Sady Doyle sums up “Mists of Avalon”

Morgana says "Oh, PLEASE"

The book says that the problem with Christianity is that it won’t tolerate other religions. It implies, however, that the problem with Christianity is that it’s a stupid jerk religion for assholes. The ladies in Avalon get psychic powers and meaningful jobs and top-notch liberal arts educations, whereas we manage to make it about three whole chapters into the book before a Christian dude beats his wife and things get all “be silent, you accursed scold” this and “have you put some spell upon my manhood, you accursed bitch” that and “you see what comes of your willfulness, my lady” the other. To argue that the book ultimately teaches religious tolerance is like arguing that old movie serials ultimately taught the importance of cooperation between virtuous maidens and dudes with capes and handlebar moustaches who enjoyed tying maidens to train tracks. Of course, medieval Christianity was deeply misogynist and intolerant, and so was medieval Britain. The crucial addition is a magic island full of twentieth-century Women’s Studies majors who can tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong and allow readers to feel superior in between the many sex scenes. 

YES THIS. This sums up all many of my problems with Mists, in a humourous yet eloquent fashion. Ten points to Sady Doyle. (Link goes to an article entitled ‘The Fantasy of Girl World: Lady Nerds and Utopias, which does have one major flaw, and that is the assumption that all spec-fic is escapist nerd wish-fulfilment. Which, er, leaves me wondering what to do with The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Gwen and Morgana, looking right at youThe thing is, I loved Mists as a teenager! LOVED IT! For some reason I never really questioned the “pagans good / Christians evil” logic of Mists (and much other historical-fantasy lit). Despite being a very devout little Christian, it wasn’t until my last year of high school that it crossed my mind that there was anything odd about this paradigm at all. Mind you, nor did I question the weird mythologies surrounding “Celtic” Christianity in some religious circles (whack some knotwork on it! Mention St Bridit! Lo and behold you’re cool and feminist now!), so I think we can just call all this critical-thinking-fail on my part.

Then I went to university! And learned the error of my ways. The Celts are not magical, my friends. Also, not all Christians are evil. And being a Celt does not exempt you from the putative evils of Christianity and/or the patriarchy.

Other fun things about my experience with Mists as a teenager:

Arthur and Lancelot, laughing and toasting one another-I was really, um, surprised by the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot scene. And I thought it was really cool and edgy and boundary-crossing and a fascinating concept, this idea that each of them was really as much into the other as they were into the woman they supposedly wanted! And yet for some reason it took me until last year to read Between Men. This was clearly an opportunity lost.

-I got really annoyed with her handling of Guinevere! And everyone’s else’s (that I could get hold of; so, Malory and onwards). She’s always such a wet blanket!* And I was really peeved that MZB, who spent so much time and effort rehabilitating Morgan, basically wrote off Guinevere and used her as a cipher for Teh Evils of Teh Patriarchy.

Gwen, with crown

So I set out to fix this! I was going to write an Arthurian novella about Guinevere, and she was not going to be a wet blanket! This turned out to be way too hard to do when I had little to no access to medieval sources and was getting tangled on the idea that there was a “real” Arthurian legend. So I gave up and wrote terrible teenage poetry instead.

And now I am at university, and I am trying to wrangle a chapter into shape, and it is about how Guinevere is actually more interesting than Arthur. In short, the main thing that’s changed since I was sixteen is that I now hate Mists much more than I did before.**

~

*Another reason to love the BBC’s Merlin. Gwen is not a damp rag!

** Also, my poetry is worse now than when I was sixteen. Disappointing.

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In which Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general

One of the things I’ve been doing with my brain in my spare time / while entering things into the government record-keeping system is madly analysing random bits of pop culture from gendered perspectives. I’ve learnt about things like the Bechdel Test; read about your chances of death in the BBC Merlin according to race and gender, and… well, pretty much anything else LJ has decided to teach me.

While archiving a bunch of correspondence the other day, it occurred to me to wonder: why do we so rarely see, in modern fantasy, protagonist groupings where friendships between women are given as much screen-time and weight in plot/character development as are friendships between men or between men and women?

I can think of a lot of modern fantasy, both good and bad, which has strong female characters. However, the most common plot set-ups that I can think of involve:

* A strapping young lad and his best (male) friend(s) or older male mentor(s). Random example: Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy.

* A brave young woman kicking arse and taking names in a male setting. Random example: Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet.

