16.08.16, Pagès and Kinane, eds., The Middle Ages on Television

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Melanie Hackney

The Medieval Review 16.08.16

Pagès, Meriem, and Karolyn Kinane, eds. The Middle Ages on Television: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2015. pp. 228. ISBN: 0-7864-7941-2 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Melanie Hackney
New York University

This collaborative work contains ten essays on the resurgence of medieval subject matter on the small screen. Part I, entitled "Personal and Political Desires," features four articles; Part II, "Narrative and Genre," features two; and four articles comprise Part III, "Gender and Sexuality." The editors preface the collection with a brief introduction on "Television Medievalisms," and a section "About the Contributors" closes the book in addition to an index.

The editors' have two goals for the collection: first, to fill a lacuna in recent scholarship that favors "medieval" films over television representations, and second, to give shape to and highlight some of the unique aspects of popular television medievalism. The introduction features a compelling argument for television as a more fitting medium than film for representations of the Middle Ages, suggesting serialization as a means of creating greater depth of character and increased viewer investment. The editors attribute the recent resurgence, in large part, to the popularity of streaming services and "binge-watching," which facilitate a stronger bond between the viewers and the "medieval" shows that they consume. Pagès and Kinane also establish a common thread: this genre reflects both the Middle Ages and the 21st century, combining anachronistic and ahistorical elements with historical facts and ideals plucked from the medieval world and reshaped to suit a modern audience.

The collection begins with Angela Jane Weisl's "The Most Dangerous Sport in History Is About to Be Reborn: Medievalism and Violence in Full Metal Jousting." At the heart of her essay lies the question of authenticity in general and more particularly what constitutes an "authentic" medieval experience. Rather than seeking to celebrate a medieval pastime, the show's participants aim not only to win the cash prize and glory, but to prove their masculinity through what they consider to be an even more violent and destructive iteration of the sport than that of the medieval nobility. Although Weisl seems somewhat overly inclined to attribute the contestants' motivations to a familiarity with and desire for medieval values, she draws parallels between medieval romance and culture, citing Kaeuper to emphasize the central roles of violence, physical strength, and prowess.

This is the only essay in the collection that focuses on a "reality" TV show, and the author notes that the show's "investment in the values of aggression, withstanding of pain, and conquering fear" (25), raise larger questions about current masculinities, gender, and changing ideals in the modern world. She concludes with a comment that speaks to the overarching theme for the entire collection: "Shane Andrews and his crew re-create the past not as a real Middle Ages, but as a reflection of their own desires for this past" (28).

The second article in the collection, "Joan of Arcadia: A Modern Maiden on Trial," focuses on a single episode of the series. Stephanie Coker's close reading of the episode "St. Joan" examines the intersection between the show's protagonist, Joan Girardi, and the historical Joan of Arc in order to demonstrate the "lasting impact of the French saint upon a modern audience" (31).

Although it is unclear how closely the other episodes adhere to saint's historical past, Coker sees the "St. Joan" episode as representative of the creator's larger goals surrounding education in general and about Joan in particular. Remaining close to Evelyn Vitz's reading of the term éducation as encompassing faith and spiritual learning in the Middle Ages, Coker applies both meanings to education in the modern series, where the protagonist, Joan Girardi, struggles to reconcile faith and reason. For Coker, the series ingeniously weaves historical characters and events from 15th-century France into the story of a 21st-century girl who sees and speaks to a God, demonstrating the saint's story and its relevance to a modern audience.

Third in the collection, Shannon McSheffrey discusses The Tudors in "William Webbe's Wench: Henry VIII, History and Popular Culture" to explore questions of historical accuracy and audience perceptions about an historical past. The show's writer, Michael Hirst, capitalizes on the youth of the Tudor court, trying to correct the assumption that European courts at the time were middle-aged, by creating a world where teenagers and twenty-somethings had free reign, so to speak, over most of western Europe. McSheffrey aptly notes that while he is not incorrect, Hirst's depiction ignores historical accuracy by depicting the sex-crazed, temperamental young king in the height of his beauty and virility, rather than during his forties, when the real Henry VIII had left his good looks, youth, and athletic figure behind.

