Medievalist fantasy

There are many concerns to deal with when considering so-called ‘medievalist fantasy’, especially when it is related to The Lord of the Rings. Anne Melano, in her article on ‘Utopias of Violence: Pierce’s Knights of Tortal and the Contemporary Heroic’ (Crossroads 3.2 (2009) 89-98) suggest that critical objections to such fantasy centre around three issues: that it romanticises an ‘old, repressive order’ (90); that it provides ‘mere consolation or distraction…encouraging passivity’ (90); and that it describes a ‘monomyth…a single dominant heroic ideal’ (91) which cannot be reworked or updated in any meaningful way. Melano suggests that one should rather seek to ‘situate medievalist fantasy in the time and place of its reappearance’ (91) in order to deal with these problems.

We saw last week how William Morris’s medievalism in The House of the Wolfings romanticised not an ‘old, repressive order’, but rather an ideal of social harmony which arose out of Morris’s own interests in Victorian socialism. We also discussed the ways in which Thiodulf is not the same kind of hero as Beowulf; his links to his people are more complex, and the conflicts between personal and communal interest which both he and Wood Sun encounter are not found in Beowulf; Thiodulf in turn, however, does not disturb the norms of leadership and heroic behaviour in the way that Beowulf does. While the story of Thiodulf appears to both report and idealise the past, it in fact creates an illusion of it, rewritten according to the priorities of later Victorian England.

How can we situate The Lord of the Rings in a similar way? Well, we have already begun to trace the network of connections between Tolkien and Morris, and the ways in which their created worlds interact in terms of shared motifs, tropes and narrative twists. We have also to consider Tolkien’s position as an actual scholar of medieval texts and languages and his relationship with other medievalists. The scholarly relationship with the past is not one of passive acceptance, but of active investigation and critique. And certainly it is hard to read simple heroic idealism into the Lord of the Rings if one positions it in relation to the First World War – in which Tolkien fought, and to which he lost many of his closest friends. The text has already been read as anything from anti-war propaganda (popular in the 60s and 70s) to ‘An Early Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire’ (Judy Ann Ford (2005), ‘The White City,’ Tolkien Studies 2.1, 53-73).

This week we will pick apart some of the medievalist aspects of The Lord of the Rings, but also ask if – and if so, how – the text resists the kinds of objections Melano lists. We will think about the relationship of source texts or ‘canon’ to the trilogy; are its myths compliant with the heroic age it apparently seeks to recreate, or are there re-readings and areas of unease or uncertainty built in? Is this medievalism as ‘alternate universe’ making, in which a set of stories plays out differently because of the altered particulars of time and place in which it is situated? As you prepare for the seminar, think about these questions. Start to compare the nature of academic interest in a subject or text to that of fan interest; in what ways do they differ? Most of all, consider the text as multifaceted and responsive to interpretation: what difference does the reader make to the reading?

In the meantime, you might like to consider these various different interpretations of Tolkien’s (highly Anglo-Saxonist) song ‘Where Now the Horse and the Rider’, and how they impose meaning on or emphasise varying aspects of it: try ‘The Crazy Bards, the Lonely Mountain Bard, Palmerlane or Peter Jackson’s film interpretation. Check them all against the original text.

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8 Responses to Medievalist fantasy

  1. Tintagel says:

    In Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-Stories’, he argues the need for the successful fairy story to have a ‘eucatastrophe’, i.e. a happily ever after. I don’t believe LoTR has that. Sauron is destroyed, yes, and the Third Age ends, but Frodo is forever scarred even though he goes to the Undying Lands. The Maiar leave Middle-earth and so do the remaining elves.
    Is this too much of a 21st-century perspective on the story? Would tying it up all neatly be too idealistic and create even greater reader passivity? Is it insulting to count Epic Fantasy as something borne from fairytales at all?
    The interesting thing to me in LoTR is the swing between black/white morality and shades of grey. Orcs are evil and cannot be redeemed; Gollum cannot change his nature, Sauron is the Biggest Bad that ever existed. But on the other hand, Boromir, a good man, is swayed by the power of the Ring, and Saruman is offered a chance to change his ways. Why is there such a wandering idea of morality in the book?