* A lone girl or woman and boy or man on a Dangerous Quest. (There will be Bad Fantasy Sex.) Random example: JV Jones’ Sword of Shadows trilogy (note that I haven’t finished reading yet, and I think when I stopped the characters had parted ways).

* A mixed group of men and women, in which there are usually fewer women than men. There will be a high level of character development through m/f relationships, not all involving sex (there will be lots of Contrasting Gender Roles happening). If the protagonist is male or the book has mixed POV, a substantial amount of plot and character development will occur within homosocial relationships: if the dominant POV is female, it is more common to develop character in the context of heterosocial and heterosexual relationships. Random example: David Eddings’ Belgariad.

* Two or more strong or supposed-to-be-strong female characters who are set up in opposition to each other. Their relationship, or the comparisons the reader draws between them, will be very important to the plot and character development, but they’re not friends or allies; each exists primarily in her own sphere. Random example: Morgan and Guinevere in Mists of Avalon.

Where are the books about girls working together? Why, in a mixed bag of protagonists, are female homosocial relationships always the last thing we hear about? I did a quick and unscientific scan of my brain, and came up with a few books that score highly in this regard: Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic quartet; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian (granted that the reason Susan and Lucy’s relationship stands out as distinct is that Lewis organises the children’s roles in the adventure by gender); Sara Douglass’ Troy Game series…

and Chretien de Troyes Chevalier au Lion. Ok, Yvain’s our protagonist, and his character development swings on his attempts to balance his homosocial relationship with Gawain against his heterosexual and heterosocial relationships with various women (and his relationship with a lion. WTF IS THAT LION DOING, anyway?). I could go on about this at length. I did go on about this at length and got rather pleasant marks for it, too. But even while sticking almost exclusively with Yvain’s POV, Chretien still manages to pwn most 20th and 21st century fantasy when it comes to strong female homosocial relationships.

We have:

* Lunette/Laudine. We’re left in no doubt that Lunette is the biggest influence on Laudine’s life – and Laudine appears to be the only strong claim on Lunette’s affections. There’s that gorgeous inversion of the courtly blind promise trope, and has anyone pointed out that Lunette’s negotiation of Yvain’s marriage to Laudine is a genderswapped version of the m/f/m triangle, with the man as the token between women?

* The Dame de Norison and her maid – a small-scale reproduction of Lunette/Laudine, delicious triangle dynamics and all.

* The tag-team of Questing Maidens on behalf of the Disinherited Sister.  I can never remember how many of them there were, exactly. They don’t have names and they don’t have direct dialogue, but they’re there and they’re a major plot device. A bunch of women (or was it just two? SOME WOMEN, anyway) recognising that another woman is in trouble, and setting out to fix it. That the only way, within Chretien’s social construct, for them to do so involves going and fetching a man, shouldn’t undermine the fact that they’re a bunch of women actively collaborating in the interests of one of their fellows and putting themselves at considerable physical risk to do so.

And in case we thought that everything was all happiness and roses in female homosocial-land, Chretien goes and adds tensions and misunderstandings to the female homosocial relationships he’s set up: Laudine blames Lunette for her betrayal and throws her out; the Feuding Sisters bicker their way across the narrative climax; and even at Norison (which, for a bunch of reasons I shan’t go into here, I think is meant to function as an example of good and harmonious social relationships, as opposed to Yvain’s unbalanced home situation), the Lady gets temporarily cranky with her maid.

What’s more, female homosocial relationships contribute to the narrative not just as plot devices but as character development. There have been reams of paper spent on the question of Laudine’s motives in first marrying and then re-marrying Yvain – does she love him? Is she manipulated? Does she really care? No matter what the conclusion is, no one can attack this question without examining the relationship between Laudine and Lunette, and the changes in their public and personal relations as evidence for Laudine’s feelings and choices.

But wait, it gets better! Or I think it does. I have a rather hazy thought that I swear I will chase up one day, to the effect that the female homosocial relationships in Le Chevalier au Lion also contribute to male character development. I think we’re supposed to read Lunette/Laudine in particular, but also the women of Norison and the tag-team of Questing Damsels, in contrast to Yvain/Gawain. Which homosocial relationships work to preserve a balanced social order? Which are compatible with balanced and mutually beneficial heterosexual relationships? And which homosocial relationship causes constant discord and demands preference above all other loyalties? I’m not sure if Yvain learns anything from the women around him, but I’m fairly sure the reader is supposed to use the examples of the women in the story to evaluate Yvain’s choices and character development.