The article addresses a central problem for television medievalism: the challenges in depicting familiar characters and (hi)stories for which the audience has expectations. She refutes Jerome de Groot's argument that Hirst's show makes no claim or attempt to represent historical records, and any criticism of the show based upon its historical accuracy misses the point. McSheffrey shows that Hirst not only draws from historical records, but also exploits audience assumptions about historical accuracy. She examines one episode in particular, comparing it to historical accounts in order to demonstrate that both the "original" account of the incident and its depiction in The Tudors are stories, each adapted for a particular means and to illustrate a specific message.

Closing Part I is Evan Torner's "Nature and Adventure in Die Jadg nach dem Schatz der Nibelungen," an article focusing on the titular made-for-TV film, referred to hereafter as JSN, following Torner's usage. Torner ignores the film's inconsistencies in order to unpack what he calls "emotion-work," or the cultural impact of the symbols for the directors and audiences. He shows that the film's emotional appeals touch on a sense of German nationalism that aims to depart from any association to the Holocaust and to realign the country's history with a European one.

As Torner demonstrates, the medieval world becomes most essential to the film in emotional and affective registers. Medieval history becomes a puzzle to unlock both mentally and physically, and the treasure hunt-like experience entices the viewer into a "fictional alternative history" (86) that culminates in a cathartic discovery and reburial of an untouched hidden treasure. Finally, Torner examines the political aspects of JSN, concluding that the use of medieval material derives more from the needs of the present: "This adventure film illustrates the present's long-term commodification processes that seek to domesticate all that is "medieval" into an implausible-yet-immersive story world that can neither acknowledge the polysemy inherent in European history nor perceive the world beyond its relatively provincial national relations within a neo-liberal global system" (92).

Part II begins with "Episodic Arthur" by Melissa Ridley Elmes, who considers the episodic nature of television ideally suited to create a more authentic experience of medieval narrative. She uses multiple definitions of the term "episodic," looking at individual episodes, subplots, tangential storylines, and scenes that are central to the overarching story and that are expected by the viewers. As Elmes underlines: "This episodic formulation is how the Arthurian legend develops in both the medieval romance tradition and contemporary television programming." (101).

Elmes chooses Merlin as the example, par excellence, of a television medievalism. Its highly episodic nature, interlacing subplots, and use of traditional motifs from medieval romance make it "a modern experience of the romance narrative tradition that is very like what we envision the medieval audience experience as having been" (105). She identifies the various factors that contribute to the show's success, including adaptations to traditional medieval legends that address contemporary concerns, and capitalization upon masculine ideals of chivalry and strong female characters. She then looks at Starz's Camelot, and its similar approach to adaptation and representation, in what she considers a more realistic portrayal of the Arthurian legend. In the series, the power is of a political motivation which, for Elmes, constitutes another commonality with medieval romance in that the creators use the narrative for a variety of purposes, including a socio-political one.

The second and final article in Part II seems somewhat out of place in a collection on 21st-century television in its treatment of a show from the early nineties. "Are You Kidding? King Arthur and the Knights of Justice" by Sandy Feinstein picks up a thread from the previous article with Andrew B.R. Elliott's description of serialization as a means of enacting the once and future king, since each new episode offers a return to the storyline. She argues that Arthurian motifs are "remediated" in the serial, which creates audience involvement. Feinstein takes A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and King Arthur and the Knights of Justice to demonstrate this remediation, suggesting that "the interplay of media is the thing that simultaneously reinforces a sense of distance from Arthur's world and a sense of being of that world" (129). However, the show's plot and essence are difficult to grasp from her article, and her focus on remediation and immediacy needs some clarification when she discusses the repurposing of media.

The third and final part, titled "Gender and Sexuality," includes three articles on modern Arthuriana. Michael W. George's "Television's Male Gaze: The Male Perspective in TNT's Mists of Avalon" demonstrates the titular show's failure to reject the more traditional androcentric television representation of the Middle Ages. George considers Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon quite possibly the "freshest rendering of Arthuriana in existence" (141), and argues that despite its promises to offer the same level of originality, TNT's show completely removes Bradley's gynocentric approach in a re-androcentrization of the narrative. George makes a strong argument, demonstrating the show's erasure of a gender balance and concluding that this reandrocentrizing realigns the show with both Arthuriana and television medievalism. This closing argument creates a transition to the following article, which attributes a "patriarchal and conservative" approach to Merlin.