    • hallsun says:

      @Tintagel The answer may lie in allowing the eucatastrophe to be more complex than merely ‘happily ever after’. In ‘On Fairy Stories’ Tolkien also said that the eucatastrophe “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’ Many of the events you mention might be thought of as the ‘evidence’ which eucatastrophe denies; they suggest that Middle-earth is essentially already lost. Yet the eucatastrophe also contains the evidence that acts of courage in the face of apparently impossible odds can prevail; it also points to the wider mythological context of LoTR in which the final purposes of Iluvatar, while not readily discernible, are to the ultimate good and will prevail.

      I agree that there are big swings, but again things may be more complex than they at first seem. Sauron has chosen his evil nature by following Melkor/Morgoth (arguably the real Biggest Bad!); it’s not inherent. The power of the Ring is such that Frodo himself cannot overcome it in the end; both he and Gollum are to some extent taken over by it, but even this can be turned to good through the mechanism of the eucatastrophe. Even the orcs, Tolkien said, are not ‘irredeemably bad’ because of the act of God (Iluvatar) in ‘tolerating their making’. So the possibility of redemption either by forces within or outside oneself seems to be more of a preoccupation in the books, and it is this which may cause the moral boundaries to shift more than a little at times.

      • Tintagel says:

        I do seem to be coming at it from a 21st-century perspective. As I explained to Silverleaf below, although it is poignant it also, to my eyes, seems massively unfair on Frodo. The poor Hobbit only spoke up to stop the arguing, and without fully understanding the Ring’s full nature. In response, he is unable to feel fully content ever again, tortured, his finger bitten off (though granted, this may have been his own fault), and at the end he sails off to a place where he will feel slightly better and then die. (according to the Arda online LoTR encylopedia, mortals are still mortals in the Undying Lands)
        But then I suppose that was what Tolkien was trying to get at–this is unfair to Frodo, so it’s better to make sure it never happens again.
        (and re: your latest post, I suppose I do agree that becoming too attached to a character means it is harder to critique its literary ‘worth’. Bias being what it is.)

  2. Silverleaf says:

    I’ve also been thinking about the ending and whether it is a happy end or not. I think that even though mankind has survived and evil is destroyed Middle-earth will never be the same and essential part will be missing, nemale the Maiar and the elves. Also the dwarves are said to rather abandon the world and go back down into the mountains. This leaves only men and in a way everything “magical” or mythical leaves this world. This might be a hint to mankind nowadays, the world is in our hands but still something is missing of which we can only guess that it once was there. I think one could also argue that the whole idea of war changing a world and also disenchanting (is this the right word in English?) a world in connection to World War I is a motive in LotR. And this made me think about one of our discussed questions on the feelings we had after reading the book /ending because most of us said that we were quite sad.
    Dr. Semper was arguing that being sad is a sign of passivity and that this corresponds to the objections that Anne Melano states. I’m not sure about this. I think that sadness isn’t only a passive feeling for normally if you are sad your main concern probably is to overcome this feeling and this makes you think about why you were sad and how this can be changed. I also don’t really see the difference between being moved by Theoden’s speech in the film and being moved at the end for I don’t think after Theoden’s speech one would immediately go outside and fight the evil in the world. I think what is most important is the fact that the story appeals to emotions at all and as most people aren’t stupid they start thinking about what affected them most about the story. And this is a very personal issue but I think that everybody gets to a result and this is not passivity. Of course it then depends on whether you actually act or not but the first step, considering, is still launched by the story.

