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Why the middle ages are so popular in fiction

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  • Pauline J. Alama
    I have often wondered myself why the middle ages are such fertile country for fantasy. I think one answer may be that the medieval writers themselves wrote
    Message 1 of 17 , Mar 8, 2002
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      I have often wondered myself why the middle ages are such fertile country for fantasy. I think one answer may be that the medieval writers themselves wrote backward-looking, fantastical adventures -- medieval romances are generally set in some misty far-off time, the time of Arthur or the Roman age or something -- even when, on close inspection, this misty far-off time looks a lot like a more highly colored version of the writer's own time (e.g., tournaments were popular in the 12th century, and so 12th-century writers like Chretien put them in Arthurian romances, where they have become a fixture).

      In answer to the Luddite question -- I think the term "antimodernist" is better, as less derogatory and clearer. And I think it fits Tolkien.

      Pauline J. Alama
      71 Chestnut St.
      Rutherford NJ 07070
      (201) 460-3662

      --- On Fri 03/08, <jamcconney@...> wrote:
      > Well, this has made me think a bit. Why is so much fantasy laid in the
      > "generic Middle Ages"? Is it a sort of desire to get back to
      > simpler things
      > while conveniently ignoring such matters as outside toilets, half year
      > journeys, lugging your water from the well in a bucket, reading and
      > writing
      > by candlelight with goosequill pens?
      >
      > I admit I'm just as much into this as anybody, as I work in a rather
      > desultory way on a long fantasy set in just such a world (it's science
      > fictional in that it's another planet, one that has used up its natural
      > resources and been forced back to nature by severe shorages of almost all
      > the
      > materials needed for technology. I didn't place it in the real middle ages
      >
      > because I wanted to make up my own sociology, geography, history and so
      > on--rather like McCaffrey's Pern but without dragons).
      >
      > So I ask again--why so much fantasy set in the medieval milieu rather
      > than,
      > say, that of ancient Rome or the 18th century?
      >
      > Jamaq
      >
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      <hr>
    • dianejoy@earthlink.net
      ... From: Pauline J. Alama PJAlama@excite.com
      Message 2 of 17 , Mar 8, 2002
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        Original Message:
        -----------------
        From: Pauline J. Alama PJAlama@...

        << I have often wondered myself why the middle ages are such fertile country for fantasy. I think one answer may be that the medieval writers themselves wrote backward-looking, fantastical adventures -- medieval romances are generally set in some misty far-off time, the time of Arthur or the Roman age or something -- even when, on close inspection, this misty far-off time looks a lot like a more highly colored version of the writer's own time (e.g., tournaments were popular in the 12th century, and so 12th-century writers like Chretien put them in Arthurian romances, where they have become a fixture). >>

        I know enough about the Middle Ages to know I would *not* want to live there, but have a medievalist fantasy setting myself in something I'm doing. However, what I would *really* like to do is to come up with a formulation that allows for tech developments that went off in nother directions---so that my characters (from one culture to the next) might have some technologies that our medieval folk would not have---but that would mean that my characters would not know about medieval inventions that occurred here.

        It requires a lot of thinking about which technologies support other technologies---and I think most writers don't want to do that much thinking. So they stick with what they know---and you have to give the medieval period this much. On its surface, it seems all shimmery and colorful, and romantic. We'd all like to live there for a while.

        However, when you know a lot about it, you find it's just an age like any other---with all its blind spots, its joys, its beauties, and its flawed people. (Which is why I like George R. R. Martin: he captures all of that!)

        We high-tech folk tend to go the way of Rousseau, romanticizing the "noble savage," and that's all over the place w/ respect to Native American history, which has gathered its own form of romanticism. Romance says: "Everything was so much purer and better without industrialization." We tend to forget (or take for granted) the *benefits* of industrialization: that food can stay cold and be shipped all over, that we don't die of pneumonia as often, that our women don't die from childbirth, our lives are longer, and the great majority of us aren't breaking our backs harvesting wheat for some lord of the manor. We actually have sidewalks, and our streets don't flow with the contents of night-pots. (Talk about pollution!) Despite my love of fantasy, I am a thorough-going pro-modernist, especially when it comes to technology! Now if we were only as smart in moral realms. I feel an off topic rant coming on, and I'll spare you that! My on topic ones are bad enough. ---djb


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      • Bill
        One name: Arthur. I think I recall reading somewhere that there are more books written on Arthur than any other historical (or legendary figure). I d write
        Message 3 of 17 , Mar 8, 2002
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          One name: Arthur.
          I think I recall reading somewhere that there
          are more books written on Arthur than any other historical
          (or legendary figure). I'd write more,but I have to be in
          work
          in 45 minutes, so until tonight I will just report that a
          director
          is planning a new movie epic on Camelot, and NBC is casting

          a "Young Arthur" tv series.








