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21.05.04 Fitzpatrick, Neomedievalism, Popular Culture, and the Academy

The Medieval Review

21.05.04 Fitzpatrick, Neomedievalism, Popular Culture, and the Academy


Fitzpatrick puts forward a number of definitions of "neomedievalism," the most cogent being that it is the production, consumption and study of "the products of an ongoing process of re-evaluating what can be done with the Middle Ages in an ever-moving present" (28). As a scholar of medievalism, I have not found the practice of separating neomedievalism from the broader field of medievalism to be particularly useful. The expansive nature of medievalism, which ranges from the study of the popular, to the political, to the academic use of medieval tropes/ideas/stories in the post-medieval world is, I believe, one of the field's greatest assets. The inherent capaciousness of medievalism is its power: blurring the lines between epoch, genre, intent and audience and thus allowing for powerfully nuanced interdisciplinary work to take place. As such, I came to Fitzpatrick's book on neomedievalism with a degree of scepticism. I discovered, however, a number of interesting and valuable case studies on a wide range of (neo)medievalisms, spanning academia, literature, film, television and gaming. Fitzpatrick's three-pronged structure, "Producing Neomedievalism," "Shaping Neomedievalism," and "Playing Neomedievalism," is also a strength of the book, allowing for the work of unpacking the many approaches to medievalism (study, production, consumption) to take place.

The first chapter "The Academy and the Making of Neomedievalism," filed under the section titled "Producing Medievalism," sets out to define the slippery concept of medievalism and the subcategory of neomedievalism, and to map their academic and cultural lineages. The chapter's examination of the intersection of neomedievalism with concepts of post-modernism, absurdism, temporality and periodisation is at times a bit knotty but ultimately interesting. The second chapter, titled "Tolkien: From Medieval Studies to Medievalist Fantasy," takes up Tolkien as a formative figure in the production of neomedievalism. It locates the author within the history of Medieval Studies and medievalism more broadly (in regard to William Morris, the pre-Raphaelites, Walter Scott etc.) and examines the powerful reverberations of his medievalismist fantasies on subsequent (neo)medievalisms.

The third chapter, which marks the beginning of the second section, explores a number of works of (neo)medievalism, including the 1959 Disney film Sleeping Beauty, Robert Zemeckis's 2007 adaptation of Beowulf, and the 2014 live-action Disney film Maleficent. The chapter examines how these works and others engender and yet deviate from medieval source materials, exploring in particular how these works manipulate and play with modern discourses of femininity while engaging with tropes and aesthetics of an imagined medieval past. The thrust of the chapter is that revisionist underpinnings of these works are what make them powerful examples of (neo)medievalism. I would assert that the same argument could be made around these texts being medievalismist. The fourth chapter turns to the massive HBO hit Game of Thrones and its source material, George R. R. Martin's series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire. The chapter performs the interesting work of disentangling the medieval and medievalismist underpinnings of Martin's novels and of the television show. It also complicates the concepts of historicity and fantasy as they have been applied to the show and the novels. The chapter doesn't do anything substantially new with GoT, but it presents its concerns and criticisms in a cohesive and interesting way.

The book really comes into its own in the third section, "Playing Neomedievalism," which centres on gaming culture. The section opens with the book's fifth chapter, exploring the trading card game Magic: The Gathering and surveying the fascinating way that it at once engages with motifs, tropes and characters of an amorphous Middle Ages while simultaneously functioning as a striking reflection of modern commodification, consumerism and capitalism. The final chapter examines neomedievalism in digital gaming communities; in role-playing games (RPGs) and massively multiplayer online RPGs (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft. Again, Fitzpatrick examines the idea of medieval fantasy as commodity, suggesting that these types of games work to fetishize capitalist processes through the deployment of (neo)medievalist fantasy. The chapter also delves into an interesting conversation about the power (and at times, lack of power) of the gamer/player to shape their (neo)medieval fantasies in the digital gaming arena. It also considers the similarities in precarious, exploitative employment between low-level game coders and creators and early-career and/or untenured faculty positions at universities. Fitzpatrick suggests that it is because of this overlap in the structure of these workforces that (neo)medievalist scholars have been drawn to studying neomedieval gaming communities, seeing kinship with these groups. The chapter thus calls for a "reunification" (189) of popular and academic neomedievalism, an intermingling of "consumption, play, authorship and scholarship" (190), which, it is asserted, will markedly benefit the field. Fitzpatrick uses the metaphor of the MMORPG tavern, a place where "teams can safely meet without fear of attack, trade information, and plan the next move" (190) as a metaphor for how these two worlds can collide and improve each other. I truly appreciate the sentiment put forward by Fitzpatrick here, but would assert that in the broader field of medievalism studies, this kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary, expansive work is already taking place.

This book has not convinced me of the necessity for the subcategory of neomedievalism, but it clearly performs effective and important work of medievalism. It also expertly considers the interactions between political, academic and popular medievalism and provides a clear and useful outline of the field's genealogy, within the academy and without.