Further thoughts concerning the medieval and modern fantasy

NB: I have yet to do any serious scholarly investigation on this subject; right now, I’m concentrating on working out my own ideas and reasoning.

It seems to me that a lot of scholars who specialize in medieval literature also end up working with fantasy, both as creative writers and as scholars. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and he wrote (among other scholarly things) a book on Beowulf. Although I haven’t looked for it, I know from other scholars that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ extensively from Beowulf and other medieval literature in his creation of the Lord of the Rings series and its companion works. Perhaps lesser known, but no less important in some ways, Kathryn Hume first wrote a scholarly book on The Owl and the Nightingale. She later went on to write another scholarly work on fantasy literature, Fantasy and Mimesis. One of the founders of the Monty Python comedy troop, Terry Jones, has written several books on Chaucer.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a medievalist as an academic specialty to create good fantasy literature. The late great Terry Pratchett includes medieval elements in his Discworld series, but he himself once said, his learning was broad, not deep. Patrick Rothfuss was an English major who went to graduate school, but I have no idea what he may have specialized in or if he took an advanced degree (his website says “I don’t’ want to talk about it.”). If I had to speculate, if not a specialty, Rothfuss has at least done some in depth study of medieval literature and/or history. There’s too many accurate parallels between medieval realities and the world of The Kingkiller Chronicles to be coincidence. Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing.

Similarly, successful fantasy does not need to be terribly medieval or academically based. Take The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This book has a lot of classic high fantasy elements like the unwilling hero, the journey, the band of friends, the elves and humans, the magic, demonic bad guys, etc. The world is generically medieval but there’s not much detail about the world itself; that’s not really the point of this series. It’s more about the characters and the plot. I have to admit, I only read the one and half of the novels, but I could already tell that there was a pattern, and I got bored.

Fantasy also doesn’t need to be medievally-based at all. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels hints at some research into the history and culture of Renaissance and Victorian England, but that’s not medieval. Likewise, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire dragon series is built on historically accurate life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Then there’s fantasy that’s built on mythologies, which often places them in somewhat medieval times or settings. Again turning to Naomi Novik, Uprooted is clearly based on Eastern European folklore; the Baba Yaga references give that away, as do some of the character names (I’d never heard of the names Agnieszka and Kasia until I met my Polish now aunt). The general time and place have a medieval feel, although not nearly as detailed as the likes of Tolkien and Rothfuss. I love Uprooted for many reasons, but it’s not as detailed in the same way.

Then there’s the fantasy that is based on myth but set at least partially in the modern world. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s adult novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods, which are heavily based in African and Norse mythology respectively, though not exclusively. Then there’s the YA versions, most notably Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson for the Greek myths, and Magnus Chase for the Norse.

Eventually I’m going to need to get into the actual scholarship done on these questions, but for now I think it’s safe to at least say that modern fantasy literature has a serious debt to medieval literature and culture and probably history too.

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Medieval with Social Media

I’m a little late with my December post, but better late than never. I decided to look back at the past year and consider what kind of social media and digital things have been most useful to me during 2016.

There are certainly plenty of specialized academic and popular subject websites and pages, but finding the right ones for a given purpose is hit or miss. Many of the best are sponsored by academics via universities or libraries (eChaucer, DIMEV, Fordham Sourcebooks, etc) but even so, you need to get lucky with the right search at the right time to find them. Increasingly, it seems that web searching may not always be the best way to keep track of useful sources. Instead, using other digital resources like social media are becoming more useful for finding and following academic and popular resources.

Twitter is very useful for finding out about academic sources and news. I’ve found more CFPs and useful sites here than any other social media or list-serve. I came to Twitter late. I was at a conference over the summer (NCS July 2016) and ran into someone I knew from graduate school who told me that I should be on Twitter because he’d found some good professional opportunities there. I sign up and within a few weeks I find a promising CFP and a few websites I wouldn’t have known about otherwise (an open access edition of Chaucer for example). Following academic specialist publishers is also quite handy for keeping up with new publications but not getting stuck with a disorganized and overloaded email or mail inbox. I don’t feel at all bad about checking my Twitter account at work, as I use it mostly for professional, academic purposes, although I do follow some entertainment and non-medieval or literary sorts of things.