          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • Stolzi@aol.com
          Jamaq wrote ... Some possible reasons: The =clothes= are just the best. :) The romantic atmosphere which is induced: the first English romantics, in fact,
          Message 4 of 17 , Mar 8, 2002
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            Jamaq wrote

            > > So I ask again--why so much fantasy set in the medieval milieu rather
            > > than,
            > > say, that of ancient Rome or the 18th century?

            Some possible reasons: The =clothes= are just the best. :)

            The romantic atmosphere which is induced: the first English romantics, in
            fact, looked back to medievalism. That produces the further question, of
            course, "why did they do so?"

            The poetry of the Church, combined with the poetry of a good deal of
            still-remembered paganism (magic wells, fairies lurking in the woods, all
            that kind of thing).

            The strong influence of Malory, maybe?

            I think there's room for a good serious literary study, here.

            Diamond Proudbrook
          • David S. Bratman
            Actually, these days fantasy is set in all kinds of milieus. A genericized late 18th century seems to be very popular in romances fiction (deriving from Jane
            Message 5 of 17 , Mar 8, 2002
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              Actually, these days fantasy is set in all kinds of milieus. A genericized
              late 18th century seems to be very popular in romances fiction (deriving
              from Jane Austen, perhaps?) and that's spilling over into fantasy, for
              instance.

              But a genericized medievalism does seem to be very popular in fantasy, yes.
              I suspect that the main reason is because the authors are following the
              example of earlier authors who did the same thing. Which only puts the
              question back a stage.

              The main reason that the classic fantasy texts have a medieval feel is
              because they were written by authors who were most moved by medieval
              literature. In Tolkien's case, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Eddas and so
              forth, and also fairy tales, not always exactly medieval but certainly
              pre-industrial in feel. William Morris, more specifically than Tolkien,
              held medieval values as a virtue and was thus drawn to that period. A
              number of other authors, as someone mentioned, were specifically drawn to
              Arthurian texts.

              I say "medieval values", rather than the medieval era itself, to try to
              head off the usual excluded-middle objection that if you like the medieval
              era you must approve of disease and lack of plumbing. The most intense
              modern medievalists call their organization the Society for Creative
              Anachronism for the very reason that they take what they want from
              medievalism and leave what they don't want: they like being creative, and
              they don't mind being anachronistic.

              But not all classic fantasies are as medieval as they might look. Tolkien
              has echoes of classicism: Gondor should remind you a bit more of Ancient
              Egypt than, say, the Holy Roman Empire; and the Valar resemble the Greek
              gods as much as the Norse. Dunsany's early stories have an extremely
              ancient air to them, reminding me of something Sumerian or thereabouts
              rather than medieval Europe, and his geographic imagination was always
              leading to the Middle East. Peake's Gormenghast is deliberately a riot of
              differing times, but its center appears to be somewhere around the 17th
              century.

              By the way, I agree with Pauline that "antimodernist" fits Tolkien better
              than "Luddite" which means not environmental protection nor romantic
              medievalism, but a fear of progress for reasons of economic self-protection.

              David Bratman
            • David S. Bratman
              Actually, these days fantasy is set in all kinds of milieus. A genericized late 18th century seems to be very popular in romances fiction (deriving from Jane
              Message 6 of 17 , Mar 8, 2002
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                Actually, these days fantasy is set in all kinds of milieus. A genericized
                late 18th century seems to be very popular in romances fiction (deriving
                from Jane Austen, perhaps?) and that's spilling over into fantasy, for
                instance.

                But a genericized medievalism does seem to be very popular in fantasy, yes.
                I suspect that the main reason is because the authors are following the
                example of earlier authors who did the same thing. Which only puts the
                question back a stage.

