Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part II): How the History of Medieval Romance Shows Us Why Representation Matters

–This post is a continuation of my reflection on “Why Writing the Other is Always Radical”

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

Representation matters. It’s a movement, it’s the #ownvoices hashtag, and it’s been pushing institutions like the book publishing industry and Hollywood to find more diverse creators and to cast more diverse characters and actors in the stories we love.

Much has already been said on the matter, but I’d like to add my two cents by highlighting how changes in representation have transformed genres in the past and have the power to transform them now.

Oddly enough, it is in European romance where this observation of historical change can be observed. This could be seen as ironic. After all, fantasy is a stereotypically eurocentric genre, where the tropes of European romance stand for the very antithesis of diversity in the genre.

However, the story of medieval romance’s history of development is a tale of the transformative power of representation. Why? Because genres evolve to reflect changes in societies.

Always Historicize

As a Master’s student, I read Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, a book that adopts a historical approach towards reading the unconscious political messages embedded in literature. A famous line from Jameson’s book is the mantra, “Always historicize.”

The Political Unconscious, a theoretically complex text, contains a great insight into why fantasy and adventure fiction is burdened with the baggage of morally stultifying good versus evil binaries, in which otherness is equated with evil.

In our present climate of xenophobia, writing against the tendency of society to demonize those whom it considers other is a moral choice. For more of my thoughts on this subject, read the first post in this series.

For now, suffice it to say that fantasy’s history of colour-coded good-versus-evil binaries owes itself largely to its medieval taproot texts. But how did medieval romance itself evolve?

In his “Magical Narratives” chapter, Jameson goes into detail about how medieval romance evolved from the older form of the chanson de geste. While romance is the predecessor of fantasy fiction and adventure stories, the chanson de geste, or “song of great deeds,” is the predecessor of romance.

Chanson de geste is a literary genre in which knights and their battlefield kill scores were set to verse. The genre’s morality was absolutely black and white, with Christians labelled as “us” and Muslims as “them.” There is none of the subtle complexity of “good” and “evil” that there is in Tolkien’s nuanced juxtapositions of Gollum as an aspect of Frodo, and Shelob as an aspect Galadriel.

In chanson de geste, you’re either on the side of the Christians, or you’re already dead.

It was this ideology, or some modern form of it, that inspired the Christchurch mosque shooter, who wrote slogans on his guns. “Charles Martel” and “Tours 732” commemorated the heroes of the chanson de geste and the historical events they reference (Elaine Graham-Leigh “Far-Right Terrorists and the Meaning of the Battle of Tours”).

In other words, this old, somewhat quaint genre of medieval literature is closely connected with one of the worst, most violence xenophobic attacks in recent years. That should give us all pause.

The battles scenes in chanson de geste are bloodbaths fought against impossible odds. In fact, they’re reminiscent of Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s 300, a comic book and movie appropriated by the alt-right. What’s important to remember here is not only that modern Nazis look towards these medieval texts for inspiration but also that they contain an ideological structure that colonizes our mentality and insinuates itself into the genres we consume.

The good and evil binary is so prevalent within our culture that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. However, we have to think beyond it to dismantle the harmful ideological structures that lie in the stories we love.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

The Case of the Unmasked Black Knight

I once read a chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland,” in my first year of college.

From memory, I remember it is far more concerned with whether Roland’s sword cleaved this or that “Saracen” in twain than it is in parsing out the morality of a genocide. Morality here is absolute, a binary choice between good and evil, which corresponds respectively to Christianity and Islam with no room allowed for coexistence.

The chanson de geste is so absurd, this black-and-white morality even determines physics; the sheer righteousness of Archbishop Turpin keeps him alive and fighting vigorously despite his many arrow wounds. It would be funny in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight sketch kind of way, if the over-the-top violence were not so repetitive and, frankly, dull.

Thankfully, a shift occurred when chivalric romances like the tales of King Arthur evolved from the chanson de geste. In fact, a remarkable thing occurred: the “bad” characters (Muslim knights, anonymous Christian knights in black armour) became more human.

