By Gillian Polack
So many people have a rather Disneyfied view of Medieval Wales. This is, oddly, another by-product of Charlotte Guest’s version of the Mabinogion. A nineteenth century translation/adaptation of a Medieval Welsh manuscript, in theory, what is has become is a kind of codification and modernisation of Medieval Welsh mythology and history. When American author Lloyd Alexander took this work and its derivates and created his own version, the story changed, and its audience changed and a whole new view of legendary Wales erupted.
Alexander didn’t rewrite the Mabinogion. He took this bit from it (and elsewhere) and that bit from it (and elsewhere) and used them to build a story world where readers could follow the lives of Taran (Assistant Pig Keeper) and Eilonwy ( a princess). Actual medieval story is used more as telling detail than to build the world the characters live in.
Telling details are points of culture that make the reader feel that the story is living and relates to real people and to real history. Detail used by historical fiction writers ranges from clothing and food to political events. In fantasy novels, telling detail is the bits that help make the fantasy world feel tangible. In Alexander’s work, the use of half-familiar stories and themes from the Mabinogion itself bring Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy Middle Ages to life. His fantasy world has little in common with actual medieval Wales, but he tells a good story and creates appealing characters and the world he establishes for those characters is close enough in form to fir into the genre of fantasy. It draws upon popular knowledge of the Mabinogion and on what experiences the hero (Taran) requires to become Someone Important and this is how it rings the cultural resonancy bells for many readers.
It did not surprise me when Disney turned some of into cartoon (“The Black Cauldron”) in 1985.
I wonder, sometimes, if this isn’t the Middle Ages most people prefer – one of creative invention and adventure and magic rather than one of connection to our actual past. For me, then, the Disney version of Alexander’s creation that is inspired by (but doesn’t follow) an actual medieval text sums up many peoples’ preferred Middle Ages. It’s the bridge by which history links to fantasy.
That fantasy is never completely invented. It always has a link (often many links) to what the writers know or think they knew about history and about how worlds operate.
Alexander’s work demonstrates very clearly how this bridge works for writers and for readers. Inspiration and creation come from somewhere and lead somewhere else. In this case it’s from a respected and loved set of stories that are used to give a feeling of the Middle Ages (even if there is not much or nothing of the actual Middle Ages in them) and to create a world that is great to read about and even to play in. I often think of this as ‘Disneyfication’ as a code for one kind of play, and because it’s the most obvious kind of play that comes from Alexander’s series. It’s a lot more than that, however. This comfortable relationship with the fantasy Middle Ages has given us many styles of games (from RPG to board to computer) and it helps bind some groups of re-enactors together in their re-enactment choices.
This is where my current research is at. It’s something that I can talk about at great length and that my opinion changes on week by week as my research advances. It’s all about how we use culture. Because I’m in the middle of a big project on it, I can’t explore today. What I wanted to do today was show how one small (but Medievally important) element of it works.
We often talk about the importance of novels in literary terms, but this demonstrates the importance of novels in terms of much wider culture. Alexander’s retelling – with all its changes and all its Americanisation – creates a bridge for those who have never encountered the Middle Ages. It enables readers to develop a taste for it.
It’s not the Middle Ages as I studied it as a Medievalist. It’s the Middle Ages of The Chronicles of Prydain. The way that Middle Ages has developed over years, from Alexander’s own reading of the Welsh Middle Ages right through to the popular acceptance of the Disney version of his novels, is a clear path and shows us that kind of trail that is visible for so many works that are apparently Medievalist.
There are many varieties of fantasy Middle Ages, but they all have this path in common. The nature of those works and the genre of those works give us different visions of the Middle Ages. When I teach, I encounter those visions, and Alexander’s work is one of the places I go toe explain to students why they may not be hearing what I’m saying between their knowledge and what sources actually show us.
This cultural dynamic is extremely exciting and popular literature lies at the heart of it. Without that popular literature and the paths its authors travel in order to write it, our modern view of the Middle Ages would be a lot simpler… and a lot less interesting.
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