                The main reason that the classic fantasy texts have a medieval feel is
                because they were written by authors who were most moved by medieval
                literature. In Tolkien's case, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Eddas and so
                forth, and also fairy tales, not always exactly medieval but certainly
                pre-industrial in feel. William Morris, more specifically than Tolkien,
                held medieval values as a virtue and was thus drawn to that period. A
                number of other authors, as someone mentioned, were specifically drawn to
                Arthurian texts.

                I say "medieval values", rather than the medieval era itself, to try to
                head off the usual excluded-middle objection that if you like the medieval
                era you must approve of disease and lack of plumbing. The most intense
                modern medievalists call their organization the Society for Creative
                Anachronism for the very reason that they take what they want from
                medievalism and leave what they don't want: they like being creative, and
                they don't mind being anachronistic.

                But not all classic fantasies are as medieval as they might look. Tolkien
                has echoes of classicism: Gondor should remind you a bit more of Ancient
                Egypt than, say, the Holy Roman Empire; and the Valar resemble the Greek
                gods as much as the Norse. Dunsany's early stories have an extremely
                ancient air to them, reminding me of something Sumerian or thereabouts
                rather than medieval Europe, and his geographic imagination was always
                leading to the Middle East. Peake's Gormenghast is deliberately a riot of
                differing times, but its center appears to be somewhere around the 17th
                century.

                By the way, I agree with Pauline that "antimodernist" fits Tolkien better
                than "Luddite" which means not environmental protection nor romantic
                medievalism, but a fear of progress for reasons of economic self-protection.

                David Bratman
              • juliet@firinn.org
                ... I think Don Quixote should provide some clues to this question. Don Quixote seems to be motivated by a desire to be larger-than-life, and to have dramatic
                Message 7 of 17 , Mar 8, 2002
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                  On Fri, Mar 08, 2002 at 12:52:59PM -0500, Stolzi@... wrote:
                  > Jamaq wrote
                  >
                  > > > So I ask again--why so much fantasy set in the medieval milieu rather
                  > > > than,
                  > > > say, that of ancient Rome or the 18th century?
                  >
                  > Some possible reasons: The =clothes= are just the best. :)
                  >
                  > The romantic atmosphere which is induced: the first English romantics, in
                  > fact, looked back to medievalism. That produces the further question, of
                  > course, "why did they do so?"
                  >
                  > The poetry of the Church, combined with the poetry of a good deal of
                  > still-remembered paganism (magic wells, fairies lurking in the woods, all
                  > that kind of thing).
                  >
                  > The strong influence of Malory, maybe?
                  >
                  > I think there's room for a good serious literary study, here.

                  I think Don Quixote should provide some clues to this question. Don
                  Quixote seems to be motivated by a desire to be larger-than-life, and to
                  have dramatic adventures. On the other hand, medieval literature
                  doesn't have so much of the brain-splattering yuck factor of earlier
                  literature such as the Iliad. (I just finished reading it and am
                  convinced that 75% of it deals solely with who stabbed whom where
                  and what organs were squished as a result.) The difference becomes
                  very evident when one reads something like the Mabinogion, with its
                  combination of ancient Celtic legend and Norman romance.

                  But why does an author who does want to write more of the gory details
                  stay with a medieval millieu? Don Quixote can provide at least one
                  good reason. It's what the author is used to, as a result of reading
                  lots of medieval fantasies. It just seems natural.
                • jamcconney@aol.com
                  In a message dated 3/8/2002 10:33:31 AM Central Standard Time, ... Do you mean the moral realms of generic-medieval or real-medieval? If the latter, I don t
                  Message 8 of 17 , Mar 8, 2002
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                    In a message dated 3/8/2002 10:33:31 AM Central Standard Time,
                    dianejoy@... writes:


                    > Now if we were only as smart in moral realms

                    Do you mean the moral realms of generic-medieval or real-medieval?