This can be explained because the social class of knights, who were chivalric romance’s main audience, had consolidated itself across Europe. Europe was no longer a paranoid society where you couldn’t trust your neighbour. If you were a noble, your neighbour was just another wealthy noble, perhaps bound to the same king. You shared more in common with him than any differences you might have, even if you found yourselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.

What happened next, Fredric Jameson describes best. There arose

“what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of good and evil, perpetuated by the chanson de geste, and this emergent class solidarity. Romance in its original strong form may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, the which—points of honor, challenges, tests of strength—he reflects as in a mirror image.

[…] This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, distinguishes the romance narrative from those of chanson de geste

(Jameson, Unconscious, 118-9).

At this moment in medieval history, class solidarity was signaled by a change in literary production: knights were no longer locked in absolute good versus evil combats. The villain is unmasked after he yields, and on the other side of that mask is revealed not a demon’s face but that of another knight, a member of the hero’s community.

The solidarity of the feudal nobility resulted in a rise of communal consciousness. According to Jameson, this solidarity is what triggered the rise of medieval romance, which later evolved into the modern novel.

Without this solidarity, there would have been no willingness to be empathetic and humanize the enemy and thus no drive towards psychological complexity. Without that willingness to empathize, we would not have the realism we so value in our storytelling today.

Now, I’m not saying medieval romance became less Islamophobic. It is true that Muslim knights in European romance would frequently convert to Christianity after being defeated by the hero, thus eliminating their difference. What I am saying, however, is that group solidarity determines who gets seen as an “us” in the stories we tell.

In the case of the medieval romance, Muslim knights could now be included within the same social class as Christian knights–though peasants were excluded. While it became more inclusive in some ways, in other ways it maintained exclusions.

Everyone wants to see themselves in stories. This doesn’t mean that everyone has always been given the chance to be a hero, however. Yet, when we include different kinds of people in our community, the literature our society produces must change to reflect its new audience.

This principle, according to Jameson, is a major part of what happened to bring about the rise of European romance. It’s also how a widening middle-class audience influenced the development of the novel. People wanted to read about everyday life in a way that more closely reflected their own. This is known as humanity’s need for mimesis, the capacity of literature to reflect one’s own reality.

If the history of literary genres show us one thing, then I guess it’s that literature is highly narcissistic.

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Beat the Drums of Peace

The modern age is globalized and this brings people from all corners of the world closer together. This material change in our historical circumstances is reflected in our literature as it becomes more diverse. As publishers and movie produces make different kinds of people welcome within their creator communities, they foster a sense of shared belonging and solidarity. The “other” becomes an “us.”

Now, Jameson’s argument does not so much say that writing differently will somehow change society. His argument is that material changes and class solidarity serve as the primary impetus of literary change. However, it is not untrue that writing the other can encourage solidarity. Accompanied by changes in media industries, telling stories that resist the dehumanization of others can bring about social change.

When governments beat the drums of war, however, we encounter opposition to this utopian goal: the atavistic battle songs of the chanson de geste. War drums and ethical binaries encourage the idiotic thought that some human beings embody “evil” while others are “good.” This reduces “the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off” (Ursula K. Le Guin, “Afterword,” A Wizard of Earthsea (2012 ed.)).

Under the sound of those drumbeats, our literature stands to lose the complexity of psychological realism, the result of hundreds of years of literary development. The intelligence of our literature stands to be reduced to the moral binaries of chanson de geste.

To beat the drums of peace, as storytellers we must encourage solidarity between members of different classes of society. We need to create selves out of others, integrate those who have been othered into an “us.” We must use our powers of empathy to show that “they” are human beings and no different from you or I. And we must do this at the level of the industry, as well as the level of narrative representation.

If we storytellers can accomplish this and inspire true change in who gets to be represented as an “us” in our books, video games, and movies, then we are on the cusp of radical change in the genres we write about. The stupid binaries of the chanson de geste are not dead literature; they have colonized our minds and infected how we think about our fellow human beings. The good and evil binary reaches out like an atavistic spectre of the past to haunt our present.

Our work as writers is to resist that atavism. We must take a position and continue the work of humanizing the other.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF


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Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

mosque
Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”

An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.

When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.

A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.

A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).

When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.

Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.

anonymity
Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.

Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.

Media and the Other

What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.

When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”

However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.

We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.

pro-immigrant rally
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.

Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?

Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec

This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.

(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).

During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.

This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.

The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s  who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).

two hijabi women talking
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Telling the Right Stories

Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.

The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.

Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.

The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.

The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.

This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.

As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.

Beat the Drums of Peace

Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.

In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:

His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.

How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?

As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.

Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.

When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.

Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.

I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.

Read Part II.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

Part I: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart


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MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part IV: The Conclusion

20150802_125245The final day of MythCon 46 was Monday August 3rd, during which I only took notes on one presentation: Vicki Ronn on “Graphic King Arthur,” that is, the history of King Arthur comic books. Ronn presented a series of comics featuring or starring the mythical king, evaluating each for the quality of its illustrations, story, and characterizations, from Prince Valiant to Camelot 3000 and beyond.

Mike Barr and Briand Bolland worked on Camelot 3000 from 1982-85, a DC Comics series that was able to escape the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, by selling only to comic book stores. There were several surprises in this series, noted for its 1980s camp. The story is that King Arthur has been cryo-frozen and has been awoken in the futuristic world of 3000 AD. Galahad appears as a Japanese samurai, Gawain as a South African Zulu, and Tristan is Tristana–a woman! This last is remarkable because many comics of the past rarely featured women, King Arthur and His Knights by Frank Bellamy (1955-6) actually having an all-male cast. Morgan Le Fay also appears in Camelot 3000 as the leader of an evil alien force. Unforgettably, the final panel contains the image of a very weird alien drawing Excalibur from a stone, hinting that the Arthurian mythos repeats itself throughout time and (outer) space. Another interesting observation I had, when allowed a chance to view the comic, was that Arthur’s knights are each represented by a special sigil on a wall, not unlike the sigils of the Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

The Knights of Pendragon included Marvel characters such as the Fantastic Four and Iron Man–not to mention the Incredible Hulk, who was interpreted as a kind of Green Knight figure. It was printed on environmentally friendly paper and references modern poetry. Fables: Camelot was a series Ronn described as quite compelling, a post-9/11 treatment of the Round Table as a place for those who need a ‘second chance.’ Instead of culminating in a huge, epic battle at the end, the two forces, led by fairy tale characters Rose Red and Snow White, decide to put aside their differences and go their separate ways.

Here are several links to various pieces of Arthuriana that Vicki Ronn listed during her presentation:

Camelot 4 Colors: http://www.camelot4colors.com/

An Arthurian Web Comic: http://www.arthurkingoftimeandspace.com/

The Camelot Project: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot-project

*

And now for the run-down of how my presentation went on Sunday, 2 August 2015.

Click here to view the YouTube video of my presentation. [If you haven’t read Moonheart, there are spoilers, so WARNING.]

The swift abstract to my presentation is the following:

“A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing Charles de Lint’s New Fantasy in Moonheart

Charles de Lint’s modern fantasy novel Moonheart: A Romance (1984) represents utopia by distending consensus reality and merging contemporary urban Canada with supernatural forces from First Nations and Celtic folklore. Steven Lawrence terms de Lint’s novel a “new fantasy” for Canada’s “majority multiculture.” Referring to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, I will present Moonheart as symbolically resolving cultural anxieties about Canada’s colonial history, through its Othering of the figure of the colonizer in its romance structure. De Lint’s use of fantasy functions as a tactic of representational space in opposition to the strategy of realism, the hegemony of capitalism, and the state’s production of space. Historicizing Moonheart locates it as a text that imagines a utopia during the rise of Canada’s policy of liberal multiculturalism, while using fantasy as a visionary technique to resolve anxieties about the Other, the colonial past, and the capitalist present.

You can read more about Moonheart here.

Brian Attebery was in attendance and his comment to me was that although Moonheart does project a resolution to the colonial history of Canada, the ending has always left him dissatisfied. There is a certain lack of closure that leaves the social issues unresolved, even though they are resolved symbolically through the fantastic adventure in contains.

My reply to him today, after reading through the first two chapters of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious yet again, would differ only a little from the one I offered him that Sunday.

Yes, de Lint leaves the social issues unresolved. There is a disconnection between the decisive victory of the protagonists and the changes this brings to Ottawa at large in the novel–namely, the fact that there are no social changes that result from the supernatural battle.

