By Gillian Polack
Every now and again in the world of fantasy, someone with specialist knowledge comes along and subtly shifts the paradigm. Judith Tarr did this when she wrote an alternate-but-close-to-our-world Medievalist fantasy series. While on the surface, it looked as if what she did was fit neatly into the Ellis Peters mould, with a Brother Cadfael type of story, with a grounding in the monastic Middle Ages, what she actually did was something quite different.
Tarr was an expert in fantasy writing that fits into genre neatly, but has a literary quality. This means that plot rests far more on character than action. Her work is often lyrical in tone and the themes fit very tightly into the world of each novel. This applies to all her work, not only the Medievalist fantasy.
What is so special about the Medievalist trilogy?
Tarr finds her own way into the Middle Ages. She knows her genre and works within it, but within that, she uses a deeper knowledge of the place and time she springboards from than most writers. A surprising number of fantasy writers have doctorates in History and Literature and even more have doctorates in Creative Writing. Only a few of us have doctorates in Medieval History, however, and of those few, Tarr is one of those who uses the specialist knowledge most subtly.
I have to admit to bias in this. I have respected Tarr’s work for a very long time. One of the happiest moments of my life was when Tarr examined my own doctorate in Creative Writing. It is not that doctorate that enables me to see that Tarr has done with her Medieval books: it is my earlier training as a cultural/ethnohistorian. Both of us are Medieval historians as well as being fiction writers. We are uniquely qualified to assess each other’s work, which feels rather odd.
What I love about The Isle of Glass (to pick out the first book in the trilogy) is not its formal Middle Ages. Most people tell me they look for an informal Middle Ages in novels. This is the same Middle Ages that fantasy writers often use to frame their approach to the Middle Ages: the buildings, the pageant, the dress. This is not what I look for in The Isle of Glass.
Alfred is a monk at St Ruan’s Abbey. He is also the chief protagonist and an otherworldly being. One of the most difficult things to get right in fiction and the reason many Medievalists are uncomfortable with reading historical fiction, is that the mindsets of the Middle Ages do not translate at all well into Modern English and are uncomfortable for many modern readers. Mentalities are the most likely part of a novel to be modern, even if the researcher has done a lot of research and built their medieval world very carefully.
Alf reads convincingly. The depiction of his thought and his passion is gently presented, but it’s convincing. Alf’s character is so strongly depicted that his emotions carry me through the novel each and every time I read it. I can’t analyse it in the way I generally analyse… and this is a rare thing. It means that Tarr’s depiction of this fantasy Middle Ages is sufficiently credible for me to be able to lose myself in the novel, over and over again.
When my copies of some of Tarr’s books were stolen by a thief (who stole a lot of other books as well, I admit) I immediately repurchased The Isle of Glass and it was the first book I took out when I was thinking of writing about the medieval in fiction for this blog. It’s fiction. It’s not the Middle Ages. It’s an invented world with magic. But it resonates beautifully and holds its value – it contains a different version of the Middle Ages to most modern novels because of the care Tarr takes with Alfred.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Alfred, is that his stories were first published in 1985. The way we view places and times change. The Middle Ages that Tarr depicts is probably not the one she would choose to depict if she were writing the same series today (and this is one of the questions I have on my ‘I would ask this if given a chance to interview her’ list) and there are changes in our knowledge about the Middle Ages. Archaeology and history are more closely linked now, for instance than thirty years ago, which gives us much more ready access to the nitty-gritty of daily life. I used these changes when I wrote my time travel novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305. When I compare the way Tarr and I each handle the everyday and the small, the work by archaeologists counts for a great deal of the difference between us.
This is one of the factors we need to allow for when we’re reading books that were written a few years ago. Knowledge changes, and mindsets change. When all those changes happen and a book is still convincing in the way it presents the Middle Ages it shows a particular level of understanding.
Other writers whose work was also first published in the mid-eighties do not travel as well. Why they don’t is a topic for another day. Why Tarr’s does is because she was clever in how she wrote. Her work within the genre was new at the time but close enough to genre norms to make a comfortable fit for readers, and her use of the Middle Ages lay within that genre framework but focussed it. Her characterisation and the big decisions her characters made were derived from an understanding of the Middle Ages derived from her own research of the period, not from an understanding of the Middle Ages as it appears in modern novels or in popular history.
This resonates even after thirty years.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack