Thursday, October 30, 2014

About _Labyrinth_

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

CFP: Studies in Medievalism

Helen Young notes the following:

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

About "Avianca's Bezel"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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