What does happen is that Sara, the novel’s main protagonist, recognizes that she shares the legacy of imperialism, being a woman of Anglo-Canadian stock. More importantly she learns that she must carry this legacy with her into her everyday world. Presumably, this means she must now work as an white-Canadian ally of Native Americans in order to work for real social justice. However, in Spiritwalk, the sequel to Moonheart, she spends most of her time in the Otherworld with Taliesin, her lover (a Welsh bard), instead of working to repair the real damage of colonial abuse. Of course, the problem might as a whole be too big for Sara to ‘solve’ alone, providing it can be ‘solved’ at all, but the fact is that we never see her, for example, lending a hand to Native American homeless kids, campaigning for better on-res living conditions, etc.

The idea behind such political readings of fantasy literature is not to get on Charles de Lint’s case about not writing fantasy that is sufficiently politically engaging, but to prove that all narratives are situated in history. If de Lint had made Sara into an Aboriginal rights crusader, the story would only reveal other contradictions existent in Canadian society–the difference being that they would be deeper contradictions.

What these kinds of analysis can prove for our times is the relevance of fantasy to our society–it enables us to imagine other worlds and suggest new ways of overcoming problems. The best fantasies are progressive, not merely reactions, but calls to action.

And on that note, I conclude my final report on MythCon 46. I hope the posts over the last few weeks have taught you something new about fantasy and myth you might never have thought about before. Till next time!

 

MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part III: Attebery, Politics, and Worldviews

20150802_125245

Sunday 2 August 2015 was the date of my long-awaited presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia. Although this post will not include a copy of my presentation–that will be for next week, when I will discuss the final day of lectures at MythCon 46–I do include a significant panel involving the inestimable Brian Attebery, one of the key scholars of fantasy literature, whose studies The Tradition of Fantasy in American Literature: From Irving to LeGuin and Strategies of Fantasy have been highly influential in the history of fantasy criticism. His most recent work is Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth.

First up was David Bratman’s presentation “How Do You Solve A Problem Like King Arthur?” in which he discussed the complexity and uncertainty in unearthing the historical Arthur. The real Arthur, if he ever existed, was a post-Roman warlord and not the highly romanticized Tennysonian richly-caparisoned lordly king of the popular imagination. Authors such as T.H. White have attempted to place Arthur accurately in the medieval past, while Jack Whyte situates Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, in the post-Roman era. Books such as The Discovery of King Arthur have attempted to unearth the historical Arthur once and for all, but inevitably we know too little to create any consistent narrative about the king.

For those who feel uninitiated to Arthurian legend, don’t feel too bad. There’s no standardized, linear plot of the entire Arthurian cycle that incorporates all the adventures and significant events that are attributed to Arthur and his knights; the Disneyfied versions most folk encounter are as complete as any other retelling. An anthology of Arthuriana I own, The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation by James J. Wilhelm, does its best to establish a canon of Arthurian texts that when read together give some kind of impression of the different stories associated with the famous king, from the originally oral tale of the Celts, Culwch and Owen to Malory’s Morte Darthur, one of the first printed texts in England.

Our Montreal-based Author Guest of Honour Jon Walton has a series of Arthurian novels. Other authors such as Kris Swank give Arthur an ethnic twist by bringing black characters into the cast. Tales from the point of view of the servants also abound including, in addition to Mark Williams’s Sleepless Knights, Squire’s Blood and Squire’s Honour by Peter Telep.

If so many different versions of Arthur exist, how did we get the colourful, valiant, shiny version of Arthur with which most people are familiar? The answer to this might lie in the colourful illustrations that accompanied the sanitized story of The Boy’s King Arthur, in which the scenes containing episodes of adultery have been cut out.  The illustrator M.C. Wyatt was also a major contributor to our images of Arthur. Of course one might also add Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, Looney Tunes, and Monty Python as other inevitable sources.

One last item to add to this list was Camelot 3000, a comic from a certain era that was not mine, but which was full of 80s camp. In this, the Knights of the Round Table are awoken from cryogenic chambers in the far future. Other Arthurian comics are cataloged on Camelot 4 Colors.

