Michelle Warren

title.none: Heng, Empire of Magic (Michelle Warren)

identifier.other: baj9928.0407.011 04.07.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michelle Warren, University of Miami,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 521. $43.00 0-231-12526-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.07.11

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 521. $43.00 0-231-12526-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Michelle Warren
University of Miami

Empire of Magic bears witness to some of what is most exciting in the field of medieval studies at the moment. Indeed, it addresses a truly ambitious array of stimulating topics. What explains the popularity of Arthurian romance? What is "romance" itself as a genre? How does fantasy shape cultural production? What are the relations between medieval and modern cultural formations? How do political issues impinge on literature? How can globalized perspectives on geography revise literary history? What are some of the broader cultural effects of crusading ambition and its attendant views of the "East"? What effects does magical thinking have in imagining history? How do religion, race, and sexuality serve as conceptual vehicles for interrogating fundamental questions of identity? What is the potential for the concepts of nation and modernity to illuminate late medieval English social structures?

The very richness of these questions also poses the book's greatest challenges, since connections among them can become diffuse and even obscure as Heng's discussion ranges across four centuries of English literary history. In recognition of this difficulty, Heng chooses a strategy of exposition that only intermittently tries to gather these many strands together (4). By way of explaining the selection of texts, for example, Heng observes that "oddly but appropriately" cannibalism and Constantinople surface periodically in most of the texts discussed (8). Heng goes on to link cannibalism as a trope to the genre of romance: "Romance itself, of course, is a species of pure cannibalism. At the end of the day, romance is, after all, the name of a desiring narrational modality that coalesces from the extant cultural matrix at hand, poaching and cannibalizing from a hybridity of all and any available resources, to transact a magical relationship with history, of which it is fact a consuming part" (9). This description brings to mind the concept of antropofagia in Brazilian modernism, where it references the local appropriation of European cultural artifacts and ideas. The making of new culture through the digestion of imported forms and values tips the balance of cultural power--especially when exercised by the "cannibals" themselves. When applied to a European literary production "cannibalizing" its own past, however, the trope of cannibalism seems to work within a closed circuit of self-reinforcing power. But Empire of Magic is not ultimately about cannibalism. It is about the idea of romance as a genre that processes historical experience in unique ways.

The first two chapters of Empire of Magic assert that English romance originates as a national genre from the trauma of crusader cannibalism. They are titled respectively "History as Romance: The Genesis of a Medieval Genre--Cannibalism, the First Crusade, and the Genesis of Medieval Romance: Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain" and "Popular Romance: A National Fiction--The Romance of England: Richard Coer de Lyon and the Politics of Race, Religion, Sexuality, and Nation." Heng summarizes the argument thus: "[H]istorical cannibalism performed by Latin Christian crusaders on Turkish Muslim cadavers at Ma'arra an-Numan in Syria, in 1098, during the First Crusade (and perhaps a few months before at Antioch) issued in a cultural trauma that required strategies of attenuation, displacement, and transformation supplied by a hybrid genre of cultural fantasy, with the emergence of the literary legend of King Arthur one generation later, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's fabulous History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britannie), thus eliciting the genesis of the magical genre we call medieval romance" (334). Heng goes on to link Geoffrey's Historiato the later English Richard Coer de Lyon, which deals directly with the experience of crusade: "The literary ancestry of cannibalism in RCL can be traced back to the Historia's negotiation of trauma in the First Crusade: to the Historia's tacit memorialization of the cannibalism, followed by the transformation of the cannibalistic memory into romance event through the heroism of King Arthur. The second romance action in the Historia, which further transforms the thus-attenuated memory of historical cannibalism, is precisely the kind of restorative cannibalism that occurs in RCL: Cadwallo, King of Britain, is restored to good health by his retainer Brian, who turns the king into an inadvertent cannibal in order to heal the king's malady" (334). The attribution of an entire narrative phenomenon (be it a genre, mode of writing, or "structure of desire") to a single historical event is a broad claim indeed, one that is bound to elicit skepticism in some quarters.

The discussion of Richard Coer de Lyon contains a rather nifty analysis of Richard's bees. To explicate the national import of the beehive as battle weapon, Heng draws on historical research that suggests that honey was one of Europe's exports to Egypt and Syria--and sugar one of its great imports from the Levant and Mediterranean. In Richard Coer de Lyon, then, the bee sting is both literal and cultural, "a defiant statement of economic and ideological superiority... of a distinctly vengeful kind" (102). When linked to the apian metaphor applied to the English host and the political allegory of social life in the hive developed in Mum and the Sothsegger, Richard's bees appear in Heng's treatment as a dense vehicle of national ideology. She concludes that they are an "indelibly memorable romance weapon" (102). This is a seductive conclusion, although its historical target is somewhat elusive given the chronological range of the sources invoked and the complex relations among antecedent texts that tell the same event. The analysis raises further questions about the actual historical use of bees in battle: is this a "romance" performance on the field, or only when structured into narrative?

