14.09.34, Pugh and Aronstein, eds., The Disney Middle Ages

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Paul Freedman

The Medieval Review 14.09.34

Pugh, Tison and Susan Aronstein. The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. xiii, 283. ISBN: 9780230340077 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Paul Freedman
Yale University

The Disney Middle Ages is about the castles, princesses and other medievalia produced by the Disney Company over a period of more than sixty years. Walt Disney developed cinematic entertainments based on medieval legends and literature, or at least they were based on well-known magical stories which were given medieval surroundings. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone are the best-known of these animated films. Since the death of its founder in 1966, the Disney Company has produced other features set in the Middle Ages such as Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Robin Hood (1973) and Tangled (2010)--this last a version of the Rapunzel legend. In 2007 Disney released Enchanted which has no folkloric basis, but presents an original script: a comical time-travel confrontation of characters from medieval "Andalasia" with twenty-first century Manhattan.

This book is the first collection of essays devoted to Disney's peculiar use of the matter of the Middle Ages, but academics have already compiled a vast amount of usually critical material on the organization's bland optimism, "lite" multi-culturalism and especially the image of women in its fantasy princess stories. The Disney Middle Ages avoids an over-literal condemnation. Rather than simply attacking Disney for its mercenary exploitation of the Middle Ages or for exalting retrograde gender roles, the essays explore why notions of the medieval period are so readily adapted to themed entertainments. Ilan Mitchell-Smith's contribution to a section on Disney Princesses ("The United Princesses of America: Ethnic Diversity and Cultural Purity in Disney's Medieval Past") argues effectively that both traditional princesses and the newer, more diverse group (the Native-American Pocahontas, the Asian Mulan and the African-American Tiana) are used by consumers in more complex and creative ways than allowed for by the cultural studies consensus.

It is commonly noted that Disney "sanitized" traditional stories and set them in vaguely neo-medieval surroundings, but there is more going on, these chapters show, than just making the Middle Ages harmless enough for Middle America. Medieval content and decor form part of a "retroprogressive" complex of ideas in which the medieval does not, as with Tolkien, evoke lost beauty and heroism, but rather it provides a setting for fantasy colored, with deliberate anachronism, by twentieth-century American optimistic egalitarianism. What the editors (p. 5) refer to as a "medieval-ish" past of adventure and romance is populated by good protagonists who exemplify self-determination, opportunity for all and enthusiasm about the future. Retroprogression means that the past offers escape into fantasy in order to draw lessons for the present and promote confidence about what is to come, not to create a sense of vanished magic.

The Disney medieval is not a coherent world but context for the supernatural. The process of conceiving and merchandising fantasy, however, links a sort of medieval Europe to other components of the Magic Kingdom including non-medieval historical settings like the American frontier and Tomorrowland. The Disney Middle Ages is thus inseparable from the other parts of the Disney project, especially its emphasis on the space technology and on a certain kind of American history.

The original Disneyland in southern California, opened in 1955 with five themed sections: Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland and Main Street--the last of these an idealized small town America ca. 1900 that serves as the entrance to the park. Stephen Yandell's "Mapping the Happiest Place on Earth: Disney's Medieval Cartography" likens a "Fun Map" of Disneyland issued in 1958 to the Hereford Mappa Mundi of ca. 1300. Both are ideological cartographies that compress past and present. History is still being made, whether by Alexander the Great on the Hereford Map or Davy Crockett in Disneyland, but beyond these intriguing parallels I'm not sure how far this comparison works.

Fantasyland is the home of neo-medieval stories, especially of princesses and their accoutrements; it has been gendered female. Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland incline towards a male audience, or at least they did in their heyday. Changing public perceptions have meant that the Old West as a setting for the making of rugged American character runs up against an appreciation of the fate of Native Americans, while with the fading allure of pre-internet "Gee Whiz" technology, Tomorrowland has been partially reinvented as "Retroland," a kind of self-mocking "Jetsons" take on what we once thought the future would look like (p. 69).