                    If the latter, I don''t really think an era that practiced slavery, burned
                    dissidents at the stake, and practiced judicial torture as a matter of course
                    has much going for it in moral terms. War, on the other hand, we seem always
                    to have with us....sigh.
                    Jamaq


                    [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
                  • m.bodez
                    David What do you mean by Gondor should remind you a bit more of Ancient Egypt ? What is egyptian in Gondor ? Marie
                    Message 9 of 17 , Mar 9, 2002
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                      David
                      What do you mean by "Gondor should remind you a bit more of Ancient Egypt" ?
                      What is egyptian in Gondor ?
                      Marie
                    • alexeik@aol.com
                      In a message dated 3/8/2 7:40:57 PM, David Bratman wrote:
                      Message 10 of 17 , Mar 9, 2002
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                        In a message dated 3/8/2 7:40:57 PM, David Bratman wrote:

                        <<Peake's Gormenghast is deliberately a riot of
                        differing times, but its center appears to be somewhere around the 17th
                        century.>>

                        My impression has always been that Gormenghast is set in a far-off,
                        post-industrial future, where the disappearance of technological amenities
                        has given culture an Early Modern "look". I think this is confirmed in _Titus
                        Alone_, where we are shown the world outside Gormenghast, and it definitely
                        looks more like a decayed version of our modern world (complete with
                        lingering bits of advanced technology) than any past period of history.
                        Alexei
                      • David S. Bratman
                        Alexei - You are quite right that Peake s trilogy has a decayed-future setting. But that is not at all contradictory to my point that Gormenghast (by which I
                        Message 11 of 17 , Mar 9, 2002
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                          Alexei -

                          You are quite right that Peake's trilogy has a decayed-future setting. But
                          that is not at all contradictory to my point that Gormenghast (by which I
                          meant the castle, not the "trilogy") is inspired by "a riot of differing
                          times, [centering] somewhere around the 17th century." Your point is one
                          I've often made myself; today I was making a different point.

                          Many readers of _Titus Alone_ see its science-fictional future setting as
                          something of an inexplicable shock, after the musty old castle that
                          completely dominated two large books. They excuse the book by explaining
                          that Peake was ill when he wrote it. He was ill, to be sure, and yes the
                          book is flawed thereby, but the basic conception that bothers these readers
                          is exactly what the author intended.

                          The very mustiness of the castle and the fossilization of its rituals are
                          evidence that Gormenghast is an atavism, that it has long survived out of
                          its proper time. So, to an extent, is the riotous mixture of different
                          times. The question I was addressing is, what is the "proper time" that it
                          has long survived out of?

                          And the point I was making was that the time period evoked by the style of
                          Gormenghast, never mind when it's supposedly actually set, was early-modern
                          and not medieval.

                          In this discussion, on why the Middle Ages are so popular in fantasy, we
                          have been discussing stories which are inspired by or evoke the Middle
                          Ages, whether or not they're actually set in Western Europe during the
                          6th-15th centuries A.D. LotR isn't set in that time period, for instance:
                          it's set in an imaginary pre-Christian age forgotten by conventional
                          history. But it feels largely medieval, certainly not prehistoric.

                          And similarly, regardless of when Gormenghast is nominally set, we can
                          discuss what time period it was inspired by or evokes.


                          David Bratman


                          At 10:26 AM 3/9/2002 , Alexei wrote:

                          >In a message dated 3/8/2 7:40:57 PM, David Bratman wrote:
                          >
                          ><<Peake's Gormenghast is deliberately a riot of
                          >differing times, but its center appears to be somewhere around the 17th
                          >century.>>
                          >
                          >My impression has always been that Gormenghast is set in a far-off,
                          >post-industrial future, where the disappearance of technological amenities
                          >has given culture an Early Modern "look". I think this is confirmed in _Titus
                          >Alone_, where we are shown the world outside Gormenghast, and it definitely
                          >looks more like a decayed version of our modern world (complete with
                          >lingering bits of advanced technology) than any past period of history.
                        • Stolzi@aol.com
                          In a message dated 3/10/02 1:09:03 PM Central Standard Time, ... Those two big statues on the way in? ;) Oh, the tomb area and emphasis thereon - and the
                          Message 12 of 17 , Mar 10, 2002
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                            In a message dated 3/10/02 1:09:03 PM Central Standard Time,
                            m.bodez@... writes:

                            > What is egyptian in Gondor ?

                            Those two big statues on the way in? ;)

                            Oh, the tomb area and emphasis thereon - and the preservation of ancient
                            records - is pretty Egyptian, too. The style of the crown has been compared
                            (perhaps by JRRT himself?) to an Egyptian one, also.

