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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (7) Medieval Literature (Encounter & Reflection)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "The Wild Hunt" from British, Germanic, & Scandinavian Mythologies ("Åsgårdsreien," Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “The Wild Hunt” from British, Germanic, & Scandinavian Mythologies (“Åsgårdsreien,” Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas ("Forging the Sword," by Simon Brett, engraving)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (“Forging the Sword,” by Simon Brett, engraving)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (7) Medieval Literature (Encounter & Reflection)

Good Morning, Everybody,

I’ve been in the basement and garage for the last week, leading the charge for my wife Sophia’s great Spring Cleaning 2014 event, so everything from novel writing to historical research to blogging was put on hold.  We’re determined to slog through the detritus of twenty-plus years together — discarding fragments of the past that no longer matter, boxing memorabilia or children’s artwork that just can’t be thrown away, and always, always reflecting on where we’ve been as a family.

The effort is almost completed, and I’m sensing that while Sophia and I will emerge from the effort with a cleaner house, we’re also embarking upon a mid-life’s reckoning with the past.  There’s no avoidance of this reality, but how could there be?  The very act of sorting through piles of old bills & receipts, the kids’ K-12th grade schoolwork, loose photographs, forgotten albums, past lectures, novel & story drafts, and a thousand other odds-and-ends all collectively force one to revisit different times in the past.  It’s exhausting, but wonderfully cathartic: we’re discovering that the reflections on where we’ve been is helpful for both assessing the present and shaping plans for the future.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf & the Dragon" (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf & the Dragon” (art by John Howe)

Reflection.  That’s a process which has governed much of my free time this past week, and which always should accompany the reading of a good book or story.  As I return to the desk and work-week, I reviewed this blog-series on medieval literature and epic fantasy, and realized that when I blogged Part 1 of my recommended medieval literature reading list, I forgot to mention something very important: you have to be willing to take time to read.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

I know on some levels, that advice might sound absurd, but — if you share my enthusiasm for re-booting and universalizing an epic-fantasy genre that’s seen too many rip-offs of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis — you should realize that certain kinds of reading in medieval literature will demand that you place yourself in sometimes unfamiliar places.  That’s because the poetry, theological works, novels, epics, and sagas are direct encounters with the medieval past that will often challenge both your expectations and beliefs.  Again, although I’m writing these blogs as an attempt to show different paths from those early 20th Century fantasists, my recommendations share the same “origin” as Tolkien and Lewis:  the source material of medieval language and literature.  It’s a corpus that spans over a thousand years of human history, and whose content can inspire the imaginations of many epic fantasists willing to take the same trip down the proverbial rabbit-hole into medieval times.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas ("Ragnarok," by Simon Brett, engraving)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (“Ragnarok,” by Simon Brett, engraving)

However, if you’ve glanced at some of the works on Part 1 of this reading list, you’ve probably realized that my recommended works aren’t all “light” reading.  How could they be?  As a global society, we’re so used to an entertainment industry that churns out thousands of stories a year (films, television, novels, magazines, online material, etc.), that it’s hard to imagine an author devoting much of his writing life to one work that was more-often-than-not never read by a mass audience in that author’s own lifetime.  We don’t know the Beowulf author, but the text is so vivid in its story that the intervening 1,100+ years since its creation dissolve when you enter Grendel’s lair with the hero.  In a multi-media culture where our senses are saturated 24/7 by inputs from all kinds of technological devices, and attention spans are stretched to the limit because of living hours committed to jobs, family, personal interests, friendships, etc., the act of reading too-often becomes a rushed, “scanning” event, where you get the “gist” of a narrative without having to judge or assess the words on the written page.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas ("The Deeds of the Norman People," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (“The Deeds of the Norman People,” art by John Vernon Lord)

Living that modern reality makes it sometimes a challenge to read medieval literature; the works of 500-1,000 years ago demand more than a “scanning” approach to reading.  The High & Late Middle Ages (c. 1050-1500) was a period when Western society made the transition from an oral culture to one characterized by written texts.  To channel the work of historian & comparative literature professor, Brian Stock, the 11th and 12th centuries were times when texts became what Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) called memoranda, or “inscriptions of an oral discourse that were committed to parchment without significantly altering those spoken words.”  During this exciting time when storytelling leapt from the campfire or monastic dining hall to the written page, the scholastic Peter Abelard (d. 1142) called texts “depositive,” their words carrying with them the potential to reveal aspects of objective reality, with rules that operated according to grammar and logic.  Lastly, Stock sees these centuries as ones where medieval literature and works such as Bernard of Clairvaux’s (d. 1153) Song of Songs “reproduced the ritualistic and symbolic world of oral discourse in the form of a text.”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Legends (Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, England)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Legends (Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, England)

Therefore, when you read the works on this list, you’re witnessing the birth of something new, something that blends the ancient world with the medieval, and which prepared western culture for what we call the “modern.”

The works that I’ll list in the next blog are glimpses into the medieval mind, and you could ask for no better inspiration if you’re serious about writing epic fantasy that evokes the same kind of “bygone age” that Tolkien and Lewis popularly introduced to the world.  It’s axiomatic that you need to learn the rules in order to break them.  So fell0w would-be fantasists, as you set out building worlds that aren’t poor imitations of Middle Earth or Narnia, below are large portions of the medieval literature list with which Tolkien and Lewis were so familiar.

So, next time, when I continue the list, read away, and see what story ideas come to mind when you stumble away from the flights of imagination therein …

Enjoy, and thanks for visiting!

A.J.

P.S. For more on “reading” literature in a modern age, check out Harold Bloom’s very accessible How to Read and Why (2000). For the medieval encounter between oral & written cultures, see Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).

Next time: Part 2 of A.J.’s Recommended Reading List for Medieval Literature!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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