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Dreaming of the Middle Ages Essay Sample

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As noted by Umberto Eco in “Dreaming of the Middle Ages”, one representation of the middle ages is that of philological reconstruction which can be “…applied either to great historical events or to the imperceptibility of underlying social and technological structures, and to the forms of everyday life”(71). By utilizing the middle ages in this fashion, it is possible for authors to critique and comment upon the prevalent ideological structures in their own time by using the middle ages as a mythological foundation for further reconstruction, analysis, and even play. Stemming from this is the popular trend in literary criticism to attribute an author’s attitudes and intentions within their works to the major cultural movements taking place during the time of their writing. Through this framework it would seem that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy are by- products of the post-modernist and modernist movements respectively. However, an overlooked perspective is that of the cultural movement influencing the reader of these works. One area in which this view is particularly relevant is representations of gender in both of these novels, and Peter Jackson’s cinematic retelling of The Lord of the Rings.

By analysing both the author’s portrayals of gender in these works and the perception of their works by modern audiences, it is possible to better understand the ways in which cultural movements influence not only the writing, but also the consumption of popular medievalist fiction. One of the most prevalent themes of post-modernism is deconstruction, in which an author “…seek[s] to distance [the reader] from and make [them] sceptical about beliefs concerning truth, knowledge, power, the self, and language that are often taken for granted within and serve as legitimation for contemporary Western culture”(Flax, 41). In The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley embraces this process through re- positioning the traditional Arthurian legend through the eyes of the female characters within it. By doing this she seeks to “… [decentre] such Arthurian commonplaces as Christianity…” by setting up a dichotomy of a patriarchal, misogynistic, Saxon and Christian interpretation of life, against a matriarchal, feminist, Celtic and Pagan view, and further “…reinterpret[ing] her heroine Morgaine as a vision of female power rather than an evil manipulator; and in the person of Gwenhyfar [showing] how women lost power in Western culture” (Tobin, 147).

By building this dichotomy, Bradley criticizes institutionalised Christianity as a sexist and unyielding religion which not only assigns little or no importance to women as more than vehicles of childbirth and housekeeping, but actually demonizes them by portraying them as innately evil. (Tobin, 148) This is reflected in the words of Gorlois, whom Bradley paints as ignorant and unintelligent in order to criticize his view point. As he tells his wife Igraine in relation to why their daughter should be sent to a convent to be brought up properly: “A holy man told me once that women bear the blood of their mothers, and so it has been since the days of Eve, that what is within women, who are filled with sin, cannot be overcome by a women-child; but that a son will bear his father’s blood even as Christ was made in the image of God his father. So if we have a son Igraine, we need not fear that he will show the blood of the old evil folk of the hills” (Bradley, 86) She further emphasizes this view later in the novel when Gwenhyfar compliments Morgaine on her harp playing, with Morgaine providing the critique (Fry, 24) “Why yes, madam, music is sacred – did you not learn the harp in your nunnery?” Gwenhwyfar shrank.

“No, it is unseemly for a women to raise her voice before the Lord….” Morgaine chuckled. “You Christians are overfond of that word unseemly, especially when it relates to women,” she said. “If music is evil, then it is evil for men as well; and if it is a good thing, should not women do all the good things they can do, to make up for their supposed sin at the beginning of the world?” “Still, I would not have been allowed – once I was beaten for touching a harp,” said Gwenhyfar wistfully. (Bradley, 288) Through vocalizing Christian viewpoints through ignorant men, and using Morgaine as a voice of feminist reason Bradley decentres the sexist ideologies of Christianity as both unfair and seemingly ridiculous. Bradley continues in her feminist revision through her re-interpretations of Morgaine and Gwenhyfar. Morgan le Fay, is painted as the female counter-hero who “…holds values which are not necessarily those of the male culture in which she must exist” (Fries, 12) and as a result is relegated to the position of “…a malicious master of the black arts, using her magic both to harm others and, somewhat pathetically, to conceal her own advancing age” (Spivack, 18).