                            Diamond Proudbrook
                          • michael_martinez2
                            ... ancient ... been compared ... Tolkien did indeed make the comparison between Gondor and Egypt, in a letter to one of his readers. He said the Numenoreans
                            Message 13 of 17 , Mar 11, 2002
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                              --- In mythsoc@y..., Stolzi@a... wrote:
                              > In a message dated 3/10/02 1:09:03 PM Central Standard Time,
                              > m.bodez@w... writes:
                              >
                              > > What is egyptian in Gondor ?
                              >
                              > Those two big statues on the way in? ;)
                              >
                              > Oh, the tomb area and emphasis thereon - and the preservation of
                              ancient
                              > records - is pretty Egyptian, too. The style of the crown has
                              been compared
                              > (perhaps by JRRT himself?) to an Egyptian one, also.
                              >
                              > Diamond Proudbrook

                              Tolkien did indeed make the comparison between Gondor and Egypt, in a
                              letter to one of his readers. He said the Numenoreans were like the
                              Egyptians in many ways, and listed a few examples, including their
                              love for massive construction, their preoccupation with longevity and
                              the preservation of the dead, the division of the Two Kingdoms, and
                              their crowns.

                              Although Tolkien undeniably drew upon medieval sources for his
                              fiction, he also drew upon many classical sources, and it is
                              unfortunate that many of his readers fail to recognize those very
                              strong classical influences on Tolkien. He used the Bible, Greek
                              philosophy and mythology, and even Babylonian sources. A few years
                              ago, in order to prove that Tolkien had confined himself to medieval
                              studies as much as possible, someone from the news groups asked Tom
                              Shippey whether he ever viewed himself as a medievalist.

                              Shippey's response (archived on Google Groups, but I don't have time
                              to search for it) stipulated that Tolkien viewed himself as a
                              classicist, but he did not use the word "medievalist" the way people
                              use it today. Shippey conceded that if pressed really hard, Tolkien
                              might have agreed he was a "medievalist", but pointed out that
                              Tolkien though of himself as a philologist (a point which Tolkien
                              makes more than once in his letters).

                              To Tolkien, language was not confined to a specific time period, or
                              even to a region. His study of the Anglo-Saxon language is
                              categorized as a specialization in the literature, but he explained
                              (in at least one of his letters) that he was fascinated by the
                              history of words. He often makes references to ancient forms of
                              words, and modern equivalents, moving about through the chronology of
                              language very comfortably.

                              Tolkien viewed his Rohirrim as "Homeric horsemen", whereas the
                              argument is made by many people today that they were Anglo-Saxon
                              horsemen -- largely because Tolkien used Anglo-Saxon to represent
                              their language, a fallacious association he advised readers not to
                              make. In fact, he did suggest that the Rohirrim played a similar
                              role to that of ancient Germanic peoples who settled in portions of
                              the former Roman Empire -- and in doing so associated the Rohirrim
                              with Saxons, Vandals, Goths, Lombards, and all Germanic tribes which
                              settled in western Europe. The historical associations appear to
                              have been far less important to Tolkien -- who developed a linguistic
                              family tree represented by Old English, Old Norse, and modern English
                              which has no bearing to the historical relationships of these
                              languages -- than to those of his readers who insist that Middle-
                              earth is modelled on medieval Europe.

                              To Tolkien, Middle-earth represented all of our world, not just a
                              part of it. He definitely used some medieval models for parts of it,
                              but he used other models for other parts of it. And that includes
                              some 20th century models, including (according to Tom Shippey -- I am
                              not qualified to argue for or against this) the long-running
                              divisions in the British philology/linguistic community.

                              I honestly think a lot of people assume Middle-earth is medieval
                              because they have been inundated with pseudo-medieval imagery for
                              decades by film and television (and other media). You'll never find
                              the word chivalry in Tolkien's fiction about Middle-earth, but you
                              may NOT be surprised to find many discussions about Tolkien which
                              refer to it. We tend to project many things onto the stories we love
                              which are really not there.


                              Tolkien expressed reservation about people's attempts to document
                              sources in his fiction. I think he wanted the readers to look at the
                              stories for themselves. He would probably be disappointed by the
                              frequent efforts to explain where it all comes from. Aragorn's
                              nobility may indeed be based in more than one medieval tale of
                              chivalrous knights, but he is not a medieval knight. He is a heroic
                              man who rises to the kingship over an ancient and fading civilization
                              in an epic mythology the scope of which Tolkien never fully
                              envisioned, and which even he probably did not recognize as such
                              until after he had created it.

