Friday, August 03, 2007

April cont.

WAAAYYY back in April as I was doing my Congress paper, I gave a post that talked about continuity, reinterpretation of works, etc. The point was to try and compare medieval strategies of appropriation of different works that a) either take the "same" work, and here we have to be careful of terms like "same", but retell it with new spins, essentially taking an old story and making it new and/or b) appropriating a text from the past and recasting it in some way. I used Tolkien and Tolkien movies as one example.

A related realization came at the same time. Now this realization is new to me, and its precious for all that, but the rest of the medieval world has probably realized this and it is so basic as not to be considered. But here it is: it is the same process and the same mindset that approaches the Germanic past in Beowulf and Widsith and borrows from the great cauldron of story that also produces Judith and Exodus etc out of enlarged cauldron of story that now includes Biblical and Roman/Classical sources; AND influences prose writers like Aelfric, Hrabanus, and the like: i. e. the encyclopedia approach for which some of the early middle ages has been dismissed as is the same process that leaves us tantalizing hints of Volsunga Saga in Beowulf or Theodoric in Norse tales and the like. Thus the prose writers are picking and choosing in the same way as the oral poet. As has been long recognized now neither Bede, nor Alfred, nor Aelfric are mere translators or users of the past in an unqualified fashion. Rather they take, they reshape, reuse, and produce new, innovative texts. In my Congress paper I explored this somewhat by suggesting that evidence of audience reception in the manuscripts in which Letter to Sigeweard reside s reveal a degree of appropriation in a way similar to how tales become retold, the text in manuscript is no longer Aelfric's but becomes a sermon in Oxford, Bodley, 343, and in Oxford, Laud 509 we have evidence of readers, Old English and Latin, who are commenting and interacting with the text making it their own. In other manuscripts we seem to have parts of the Letter excised from their context and reused as homilies. In 2 of these cases, the text is anonymized: in Bodley 343 and London, BL, Harley, there is little to suggest that the homilies were Aelfrician in origin, they've become someone else's text.

Now I say all this to make a modern point, one that Scott Nokes will be making in an essay to be published in the next Heroic Age. There's been a spate of medieval movies, always has been really from Errol Flynn in Robin Hood to the great Lion in Winter to the BBC's recent Robin Hood series and even some bad ones like Christopher Lambert's Beowulf complete with Roland in purple tights and porn stars as Grendel's mother and an invented character supposedly Hrothgar's daughter. While Heaney's Beowulf may not be "Beowulf" in one sense, as one scholar of note has written that she threw the book across the room, it is in another as much Beowulf as the Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A.xv, for we assume that the version in the manuscript is but one poet's version and that another performer, written or oral, would have a somewhat different Beowulf. Similarly, Tolkien steals scenes from Beowulf or even rewrites The Wanderer while Tolkien himself is "retold" in the various movies (and even in the numerous books that literally rip him off). I posit that this is the same strategy of retelling and appropriation that the medieval authors we medievalists study engaged in! And rather than be excoriated and put down and groaned over, we should welcome these retellings.

We should welcome them not because they give us an excuse to write papers for the Studies in Medievalism conference, or give us an opportunity to relax our gaze somewhat as we do some easy work (by which I mean I need not hone my Latin or Old ENglish or other linguistic skills or strain my eyes peering at a manuscript page damaged by fire and hard to distinguish words etc). I mean that we should welcome them because we want there to be interest in the medieval period! We in fact should FAN THE FLAMES! Sure, some, if not many, of these films and stories will not be historically accurate, nor will they be "medieval" in the sense that they'll appeal to medieval audiences. In the latter case, while our story stealing strategies may in fact be similar if not the same, all stories even retold ones speak to our own time. So a medieval story retold is going to be told for a modern audience, which has a different sense of story, humor, and characterization than the medieval. In the former case of "historically" accurate, I don't worry too much about that either in the case of stories. The Old English Exodus for example is certainly not historically accurate, but its a grand piece of poetry.

This isn't to say that I think we as professionals should give up historical accuracy or talking about medieval literature in favor of modern medievalisms or anything of that nature. I am saying that we should, for practical, theoretical, and survival reasons encourage, welcome, praise, and comment on modern medievalisms rather than disparage, reject, put them down. Medieval studies is increasingly in the academy being marginalized. Particularly in the English departments of the world, Old English is no longer a requirement, medievalists who retire are not being replaced, and if the medieval is covered at all, it is in a general survey course. Of all the jobs in the last few years advertised for English departments, 15 and 13 were general medieval positions, and most of those expected some sort of composition or WOrld Literature or Renaissance component--i. e. medieval was only a part of the package. 3 last year were specifically for Old English, 4 the year before if I remember correctly. This doesn't bode well. But if, and here I'm echoing Scott's piece but I am in complete agreement with it, we are seen as engaged in popular culture, and can harness popular culture to increase interest in our fields, all the better for us.

