Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Medieval orcs?

I found this trailer for Orcs the movie late last year (it has no connection to Stan Nicholls' books),
and used part of it in a paper at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of the movie yet (and am not sure how much I really want to), but the blurb that goes with the clip on YouTube feeds into an idea I’m working on at the moment: "They are savage, bestial and barbaric. They are mythical, medieval and warmongering. They are monstrous, sadisitic creatures devoid of human emotion... they are ORCS! Hordes of rampaging orcs! And they're here to kill us all! The fate of the world is left up to two park rangers. Can they defend us?" Orcs are medieval? Well, yes and no. It depends a little on how you define medieval. If teh blurb is worthy of the tongue-in-cheek b-grade horro style of the movie, not everyone took it that way. One viewer commented: "What are medieval orcs doing in the US, a country that had no medieval culture of iron and steel? If it was set in Europe, I'd understand somewhat.” I’ve written about the influence of medieval romance depictions of Saracens on Tolkien’s orcs,[i] but as far as I know Europe in the Middle Ages was not over-run by them – however much iron and steel was part of Western culture at the time.
But how do you define “medieval” in this sort of context? Or at all? It’s as hard as coming up with a workable definition for fantasy. The Orcs blurb  offers some solid insights into connotations of “medieval” in modern popular culture: savage, bestial, barbaric, mythical, warmongering, monstrous, sadistic. The only that that’s missing is "covered in shit". It wasn’t for the rhetorical impact of listing all those other words “Orcs, they’re medieval” would have covered everything.
One of the things I’m trying to unravel a little at the moment is the dependency so much fantasy has on medieval material.[ii] What is it that’s so appealing? And how does being “medieval” shape, or change, fantasy? If ‘medieval’ connotes savagery, barbarism, monstrosity and the rest, is the fantasy that depends on it all those things too? If our ideas about what medieval is changes, will fantasy?As a genre fantasy, particularly the epic fantasy that makes it to the mainstream, is often still very reliant on medievalist material. What's more, current popular ideas about the Middle Ages are often heavily inflected by what is presented in fantasy works. It's a mutually informative relationship - even if the facts are questionable.

[i] Cross promotion here.
[ii] Yes, of course there is lots of stuff out there that doesn’t eye off the Middle Ages like a crack addict after a fix, but I’m working with some pretty distinct trends.

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