                              He did, after all, only set out to write a little more about Hobbits,
                              when he began working on THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and at the time he
                              had no idea of what he could say, believing he had written all that
                              could be written of them.

                              In a way, he was correct. For THE LORD OF THE RINGS is certainly not
                              about Hobbits. It's about humanity's search for ways to circumvent
                              the natural order of things, and the consequences we bring upon
                              ourselves through selfish actions. Or, to put it Tolkien's way, it's
                              about death and the search for deathlessness.

                              Hobbits don't really seem to be concerned with such matters.
                            • alexeik@aol.com
                              In a message dated 3/10/2 6:50:02 AM, David Bratman wrote:
                              Message 14 of 17 , Mar 11, 2002
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                                In a message dated 3/10/2 6:50:02 AM, David Bratman wrote:

                                <<And the point I was making was that the time period evoked by the style of
                                Gormenghast, never mind when it's supposedly actually set, was early-modern
                                and not medieval.
                                >>

                                Agreed, of course. I just thought that, even within Gormenghast itself, the
                                "riot of different times" includes periods much later than the 17th century
                                -- figures like Bellgrove and the Professors, for instance, evoke (at least
                                to me) the 19th or even the early 20th century. This is what made it
                                impossible for me as a reader to conceive of Gormenghast as existing in any
                                period in the past (however ill-defined -- though, as you point out, it could
                                never be mediaeval) rather than in the future. But different readers are
                                impressed by different aspects of a book's imagery, of course.
                                Alexei
                              • David S. Bratman
                                ... Indeed, which is why I wrote a riot of differing times, but its _center_ appears to be somewhere around the 17th century. (emphasis added) Some aspects
                                Message 15 of 17 , Mar 11, 2002
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                                  At 10:53 AM 3/11/2002 , Alexei wrote:

                                  >Agreed, of course. I just thought that, even within Gormenghast itself, the
                                  >"riot of different times" includes periods much later than the 17th century
                                  >-- figures like Bellgrove and the Professors, for instance, evoke (at least
                                  >to me) the 19th or even the early 20th century.

                                  Indeed, which is why I wrote "a riot of differing times, but its _center_
                                  appears to be somewhere around the 17th century." (emphasis added) Some
                                  aspects are earlier, some are later. The Professors, in fact, evoke a
                                  stereotype which at the university level didn't really exist until the
                                  1860s or so (probably earlier at the public-school level, but I know less
                                  about that). Prior to that time the stereotypical English university
                                  professor was something quite different.

                                  >This is what made it
                                  >impossible for me as a reader to conceive of Gormenghast as existing in any
                                  >period in the past (however ill-defined -- though, as you point out, it could
                                  >never be mediaeval) rather than in the future. But different readers are
                                  >impressed by different aspects of a book's imagery, of course.

                                  One has to be careful about such interpretations. In the light of _Titus
                                  Alone_, and with the heavy emphasis on Gormenghast being encrusted, it
                                  seems clear that Peake intended evocations of later times to be clues of a
                                  sort.

                                  But that doesn't mean they have to be. Most of _The Lord of the Rings_
                                  evokes times of which medieval is the very latest. The hobbits, however,
                                  "are" (in that sense) English village folk of the 1890s (see Letter 178),
                                  and their civilization proves it. But it would be a mistake to assume
                                  Tolkien was doing what Peake was doing and explain the Shire's anachronisms
                                  by actually setting the book in the 1890s or later.

                                  Tolkien was simply making the Shire as comfortable and homelike, by his
                                  standards, as he could, to ground it and to provide the most contrast with
                                  the rest of his story. It wouldn't be quite accurate to imagine Pippin in
                                  Gondor as an 1890s English country squire lad in the court of Rameses II,
                                  but it'd be close, and that is the scale of the contrast that Tolkien intends.

                                  Peake intended not so much contrast as a disconcerting riot of mixed
                                  impressions, at least as far as his setting goes.

