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

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Worth the Trip

For the past two days I've been at the International Society for Studies in Medievalism conference in Canton, Ohio. By the time I get home I will have spent more time in transit between here and Sydney than I was actually at the conference, but I feel like it was worthy the trip. I've had a habit of jut missing major conferences that are themed perfectly for my work - and were important to it. I began my Phd on postcolonialism in Middle English romance a year or two late to go to a conference here in the USA on postcolonialism in the Middle Ages. The 2010 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was themed Race and Fantasy, and was just at the start of my thinking about my current project, before I'd put in my first funding application, let alone had the second succeed. The conference I've just been at was themed Medievalism(s) and Diversity. It would have been hard to come up with a theme that worked better with what I've been doing this year.
I gave a paper titled " 'Yo! It's the Middle Ages': Talking about Race in the Fantasy Genre." I looked at the ways fantasy fans claim that the 'real' Middle Ages (European of course) were exclusively white: no diversity (racial or any other kind) allowed. It's not a completely new theme for my work obviously, although in this paper I looked mainly at various thread on the Bioware Social Network. Dragon Age is an interesting example because the game has been both criticised for not having enough diversity, and praised for its inclusiveness and attempts to address themes around prejudice. If Bioware aimed to please everyone they failed (surprise), but they did get people talking (and flaming each other) about diversity - in terms of gender and sexuality as well as race - as well as privilege and the assumptions both players and the wider community make about fantasy RPGs and the their fans.
There were some really interesting parallels between what I was talking about and another paper in my session: Elizabeth Emery from Montclair State University speaking on 'Goblets, Tankards and the Green Fairy: Inclusion and Exclusion in the "Medieval" Cabarets of Belle Époque Paris.' Both then and now, the 'real' Middle Ages were constructed to suit the needs and desires of particular contemporary groups, in ways that often had little if anything to do with historical fact. The 'medieval' has been more about feeling than fact for centuries apparently.
I've come away from the conference with at least four different ideas for research and publication that I didn't have when I got here, which is the other reason it's been worth the trip. I'm just about to leave for the first flight in my journey home, oping I can remember any, or even all of them, by the time I get there.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Medievalism and Colonialism Revisited

In the past few days I’ve been revisiting a topic I’ve written on before: the connections – or lack of them – between medievalism and colonialism in fantasy. I’d originally thought it was a negative correlation, that works which explore and critique processes and practices of colonialism don’t, for various reasons, do it in conventionally medievalist settings. I’m giving a paper next week at Melbourne University and it’s made me rethinking this. In the paper I’m talking (briefly) about 5 works/ groups of work which have colonialism and its legacies as a theme: Terry Pratchett’s Nation; Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy; Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (having grown up loving C. S. Forester and Anne McCaffrey I love this amalgam of the two); N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, and the Dragon Age game franchise (I read the narrative of elven slavery to humanity as distinctly linked to colonialism).

The first three are all set in analogues of the nineteenth century; Pratchett and Novik use Alternate Worlds and Hobb a secondary world that is very clearly and deliberately inspired by the heyday of European imperialism. Sailing ships and guns are the forefront of technology in these worlds, not swords and castles. All three engage with colonialism (I’m using this a an umbrella term, the details in each vary) as it’s happening, in the narrative present. The other two use pre-industrial worlds. Dragon Age has a reasonably conventional fantasy setting: ‘Europe in the Middle Ages’, while Jemisin’s is distinctly non-European and is more a fall of empire and the aftermath thereof than the conventional fantasy ‘epic struggle against evil.’ Both of these works are interested in the long-term social and cultural impacts of colonisation, and in both the actual process happened long ago. Even with pre-industrial settings, and a medievalist one at that, colonialism still can’t happen in the Middle Ages.

I think there’s more than one reason for this. For a start authors (and I include game-makers here) who are interested in social justice and critiquing European colonialism in any form are also, I’d suggest, more likely than others to shy away from cookie-cutter ‘sort of the Middle Ages’ settings – or not be drawn to them in the first place. Critiquing colonialism, or history at all, isn’t that common in a genre known for its nostalgic tendencies, and perhaps breaking one convention is connected to breaking others. But there’s more to it than that, and it goes back to something else I’ve written about before: the influence of Alternate History.

So far as I can tell there is, quite simply, no Alternate History story where the nexus event which changes the path of history happens before Columbus’ arrival in America in 1492. This implies that the Middle Ages are too far back, too different to today, for any change in the past to alter our present. The texts I’m talking about here are trying to imagine, or at the least imply, a more just future for their worlds, but the Middle Ages – fantastical or not – are too far removed for that implication to carry weight, so setting inspired by the more recent past are needed. This works for the pre-industrial settings as well. Both reference empires fallen from former glories, and the temptation is to read these are referring to the Roman Empire because of the pre-industrial present of the narratives. Both can just as easily invoke the British Empire, and the ways that both engage with contemporary issues stemming from that aspect of history suggests that they do.