Chapter 3, "Chivalric/Heroic Romance: Defending Elite Men and Bodies--Warring Against Modernity: Masculinity and Chivalry in Crisis; or, The Alliterative Morte Arthure's Romance Anatomy of the Crusades," also pursues the literary inflection of crusade memories. In this case, Heng traces their collision with the advent of "modernity." Heng continues here to pursue the method established in the first two chapters of accreting historical contiguities to a textual kernel in order to propose internationalized understandings of nationalistic texts. In this case, Heng points out, for example, that it is a Templar knight who announces to Arthur that a giant is wrecking havoc at Mont St. Michel. By linking the giant's accumulation of gold with the Templars' fiscal probity, Heng evokes yet another level on which the giant contravenes appropriate values and conduct. Arthur himself, by contrast, is cast as a pilgrim as he departs to avenge the giant's wrongs (148). The entire episode, then, takes the form of a crusade and thereby contributes to the portrayal of a mobile and de-territorialized "Orient"--"a virtual location for a virtual history of the crusades" (149).

Chapter 4, "Family Romance/Hagiographic Romance: A Matter of Women (and Children)--Beauty and the East, a Modern Love Story: Women, Children, and Imagined Communities in The Man of Law's Tale and Its Others," continues to invoke the category of the "modern" as a context for a project of English national identity. Chaucer's The Man of Law's Tale has in fact become something of a lightening rod for medievalists deploying postcolonial theories and methodologies, and its critical bibliography has become quite substantial. Heng seeks to place the tale at the center of a general fourteenth-century project of national community, partly imagined by linking the heroine Constance to a historical king in the versions of her story developed by Trevet, Chaucer, and Gower. In the process, family structures come to function as analogues for national communities: "For such fourteenth-century English audiences to whom, and for whom, the Constance family of texts might speak, the availability of a symbolic family that may serve to figure the imagined community of the proto-nation of medieval England pivots on the palpable absence of similar family symbolizations elsewhere, especially--dramatically--in the East" (237). At this juncture, readers may wish to know more about these imagined audiences. This is one example of how Heng's historicizing maneuvers sometimes stop just one step short of fully documenting their conclusions.

Chapter 5, "Travel Romance/Ethnographic Romance: Mapping the World and Home--Eye on the World: Mandeville's Pleasure Zones; or, Cartography, Anthropology, and Medieval Travel Romance," is also concerned with the issue of late medieval English identity as figured through religious identity: "My argument here--that the Travels is manifestly anxious about stabilizing the structure of late-medieval Christian identity and, as part of that process, is invested also in finding identificatory spaces for the expansion of Christian identity--is consonant with my argument in chapter 4 that late-medieval literature intensely desires and believes Christianity to possess an essence, one that can be seen to function when it confers an essential identity upon baptism" (437). In the course of presenting this argument, Heng gives particular attention to an interpolation at the end of several English versions of the Travels, which portray the narrator visiting the Pope in Rome en route back to England. Heng astutely points out that at the probable time of composition the Pope was not in fact resident in Rome but in Avignon, and that the subsequent schism only deepened the sense of Christian absence from its historic see (263). Rome and Jerusalem, then, take on new significance in the Travels in relation to contemporary Church politics: "The Travels materializes, makes present and tangible, the body of Christ all around Jerusalem, and the Holy Land, becausethe body of Christ's human representative on earth is tangibly absent from Rome and the Holy See" (264). These kinds of geographic permeabilities are ultimately seen to support a European fantasy of the East that comforts a Western myth of mature civilization: "Late-medieval Western fantasy about the opulent licentiousness and extravagance of the East--particularly when the fantasies recur as individual Latin Christian societies begin the long process of nation making--thus offers the possibility that, despite the sacrifice, renunciation, and discipline that mature adult identity, individually and societally, requires, the pleasures and plenitude that have been renounced, or left behind, have not been completely lost in a prior, irrecoverable time but are still somewhere available in a geographical space that coexists simultaneously with mature Western civilization and mature Western time" (427). The conflation of space and time that makes this simultaneity possible appears here as a basic characteristic of romance that undermines the concept of "travel" per se in travel narrative.

For all of its qualities, Empire of Magic is also the perhaps unwitting product of a disconcerting trend in academic publishing in recent years. Supported by numerous institutions and individuals over the years, and beautifully packaged by a distinguished university press, it arrives with all the trappings of proven success. And yet the book also bears traits commonly associated with haste and editorial neglect: long and tortuous sentences, lengthy discursive footnotes (over one hundred and fifty pages of them in small print), relatively little sustained engagement with theory and criticism, no conclusion, etc. Whatever the reasons for the book's appearance in this form, readers might reasonably expect more from a book that addresses so many topics of such great interest. Empire of Magic ultimately disappoints precisely where it does not live up to its own broadest potential.