14.04.20, Ashton & Kline, eds., Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture

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Alexander L. Kaufman

The Medieval Review 14.04.20

Ashton, Gail and Daniel Kline. Medieval Afterlives in Popular Culture. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. 258. ISBN: 978-0-230-33734-3.

Reviewed by:
Alexander L. Kaufman
Auburn University at Montgomery

This book is a collection of fourteen essays and a critical introduction that argues that the Middle Ages are even more present now than they ever have been, especially in various forms of popular culture. At the collection's center is the very real notion that our modern representations of things medieval have a good deal to say about our own ideological and aesthetic points of view, not only our current state of affairs but also how these purposeful medievalism creations shape and reshape the Middle Ages themselves. The essays themselves are not presented in any logical manner, which the editors suggest is purposeful. After all, here we are, in 2014, with electronic devices that can do so many things (really too many things) all at once, or at random. I can simultaneously read about the discovery of Richard III's body, stream an episode of the BBC's Robin Hood on Netflix, and listen to Grave Digger's album Tunes of War on iTunes. What a world.

First, Candace Barrington ("The Youtube Prioress: Anti-Semitism and Twenty-First Century Participatory Culture," 13-28), addresses how high schools have turned to Youtube as a zone where creative and formal assignment can be uploaded for viewing and assessment. The focus here is Chaucer's Prioress's Tale, a text that was for decades absent from high school curricula, but which is now witnessing a renewed interest as students either choose to focus their adaptations on either the general narrative of the tale or on ways in which the tale's anti-Semitism resonates with these students through other forms of contemporary discrimination, bigotry, and difference.

Walt Disney's animated film Robin Hood (1973) is generally regarded by Disney and Robin Hood enthusiasts as one of the worst entries in either canon, and even those individuals who helped to create the film generally agree that it was not an artistic success. Andrew Lynch ("Animated Conversations in Nottingham: Disney's Robin Hood (1973)," 29-42) argues quite convincingly that "in the tradition of Robin Hood medievalism, and as a Disney animation, the film's structure and story...are appropriate and very productive. Robin Hood is a diverse, temporally layered, and episodic legend without a stable set of characters or a story line" (30). Perhaps it is time for a reexamination of this film's aesthetic merits.

Steve Ellis ("Virginia Woolf's Middle Ages," 43-55) offers a slight detour away from the electronic media outlets of popular culture and toward the more insular, inclusive, private world of Virgina Woolf in the last phase of her career as the writer reflects upon the writings of Dante. Ellis's expertise as a close reader of Dante and modernist literature (here, Woolf and also T. S. Eliot) is evident and appreciative.

We then move from modernist interiors to post-modernist exteriors with Louise D'Arcens' contribution ("Dario Fo's Mistero Buffo and the Left-Modernist Reclamation of Medieval Popular Culture," 57-70). Fo's play cycle was performed from 1969-1999, and as D'Arcens states it is "among the most fully developed examples of a postmedieval humorous text that models itself explicitly on medieval comic precedents, in this case the mystery play cycles of the European Middle Ages" (59). In addition to describing how this text/performance works as an organic extension of medieval dramatic culture, D'Arcens also addresses just how the term "popular" continues to confound readers and scholars alike.

For many, Monty Python's film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the Middle Ages on film, and so a chapter on the Pythons' movie in such a collection is expected. Daniel T. Kline ("Acephalic History: A Bataillian Reading of Monty Python and the Holy Grail," 71-83) focuses on the film's character "A Very Famous Historian" and reads his death (essentially a decapitation) alongside Georges Bataille's condition ac├ęphale, headlessness, which Kline argues "governs the sociopolitical logic of the film and describes the internal relationships of the Pythons themselves" (72). It is an attractive reading, especially when one considers how Monty Python routinely killed, subverted, and reimagined history by means of its humor, satire, and its violence.

Robert S. Sturges' contribution ("Medievalism and Periodization in Frozen River and The Second Shepherds' Play: Environment, Class, Miracle," 85-98) is one that this reader believes should have opened the collection, for the scholar's opening paragraphs survey recent medievalism scholarship that concerns place, setting, and periodization in modern and postmodern films that depict the Middle Ages. Sturges then moves into a convincing discussion of the 2008 film Frozen River, which is set along the New York- Canadian border, and which shares certain commonalities to the play attributed to the Wakefield Master. The commonalities are almost certainly accidental, yet Sturges observes what so many of us do when watching films or reading books: we often bring along our academic baggage, thus unsettling any firm concepts of periodization.

Michael Crichton's Timeline is the focus of Steve Guthrie's essay ("Time Travel, Pulp Fictions, and Changing Attitudes toward the Middle Ages" Why You Can't Get Renaissance on Somebody's Ass," 99- 111), which suggests that we should perhaps pay closer attention to the message in Crichton's dystopian, time-travel novel: as a society and culture that focuses on commodification and warfare, we have witnessed very little progress from the fourteenth century to today. The Renaissance, then, is some kind of cultural, political, economic anomaly.

