Thoughts from ICMS 2018

Conferences are fun, from locating a coveted JSTOR sticker to old friends and favorite places to Michael Jackson and Disney in Latin to Marjorie Kempe visits Wonderland, to the little annoyances like the teen hoard that took over the Pita Pit about 5 minutes before I got there resulting in nowhere to sit and a 20 minute wait to the campus Bigsby schedule not matching what was printed in the program to never meeting the person you’re sharing a bathroom with and praying you don’t walk in on or get walked in on.

With larger ones like the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS) at Kalamazoo, you have the burden/opportunity to choose from 40+ sessions each round of panels. While this can be aggravating when 3 panels you really want to see are at the same time, it also means that you have the opportunity to hear talks on things you know little to nothing about. This time around, I ended up enjoying those more than the ones I had more familiarity with. There were quite a few popular culture panels and I went to several since they were relevant to my current science fiction/fantasy in the Middle Ages project, and because they might provide some useful information or sources for my Myth-Folklore course.

The concept of ‘medievalism’ has been around for a few years. In fact, the last time I was at ICMS in 2015, the keynote speaker Richard Utz presented on that very topic, and later published the address “Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists” as both an article and a short monograph. If you can find the version published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the comments section reiterates the points for him. To oversimplify a little, it essentially means uses of the medieval in or by non-academic sources such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, video games, Dungeons and Dragons online fora, etc. The idea is that this kind of adaptation of medieval history and culture is not necessarily any less valid in terms of accuracy or usefulness than an academic book or article by someone with a PhD in the exact area they’re discussing. I’m hoping that borrowing some of this theory might help students really start to look at some of the texts, the less traditionally academic ones in particular, as genuinely worthy of in-depth analysis.

NB: For citation in the following, everything is labeled as (panel #) as noted in the ICMS program, available here: https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/events/sessions Apologies to individual speakers, but my notes weren’t always clear on which paper some ideas were from. If you notice a detail that you recognize as yours, let me know and I’ll update the reference.

Why does all of this matter? A lot of the pop culture panels I went to that I found useful in adding some ideas and information to what I’m working on dealt with medievalism. For example, a couple of the panels included papers on the videogame Witcher 3 (#119, 469). I plan on using the first Witcher novel The Last Wish in class. I’m not a gamer, but I have read the first few novels so I figured I might get some interesting interpretive possibilities. I was not wrong. Use of gaze make sense for the video game, especially paired with gender and it turns out that in the game there’s a lot of jokes about Geralt potentially being gay or queer. It’s also interesting that there’s a version of the Grail quest in which the Lady of the Lake is actually sick of people going on Grail quests, which also factors in questions of gender since chastity becomes a factor, at least in the original Arthurian version as the chaste knight Galahad is the only one to actually succeed. The point was also raised about how in many games like The Witcher, when you start, you’re given the choice of race of your avatar, except that ‘race’ is more like ‘species’, and the term ‘race’, like gender and sexuality, has very current modern relevance. I’m hopeful that analyses like this will prove useful in class when we get to a lot of the folklore and some of the mythology.

I think these approaches about gaze, gender, race, and identity might work well, at least with the first novel of the series since it’s effectively a collection of short stories which are interrelated. Certainly the traditional ideas about good and evil and destiny and similar are there, but as a modern folk tale set of stories considering fairly contemporary and current issues, in the same way the original folk stories reflected the fears and values of their tellers, I’m hopeful that at least one or two people will take on this option.

It may be my current research interests, but I noticed an interesting emphasis at quite a few panels on some connections between nature, humanity, magic, and Christian faith (#33, 160). A talk on medieval medical folk remedies and/or magic pointed out that the Church borrowed the formulae used for cures concerning relics and other faith-based medical treatments, while simultaneously labeling and condemning the folk beliefs themselves as ‘magic’. The close connections between magic, faith, and medicine have some interesting possibilities in terms of fantasy and science fiction literatures, especially those dating to the middle ages, although I’m hopeful there might be room for application of some of the ideas in more contemporary novels and stories as well. I think that something like Uprooted or The Bear and the Nightingale might work well with some of these ideas. The Bear and the Nightingale gets pointedly direct in its consideration of the medieval Christian church and folk beliefs and practices, so that one might have an edge, but Uprooted presents folk knowledge in contrast to formal academic knowledge and their uses, so I think that either story might work out. Given how popular these two novels have been, I wouldn’t doubt that at least of them gets taken up.

Poetry might be an interesting avenue to consider as well. Something like Goblin Market or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be interesting to consider from the perspectives of magic versus faith, or nature and humanity. The problem here is that finding contemporary texts to use alongside would be a challenge, since that type of narrative poetry is far less common than it used to be. The only examples that I can name off the top of my head are Sexton’s “Cinderella” which students seem to struggle with, and Walcott’s Omeros. Neither or these 2 texts would work especially well with the themes of nature and faith and magic either.

Another talk noticed that the natural becomes God, and that nature becomes ‘other’/’bad’ in terms of symbolism of the forest and similar, and that the human eventually becomes substituted for the natural, and nature becomes not natural (#256, 391). Again, I feel this might have applications in terms of some sub-genres of fantasy. Certainly a text like Gawain and the Green Knight might be applicable here in terms of its contrasts with the Christian and chivalric values and how Morgan and Bertilak text Gawain.

So far, much of what I’ve said has been summarizing other people’s arguments and observations, and speculating a bit on potential applications. For now, I’m ok with that. What I need to do now is to figure out how effective some of these approaches might be in class, and how best to deploy them.

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