In short: Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general. But I’m sure we all knew that already ;).

Is it good to be the king?

What is it that’s so fascinating about kings? I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s Richard II, thanks to angevin2, who has promised to divulge the mysteries of Shakespearean gender subversion now that I’ve finished it. This promises to be immensely fascinating, but let us first have a post about what really struck me while reading Richard II.

It’s very much about kingship. Well, no, duh. I’ve not read much Shakespeare, but enough to know that’s not unusual. My personal favourite Shakespeare is Macbeth, which is very much about kingship: the right to kingship; what makes a king; the gulf between the man and the king; the role of destiny in creating a king.  Richard II takes the same themes around again: instead of giving us a man who would become king (but cannot truly be king), this time we get one who is king and another who becomes king at the former’s expense. Is a king only a king? Is he a man and a king at once? Can he continue to be a man if he is not king?

Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

– off you go and read the whole speech, starting at line 1554.

What struck me about Richard’s identity crisis – aside from the fact that it’s beautiful – is that it’s incredibly familiar. This whole question of what is a king is a constant thread through all the fantasy literature I grew up on. 20th and 21st century authors don’t approach kingship in quite the same way as Shakespeare did: regardless of whether or not you’re fond of Queen Lizzy II, it’s not really Done to regard her as God’s hand on earth, or the fate of Britain or the Commonwealth as intrinsically wound up in her person and function. Large numbers of pseudo-medieval fantasy authors are living in countries with no monarchy at all.

And yet, almost every fantasy series you pick up has a king in it: often the  hero, who is not king, will become king. What makes a king, what kind of man must a king be, who can be king, how shall the king rule, is the king still king in exile? Aragorn, Denethor and Boromir: is it birth which sets Aragorn apart? Personality? Circumstances? Wisdom? His impressive manly stubble?

Tolkien would have answered Richard II’s question with a yes: kingship, in Aragorn, is an innate quality which he carried underneath the character of Strider: a strength he possessed in spite of his own self-doubt. Exactly what it is composed of, I’m not entirely sure: honour, duty, generosity, justice, the ability to command, manly stubble. And self-doubt: in contrast to Boromir’s self-assuredness, Aragorn’s self-doubt somehow became part of what made him the fit king. (Lewis spells the same thing out, and has Aslan tell Caspian that his self-doubt is what makes him fit to be king.)

There are others: I grew up on Tamora Pierce, and Crown Prince Jonathan who got all rebellious and sulky about being defined by his social function; a slew of modern Arthurian renditions which I could talk about for hours, but won’t just now; Ann Marston’s magic kings bound by bad faux-celtic magic to the land itself; Lewis – once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen; Robin Hobb’s flawed but earnest Farseer dynasty… Modern fantasy comes back to the question as often as Shakespeare: what is a king?

And yet kings are far less important in the English-speaking world today than they were for Shakespeare. What is it that makes the question of kingship so perennially interesting?

Your Semi-Medieval Humour for Today is…

> REYKJAVIK (AP) — Snorri Sturluson, a 12th-century Icelandic poet,
> today filed suit against J.R.R. Tolkien for plagiarizing dwarf-names
> from his work, The Prose Edda.

> Mr. Sturluson, who emerged from a volcano in western Iceland where
> he has been hibernating for 800 years, said that he had only recently
> learned of the similarities between his work and Prof. Tolkien’s The
> Hobbit.

> “Just look at it,” said Mr. Sturluson when interviewed today. “I’ve
> got a Thorin; he’s got a Thorin. I’ve got a Gandalf; he’s got a
> Gandalf. I’ve got Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori, and Ori: so has
> he. Coincidence? I think not!”

Full report at calimac’s livejournal.

Evolving Mythology: Arthurian Fanfic and Medieval Tradition

I don’t have here the jotting books I had with me through high school, or I’d quote to you directly from  Kevin Crossley- Holland’s “The King Who Was And Will Be”, an illustrated miscellany of athurian legend and medieval culture designed for kids of around thirteen. Something he said in the introduction stuck with me to this day (sadly, i can no longer quote it directly from memory): Camelot was never a place. Camelot has always been in people’s minds and hearts, never on a map. We don’t need to ask where or when Camelot was: we need to ask what it meant and what it means now.