We then find ourselves in the world of weird things, so not such an abrupt transition between chapters this time. Brantley L. Bryant ("H. P. Lovecraft's 'Unnamable' Middle Ages," 113-127) has written a very interesting essay that, like Sturges' piece, suggests that authors may unknowingly mine things medieval for their creative works. Lovecraft was himself known for his dislike of the Middle Ages, and often his worlds are inhabited with prehumen or futuristic entities; the medieval is often noticeably, physically, absent. Yet Bryant persuasively argues that in Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls" (1923), and in the writer's explanations of the origins of his "weird fiction," his own self-conceived genre, there does exist something very medieval, something that is, to use Lovecraft's own word, "unnamable." Lovecraft's Nordic and Teutonic fantasies thus owe a good deal to medieval storytelling. Perhaps Tolkien and Lovecraft have more in common than some scholars and readers wish to admit.

Next, Angela Jane Weisel ("Confession, Contrition, and the Rhetoric of Tears: Medievalism and Reality Television," 129-143) examines a trope that is very common in medieval literature and in reality television: weeping. I must admit that the incessant crying and tears is one of the many reasons that I have stopped watching any reality TV: the winner cries, the loser cries, the judges cry. I suppose that viewers cry. Weisel believes that these more modern tears are natural and owe much to their spiritual and emotional function (and formal process) in the Middle Ages.

What follows is another chapter on Robin Hood, media creature. Here, Richard Utz ("Robin Hood, Frenched," 145-158) delivers an overview of the French television program Thierry la Fronde, which was broadcast initially on ORTF between 1963 and 1966; fifty episodes were aired, and it was exported to a number of other countries to air on television. The program concerned the exploits of Thierry de Janville, a nobleman who fought against the English in the Hundred Years' War, who loses his title and land and is outlawed. The plot, characters, and themes of the show closely mirror those of the post-medieval Robin Hood tradition, and Utz demonstrates how Jean-Claude Deret (the show's screen-writer who also doubled as the show's chief baddie, Florent of Clouseaules) poached from The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Green and airing in 143 episodes, and also the thirty-nine episode British series Ivanhoe. This intentional borrowing from these two programs, which were themselves playing very loose with medieval representation, results in a French program that only further distorts any sense of a medieval reality.

Lesley Coote moves the reader from the Matter of the Geenwood and into the Matter of Britain ("Brief Encounters: Arthur's Epic Journey in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur (2005)," 159-172). For Coote, this Arthur is an epic hero whose journey is reminiscent of an exiled hero, specifically one whose exile is "internal"; thus, this twenty-first century Arthur is markedly different from those who preceded him, either in books or on film. Apart from the Arthurian characters and themes, the film is decidedly medieval, for Coote convincingly argues that Arthur's exile mirrors Aeneas', a classical figure whose narrative was the source for and inspiration of a number of medieval tales. Moreover, Coote establishes how Arthur's band and its activities resemble Robin Hood's "merry men."

We remain in the world of popular Arthurian medievalisms with Philippa Semper's contribution ("'My other World': Historical Reflections and Refractions in Modern Arthurian Fantasy," 173-186). This chapter concentrates on Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur trilogy published between 2000 and 2003 and aimed at children and young adults: The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing-Places, and King of the Middle March. Crossley-Holland's trilogy is unique in that, unlike many of the recent Arthurian works of popular fiction, it is closer to the genre of historical fiction rather than historical fantasy; indeed, the setting is the twelfth century and not the fifth or six centuries, and the author, as Semper reports, does his historical homework. Moreover, this Arthur is one whom we can all recognize from the medieval texts, but who has, in this trilogy, some unique characteristics. Semper's chapter has convinced this reader that perhaps there may be room in my next Arthurian literature course for a new novel, or three.

The popular BBC television series Torchwood, and its five- episode sequence "Children of Earth," which constituted the third of the series' four seasons, is the focus of Gail Ashton's chapter ("Queer Origins, Deformed Lines: Seeding the Future in Torchwood's 'Children of Earth,'" 187-201). Though a spin-off of Doctor Who, and airing from 2006 to 2011, Torchwood was aimed at an adult audience. The series focuses on the activities of the Torchwood Institute, a government agency located in Cardiff, Wales, that investigates mainly extraterrestrial doings; its leader is Jack Harkness, an immortal. Ashton sees this third series, one in which the alien race 456 may initiate a global catastrophe, as hyper- medievalism, with its narratival cues from medieval romance; its recursive origins; and its sense of temporal, cultural, ethnic, and political borders.

Lastly, Kathleen Coyne Kelly ("The Medieval Entertainment Channel: The Shrek Quartel," 203-218) focuses on the parodic power of the neo/medievalism in the Shrek film series that is itself creating a queering of time and history. It is a very well informed chapter, which expertly draws upon a number of significant theoretical concepts to further bolster its argument; Bakhtin's notion of "great time" is entirely pertinent. The collection thus ends with a cogent essay, and one that was a joy to read.

As this review hopefully illustrates, Ashton and Kline's collection covers a wide variety of primary sources: some literature, but mostly we are talking about media creations that have something to say about the Middle Ages. The editors should be commended for selecting these informative and insightful fourteen essays. Of the essays that concern literature, Bryant's piece may be the most visionary of all, as we seem to be in a Lovecraftian renaissance at the moment. Sturges, too, articulates what many of us have observed; namely, that the Middle Ages are an ever present, though not always explicitly referenced, historical and cultural period. I should note that I learned something from every essay. That said, the essays in this collection should have been organized in a more purposeful manner. The randomness of the placement of most of these essays creates a real sense of intellectual disunity, which, unfortunately, and at its best, tends to obscure many of the essays' shared themes and concepts; at its worst, some of the essays are relegated to their own isolated, scholarly islands.

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Author Biography

Alexander L. Kaufman

Auburn University at Montgomery