                                  I don't conceive of Gormenghast as set in the past - indeed, it's best to
                                  think of the first two books as having no setting outside of the castle
                                  whatever - nor am I somehow unimpressed by the 19th/20th century
                                  references. There are medieval references as well. But the bulk of the
                                  evocation seems to be early modern period.

                                  Titus is, IIRC, the 77th Earl. At a standard rate of turnover for titles
                                  (average about 20 years), the castle is probably over 1500 years old. The
                                  17th-century style suggests that that's when the rituals began seriously to
                                  ossify, and it's probably been more than the 300-400 years since then (to
                                  our time) to the date of the story, if there is one.

                                  David Bratman
                                • Trudy Shaw
                                  ... From: michael_martinez2 To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Monday, March 11, 2002 12:19 PM Subject: [mythsoc] Re: Why the middle ages are so popular in
                                  Message 16 of 17 , Mar 12, 2002
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                                    ----- Original Message -----
                                    From: michael_martinez2
                                    To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
                                    Sent: Monday, March 11, 2002 12:19 PM
                                    Subject: [mythsoc] Re: Why the middle ages are so popular in fiction


                                    >I honestly think a lot of people assume Middle-earth is medieval
                                    because they have been inundated with pseudo-medieval imagery for
                                    decades by film and television (and other media). You'll never find
                                    the word chivalry in Tolkien's fiction about Middle-earth, but you
                                    may NOT be surprised to find many discussions about Tolkien which
                                    refer to it. We tend to project many things onto the stories we love
                                    which are really not there.



                                    I think the influx of newbies and Tolkien virgins on the websites is bringing back more memories than I _want_ sometimes, but I did have one flashback that could be anecdotal support for what you're saying.

                                    When I first read LotR in the mid-1960's, I was in junior high and knew nothing about the book or Tolkien. I was a human vacuum cleaner when it came to books, one of my college-student sisters left each volume of the Ballantine "purple emu" edition lying around the house as she finished it, and my fate was sealed. None of my friends had heard of Tolkien, either (and I did hang around with people who read a lot--the nerds of our day; but we lived in a somewhat small town in central Iowa and didn't pay a lot of attention to "popular culture" [yeah, like I said--nerds]).

                                    I remember trying to describe this amazing book I was reading to my friends and having a difficult time because none of us had ever read anything remotely like it. One of them asked the seemingly simple question, "Well, when is it set?" I honestly don't remember how I finally answered the question, but I remember very well stumbling around it--starting to name one time period, but then thinking of something in the book that didn't fit there, and trying another one. I also remember being a bit perturbed at my friend for asking the question, because it went so far afield of what I felt was important in the book, and it seemed she was questioning its validity. It never dawned on any of us that there could be a book _not_ set in a specific real-world time period.

                                    How I think this supports your idea, Michael, is that at that point there were no such things as imitations of Tolkien, and if there was such a thing as an adult "medieval" fantasy genre (i.e., outside of books for small children), I and my relatively well-read friends weren't aware of it (I did inhale quite a bit of science fiction at that age). And when my friend asked about the setting of LotR, I _didn't_ say something like, "Oh, you know, kind of medieval." The Shire and Bree affected my thinking about the time setting more than did the Rohirrim and the Elves (and things like the barrow wights on the other end of the timeline), so, if anything, I would have picked 19th century England. And, no, I didn't catch the Egyptian connection at that age, but I do remember thinking Gondor had a pretty weird-looking crown.

                                    Possibly a bit OT, but I think the same would have been true of the Narnia stories. I didn't read them until some years later, but even then saw quite a bit of the classical in them, with the characters from Greek mythology, etc. If there hadn't been any illustrations, I very possibly would have pictured the children being kings and queens more akin to Midas than Henry V.

                                    --Trudy


                                    [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
                                  • michael_martinez2
                                    ... I never knew about the Egyptian influence myself, until I acquired a copy of LETTERS. In fact, unless one knows about Tolkien s expertise in ancient
                                    Message 17 of 17 , Mar 12, 2002
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                                      --- In mythsoc@y..., "Trudy Shaw" <tgshaw@e...> wrote:
                                      >
                                      > How I think this supports your idea, Michael, is that at that
                                      > point there were no such things as imitations of Tolkien, and if
                                      > there was such a thing as an adult "medieval" fantasy genre (i.e.,
                                      > outside of books for small children), I and my relatively well-read
                                      > friends weren't aware of it (I did inhale quite a bit of science
                                      > fiction at that age). And when my friend asked about the setting
                                      > of LotR, I _didn't_ say something like, "Oh, you know, kind of
                                      > medieval." The Shire and Bree affected my thinking about the time
                                      > setting more than did the Rohirrim and the Elves (and things like
                                      > the barrow wights on the other end of the timeline), so, if
                                      > anything, I would have picked 19th century England. And, no, I
                                      > didn't catch the Egyptian connection at that age, but I do remember
                                      > thinking Gondor had a pretty weird-looking crown.