Following this, Daniel Gabelman presented one of the original classics of nineteenth-century fantasy that later inspired C.S. Lewis’s conversion and “baptised” his imagination, according to his memoir Surprised by Joy. The presentation was entitled “MacDonald’s Phantastes and The Last Chronicle of Sir Percival, or Phantastes: the Original MythCon?”

I am currently reading the Phantastes, called the first full-length prose novel of modern fantasy, and I’m recognizing a familiar Romantic fascination with sickly, snow-pale women who function as Muse to the hero. MacDonald himself was a highly religious man–this I don’t doubt from having glimpsed at a few of his sermons–but Phantastes reads more like a Romantic text than an explicitly Christian one. I have recognized a certain joy animate the hero, Anodos, as he enters Fairyland, which I can only imagine was the same joy of the imagination that C.S. Lewis felt deeply when he read Phantastes. Reading this novel as an allegory of Lewis’s conversion is an interesting way of reading it, but at any rate, not precisely the way Gabelman read it.

Phantastes was explicitly called a fairy tale for adults, representing a moment when fairy tales began to adopt more realistic techniques to attract an audience beyond the nursery. MacDonald includes heavily allusive epigraphs from works in English and in German throughout his novel, tying his thought to German Romanticism. Gabelman said Phantastes is very much about the reading experience, especially considering the number of times Anodos either hears a story or reads one, especially the embedded tale of Cosmos, a youth who acquires a cursed magic mirror. Being unfamiliar with the Phantastes at the time, I regrettably could not absorb the crux of Gabelman’s poststructural argument about textual play in MacDonald and Lewis, but I was left with a good impression of the overall presentation.

20150917_185137-1Alicia Fox-Lenz, a Mythgardian and graphic designer, presented a well-designed slide presentation of “The Union Between the Two Towers and the Twin Towers,” which was about the impact of 9/11 on the reception of LOTR. She referred to the relevance of Tolkien’s epic to issues regarding warfare in the generations that followed WWII. Like Modernists such as W.H. Auden, Tolkien’s literary career is overshadowed by an involvement in world wars. Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I is a Mythopoeic Press collection of essays that discuss the impact of the Great War on many different authors of modern fantasy. Rather than writing realistic narratives about the social reality of the post-war years, Tolkien became an “interwar hipster” by returning to the heroic ideal in a non-realist literary form.

Later generations interpreted LOTR as relevant to the trials facing their generation. So there were unauthorized paperback copies of LOTR available to the Vietnam generation, while the hippies of the Summer of Love adopted the slogan, “Frodo Lives!” Tolkien’s novels gained a subcultural following he certainly could never have foreseen.

Peter Jackson’s films reinvigorated interest in LOTR just around the time of the New York terrorist attacks. Like the Black Riders that infiltrate the peaceful Shire, Islamic fundamentalism entered the consciousness of a reeling and traumatized American public.

The result, Fox-Lenz argued brilliantly, is that online Amazon reviews of Tolkien’s trilogy before 9/11 stress a lofty, idealist view of the heroism of Tolkien’s characters, while the reviews after 9/11 use a more negatively connotative vocabulary, making more references to the battle between good and evil, moral absolutes, and biblical language. Reviewers became more obsessed, as a whole, with words such as ‘evil,’ and the name of Sauron was more frequently mentioned. One reviewer even stated that fighting a war for peace is a galvanizing theme in LOTR. Galvanizing for what, the invasion of a certain Middle-Eastern country? In short, these reviews echoed, more and more, the wartime rhetoric that led to the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Frodo was even treated as a zealot, a suicide bomber off the destroy Sauron. Tolkien surely rolled over in his grave, but this is exactly the sort of overblown, shocking statements one tends to find in comments sections on major websites these days. The Rohirrim in Jackson’s films also become seen as a parallel to Homeland Security. And then, of course, there are the cheap allegories in which Frodo is America, bin Laden Sauron, Sam Gamgee America’s allies (Canada, Britain, Australia, etc, all being somehow encapsulated by the loyal gardener), and Isildur is … you guessed it, also ‘merica–the earlier ‘merica under Bush Sr. I might add, from a different political standpoint, that Wormtongue and Theoden (before his conversion by Gandalf) would have made a lovely pair as Cheney and Bush respectively. But would this allegory make the Ring a WMD? Well, let’s try to keep in mind that using the enemy’s power to destroy evil was Boromir’s brilliant idea and it got him killed. Frodo was out to destroy the One Ring, to destroy Powerthe Ring was a WMD that really did exist.

