Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is pop medievalism taking over?

At first I was kinda taken with this argument that Tolkein and his heirs have appropriated medievalness so completely that actual medieval history is vanishing.
Ever since The Hobbit appeared in 1937, Tolkien’s oeuvre has become a cipher for the look and feel of “medievalness.” From Monty Python’s Holy Grail to Game of Thrones, most modern depictions of the 5th to the 15th centuries in European history bear Tolkien’s distinctive mark. Today, the phrase “Middle Earth” conjures hobbit-holes, not the beautiful Old English word middangeard—the middle space between heaven and hell, where humans live out their short lives. The Lord of the Rings has grown so monumental that medieval culture shivers in its shadow.
But isn't that what pop culture always does, elevate a few key images into the general understanding? Hemingway's First World War, or that of the war poets. Zhivago's Russian Revolution.  A choice between Ian Fleming's and John LeCarré's Cold War. Simply by being popular, these are always going to do well against specialist connoisseurship.

Trying to think of a Canadian version of a successful pop history, I heard Stewart McLean casually mention Samuel de Champlain, "that great humanist," on the radio. David Fischer's characterization of Champlain (which I found highlly unlikely) may be taking over. But we do have the contending versions of John A. Macdonald, the bicentennial hero or James Daschuk's.
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