    @Tintagel
    What do you mean with the 21st century perspective? Do you mean you view is too pessimistic? And that Tolkien really wanted to create a happy ending? I agree with you that LotR does not have a happy ending at all. And I do believe that happy ending create a certain passivity because the reader does not see the need of changing anything about a world or a story that turned out positively. But as you said, this is not the case in LotR. In the end you get the impression that our world lacks something and that it is up to the readers to try to find it again or create it again.
    I also agree with you about the different perspectives on morality. Tolkien doesn’t take the easy way out and contrasts only black and white. It is more complex (and I still think that Rohan is not only a positive story about solidarity to an ally and heroic decisions. Something was wrong in Rohan and yes, Theoden was under the influence of Grima and Saruman but still Éomer and Éowyn and only a few of his fellows were the only ones who tried fighting and who tried to keep Rohan safe. The rest of the people rather surrendered to the obvious state of mind of their king.).
    This is why I think LotR isn’t a mere fairytale and the amount of different stories and views on morality delivers also a certain amount of examples of morality which could be transferred into everyday-life.

    • hallsun says:

      While the idea that war changes people – changes worlds – is certainly central, the wider context of Tolkien’s mythology would suggest that the departure of the magical is not ‘the end’ of all things good in Middle-earth. Men, though susceptible to evil, are also capable of the highest good.

      I wasn’t trying to argue that sadness is a sign of passivity; I was rather raising the question of what might be considered an ‘active’ response! Should one be inspired to react in some way beyond the immediate or emotional? And if so, how, and is this something we require of other forms of literary production? I think this dovetails with some of the questions I’m raising in the romance post this week about the ways in which fantasy (quest-oriented fantasy in particular) can be read. See what you think!

  3. Tintagel says:

    @Silverleaf–I think the 21st-century reader (and I’m probably going to insult a lot of people right now) wants reassurance that all the characters are going to be alright at the end. Perhaps it’s a reaction to living in a world where we have bad news flashed at us all the time. Fantasy fiction is therefore a form of escapism. So Tolkien’s making a point that although most can be happy, not all can is depressing to me as a reader. It’s not enough that most of Middle-earth gets to enjoy peace. I’m still sad about Frodo’s personal torment. (And there’s the point that the importance of individuality as a concept became much more widespread after WWII–my source for that has gone completely haywire, but I didn’t just make it up because it makes my point sound better)
    It’s fascinating to see how different authors from different periods use fantasy to address problems they see in their time. I don’t buy into formalism. Historicism is the way to go. Tolkien was writing as a reaction to war, I think.

    • hallsun says:

      Fair enough that some readers want that, but not all; there are people who love dark angsty tales, tragedies and endings where things are left entirely open! There were also people in the past who wanted the reassurance that you mention from their stories. So I’m a bit uncertain about big statements like this which assume that all C21st readers read in the same way. Similarly, motivations for writing are usually multifaceted and complex.

      Is fantasy more a form of escapism than, for example, Real Person fan fiction? Or more escapist than detective writing or thrillers or chick lit? Or any other fictional work? All of these allow a reader, to a certain extent, to temporarily leave their own circumstances and place themselves in another place, another time, another set of circumstances. Short of reading our own autobiographies, fiction always offers us this option (although we may have fictionalised our own lives to ourselves as a form of escape as well!). What I’m really trying to ask is whether the ‘escape’ is qualitatively different in fantasy fiction from that of other fictional genres, and if it is, whether that is helpful or not.

      In relation to the effect of war, I am reminded of George Steiner, who argued that the only appropriate response to the horrors of WWW 2 was silence. He also discussed the effect of large-scale atrocity on the perception of the individual – I wonder if it was something of his that you read. I’d be interested to know who/what it was if you can find your source again.

      • Tintagel says:

        I think escapism is different in fantasy fiction (and sci-fi) because more often than not we are in a different world. RPF, sure, that’s a world full of celebrities and champagne, but the rules of gravity/physics do not change. In fantasy, this is not the case. Take, for example, the magic in the Tamora Pierce books. At one point a mage pulls a forest fire through her body.
        Fantasy can make a point about the contemporary world through the actions of the main characters without it being a direct attack on society. 1984, for instance, is clearly a critique of the politics of England in 1948, but by hiding behind Winston and Julia Orwell can critique it more subtley than by typing out a political screed.

        It was very possibly Steiner whom I read, but I found the quote in A-level. I’ll have a look for it over Reading Week.

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