                                      I never knew about the Egyptian influence myself, until I acquired a
                                      copy of LETTERS. In fact, unless one knows about Tolkien's expertise
                                      in ancient languages like Greek, Gothic, etc., much less his keen
                                      interest in many things ancient (he even confessed to studying
                                      Babylonian mathematics in one letter), one would be hard put to show
                                      that there are any such classical influences in Tolkien at all. And
                                      yet, they are there, often pointed to or hinted about by Tolkien
                                      himself.

                                      It's much like all the inside jokes he included about philological
                                      matters. I recognized a few for myself, little ironic plays on the
                                      meanings of words, but if Tom Shippey's analysis of some of the
                                      metaphors is correct, Tolkien comes across as almost cackling madly
                                      at the way he was poking fun at himself and his colleagues in some of
                                      his stories.

                                      Tolkien never describes Middle-earth in the terms that would fit any
                                      single place or time period. About the only aspect of THE LORD OF
                                      THE RINGS which is almost universally recognized is that the book is
                                      so very ENGLISH, and yet Americans cannot really explain it. People
                                      who grew up in the Warwickshire area, and other parts of England
                                      which influenced the geography and culture of the Hobbits, can point
                                      to things which are peculiar to their nation. Tolkien complained
                                      that this was a problem with translations. Some of the things simply
                                      could not be rendered properly into other languages, because the
                                      references were not there.

                                      Sam's Fish'n'Chips, for example, may strike many Americans as a sort
                                      of fast food reference, but it was certainly nothing of the sort.
                                      And yet, Tolkien was writing for a mass audience, which included
                                      Americans (THE HOBBIT had won an award in the US and was a best-
                                      seller here). So he threw in a few bones for the dogs over Sea, and
                                      perhaps just to please himself because he liked those things:
                                      tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, Eskimo-like men in the north (some
                                      people insist he could just as much have been influenced by the Lapps
                                      of Scandinavia), etc.

                                      There is one aspect of American literature which is missing from
                                      Tolkien's work, and that may be one reason why so many of us
                                      recognize the story as "English". That is, there is really nothing
                                      of the hard sell to the story. When I was studying early American
                                      literature in college, my professor pointed out to the class that so
                                      much of our literature seeks to make a strong persuasive point in one
                                      way or another. Tolkien's writing is very reserved. It's rather
                                      like the English writers who were disposed toward forceful marketing
                                      all left the homeland and established new literary traditions in the
                                      various colonies.

                                      I don't really know how to explain it. But you can pick up almost
                                      any American novel, in almost any genre, and it is sure to have
                                      certain qualities which are trying to pitch or sell the story and its
                                      imagery to the reader. Tolkien just sort of sits down and starts
                                      telling the story, much like Gandalf introduces himself to Beorn, and
                                      it builds up from there as new characters arrive every few minutes.
                                      He doesn't worry about putting everything into its proper place -- or
                                      he seems not to, though in fact he does build the story with great
                                      care. I think this is why so many people take a while to get into
                                      the story -- they have a difficult time with the beginning, which has
                                      often been described as slow.

                                      Tolkien wasn't trying to sell the reader anything. He wasn't
                                      convinced of the superiority of the tale. He didn't feel like his
                                      failure to win a reader's enthusiasism would spell disaster for the
                                      Great Plan.

                                      So, all of his apparent meticulous attention to detail leaves the
                                      reader with a feeling of completeness, or near completeness -- but in
                                      fact Tolkien lets the reader finish out the story, filling in details
                                      whether they are needed or not. You're sort of left dozing by the
                                      wood-stove, listening to the gaffer to tell his tale, and your mind
                                      wanders into a realm of imaginary times and places that is really all
                                      your own.
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