And we already know that such a strategy works. The recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article on the Congress at K'zoo was revelatory in this respect. Of the current crop of young medievalists, and those currently in grad school, the vast majority developed their interest in medieval studies by reading Tolkien or playing D and D, or fantasy literature, or some other popular culture expression of medievalism! If it worked for them, why not for a wider audience? Its the old adage all over again: you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. Encouraging and welcoming these movies is going to attract students who want to learn more, and so we have opportunities to correct the errors without being disparaging. Being negative and decrying the movies will drive away potential students, and we can not afford to drive away students--without students interested in our work at all levels, universities will not hire us in this increasingly market driven view of higher education prevalent in the US now and being exported abroad.

So theoretical and practical points: modern medievalisms are engaging in a medieval practice by appropriating and retelling medieval stories and we should be happy and encourage that and reap the benefits of such interest. Ok, sermonizing mode off.


Derek the ├ćnglican said...

But...we "disparage, reject, put down" modern medievalisms because so many of them are BAD! That's why I get offended by most of it. It's not becasuse they're recycling and being unoriginal--it's because they're doing it poorly.

Furthermore, I'll wager that many of the folks who got into medieval studies by way of D&D and the like (including myself in this category) did so to make the gaming experience more accurate, more true to life, and better than the sham medievalism that such things come shipped with.

So, recycling isn't the problem--the quality of it is.

theswain said...

Hi Derek,

I agree with your point, but only in part. Yes, many of the medievalisms are "bad".

BUT, my experience has not been that the negative reaction is caused by their bad quality, but rather by how well they stick to a pre-conceived notion of what the story is about. Heaney's Beowulf is certainly not bad, its actually a beautiful piece of work. And having taught Donaldson, Heaney, Liuzza, and the translation in Longman whose name I forget, teaching to undergrads the important things about Beowulf is in no way affected by using Heaney rather than one of the others. Our colleagues react to "Heaneywulf" in a negative way because a) it can not be used a translation pony which means it isn't always literal and b) he introduces things into the text that reflect his Ulster upbringing, a fascinating thing in itself Thus, in this case, it isn't bad quality that is the problem, but adherence to what one conceives the poem being about and the literal though reconstructed text of the poem.

Similarly one might point to us purists's take on the LoTR films: these are not bad films. They are in fact very well done. They do not however adhere strictly to the plot, themes, or characterization of Tolkien's novel: there are some things that are changed in favor of other versions Tolkien wrote published now in the "History of Middle Earth" series, somethings that were changed in the interest of time, somethings that were just changed willy nilly by the script writer and director. And detractors HOWL! And I've been chief among them! But the issue isn't the "badness" of the movies usually (there are some commentators who have talked about this, admittedly) but rather how well they conform to the novels.

Likewise, the comments I hear most often about one of the Beowulf movies is "Grendel's father isn't in the poem!" Well, true. But that's not about it being a bad movie, that's about the movie's conformity to the written text.

As such, then, I think that we medievalists need to recognize that these modern "recycling" efforts are the same efforts as our medieval authors telling Beowulf, the Volsunga Saga, the Matter of Arthur, Song of Roland...etc, that there is always continuity and discontinuity.

And I would issue a call then that if we negatively assess a modern medievalism that we do so based on quality: was it a good story well told? But not on conformity.

Roger Pearse said...

This is a shrewd point of yours, and one that needs to be more widely understood. We were all cubs once, after all, dressing up as knights with swords. Such is the foundation on which a career in medieval studies often depends.

The inaccuracies in popular culture can offend, sometimes deeply. But only a brute would throw that in the face of someone discovering the middle ages for the first time! Sadly that happens rather a lot, and the bright enthusiasm is quenched and people go off to do anything else.

Of course we must not compromise the need for scholarly standards -- indeed we probably need to improve these, rather than otherwise, if some of the papers I have seen are any guide. But we mustn't put up barriers to people coming into the area.

Apart from anything else, these people have money and votes. Does anyone want to see their funding cut?

Roger Pearse said...

Perhaps the question should be, whether there is anyone now involved in medieval studies who did NOT play D&D?

theswain said...

Hi Roger,

Thanks for commenting. The question I'd like to ask is whether "scholarly standards" and "creativity" SHOULD meet. I'm all for high scholarly standards and try to reach those heights. But can, say Beowulf and Grendel, be judged by the same scholarly standards as I judge an article on Beowulf or a new edition? Or should there be a different set of standards (not a statement of quality of those standards, but of the standards themselves) for judging a modern medievalism? And how do we get the public to move from decent and interesting movie (certainly open to criticism as a friend on a list did very recently) to reading the poem itself? Not sure there's a "WAY", a method by which that can be done, but I think it must be begin with the professional's attitude and reception.