You don’t need to have read much modern Arthurian fantasy to know that Camelot tells us more about the author’s time than Arthur’s: T.H. White ruined a good story with a lot of pondering about power and nationhood, during and following World War Two; Marion Zimmer Bradley put together cringe-worthy New Age Celtomania with criticisms of Christianity and a laudable desire to see stronger female characters; don’t ask me what the 2004 movie says about modern society, aside from the fact that we like to see Keira Knightley running into battle dressed in leather and blue paint.

On discovering the purist joys of medieval lit, I thought to wash my hands of such terrible inauthentic modern creations. Unfortunately, one can only spend so long with high medieval texts before realising that they are all in connection with each other: poets and authors create and recreate characters, extend one anothers’ stories, and recast old tales in new ways. As Hannah pointed out the other day, the late Middle English poem The Grene Knight reads like bad, bad SGGK fanfiction: but even our best texts don’t stand in a vacuum. I am increasingly convinced that the Gawain of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is substantially the same as Chretien’s Gawain, and that our Gawain’s adventures in a watery forest chapel are in some way connected to and commenting on Yvain’s adventures in a simiilar setting. Thomas Malory is fabulous, but his work is largely a compilation of earlier poets’ tales, with considerable effort put into ironing out the inconsistencies.

This is what mythology does: it is recast and retold, adapted to the tastes of new authors and new audiences. Most of you know that there’s a flourishing market for fantasy novels in general out there, and a sizeable corner of that market for Arthurian fantasy. Today, I shall bring you a few recommendations as to the best of Arthurian fanfic: non-professional stories (although some are by professional writers under psuedonyms) written for the author’s personal entertainment and/or for particular online audiences. There’s some truly horrific writing out there on the internet, and Arthurian fandom is no exception. But there is also some very, very very good writing out there. This is people taking up Arthurian legend- starting from medieval sources or from Marion Zimmer Bradley- and making it their own.

The best place I’ve found yet for Arthurian fic online is the aptly named LJ community arthurian_fic. Go, browse. Do be warned that, like all Arthurian lit, these works reflect the concerns and interests of their authors and audiences. Fandoms interests include, but are not limited to: romance, strong female characters, slash and lots of it (slash being m/m or, sometimes, f/f pairings), angst, serious literary commentary, dark and hopeless situations, and porn. All fics are posted under cuts or with links to other websites, so pay attention to the pairing and rating before you click to read.

In my opinion, the best medieval fic in the business is written by irisbleufic. She knows her medieval source texts well, and writes Roland/Oliver and Gawain/Bertilak. I heartily recommend Men Well Met, a retelling of parts of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written for the Yuletide 2005 Challenge. It’s work-safe, and lightly alliterated. The description she gives on the Yuletide database is: I’d like to suggest that there is more than one sequence of seduction scenes in the narrative, and I’m not referring to the parallel hunts, either. Happy Yule! (Rated PG-13)

Another excellent piece is Written in the Stars, by odette_river: Morgan considers her brother Arthur. Rated PG-13 for incest.

The Good That Won’t Come Out by ladybedivere is a delightful piece, from the point of view of Sir Bedivere, about age, wisdom and what makes a knight worthy. Rated PG.

And my absolute favourite, Their Mouths Were Fire, a 200 word drabble by Mhari. It’s rated R, because it’s set in the middle of a sex scene: its pairing is Mordred/Galahad, and it’s from Galahad’s POV. A beautiful and delicate exploration of the space between the good knight and the bad, between Arthur’s son and Lancelot’s. Galahad has always been my favourite Grail character, and it’s nice to see him written as something other than a total wet blanket.

So there you have it. Arthurian legend is alive and flourishing on the interwubs. 🙂

Why Teenage Girls Become Medieval Nerds: A Very Long Exposition

Let us now turn to Dr Nokes. This post shall cover, in the following order: * what ticked me off; * the sorts of medieval things a teenage girl might be reading, both history and fiction; * the reasons why she (and her male counterparts) are into medievalism anyway; * where the experiece of teenage girls and boys differs in medievalism; and finally * what history can offer to teenage girls that fantasy fiction doesn’t yet.

In his first post, Dr Nokes has a lot of good things to say about ‘applied medievalism’, how to do it and why to do it, and his final point very much agreed with the one I made in my last post.

That’s the difference between fanboy medievalism and applied medievalism. Fanboy medievalism just says, “Oh my gosh, that sword is so awesome!” Applied medievalism acknowledges the kick-butt awesomeness of the sword, but offers a broader context, like thinking about how the ceremonial swords Marines carry suggest the chivalric virtues they are still expected to continue as part of their warrior ethos. In that way, applied medievalism ideally inspires fanboys to explore further. After all, none of us emerged from the womb fully-developed thinkers about medievalism. We all started as fans, but through our explorations became more.

