Medievalism as fun and games
By Veronica Ortenberg West-Harling
Studies in Medievalism, Vol.18 (2010)
Introduction: Medievalism hides in many guises in contemporary culture, of which four will be examined here. One is the popular literature of fantasy fiction and crime novels. Another two are the world of Heritage – covering medieval sites, theme parks, and a vast retail industry of artifacts – and, partly associated with it, the historical re-enactment scene. Last but not least is the development of war and strategy Internet games.
The origins of the fantasy fiction genre may go back to William Morris, but its real modern roots are in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Fantasy fiction invents myths, legends, and characters situated in a world before time, doing heroic deeds and achieving impossible tasks with the help of magical creatures (beasts, demons, magicians). These illustrate the importance of man’s understanding of, and working with, the natural world, which ultimately brings about wholeness and happiness. At its best, the genre produced J. R. R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman; at worst, a plethora of run-of-the-mill fantasies meant for rapid consumption. Fantasy fiction’s main writers, such as Anne Rice, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen Lawhead, and Robert Jordan, use titles such as The Dragon Reborn, Lord of Chaos, A Crown of Swords, The Belgariad, The Malloreon, the Prydain series, the Song of Albion, all featuring heroes, places, or gods’ names with a Celtic resonance, from Sauron and Galadriel to Nynaeve, Aviendha, Amyrlin, Caemlyn, and Belgarath. These suggest to the readers’ minds a world before time, inhabited by supernatural creatures, powers and heroes, fabulous myths and legends, where good triumphs over evil, and love and heroic deeds are rewarded. This has been increasingly associated with the idea of the “Celtic” world, equated with some kind of primitive Eden, appealing to the myth of the roots of western civilization, and hence to a feeling of return to a national and ethnic past.
Such roots can be variably chosen in the countries of the Celtic fringe in the UK, in England where they are felt to be a more ancient national past than the Saxons (almost in the manner of the “native” cultures of America),and in the US because it links immigrant groups to their European roots. Fantasy fiction appeals to an adult audience, giving it an escape from daily drudgery and a too-rational surrounding world, and an opening for thinking about major life issues not always addressed by mainstream fiction, enacted by colorful characters in exciting life-threatening situations. The genre is used for escapist purposes, perhaps especially in the English-speaking world, where the ethics of Puritanism and a strong work culture predominate, and is non-gender-specific, appealing to both men and women.