Fantasy and Worldview Panel
Fantasy and Worldview Panel — Attebery is seated second from the left

Leaving this bitter and controversial political world aside, it was then time for me to go to the next talk, which was about worldviews as such. Mary Kay Kare, Janice Bogstad, and Jo Walton made up the panel for “Fantasy and Worldview” with Brian Attebery as moderator. Attebery’s 1979 dissertation had been on American fantasy, responding to the post-W.R. Irwin academic climate. Irwin called fantasy the “game of the impossible,” but Attebery was convinced of the sterility of this description, that fantasy was not simply impossible. Fantasy represented instead a deeply meaningful worldview. Naturally, various cultures on planet earth share disparate worldviews that do not always align with Western, postmodern understandings of “reality.” Provided of course postmodernity has any sense of “reality” at all. To say fantasy is a literature of the impossible is to define it according to how the privileged class in power define “reality” and “possible.”

The panel discussed the notion of consensus reality–and its inevitable violation–as an important feature of fantasy literature, a way in which fantasy and not just science fiction can act as a ‘laboratory’ with which to try out new ideas. My own opinion about consensus reality is that it should always appear beneath scare quotes. I mean, reality never asked your opinion. Even if a cult believes with all their faith that if they jump out a window, they’ll be able to fly, they will wind up flat on the ground and sorely disappointed. And this isn’t just because physics cannot be violated, but because even social reality is exterior to the subject. I also believe that reality can never really be a consensus, because the very term implies the covering up of any negations or violations of that consensus. However, when writing a fantasy novel, the notion of reality being a consensus is a useful way of structuring characters’ reactions to the fantastic; whatever the norm of belief is in your novel–maybe dragons and magic already exist, maybe not–you need to establish that consensus up front, so your readers understand the novum of your subcreated world, that is, how the fictional universe differs from the reader’s own.

The panel raised some interesting points and referred to some interesting texts. For example, there is Grace Dylan’s Native American science fiction novels and other works of speculative fiction that come from other cultural frameworks than your typical white, Anglo-Saxon authors. “Tolkien’s Realist Magicism” is an essay by Jo Walton in which she describes how Tolkien treats magic realistically, challenging standard realism. Also, the issue of angel literature was raised: a belief in angels is a widespread phenomenon in the United States, making it one concrete example of a situation where one reader might read a such a narrative as ‘supernatural fiction’ while another reader, a believer, might read it is as realistic. Surely there are other people all around the globe who genuinely believe in phenomenon commonly called “fantastic,” such as the Maori of New Zealand some of whom profess belief in taniwha, a race of shapeshifting dragon.

Another interesting facet to this question is: what was considered fantasy in the Middle Ages? If heaven, hell, demons, monsters, witches, werewolves, angels, and miracles were all a part of the world back then, what would constitute imaginative literature? Petrus Nennius wrote a dream vision about a Democritan world where the afterlife was different from the Christian one–except for the dream frame around it, this might be declared a fantasy in the Inklings spirit!

Claude Levi-Strauss argued, and here once again I paraphrase one of the panelists, that human thought was never primitive–different societies just cut up the world differently. Myths are a way of defining phenomena in the world. I am reminded of Fredric Jameson’s allusion to the famous structural anthropologist when in The Political Unconscious, he describes Levi-Strauss’s observations of the facial tatoos of a certain tribe that serve to symbolically resolve the unease developing as their society becomes increasingly socially stratified. Jameson argues that narrative is one way we seek resolution to concrete historical contradictions–and fantasy is one significant way in which we attempt to create such resolutions.

One society that experiences a lot of social contradiction is a version of medieval England in which a hereditary monarchy presides over a socially-conscious anarcho-syndicalist peasantry, apparently led by one Leftist churl by the name of Dennis. What contradictions this society produces, however, lead not to tears but laughs. David Oberhelman discussed the Pythons’ masterpiece in his talk “‘On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place’: Myth, Politics, and Parody in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Holy Grail was a symbolic resolution to the concrete historical situation in which Britain found itself after the war, during the time of the Sex Pistols and pre-Thatcher discontent. Both Left and Right had discredited themselves. How could modern England reconcile itself to its conservative, monarchical past and present? Totally opposite political philosophies sparred and sparred in Parliament, till the Pythons just decided to poke fun at the whole situation with one of their funniest sketches. Not only is King Arthur treated as out of touch with socially mobilized peasant reality, but the Trotskyists are also mocked equally, as completely out of touch with reality.

Jo Walton at the banquet
Jo Walton at the banquet

Following this talk, I gave my presentation (news about that next week!) and afterwards, it was time for the banquet and Jo Walton’s Guest of Honour speech. In short she spoke about different writerly strategies of integrating the fantastic into a story. She advised the audience not to throw the fantastic at readers too fast, or they will be lost, but to introduce information about the world gradually. The readers and characters who are unfamiliar with the fantastic are like children constantly absorbing information, so it is usually a good idea to at least have one character who is unfamiliar with the world, so the readers can see through their eyes, while another character may be familiar with the fantastic, providing a model for the norm of your fantastic world. Walton provided an elegant rhetorical twist where the details of a fantastic autumn ceremony she kept alluding to in her speech as an example became gradually revealed to us, as she kept gradually giving us examples that eventually fleshed out the idea of a dragon fire-breathing ceremony. That was some meta-worldbuilding.

Stay tuned next week to hear the next installment of stimulating intellectual discussion!

Brian Attebery's signature in my journal
Brian Attebery’s signature in my journal

 

MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part I: On Satyrs, Derrida, and Names of Power

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Every Friday over the next couple of weeks I will be posting notes that I made during this year’s Mythopoeic Conference at the Hotel Elegante in Colorado Springs, CO. I presented a paper there on Charles de Lint and had the occasion to reacquaint myself with the much of the same gang from the last MythCon in Norton, MA. Although these posts are somewhat belated because the conference happened between July 31 and August 3 2015, I think the beginning of the semester–the last hurrah before I really have to hunker down and right my MA thesis–serves as a decent occasion to publish some of the interesting ideas that circulated at the conference.

This was the first trip I made this deep into the US of A without any family contacts to boot. It was also my first time flying alone. I flew in via Atlanta–I was most unexpectedly in the South!–and arrived the day before at the conference in one piece. I got some rest and the next day made my way to the first talk of the weekend. The conference theme was on the Arthurian Mythos–anything related to King Arthur and his knights–from Malory to (Grahame) Chapman.

Joe Christopher presented “A Narnian Study and a Lewisian (and Tolkienian) Note: ‘Two Satyrs’ and ‘Passing References in a Modern Arthurian Novel.'” The gist of the talk was a specific study by one of the conference’s veterans. There are (at least) two depictions of satyrs in C.S. Lewis: Mr. Tumnus, who is called a ‘fawn,’ and another in a poem called “The Satyr” from Spirits in Bondage. Satyrs are remarkable fantastic creatures in how they combine a human face and posture with a bestial goat’s body. The human aspect represents the intellectual faculties, while the goat parts, the more basic drives and instincts–food, sex, bacchanalian revelry.

This man-beast dichotomy is enriched in Lewis since the two satyrs were written at very different times in his life: Mr. Tumnus when he was a converted middle-aged Christian and the Satyr when he was an adolescent atheist. Lewis desexualizes the image of the satyr by the time he writes The Chronicles of Narnia, turning a creature who might be described as a sexual predator into the sedate hospitable, umbrella-toting Christmas shopper, Mr. Tumnus. Naturally this lends a creepy background to Mr. Tumnus inviting little lost Lucy Pevensey into his home upon her first visit to Narnia.

Christopher also went off on a slight tangent to describe an interesting recent book, The Search for Camlann (2013), which integrates Welsh politics into the story of an archaeologist’s search for the battlefield where Arthur made his last stand against Mordred. Entertainingly enough, the protagonist discovers the mythic source text behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which is usually understood to be non-existent, part of the gigantic lie Monmouth told in order to present Wales in a flattering way to the Norman conquerors.

