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An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (1) Introduction

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (1) Introduction

Good Morning, Everyone!

On vacation with Sophia & kids in Pacific Northwest, but in midst of relaxing on Puget Sound wanted to start new series on some aspects of medieval literature with which the current generation of epic fantasists should be familiar when creating faux-medieval worlds.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("The Burning of the Ships")

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“The Burning of the Ships”)

In previous blogs I’ve tried to make the Middle Ages more accessible by using the works of J.R.R. Tolkien as a springboard for discussing the medieval literary context; that approach seemed appropriate because whenever the creator of the epic fantasy genre as we know it discussed his fantasy writing, Tolkien repeatedly referred to his professional interests in medieval language and literature (Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, etc) as a way to understand The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (LotR), and The Silmarillion.

He wrote in the early to mid-20th Century, however, and in 2014 we need to expand our perspective a bit and leave Tolkien behind to assess the Middle Ages on their own terms, but always keeping in mind the long-term objective: answering the question of how today’s generation of epic-fantasists can take another look at the medieval period with an eye to using the historical & literary records to inform our own, original path in storytelling.

Given Tolkien’s popularity and my audience’s familiarity with his works, one way to begin this new blog series on “Worlds of Medieval Literature” and transition into a broader discussion of how those literary forms might be used by epic fantasists is to retain Tolkien as a frame of reference.  That is, keeping in mind some of the themes that I’ve introduced over the last couple of months, we can see in Tolkien’s works a reflection of historical realities occurring a thousand years ago.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Théoden & Aragorn at Helm's Deep" (Bernard Hill & Viggo Mortensen, in Peter Jackson's 2002 "The Two Towers," New Line Cinema)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Théoden & Aragorn at Helm’s Deep” (Bernard Hill & Viggo Mortensen, in Peter Jackson’s 2002 “The Two Towers,” New Line Cinema)

For example, take the character of Strider in LotR.  Eventually revealed to be Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and heir to the Kingdom of Gondor, Strider is introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring while cloaked and hidden in the Inn of the Prancing Pony, awaiting Frodo at Gandalf’s behest. Not only Frodo, but his friends — Sam, Merry, and Pippin — tumble into Bree in flight from Dark Riders, and from that moment Strider/Aragorn is a fixture in the story until his coronation in The Return of the King (and the reader even enjoys details of his life and death in that book’s Appendices).

When you look at this narrative line from a strictly storytelling perspective, the introduction of Aragorn (and thence Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir at the “Council of Elrond”) has an elegance to it in that the future king is allowed to establish his own relationship with the hobbits before either the titular “fellowship” is formed in Rivendell or his true heritage is revealed.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("The Dragon's Rampage," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“The Dragon’s Rampage,” art by John Howe)

However, when you look at the story from a medievalist’s point-of-view, Tolkien’s achievement reveals a mastery (and upending) of medieval literary norms and themes.  He was a student of Beowulf, a work whose storytelling centers around kings and princes, with any “commoners” merely serving as victims in the mead-hall Heorot for Grendel & his dam, or (except for the loyal retainer, the Swedish clansman, Wiglaf) as soldiers and clansmen in the armies of the Geatish and Danish peoples.  Indeed, before The Hobbit was published, one would have expected an Anglo-Saxonist to feel more comfortable in telling a story that evoked the Viking-like leadership qualities venerated in the Old English lamentations and elegies of The Wanderer, or The Seafarer, with any main characters coming from the fledgling nobility (clan leaders) in the 8th to 11th centuries of early Britain or Scandinavia.  Instead, Tolkien’s heroes were…hobbits.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (by The Brothers Hildebrandt)

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (by The Brothers Hildebrandt)

In this approach, Tolkien flipped the early medieval expectation on its head, and departed from 10th century Beowulf mode of storytelling (and even the heroic saga literature of the 13th century), and instead focused on tales of “commoners” (Bilbo, Frodo) who enter titanic worlds of mythology to make stands where they can.  That reality is why its so important to remember that Tolkien may have researched and taught in Anglo-Saxon studies, with an emphasis on Beowulf, but he truly knew the entirety of the medieval literary genres.  The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion resonate so strongly with readers some forty years after Tolkien’s death because he incorporated so much of the centuries-long medieval literary experience and expressed aspects of that learning in a creative, original way.  Yes, in Strider/Aragorn, we get a story of a outcast becoming a king a la Beowulf coming to power, but Aragorn isn’t the central character in LotR.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" (illuminated manuscript, c. 1420, The British Library, MS. Royal 18 D II, folio 148

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” (illuminated manuscript, c. 1420, The British Library, MS. Royal 18 D II, folio 148

Just as the Norman Conquest of 1066 did away with Anglo-Saxon as a written form — imposing along the way a Norman/French dynasty upon the English language and people — so too can Tolkien’s work be seen as a blending of that pre- and post-Conquest literary traditions.  Here I think of the particular focus that Tolkien admired in the perseverance of English for a couple centuries that eventually reemerged (transformed but still there!) in the vernacular Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  That is, Tolkien’s works retain that Anglo-Saxonite sense of a “lost world” (the end of the Third Age) which we saw in The Wanderer, a lamentation that repeatedly appears in LotR expressed in the elegiac language of the Elves (the sadness of Elrond & Galadriel, the tale of Beren and Luthien, etc) but subsumed into his tales a new, French-based literary form that includes elements of the chansons de geste, troubadour lyric poetry, and the high medieval Romance (viz. , the “quest” of the Fellowship, Arthurian themes of knights & gallantry, the “chanson de geste’s exaltation of — & sorrow at — medieval warfare in the siege at Helm’s Deep and concluding battles of the War of the Ring, the unrequited love between Aragorn & Arwen, etc).

Gimli, Legolas, & Boromir at Balin's Tomb (The FotR, New Line, 2001)

Gimli, Legolas, & Boromir at Balin’s Tomb (The FotR, New Line, 2001)

Where Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales peered into all aspects of late 14th-century English society, Tolkien’s LotR kept the plight of the hobbits center-most in a story whose larger canvas revealed the end of a world and beginning of a new Age.  I know that Tolkien wrote professionally on The Canterbury Tales [see J.R.R. Tolkien, “Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve’s Tale,” in Transactions of the Philological Society, London, 1934, pp. 1–70]but don’t think that he was consciously finding a parallel in the possibilities of having hobbits give us a similar pilgrim’s perspective as they made their way through Middle Earth, but both authors did share a trust in the ability of the “common folk” to discern Truth where the eyes of the nobility or upper classes could not (think of the failure of Boromir).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Children of Hurin" (art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Children of Hurin” (art by Alan Lee)

So, as I leave Tolkien for a bit, the point of departure here is reminding readers of the mastery he had over the literature of the 8th through 14th centuries.  I want to assess some of the literary expressions in those centuries as a way to show would-be epic fantasists the possibilities that “returning to form” might offer if they return to some of the same sources with which Tolkien was so familiar. In upcoming weeks, I’ll be looking at varieties of medieval literature that include the following:  the chansons de geste, lyric poetry, sagas and epics, visionary literature, the impact of Christianity, King Arthur, and some other topics that should prove of interest.

If nothing else, the discussions will hopefully serve as food for thought as you seek a way to write originally about the Middle Ages in a world that seems filled with cliches and retreads of Professors Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Next time:  The Chansons de Geste and Warrior Spirit of the Middle Ages!

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