outlines it. In at least motioning toward a major conceptual construct of the Western medieval, then, Justin and the Knights of Valour does well.

Additionally, the movie handles a fair bit of knightliness well, at least as measured against literary depictions. For one, the knights associated with the "good" kingdom in which Justin is raised and which his grandfather--whose very name evokes one of the most prominent exemplars of chivalry in medieval literature--ostensibly operate under the terms of a specific, reasonably simple oath, one that reads as a reduced form of the Pentecostal oath taken by the Knights of the Round Table in Malory (75-76). For another, when Justin seeks training as a knight, he finds it among isolated monks in a remote monastery,** one of whom was a knightly companion of Roland--something else that echoes Malory, in whose work knights retire into contemplative life and in which religious hermits work mighty acts of healing such as Justin comes to need. So there is another point at which the movie manages to remain in line with its medieval predecessors.

But although there are things that Justin and the Knights of Valour does well to represent, there are far more that it does less well to depict inaccurately. Some of the inaccuracies are understandable, given the direction of the movie towards children. For example, few if any characters actually die during the film. The only one that comes to mind is the usurping knight that slew Roland, and his death--by falling from on high--is not directly depicted; the corpse is never shown. Indeed, with little exception, combat in the film is bloodless. It is a marked departure from both the medieval antecedents--Malory's Arthur early grows "so blody that by hys shylde there myght no man know hym, for all was blode and brayne that stake on his swerde and on hys shylde" (22), and Lancelot slays Mellyagaunce with a blow that was "such a buffett that the stroke carved the hed in two partyes"(663), among many others--and from prevailing contemporary iterations of the "medieval" on film and television; it is one, however, wholly consonant with long-standing tropes of "children's" works. Others are accommodations to more modern storytelling sensibilities. Notably, the film ascribes agency to several female characters--Talia, Justin's grandmother, the queen--in ways not always or often attested in prevailing documentation of medieval conduct and behaviors but which are accepted or (rightly) expected as a matter of course in more recent storytelling.

Others, however, are not justifiable on such grounds. One such is the overwhelming whiteness of the milieu. Despite being a Spanish production and so deriving from a part of the world in which the medieval was decidedly multicolored and multicultural, Justin and the Knights of Valour shows few if any characters of color. The closest are "Sir" Clorex, voiced by Antonio Banderas in the English-language version, and Talia, voiced by Saoirse Ronan, and neither character is marked as coming from a separate or distinct culture; if they are characters of color, they are thoroughly colonized, so that their Otherness is a token inclusion rather than an actual engagement with the kind of multiculturalism Helen Young has been at great length to demonstrate was embedded in the medieval experience and should be embedded in re-creations and appropriations of the medieval (something she discusses in "'It's the Middle Ages, Yo!'" and "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity?" if not also elsewhere).

Another, and one particularly repugnant from a disciplinary standpoint, is the compression or conflation of the pre-modern. In the movie, medieval and medievalist ideas and presentations are yoked directly to later concepts of dress, decorum, architecture, and even governance. Knighthood not even a generation gone has been replaced almost wholly by a stultifyingly bureaucratic rule of law, an utter anachronism that grates. Building styles on display reflect Baroque, Georgian, and Augustan architectures rather than the medieval--save for the exaggerated Gothics of the castle, tower, and monastery--and the grounds of Justin's home reflect the English gardens of Jane Austen more than the brewery and mill of Margery Kempe. Matters of attire are similarly evocative of later periods than the medieval, the white powders reading more of the Hanoverians than the Cerdicingas or Plantagenets. Each part of the past is deserving of its own attention; for so much of the pre-modern to be condensed together devalues history, and the promulgation of such amalgamations serves to foreshorten what should be an enrichingly deep view of what the world has been.

While Justin and the Knights of Valour does have some merits--and that my daughter enjoyed watching it is among them--it is emblematic of a larger problem. While I have noted elsewhere that misreadings and misrepresentations of the medieval can be "something other than mere mistakes," and there are some such things in the movie, there is far more that conduces to a view of the medieval not only ignorant but, given easily accessible emergent research and commentary, willfully so. Such movies as I watched with my daughter today contribute to a broader cultural current that drags down the necessary and proper nuances of the world as it was, hampering children's abilities to understand both it and the world as it now is even before they come to realize that there are subtleties for which to seek. What the adults those children will become will perceive, or not, can only be guessed at, but if they start out with the restrictions that already grow up around them, they will have a hard time with anything but the shallowest surfaces of a rich, deep world.

*Admittedly, Lara evokes the end of the medieval; her name is pronounced with the open, Continental "a," making it sound like the name of Petrarch's scornful beloved and so connecting the character and the work as a whole to the then-emergent Renaissance.

**Another of the monks deploys technologies that read as iterations of such modern things as remote controls. It seems almost a living backwards, something associate with wise figures in another prominent Arthurian work--White's Once and Future King.

Works Cited
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About a Popova Piece...and a Bit of Rebuttal." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 17 June 2014. Web. 15 March 2016.
  • Heckel, N.M. "Sex, Society, and Medieval Women." University of Rochester River Campus Libraries. U of Rochester, n.d. Web. 15 March 2016.
  • Justin and the Knights of Valour. Dir. Manuel Sicilia. Arc Entertainment, 2013. Netflix, n.d. Web. 15 March 2016.
  • Malory, Thomas. Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Second ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.
  • Meyer, Evelyn. "Undercutting the Fabric of Courtly Love with 'Tokens of Love' in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival." Academia.edu. Academia.edu, n.d. Web. 15 March 2016.
  • White, T.H. The Once and Future King. New York: Ace, 1987. Print.
  • Young, Helen. "'It's the Middle Ages, Yo!': Race, Neo/Medievalisms, and the World of Dragon Age." The Year's Work in Medievalism 27 (2012). Georgia Tech, n.d. Web. 15 March 2016.
  • ---. "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 16 June 2014. Web. 15 March 2016.