Facebook is less useful for professional news, but is good for keeping in touch with specific people, and for posing questions-problems to a specific group without the hassle of putting together an email group. I admit I use this more for personal and entertainment purposes than anything else.

Blogs {Blogspot, WordPress, etc} are also proving useful for following the state of the field. A lot of academics are blogging about project ideas or progress, and these are often posted by or re-posted by professional organizations like the Medieval Academy of America or the British Library.

Youtube is useful for in-class demo stuff, but not as much for academic sources. Movie clips and recitations are useful tools, but I haven’t found a good use for the informational videos that are there (and some of them look pretty good).

Google+: I haven’t checked this in a long time, and I don’t know anyone who really uses it for anything other than personal social media interests. Does anyone use Google+ for scholarly or educational networking or resources?

I don’t do Instagram or Pinterest, but I would imagine that these have some limited uses for a medieval literary scholar, particularly for images, and material culture and/or reproduction.

I also am not on Reddit. I suspect it is the least useful for specialist interests, as it relies on user feedback to drive what stories and discussions show up more or less prominently.

Tumblr is also not a site I use. As a multi-media blog site, I suspect this one might be the one that has the most potential of the sites I don’t use. I follow some authors (fiction) through other sites (Twitter and Goodreads mostly) who use Tumblr, but I don’t know of much of an academic presence on this one.

The last 3 social media/ web tools seem to have a greater focus on networking and professional uses.

Skype/Snapchat: I’ve only used Skype twice, and those for professional purposes. Once was during my dissertation defense when one of my committee members was in Norway on a Fulbright that semester, and the other was a first round job interview for the position that I now have. I’ve heard the Skype interview is becoming more the norm, at least for first round interviews as it gives the hiring committee a chance to see the person and interact/react a bit more directly. I also read that when technology problems arise (and they will-there were all sorts of techy issues during my interview) it gives the hiring committee a chance to see the candidate react under pressure. I’ve also seen Skype used during a conference presentation when, due to special circumstances, a presenter was allowed to give her paper via Skype. I was told by an advisor that one of the keys to presenting yourself well in one of these interviews (since first impressions can be important) is to be sure that you are not looking at the screen straight one, because this means that given the likely placement of the camera, that you will be seen as actually looking down at the hiring committee, which is not a flattering angle and also has some associations a candidate would want to avoid. Instead, you want to have the computer or camera above your head a little so it looks like you’re looking at or up to the people you’re talking to.  I’ve never used Snapchat, but I suspect it does not have the same professional type uses. It strikes me as more of an IM or texting app.

Academia.edu: I heard someone describe this as Facebook for academics. I only half agree with that. It’s accurate in that you post your thoughts and ideas, although in this platform they’re articles, publications, teaching ideas, etc, and people can see and comment, or download what you post. This site can be a good way to see what people are up to in terms of publishing and also to get yourself out in public, but then there’s the risk of if you put it on Academia, you may not be able to submit it for publication with a journal. Most journals have pretty strict rules about not taking previously published work. Where I disagree with the Facebook comparison is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion or sharing surrounding posts. It’s possible to comment, but seems to be rarely done. The most interesting feature is that Academia alerts you when someone searches you name on Google. This becomes a little annoying around registration time when students try to research possible instructors using Google.

LinkedIn: I think this site has more use for someone not interesting in pursuing an academic career. I only found one academic posting that I could go for, and most everyone else I know on this site is through non-academic affiliations (family, and some friends who are not looking to be university teachers/scholars). It looks like a good tool for pursuing connections in the professional world, but not as useful for a scholar or post-secondary teacher. The application-profile site that seems to be more popular in academic job searching would be Interfolio which is a for-profit service.