What gets my goat is the use of the term ‘fanboy‘, a term which he has since explained he uses because ‘fangirl’ carries unwanted connotations of ‘OMG ELIJAH WOOD IS LYKE MY HUSBAND 4EVAR‘. Urbandictionary supports this distinction, so ok, fair enough Dr Nokes. He jokingly suggests that he should use ‘fankind’, but what’s wrong with the words we have- ‘fan’, ‘nerd’, ‘fandom’?

For the purposes of the last post, I’ve used the word nerd, to denote an individual enthusiast of unpopular topics, but I shall now add to it the noun ‘fandom’, as the collective noun for the community of such nerds and the activities in which they engage. Fandom is a term normally applied to enthusiasts of a particular piece of ‘popular’ culture- books, movies, games, comics, TV shows, and to the fanfic, role playing, cosplay, and so forth which they construct around their chosen canon. With my newly invented term ‘medieval fandom’, I’m lumping together all the fandoms associated with medieval fantasy and historical fiction, movies, games, etc; and adding to them medieval history nerds and medieval role players, cosplayers, etc like the SCA who take the historical period as their canon. Are we all clear on that? Yes? Good. Let’s get back to the teenage female constituent of that fandom.

The term ‘fanboy’ aside, something about Dr Nokes’ picture of the medieval nerd bugs me. He didn’t flesh out in great detail the sort of person he pictures as the popular medievalist, so maybe I’m being a bit unfair to that post. However, it comes across as a very male picture of the medieval nerd. All swords and fightin’ and stuff. (Not that I don’t appreciate a good shiny sword… or avidly consume the Woman With Sword subgenre of medieval fantasy…) I pointed that out, and gave some suggestions on the kind of female figures- Joan of Arc, Eleanor d’Aquitaine, Jeanne de Montforte, Marie de France- whose strong characters and general awesomeness are what attracted me to medieval nerdery in the first place. It’s by reading up on these individually interesting characters that I started building a picture of the society they lived in.

Dr Nokes followed through with his next post, in which it turns out I was right. His average medieval nerd *is* an exclusively male figure, and what’s more, he apparently the intelligence of teenage girls is insufficient to be attracted by figures of scholarly study like Eleanor, Heloise and Julian of Norwich.

Still, it started me wondering, who are the female medieval figures that draw fangirls to medievalism? Highly Eccentric mentions Marie de France, Joan d’Arc, and Jeanne de Montfort, Eleanor of Aquitane, and Heloise, but I wonder how many of these a girl is likely to encounter before she takes an interest? I would think the first medievalist figures a fangirl encounters would be Guinevere, Elaine, maybe Joan d’Arc or Boudicca (which may depend on the national heroines of her country), or women fantasy authors.

So, how about it? Ladies, what brought you into fankind? No scholarly answers, either — no 14-year-old girl ever picked up the Shewings of Julian of Norwich and said, “hmmm, I’ll bet this’ll be as interesting as the Baby-sitters Club series” — I’m curious as to what drew your interest back before you even knew you had an interest. Or was it the same kind of Tolkien, D&D stuff that draws fanboys?

Gee, thanks Dr Nokes. Given that BabySitters Club is aimed at the 7-11 set, any 14 year old still counting them as the height of interesting reading is probably not destined for a life of arcane nerdery.

If you’re wondering how teenage girls stumble across figures like Eleanor d’Aquitaine: we READ. If she’s anything like me, the fourteen year old girl in question will have picked up an illustrated children’s guide to the middle ages sometime in primary school, having learnt at about age seven that history books are always more interesting than BabySitter’s Club. She wasn’t looking for anything medieval; she wasn’t looking for strong female characters; she was looking for something interesting to do with her lunch break. She had probably already read The Roman Times for a class project, and picked upThe Medieval Messenger which was lying next to it, because she knew that series is funny. After that, she might have specifically sought out something like The Measly Middle Ages, or perhaps she stumbled across it by accident. There aren’t many medieval fiction books out there aimed at the under-ten set that she might happen across, but I think I read a King Arthur comic book and a three-chapter novella about a young kid transported to King Arthur’s Court.

