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Genre Medievalisms: Geek Goes Chic!

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in HBO's, 'Game of Thrones'. Photo courtesy of blastr.com (TV Guide)
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in HBO's, 'Game of Thrones'. Photo courtesy of  blastr.com (TV Guide)
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in HBO’s, ‘Game of Thrones’. Photo courtesy of blastr.com (TV Guide)

Session #501: Genre Medievalisms #KZOO2015

I’m not going to lie, this was one of my favourite sessions this year because it pandered to my inner nerd. I came to medieval studies through a love of fantasy (Tolkien) and gaming (Dungeons & Dragons every Sunday night!) so these three papers were right up my alley. They touched on various aspects of medievalism in fantasy novels, TV shows, movies, and gaming. Is Cersei a collection of bad medieval stereotypes? Have nerds gone mainstream? Were American cowboys a modern retelling of the medieval knight? Put down that comic, put away your bag of dice, and indulge your inner nerd.

Kavita Mudan Finn, who also gave a brilliant paper on King John at the Pseudo Society, started us off with the lady we all love to hate: Cersei Lannister, played marvellously by Lena Headey on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Her paper, All Men Must Die: Medievalism, Feminism and “Realism” in the Game of Thrones, examined the ways in which the show has garnered praise and censure for its treatment of women, particularly Cersei Lannister. While many women are presented in strong roles on the TV series, the show has also been criticised for mysogynist, racist and ableist tropes. So what exactly constitutes “realism” in this context? Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin made specific choices about how he portrayed women, but has said repeatedly that his books ‘are not reflections of premodern Europe, they are refractions’. How far can we take fantasy in comparison to the medieval reality?

Finn decided to stick to one character to unpack these tropes – Cersei Lannister. She is one of the most reviled characters of the series, on paper and onscreen. She is the only woman on Game of Thrones giving speeches on women’s rights but is rarely given the benefit of the doubt. Her father, Tywin Lannister (played by veteran actor Charles Dance) is a dyed-in-the-wool Machiavellian ruler, and her brothers, Tyrion (played by Peter Dinklage) and Jamie (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), despite their failings, have become fan favourites. What gives?

Finn suggests that Martin’s reinterpretations of medieval tropes are part of the problem of how Cersei is viewed. The Vulgate Cycle, and the Morte d’Arthur, focus on the medieval problem of the adulteress medieval Queen, as demonstrated when Guinevere is reviled for her love affair with Lancelot.

Detail of a miniature of Lancelot rescuing Guinevere from burning at the stake, with grotesque hybrid creatures surrounding the miniature, at the beginning of the Mort D' Arthur. (British Library)
Detail of a miniature of Lancelot rescuing Guinevere from burning at the stake, with grotesque hybrid creatures surrounding the miniature, at the beginning of the Mort D’ Arthur. (British Library)

The dangers in medieval queenly adultery lie in the lack of production of required heirs. Cersei also carries on a love affair with the greatest knight in the kingdom, however, her liaison is worse; she is committing adultery with her twin brother, Jamie. By passing off her three children as heirs to the throne, she becomes the epitome of queenly treason. Finn points out that, ‘She comes to embody every bad trait ascribed to medieval women at once’, whereas Guinevere is given some redeeming qualities. The TV series has made the choice to displace some of her evil doing onto other characters. In the books, she is behind the murder of all of Robert Baratheon’s bastards. Cersei’s character harkens to King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, where he ordered the murder of all the male children in Bethlehem, and to King Arthur rounding up a boat full of children and sending them adrift to their deaths. The TV show displaced this crime onto her son Joffrey (played on the TV series by Jack Gleeson). Even Jamie, who tosses a child out a window in the opening chapter of the books and TV series, is given a redemptive story arc. He has a strong following of fans of the books, but a more neutral following on the TV show. Scenes like the one where Jamie rapes Cersei beside the body of their dead son caused some furor with audiences. In the book, Martin said that the sex was meant to be ‘ambiguous consent’.