After this stimulating discussion, I sat down for Andrew Hallam’s “Messianicity and Weak Force in The Lord of the Rings” in which Jacques Derrida served as a surprisingly apt theorist for the discussion of Tolkien’s masterwork. Both academics, for example, were into languages–inventing them and deconstructing them–and if only, if only they could have spoken to each other over tea … well, Andrew and I pretty well agreed they would hate each other’s guts, one being atheist and the other a devout Catholic.

The way Derrida tied into Tolkien was through the French deconstructionist’s writings on faith. To paraphrase, Derrida said one should never give in to the temptation of thinking that one knows what knowledge is. In other words, it is an error to think that knowledge is always certain. Faith is necessary in order to trust in knowledge, but there is always the potential, in what we know, for uncertainty. Messianicity for Derrida must furthermore be wholly unexpected, unanticipated, arriving to change the world from a wildly different direction than ever foreseen.

Jesus Christ was expected to be a powerful ruler who would deliver the Jews from Rome, but he came to be born in a small manger. In a similar way, the One Ring winds up the hands of a Hobbit–wholly unexpected by the rulers of Gondor, much to Boromir’s sad and tragic disappointment. Because Frodo’s Messianicity was so unexpected, Boromir believes he himself ought to have found the Ring, a misunderstanding that leads to his death and the breaking of the Fellowship.

Following this discussion, Janet Brennan Croft gave a talk on “The Name of the Ring: Or There and Back Again,” which although it sounds like it could frankly have been about anything Ring-related, was essentially an analysis of the Ring’s legend through Northrop Frye. Another pleasant surprise was that Croft referred to my old Chaucer TA who I’ve known since my first year of Undergraduate Studies: Benjamin Baroötes, who was working on the thesis she referred to while he was at McGill teaching me. I distinctly remember hearing him talk about it with me and the class and mentioning that his work with philology and medieval literature had certain tie-ins to Tolkien Studies. It was good to hear a familiar name come up!

In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye describes four types of poetic language: the metaphoric, the metonymic (allegory), the demotic, and, finally, the recurso. These Frye borrowed from earlier studies by Giambattista Vico. In the first stage, the name of a thing IS the thing, in the second it is an aspect of the thing, while in the third the name merely describes the thing–a decreasing order of correspondence between word and thing. At the recurso, the cycle begins again: a return to myth and metaphor, the recognition that matter is actually an illusion of energy.

In The Lord of the Rings, these stages of poetic language corresponds to the naming of everything from weapons to the names of the evil forces of Middle-Earth. Melkor, the greatest of evil force in Tolkien’s Legendarium, imparts his own power to his creatures. When he is renamed Morgoth, he loses his ability ‘to rise in height,’ which ‘Melkor’ translates to. In short, his power is metaphoric, until his fall. Sauron, his servant, merely imparts a piece of his being into the One Ring–a metonymic exchange of power. Saruman–who joins Sauron’s forces and is thus one level under him in the hierarchy of evil–represents the demotic stage. Given his language of compromise and his knowledge of science and wizardry–discourses defined by their descriptive styles–he is a far cry from the cosmic force of annihilation that is Melkor.

What makes this scheme especially interesting, in my opinion, is how Frye claims that poetry must create the first phase of language during the domination of the later phases. Since the scientific revolution, the demotic phase has dominated language. But poetry can still remind us about the power of pure metaphor. Occasionally, phrases that partake of two simultaneous eras of language may exist in the same phrase or in the same poem. For example, when Bilbo names his sword upon killing a spider in Mirkwood, he invokes the language of the metonymic phase of sword-naming, proper to an older age of heroism, while choosing a name that represents his own simple, demotic language: “I will call you Sting.”

I found Frye’s theories lend themselves easily to The Lord of the Rings and it got me thinking about how Fredric Jameson interprets these phases of poetry from his historical materialist (Marxist) perspective. Perhaps the later phases of poetry are signs of civilization’s increasing alienation from its environment and its mode of economic production, since it might also be said the rise of capitalism combined with scientific development produced the domination of demotic language. This idea of mine is still a half-formed thought, but Jameson does critique Frye in The Political Unconscious–perhaps I should give it a second read-through….

Stay tuned next week for the next installment of my MythCon 46 notes!