If she’s like me she’ll start reading Redwall and Tamora Pierce before she finishes primary school. If she’s like K, the Heretical Purple Blur I mentioned in my last post, who’s a little younger than me and was around for some books I missed by virtue of Getting Old, she’s also reading Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur series, and the Royal Diaries (where, Dr Nokes, she might meet Eleanor D’Aquitaine and Isabella of Castille…) By fourteen, she’s probably reading Tolkien and is already a regular posting member on a handful of fantasy fiction fan sites. She will be reading Arthurian fantasy, and the Arthurian canon is leading her outwards into faux-history and pop history. Depending on the state of her local library, she might be reading Sara Douglass’ The Betrayal of Arthur, or T.W. Holleston’s Celtic Mythology. When she gets older, she might beg her parents to buy her the Allan Lee illustrated Mabinogion and the Oxford Classics translation of Malory. Primary source reading will find its way onto her bookshelf as a matter of course, because she’s insatiably curious and irreparably escapist.1

She sounds much the same as any intelligent, library-lurking fourteen-year old boy, doesn’t she? She’s reading fiction and history together; she’s attracted by exciting characters, different settings and adventurous plots. At fourteen, she’s probably also paying close and curious attention to the kissing scenes- but then, I suspect her male counterpart is too, even if he won’t admit it. Even if she’s only one tenth of the nerd I was, even if (as it seems from the comments) American libraries aren’t near so well stocked in children’s Medieval history books as British and Australian libraries might be… It still shouldn’t be surprising that an intelligent teenager should find medieval history interesting when she stumbles across it!

Nokes asks if girls are attracted to Tolkien and D&D, as the boys are. In fact, as long as I’ve been in it, Tolkien fandom is predominately a female domain. I can count the regular male posters over at ringbearer.org on my fingers. OK, a lot of the female Tolkien fans back when I joined up were the ‘fangirls’ that we (the SRS TOLKIEN READERS) called ‘swooners’ back in the day, but most of the hardcore Tolkienuts were (are) also female. I’ve never tried playing D&D, and I understand it does draw a more male-oriented group.

The problem is, Nokes takes it as given that boys are attracted Tolkien and D&D, without saying why, while wondering what might interest girls in medieval fandom. Well, what are the boys in fandom for? Why should we expect the basic attraction to be any different, although gender may result in some statistical variation as to exact field of interest?

I shall hereby posit three things which attract young people to medieval fandom, and I see no reason why these basic attractive elements are any different for the history side of it as opposed to the fiction and gaming side.

1. Above all, again and again, escapism. There’s something really enthralling about societies and cultures so different to our own that we have to piece them together bit by bit- and then the similarities you find are so much more engaging. If you pick up Bridget Jones, for example, you don’t lose yourself in her world, because her world is yours (or it’s supposed to be… someone shoot me if I’m ever that much of a twit). Tolkien, Raymond E Feist, Gary Gygax’s games, the LOTR films- they take you out of your setting and away.
The thing is, historical non-fiction does the same thing. You can piece together a picture of another world, another society, where cool and exciting things happen, and cool and exciting people live, only with the added bonus of it was all real once and you can never learn ‘all there is to know’ about it.
Reason 1A for being attracted to medieval fandom is ‘characters to identify with’. Really cool people, fictional or historical, are what draws you in to their world, and I think it’s here that there comes up a difference between girls and guys, so Reason 1A will be treated separately.

2. Intellectual stimulation. As per my post yesterday morning, knowing stuff is fun. Knowing stuff few other people know is a double-edged sword: you get your own little universe, but you don’t get any sense of solidarity out of it. A sufficiently intelligent teenager, having discovered that medieval history is pretty cool by just picking up a book off the shelf, will probably continue to pick up books from the shelf because she enjoys learning things; because doing research of her own offers more scope and depth and fun (see escapism, Reason 1) than the simplistic approach of the high school syllabus. For the same reason, she’ll probably thrive on Tolkien- even if it takes her nine months the first time around, as it did me- because Tolkien is so much more demanding on the reader than anything they set you in high school. (Unless you have trouble with Shakespearean language, I guess…)

3. The fandom community. Like Dr Nokes’ typical fanboy, many girls must come to an interest in medieval studies only via their first interest in Tolkien, or Arthurian lit, or the works of Tamora Pierce, having somehow never picked up a copy of ‘The Measly Middle Ages’. Or maybe they did, thought it was kind of cool, and were never afflicted by the obsessive desire to research which afflicts K and I. Regardless of how much you’re reading on your own, a sense of community and people to nerd out with will go a long way to keeping your interest active. I quite liked Tolkien, but my Rabidly Obsessive Phase didn’t come about until I’d been on ringbearer.org long enough to absorb the enthusiasm. RB also gave me a bunch of recs for other good fantasy lit… My guess is that the fanfic side of fandom works the same way, and I wonder: if more people were out there writing historically-informed fic for fantasy lit, if that might arouse interest in the primary texts? (Example: an alliterative Gawain fic by a Proper Medievalist whose name shall not be publicised for the sake of her reputation…) A quick search of the internet reveals that there’s at least one medieval history forum out there, as well as multiplicious fantasy boards.