Fantasyland remains the core of the Disney imagination, and it is lightly dusted with medieval fairy-sparkle. It can't really call to mind even a first-order artificial nineteenth-century romantic Middle Ages, because that would interfere with the goal of presenting Disney's modern world as "the happiest place on earth," a happiness that is more goal-oriented and, one might say, middle-class values-centered than escapist or expressive of discontent with the present. The pastness of Disney's fantasies is tempered and in effect denied by anti-elitist, can-do characters. Amy Foster in "Futuristic Medievalism" shows how the medieval past is shaped by American anti-elitism and the promise of technology. Unidentified Flying Oddball was a 1979 reworking of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in which a NASA engineer is transported to Camelot. Not only does he amaze the court with his scientific knowledge and gadgetry, his "regular guy" nature is paramount. He treats peasants, servants and King Arthur alike, for example. Bob Gossedge, in an essay devoted to the 1963 animation of The Sword in the Stone, points out that young "Wart," the future King Arthur, is the only principal character in that film with an American accent. Merlin, in a cultivated English voice, instructs Wart that he needs to get "these medieval ideas out of your head--clear the way for new ideas: knowledge of man's fabulous discoveries in the centuries ahead" (pp. 127-128). One sees similarities in the all-American rendering of underdog heroes like Zorro in the 1957-1959 television series or Remy in Ratatouille (2007). Disney's principal characters tend to be resourceful Americans (whatever their putative nationality) stuck in a past that is attractively fantastic, but irritatingly hierarchical and behind-the-times.

Disney's egalitarianism is about universal opportunity, not economic equality. It amounts to what Foster (p. 164) refers to as "sentimental populism" based on Horatio Alger, not Marx. Anyone can be a princess, anyone can cook (in the non-medieval Ratatouille). The mistreated Snow White and Cinderella are eventually exalted and not only does "happily ever after happen every day," but it happens to anyone receptive to the Disney message or "magic."

The book offers an extensive as well as absorbing survey of Disney's efforts to exploit and keep up with the American tendency to forget the past. This isn't easy because the evaporation of history has caught up with the production of fantasy. The final essay, Maria Sachiko Cecire's "Reality Remixed: Neomedieval Princess Culture in Disney's Enchanted," notes Disney's shift away from established legends to original stories with ahistorical content.

The Middle Ages might seem therefore to be waning in the Magic Kingdom. Disney stated that Tangled would be its last "Princess" film. Yet the recently-released Maleficent (June 2014), returns to the Sleeping Beauty story even if it is live action rather than animation and focuses on the witch and not the princess. Maleficent represents the survival of traditional material, but with greater irony and in a different key.

The Disney brand and notional way of life have been expanded but also blurred. As Susan Aronstein points out in "Pilgrimage and Medieval Narrative in Disney's Parks," there has been a narrative disintegration and an obscured distinction among theme park lands and attractions (pp. 68-70). In 1972, "Critter Country" replaced the Indian Village in Frontierland, offering material more appropriate but harder to place than the fading Western U.S. frontier.

New adventures replace old memories; original stories replace reworked medieval-ish legends. The official ideology remains clean-cut and cheerful, but without the previously unexamined confidence in technology, or an unabashedly progressive narrative of the Middle Ages or even of American history. The Disney Corporation still owns much of the territory of fantasy and animation, but it is not clear that it really needs the Middle Ages anymore.

That hardly means that the Middle Ages is losing its hold over the collective American imagination. The ABC series Once upon a Time, distributed by Disney, is a popular show about fairy-tale characters trapped in a contemporary Maine coastal town. Enthusiasm for Game of Thrones, a non-Disney product, shows the curious persistence and reworking of the medieval in popular culture. It's just not as nice as the Disney Middle Ages.

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Paul Freedman

Yale University