"Gendering Morals, Magic and Medievalism in the BBC's Merlin" by Elysse T. Meredith is the second article in the collection to focus on the popular series, and claims that the show is "distinctly gendered" in its depiction of magic and power (158). Meredith insists that: "Viewed as a whole, Merlin uses its Arthurian narrative to depict an uneasy concern with contemporary social advancements, creating a narrative of justified inequality" (159). She calculates the number of female versus male characters and their heroic acts in order to show an unfair treatment of women and goes further by pointing out the nationalistic and propagandistic aspects of contemporary Arthuriana and their potential to reveal contemporary social and political anxieties. While there is some merit to Meredith's argument, her reading goes too far in its claim that the series ultimately equates practitioner of the Old Religion with "evil sorceress" (160). She fails to acknowledge that the central court of Camelot is almost completely devoid of female presence, which adheres to the gender imbalance of the Arthurian tradition. Moreover, she ignores many of the characteristics attributed to several of the female figures that aim to appeal to modern viewers. Although her argument does identify a progressive shift that increasingly aligns the Old Religion with malevolent female figures, her reading creates too much of a binary between the female characters in Merlin, which deserve a more nuanced analysis, closer to the one used in the article that follows.

"Arthur and Guenièvre: The Royal Couple of Kaamelott" by Tara Foster examines the positive depiction of Arthurian women in Alexandre Astier's French series. Foster first acknowledges, by quoting Thelma Fenster, that the source material abounds with representations of female figures with a set of characteristics that "carry the freight of the problem that is woman" (174). However, Foster crafts a convincing illustration of the crucial part that women play in the series. She uses Maureen Fries' classification of Arthurian women, labeling them as heroine, female hero, or counter-hero. Foster applies this model to Guenièvre and other female characters, demonstrating that, as a whole, the series not only creates a space for female agency, it also "demonstrates a respect for women in general and denigrates those characters who fail to show it" (193). Ultimately, Foster sees Astier's creation as a potential for modern adaptations of medieval narrative to go even further in their rejection of misogyny and in establishing a more balanced and positive view of women.

Closing the collection, Torben R. Gebhardt turns to depictions of gay and lesbian figures in his article "Homosexuality in Television Medievalism." He begins with a brief look at the history and development of homosexuality as represented in U.S. television in order to establish that heterosexual male sexuality remains centered around a specific demographic (young, white, Caucasian, and well-educated), and specific values (family and monogamy). However, despite more recent and "unapologetic" depictions of modern gay culture, it remains largely absent from television medievalism. Gebhardt focuses his analysis on Game of Thrones to illustrate that the homosexual characters in the ongoing HBO series merely reinforce "heteronormative values of masculinity and gender roles," and that modern receptions and representations of homosexuality in neomedievalism rely in large part on "provocative entertainment" (200). He situates the series within the genre of neomedievalism, and notes: "Calling Game of Thrones and other such works of neomedievalism 'inauthentic' ignores their use of a wider medieval repertoire...Dragons are as much an 'authentic' and iconic medieval symbol as knights and kings" (200).

Gebhardt contextualizes his analysis by acknowledging the paucity of knowledge about homosexuality during the Middle Ages and the anachronistic application of the terms "gay" and "straight" when talking about the medieval era. A close analysis of homosexuality and its place in Game of Thrones, illustrates its exclusivity to male relationships, favorable judgment toward homosexuality by "positive" characters, adherence and even reinforcement of traditional gender roles, and its ultimate reduction to a sexual act. His conclusion applies to the collection as a whole: this television medievalism creates a medieval setting through the use of tropes and iconic images, but lying just under the medieval facade are contemporary values, concerns, and ideals regarding sexuality, gender, identity, politics, and culture.

All in all, the collection succeeds in its goals. The articles create a dialogue about medievalism and "authenticity," demonstrating that these shows reveal more about contemporary society than a medieval one. The shows treated offer a broad look at television medievalism but could be more coherent and focused. The inclusion of an article on The Tudors reaches somewhat outside the medieval paradigm, as McSheffrey admits. Feinstein's choice of a show that lies outside the timeframe established by the editors and that aims at a different audience (it being a children's animated series), does not fit well into the collection. Finally, the only show to be the subject of two articles in the collection, Merlin, underlines the absence of several shows that may have been more suited than others to the shared themes, such as the BBC's Robin Hood or its modern rendition of The Canterbury Tales. But like the hope expressed by Foster that Kaamelott will open the door to those willing to go further in reshaping Arthuriana, this collection establishes a solid foundation for continued scholarship on television medievalism and what it reveals about the medieval and modern worlds.

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