So who is Cersei supposed to be modelled after in medieval history? She has often been compared to Queen consort Elizabeth Woodville (1437- June 8, 1492) who has been frequently portrayed as grasping and evil. Elizabeth Woodville is often proposed as a shadow of Cersei. Cersei has also been likened to Margaret of Anjou (March 23, 1430 – August 25, 1482) when it comes to her relationship with her sadistic son Joffrey. Finn pointed out Margaret of Anjou and her relationship with her son Edward, Prince of Wales, for comparison. Margaret had 7 year old Prince Edward attending and participating in executions that she encouraged and organised. The problem with Cersei isn’t so much that she conforms to medieval stereotypes, it is that she embodies ALL of the negative stereotypes in one fell swoop. Finn argues that Cersei seems to be less of a character, and more of a bunch of medieval tropes slapped together.

In answer to the common question posed about fantasy meshing with medieval reality: Why bother with realism if it’s just a fantasy show? Finn answers that it’s important because the highest compliment paid to the show IS that it’s realistic, so maybe we should try and demonstrate and encourage more positive viewpoints.

Showtimes 'The Borgias' - starring François Arnaud as Cesare Borgia, Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia.
Showtimes ‘The Borgias’ – starring François Arnaud as Cesare Borgia, Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia.

The next paper was given by Valerie Dawn Hampton (Western Michigan/University of Florida), entitled, Save the Cheerleader, Save the World: Yesterday’s History Today, which looked at how geek has gone chic. Geekdom has reached mainstream audiences through shows like Game of Thrones, and Once Upon a Time, and Arrow. There was a stigma associated with Sci-Fi, and role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Comics were considered acceptable in terms of fantastical interests, as there was still a moral standard for good and evil in comics. As for other interests, they were stigmatized as “uncool” and “nerdy”. This paper looked at how the nerd is the new cool. Being into sic-fi and fantasy is no longer solely the realm of the high school outcast; shows like Big Bang Theory have embraced the nerd and made him/her culturally acceptable.

Early fantasy authors helped create groups like the Society for Creative Anachronisms. Mainstream audiences identified with the heroes, groups and culture and now and TV is flooded with genre programming. There are currently 16 comic book type shows on TV. Hampton said, “Genre is mainstream now, it is no longer disregarded”, people now know who the Tudors, the Borgias and the Vikings were thanks to these shows. European legends, Arthurian and Viking, are still the most popular. Shows like the Originals, where the protagonists are Vampires but were originally a Viking family, provide flashback scenes for a medieval past. In the fantasy programme Lost Girl, the show touches on the Valkyries.

The young adult book, and movie, Mortal Instruments, is filled with Arthurian legend; a grail, and a sword given by an angel from a lake, harkens to the Lady of the Lake scenario. People are playing games again; there is a renewed interest in card games, and in Dungeons & Dragons, which have now achieved mainstream status. As Huey Lewis and the News once said, it’s “Hip to be Square” and this nerd, for one, is rejoicing!

The eternal cowboy, Clint Eastwood, in the Spaghetti Western classic, 'The good, the Bad, and the Ugly' (1966)
The eternal cowboy, Clint Eastwood, in the Spaghetti Western classic, ‘The good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ (1966)

Lastly, we had White Hats for White Plumes: The Western Arthurian Romance Reimagined, by Geoffrey B. Elliot (Oklahoma State University-Stillwater) with a look at the enduring popularity of the American cowboy. Although not a professed reader or fan of cowboy genre novels myself, it was still an interesting paper on the topic of the mythologised cowboy. Who exactly is the cowboy? The cowboy is of European descent, most commonly of English extraction, of landed heritage, and has military experience, lives according to a strict code of honour, and defends those who cannot defend themselves to the point of death. He is similar to the knight of the Arthurian romance in that the cowboy is chivalric and honourable. Elliot examined author William A. Johnstone’s Mountainman corpus, in particular, the character of Smoke Jensen. Elliot saw a lot of Lancelot in the character, especially in his propensity for violence, and noted that there is something of the Arthurian in the ‘Western wanderer’ that resonates with readers of this series.

~Sandra Alvarez


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