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Why Barbarians Won’t Go Away

By Tom Rowsell

If you’re one of the handful of people who doesn’t watch Game of Thrones, then I’m sure you’re fed up with all this talk of dragons and knights in shining armour, but let me explain the secret of its appeal. It’s the same thing that attracts audiences to the popular Vikings drama on the History Channel, the second series of which coincided with the British Museum’s recent Vikings exhibit which was also hugely popular. It seems barbarians and medieval fantasy just won’t go away.

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival - photo by Fac-Man / Wikicommons

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival – photo by Fac-Man / Wikimedia Commons

There have been Dungeons & Dragons obsessives hidden away in their Mothers’ attics for decades, but in recent years it seems medieval fantasy, like other geeky things, has transitioned to the mainstream. It’s still quite suspect to while away your evenings as an orc in MMORPGs like The Elder Scrolls or World of Warcraft, although not quite as socially repulsive as working in Games Workshop.

One might offer predictable explanations about escapism but people get that from all comic books, sci-fi movies and video games. Why is it specifically the medieval era, or fantasy equivalents of it, that captivates the masses?

We’ve all heard the clichés about how we’ve never had it so good; how we’re privileged to enjoy the marvels of scientific discovery and social progress. Yet still we choose to fantasise about an era when life was brutal and short, identities were fixed and determined by birth, superstitious people lived in fear of both nature and the supernatural, wealth disparity was great and food was sometimes scarce for the lower classes. Progressive ideals are challenged by the persistence of this popular fascination with medieval antiquity. These days the values which we hold up as exemplary of Western morality are tolerance, diversity, equality and innovation, but in times gone by we were more like the East, favouring honour, nobility, beauty, courage and tradition.

I’m sure many would explain this phenomenon as a knee jerk reaction to a changing society by those who inhabit conventional positions of power and privilege. Perhaps maladjusted males, searching desperately for a sense of purpose in the 21st-century, do look back to an age of chivalry when the role and function of men was clear, in the hope of digging up an identity. Or maybe, as ethnic identities are fractured beneath the ever-increasing influx of economic migrants in an era of globalisation, Westerners are reaching back to the roots of their nations in an effort to get in touch with their ancestors like Eastern cultures do.

Truth be told, this macabre fixation with iron-clad barbarians and bearded Vikings raping and pillaging, is nothing new. The repressed Victorians also found medieval imagery and culture inspiring so it influenced everything from the poetry of the Romantics to the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and the music of Richard Wagner. Elgar’s “Rule Britannia” is an effort to strengthen British identity by evoking the grand exploits of the Anglo-Saxon King, Alfred the Great. But while Elgar used medievalism to drum up patriotic fervour, William Morris, who simultaneously hated modern civilisation and dreamed of a socialist utopian future, used the medieval world as the model on which to base it.

Whichever side your political bread is buttered, history serves as a deep well of inspiration from which to draw up imagined golden ages to be held up in contrast to the failures of modernity. When I interviewed LARPers (fantasy role players) and historical re-enactors in my recent film From Runes to Ruins, I asked why on earth they spent their weekends swinging axes at each other in muddy fields. One thing that was consistent in their answers was a belief that the West had become decadent and that something was lacking in modern Britain which could be recovered through celebration of our medieval past and the pagan mythologies of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons.

The psychologist Carl Jung thought that man is born incomplete and that it is through the mythology and legends of his ancestors that he comes to understand himself. After studying the religion and cultures of peoples and tribes from around the world, he realised that many archetypal characters seemed to reappear independently of one another in different times and places. His theory of archetypes holds that the characters in the myths and legends of our ancestors lay dormant in our collective unconscious and reappear in different forms over the ages. One example of this is the ‘wise old man’, who manifests as Nestor in the Iliad, Odin in Norse mythology and Merlin in the legends of King Arthur. This same archetype is a recognisable cliché in modern films and books, such as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore in Harry Potter or even Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Jung thought the problem with Western man was his lack of reverence for myth, but he was wrong. Throughout the twentieth century, popular media has overflowed with new adaptations of medieval and classical myths. The BBC’s Merlin series, for example, has kept King Arthur alive in the hearts of yet another generation of Britons. While J.R.R Tolkien, an expert in Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature whose translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf has just been published, said that in writing the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he had intended to create a mythology for England.

Myths are fluid, they change and grow and are adapted to suit contemporary tastes. Only the archetypes are consistent. While we place many of our modern myths in medieval settings, the issues raised in them reflect modern concerns. So does Game of Thrones owe its success to escapism or to the fact that audiences relate to the dynastic power struggles and political deceptions of Westeros? I suspect it’s a bit of both.

There is a political perspective that regards the religions, myths and ethnic identities which distinguish the peoples of the world, as their greatest enemy. Its proponents argue that as long as such things endure, we shall ever bear witness to the resurgence of nationalism, hatred and genocide. They argue that the values which emerged during the European enlightenment must be incrementally spread to all corners of the earth, in order to deliver mankind from the dark and bloody struggle of history to the final end of progress. Just as the romantic fantasy of a golden age echoes the biblical belief of innocence in the Garden of Eden, so too does progressive utopian fantasy mirror the biblical promise of paradise.

While thinkers like Heidegger, Dostoyevsky Nietzsche, Scruton and many others have sought to criticise the idea of progress intellectually, the general public, whether consciously or unconsciously, seeks relief from the mundane monotony of homogenous Western materialism in valiant medieval fantasies. Some choose to get in touch with their roots by dressing up in chainmail on weekends, while others are content to watch Game of Thrones with a cup of tea and a biscuit. The barbarians aren’t going anywhere, and I’m glad of it.

Tom Rowsell is a director and producer of From Runes to Ruins, a documentary that examines the legacy that Anglo-Saxons and their pagan mythology have left to modern Britain. Click here to visit www.runestoruins.co.uk

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