Having established these three reasons to be into medieval fandom, and that history and fiction are both attractive for these three reasons, let us return to Reason 1A, ‘characters to identify with’.

1A. Having interesting fictional or historical characters makes for a great interest-grabbing hook which sparks your interest in a genre or period. For me, medieval pop history provided something that fantasy fiction didn’t: strong female characters I could really identify with.

Let me clarify that. It’s not that fantasy lit doesn’t have strong female characters. There’s a whole subgenre that I like to call the ‘Women with Swords’ genre- most notably Tamora Pierce, who often says of her work that one of her main aims in writing young people’s fantasy is to provide teenage girls with heroic female role models. I devoured Women-With-Swords books as a teenager, and several concluding books (including ROTK) were violently thrown across the room when I discovered that the Shieldmaiden wasn’t going to get the Main Hero Guy. The problem is that most of the ‘Sheroes’ in fantasy are cast in the same mould: they’re tough, physically strong, assertive characters whose strength is in acting man-like, which almost always means wielding a sword. Every one of Pierce’s Tortall protagonists has a weapon of some kind (discounting magic, which most of them have as well), even Thayet, who is otherwise depicted as powerful by virtue of her royal birth and skill at court politics. The hallmark of a strong female fantasy character is her ability to pass as a man. While that makes for a rollicking story, and I passionately idolised and envied the Shieldmaiden, fact is I know and have always known, I’d never pass for a knight. Zip, zero knightliness here. Nor am I going to dress as a sailor and stow away to sea, or dress as a pirate and take over the ship (Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders), and I’d rather not get involved in any telepathic dragon orgies, really (yes, I once read Ann McCaffrey. We all have our shameful secrets). But at the same time, I find Arwen boring, I find Imrhien’s lovesick wanderings around Erith tedious, and although I now recognise that Faraday is the true tragic hero of the Axis trilogy, as a teenager I found her wilting and dull and wished she’d get around to doing something interesting for once.

Now, there are manifold types of male heroes in medieval literature and medieval fantasy. Big, buff, tough type, ‘most eager for praise’? Beowulf is for you. Fancy yourself as a cunning trouble maker? Loki. You’re the little guy who’d rather not have to play the hero? Frodo. Can you see yourself as a guerrilla, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor? Robin Hood. Are you the poet, the dreamer and the visionary? Stephen R. Lawhead’s Taliesin. You want to alternate your time between studying ancient scrolls and leading your trained scouts into enemy territory? Then you’re a Faramir. The list goes on and on. Point is, no matter what your teenage boys temperament is, now matter how unlikely he is to ever duel someone for his lady’s honour, there’s a role model in medieval fandom that say he could be the hero, given the right circumstances. Medieval literature just doesn’t offer that sort of scope in female characters. Efforts have been made in fantasy to redress the imbalance, witness the popularity of Shieldmaiden protagonists. But more often, I’d like to see a nun as a fantasy hero, or a minor lord’s wife, or a princess who never even asks to pick up a sword, or a queen mother, or a farmer’s daughter.

This is where historians can fill the breach. Because history is about real people, and real people, however narrow their prescribed social roles, come in all shapes and sizes and with all kinds of temperaments. For some reason, although I can’t imagine me ever developing the motor skills to wield a sword, I look at Eleanor of Aquitane and part of me thinks ‘I could do that’. I read about Adela of Blois and I think ‘huh- running the estate while my husband’s on Crusade, nagging him until he returns a second time, and then taking over the headship of the family when he dies? I’m pretty good at nagging.’ Nevermind that I’m tactless and a bad liar, and so would be terrible at politics. Part of me thinks I could learn that, whereas I couldn’t learn to use a crossbow. As a budding author of bad teenage poetry, it didn’t require any effort at all to identify with Marie de France, and she’s remained one of my favourite characters, despite the little I’ve had the time and access to read of her writing.

