Monday, August 2, 2010

Medievalisms Encountered

I just finished up teaching my summer literature course. It was a general fiction course, but I decided to take it a little easy on myself and teach mostly books I've done before, with the exception of Neil Gaman's least part of it. One book I had read some 25 years ago or so I decided to revisit. I had read it for pleasure, remembered enjoying it, but had never ever considered teaching it before. I'm not sure why it never occurred to me, but it hadn't.

T. H. White's The Once and Future King (henceforth TOFK) is clearly what we would now call a medievalism. Interesting tidbit about White is that though he did his senior thesis on Malory, he later claimed to have not read it. Some ten years later he did, and so created TOFK--well the first part of it known as "The Sword in the Stone." The other three parts of the novel (written over the course of 2 decades) follow Malory fairly closely with plenty of interesting interpretation and White retelling along the way. So for example a wonderful image of the end of Camelot and its world is the use of cannons against the Tower walls, an interpretation of Malory's grete gunnes-and a not untypical one. And Mordred's very obvious Freudian "daddy" issues are more explicitly Freudian in White than in Malory...natural enough given when Freud lived and all, though it is mythology and iconic stories that gave Freud, Jung, and in a different field Campbell their fodder about us humans and our inner workings.

What I find interesting about the novel though is that first section describing Arthur's youth. There is very little of anything about Arthur's youth in Malory or other traditions other than being fostered by Sir Ector. So in the "Sword in the Stone" section, White is being his most independent and original. The way I approached teaching the section is talking about the "inters": interlace, intertextual, interpretive. Interlace is pretty easy as White uses Pellinor, an excellent example of interlace, to weave in and out of Arthur's tale. Intertextual was a fascinating exercise, more than I expected in fact. Here we were able to dive into the Bestiaries, mirrors for princes, material from the Pilgrim's Revolt, Robin Hood ballads and tales, among other things that pop up in this part of the short, I was able to use this to introduce the students to a whole range of medieval history and literature. White sets his tale in the 13th-14th century if I remember correctly which gives an opportunity to talk about castle life as White presents it, culture of the period, languages and so on. In short, I think a grand introduction.

Two final points in my ramblings about White: first, we were able to talk about White's influence on later writers, especially Rowling and Gaiman. Second, I am shocked at how little academic attention has been given White and TOFK. Seriously, I couldn't really find anything to show the students; a few reviews was it. Now, I may have missed a piece or two, but there is plenty of room to talk about White and his medievalism from multiple viewpoints. Let this be the first volley in reintroducing this author to medievalists.

Well, that was the encounter with an older medievalism. I've recently had a literary encounter with a newer medievalism based on a very old medievalism. An author that my wife introduced me to when we got together is Christopher Moore. He's a somewhat intelligent, comic writer. One book for example is dependent on modern studies of cargo cults, and what's more, is he generally gets it right! Well, ol' Christopher has published a novel (2009, so not brand new) Fool that is a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear. Now any medievalist who has read any Shakespeare knows that Shakespeare is practicing medievalism, at least a 16th century version. So, his Lear is based on medieval texts that the good bard has reinterpreted to tell his tale that has endured for many a year. So now we get to add a layer of medievalism with Moore, retelling Shakespeare and being somewhat of a medievalismist himself. Fool is the story of Lear's fool, who for those who don't know, mysteriously disappears in Act III. Many have speculated that the fool and Cordelia, the faithful daughter of Lear, were played by the same actor or should in some way be seen as the same since both do fulfill the same role: speaking truth and wisdom to those gone awry.

But since Lear takes place in the Middle Ages, any story about a character who lives in the Middle Ages must of necessity deal with the Middle Ages. There is some good stuff here. There is just as much simply mistaken, but since it makes one laugh heartily, I can be forgiving. *Warning: naughty language ahead* "Heinous fuckery most foul" never ceases to elicit a guffaw from both my wife and I...she's even thinking of making it her permanent Facebook status. And yes, there is much that is bawdy in the tale...but what reader of Shakespeare or Chaucer is surprised at that? None I should hope. There are some great lines and scenes here borrowed not just from other Shakespeare plays, but from medieval writers. All in all, though, this is Moore at his best: taking a tragic tale, making it hilarious, while retaining the tragic notes.

In a much different kind of thing, I may have mentioned before that my wife and I sometimes watch a show on Spike called "Deadliest Warrior." It's gamers on the loose folks! Tonight's episode paired Vikings against Samurai in an attempt to determine who was the deadliest. I mention it here simply because while in some ways historically accurate, the program perpetuated the same old "Viking pillaged, raped, destroyed" oversimplifications that exist out in pop culture. And that in spite of an "expert" Viking weapons club to show us how deadly the Vikings were. By the way, according to the specially developed computer program, the Samurai was deadlier. I don't know that I buy that...but ah well.

Finally, in case you didn't see it, this was forwarded to me on Facebook and I had to share hither and perhaps a bit of yon:

1 comment:

The Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages said...


In regards to White, Arthurian scholars have done a lot of work on his novels, but such studies tend not to appear in standard reference tools, like the MLA Bibliography. I have a working bibliography of studies of twentieth- (and now twenty-first-) century Arthuriana, and I would be happy to share my entries on White.

Michael Torregrossa