Thursday, June 21, 2018

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

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry soon!

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

5.4, "Kral Zera"

Written by Mitch Iverson
Directed by Chris Palmer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination by Paul Sturtevant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somebody get on that.

But read the appendices first.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

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

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry here!

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

5.3, "Postmortem"

Written by Todd Ludy
Directed by Steve In Chang Ahn


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Getting Ready for #Kzoo2019

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 7, 2018

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

Read the previous entry here!
Read the next entry here!

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

5.2, "Blood Duel"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Eugene Lee


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, June 3, 2018

About Travels in Genre and Medievalism in 2018

𝔉our years ago today saw the beginning of this blog, and at a couple of points (here and here), I have stopped to comment on the status of the blog and of the Society for which it is and remains a mouthpiece. In those earlier status updates, I've noted the number and frequency of posts; it is fitting that I do so again:
  • Since the last update, it has been around two years, some 104 weeks, during which there have been 151 posts, some 1.45 posts per week.
  • In total, there have been 235 posts (including this one) across 208 weeks, an average of 0.89 per week. 
Where it all began...
 Owing to some series of entries, posts have been at least more regular since the last status report than leading up to it. Shiloh's excellent Game of Thrones Re/Watch, which emerged from and perhaps contributed to her successful book-writing efforts and work with The Public Medievalist, accounts for no small part of it; I flatter myself that my Voltron: Legendary Defender Re/Watch is at least keeping things going. And the work of a few other contributors--Society founder Helen Young and member Brian Brooks stand out as examples--have added to our richness.

Work to improve upon the format and layout of the blog continues. Aligning the reading series has been of some help, making it easier to explore how ideas on the blog relate to one another. Increased attention to paratextual features has also, I think, helped; it is at least the case that the Society is taking more care with what the materials look like that it posts for people to see.

Some concerns remain, of course. We are always happy to accept new members; simply email us with your name and let us know you want to join. We're also happy to accept submissions of short-form scholarship, commentary, or rewatches from members; email us to send along your ideas or full pieces. Member news and CFPs are also things we'd love to post; in either case, send stuff along, and we'll see about getting it in front of people!

We look forward to hearing from you, and we thank you for your continued reading!