Medieval history has some awesome characters in it, and among them are some pretty fantastic female characters in every sub-period. Michelle, in her reply to Dr Nokes, said she didn’t think there were any women in Anglo-Saxon England who’d be attractive to noob girls… but what about Æthelflæd, who kicked Danish butt in the early 800s? I can see St Æthelthryth No-Sex-For-YOU of Ely warranting a whole page in ‘The Abominable Anglo-Saxons’, if Terry Deary ever writes such a thing.

So there you go. There’s so much to interest a teenage girl in medieval fandom, I wrote an essay-length post on it in a matter of hours. If only essays were this easy! To summarise:

• Teenage girls come to medieval fandom the same way boys do: they read stuff. The read fiction, they read history books, they read the Intarwebs, and they probably started reading these things before they were out of primary school.
• The reasons teenage girls are attracted to medieval fandom are, at the root of it, the same as those of teenage boys, and fiction and history can be attractive in the same was: as escapism, as intellectual stimulation, and as part of a wider community of fandom.
• There isn’t the same variety of female characters to identify with in medieval fantasy as there is of male characters. This is important, because identifying with a character really creates your escapist alternate world, and it provides a stimulus for further research.
• Historians can fill that gap and make medieval history more interesting to young girls by telling stories of real medieval women, and telling them in an engaging and accessible fashion.

Here endeth the lesson rant for today.

~

1. If she has a father like mine, she’ll have company in her Celtic explorations; she will also have acquired a working knowledge of the First World War and aviation history, not to mention the fall of the Roman Empire, the invention of the motor car and the difference between a Neanderthal and a Homo Sapiens. Because curiosity is better in company.

Fun in the Fourteenth Century

Executed Today (a most entertaining and grizzly blog) has a fascinating post on the execution of Guillame Cale, leader of the Jaquerie.

I’ve had a poke at this sort of thing on here before: the fourteenth century wasn’t a secure time for anyone, and can’t have been a good time to be a peasant, but the goings-on going on were also inducing considerable angst for the knightly classes. Executed Today tells how the Jaquerie terrorised the local aristocracy (quoting someone contemporary named Froissart):

Thus they gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. … And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein.

Because this post has no actual point, I’m going to use it to make a random fantasy literature recommendation, which is loosely related because it contains the slaughtered knight and his family just mentioned.

Sara Douglass’ ‘The Crucible’ Trilogy, set in a very-nearly-real-world version of 14th century Europe is, as far as I’m concerned, the best modern example of the fact that it takes a medievalist to write good fantasy fiction. (Old examples: Tolkien, Lewis. Another modern (also Australian!) example is the children’s author Catharine Jinks, who studied under JP, and her interests- Crusades, the office of notary, among other things- strongly reflect his.)

Douglass messes around with facts of time and chronological order, so if you’re a stickler for that sort of thing, don’t go there. The Crucible is, as well as an intricate story with a labyrinthine plot, a fascinating rendering of the medieval mind. Her main character, an embittered and warped monk, has internalised all that is ugly about medieval religion, and twisted it around his own unpleasant character. It took me a whole two months to get through the first two books, because she kept successfully convincing me that I was inherently evil by virtue of my gender. Her depiction of the demonic world is terrifying- she knows her Aquinas, that one, and this book is an unpleasant glimpse into what it might feel like to really, truly believe in the demonic world of the middle ages.

On the other hand, she takes the unsettling changes of the fourteenth century, which she depicts as the turning point between the ‘modern’ and the ancient worlds, and draws them in similarly captivating form. Are the uprisings across Europe, the Black Death, the political upheavals, the outbreaks of heresy, all part of a demonic assault on the established order (as no doubt they seemed to some), or are they part of something new, something better, something freer? It would be a criminal generalisation in academic work, but it makes for a brilliant story.

Douglass could’ve written an academic paper about any aspect of fourteenth century social change- and maybe she did, in her past life as an academic. Instead, she drew all this together, made leaps and associations you can’t make in historical study, and rendered it real and captivating in a way that no academic paper ever is. Don’t read it if you’re a stickler for chronological order. But do read it if the fantasy canon ticks you off with its faux-medieval setting and the fact that every fantasy novel out there seems to be set in exactly the same post-Tolkien world.

Oh, and don’t read these books if you get offended at Phillip Pullman. Really, don’t. (Having said that, I liked her depiction of Jesus. But l found Phillip Pullman spiritually inspiring rather than the reverse…)