In order to accomplish this task, Bradley “…reinterpret[s] Morgaine as a powerful heroine rather than the evil manipulator of Arthurian tradition…” by “…foregrounding Morgaine’s actions rather than those of the men” (Tobin, 149). The primary vehicle for this reinterpretation is the manner in which she depicts Morgaine’s incest with her brother Arthur, the action indirectly responsible for the fall of Camelot through their resulting son Gwydion/Mordred. Instead of Morgaine luring Arthur into In much Arthurian literature Morgaine, also known as this sinful copulation, they instead come together as part of the rites of Beltane, a pagan fertility ritual, although they are both manipulated into this position by high priestess Viviane. Through removing the blame from Morgaine and even painting her as an innocent and sympathetic victim of larger machinations, Bradley decentres one of the essential Arthurian tropes of women being the cause of the downfall of the round table. She continues in this vein with her portrayal of Gwenhwyfar. “In Gwenhwyfar, Bradley describes a woman whose upbringing has been traditional in that she is trained to be submissive by her family and her Christian church” (Tobin, 150).

What makes this portrayal unique is its juxtaposition with the strong female characters already introduced in the novel. By the time Gwenhwyfar is mentioned, readers have become accustomed to powerful women perfectly capable of handling power – let alone their own lives. She describes Gwenhwyfar as afraid of wide open spaces as a result of her upbringing in a convent, and uses her “training” and treatment received at the hands of her father to demonstrate the sexism inherent in “proper” codes of feminine behaviour and the diminution women must undergo daily (151) “Lancelet nodded, and Gwenhwyfar said in her shyest little voice – she had found, long ago, that it displeased her father if she spoke out boldly…” “Leodegranz smiled at her indulgently. ‘My little featherhead, if she goes three steps from her doorway, she is lost” (Bradley, 54). Not only does Bradley decentre Gwenhwyfar’s “normal” behaviour as a by-product of her upbringing in a sexist Christian culture, she “…also downplays the contest between Arthur and Lancelot over Guinevere, thus decentralizing Guinevere’s role in breaking up the Round Table” (McClain, 5).

Instead of Gwenhwyfar being responsible, Bradley blames “Christian priests’ sexist suppression of the feminist, nature-loving, egalitarian goddess religion” (5) as the underlying cause of the collapse of Camelot and the fall of the round table. Through Bradley’s post-modern and feminist revisions of the Arthurian myth, she reinscribes women with action and power, and significantly absolves them of blame for the destruction of the glory of the age of Camelot. As a writer in the 1970’s, Bradley’s re- envisioning of this classic story was both original and significant within contemporary Arthurian fiction. As noted by Lee Ann Tobin, “Bradley, in rewriting the Middle Ages, is participating in an important female cultural activity that reaches far beyond academic readership. She is part of a female popular tradition that recreates history by assigning women power they did not possess in real life. She rewrites literary traditions that show women as objects or rivals, giving some of the psychology behind such traditions” (156). However, although it is important to consider Bradley’s motivations behind this project, it is also important to note the attitudes of modern readers to her work.

As members of a post-feminist, and (at least until another definition is coined) post-modernist culture, contemporary readers are typically ‘on the same page’ as Bradley. understand the feminist portrayal of her characters, and sympathise with the challenges of women within the novel as symptomatic of circumstances within their own lives. Bradley is part of a movement of contemporary women writers of medievalist fiction who try “…to create a new tradition that provides role models for women now to admire and emulate” (Tobin, 148), a tradition applauded – or at least tolerated – by contemporary However, this is not always the case with representations of gender in medievalist One important example of this is the criticism surrounding Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy for its lack of strong and complex female characters, and the misinterpretation of affectionate male friendships within the novel. The reading of a modernist author by a post-modern audience is essentially problematic as readers attempt to “…deconstruct notions of reason, knowledge, or the self and [try] to reveal the effects of the gender arrangements that lay beneath their neutral and universalizing facades” (Flax, 42), that Tolkien did not intend in his “…modernist insistence on the essentially conventional nature of sociopolitical arrangements and their…representations” (Di Stefano, 63).

In order to rectify these criticisms (although not necessarily intentionally) Peter Jackson reinterprets the Tolkien mythology by emphasizing the role of female characters within the film. Also, post-modern fans of the series perform their own rewriting through emphasizing a homosexual subtext between the male characters in both the novel and film through slash fiction. One of the most highly criticized aspects of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the lack of important female characters. Not only do his novels have a small range of women in them who contribute to the action of the novel, those that are featured are rendered with typically male characteristics, or portrayed as symbolic. As noted in Maureen Fries’ discussion of female heroes, heroines, and counter-heroes, “…only women who are not married are capable of consistent heroism” (11). This theme is especially evident in Tolkien’s portrayal of women in the novel. Galadriel and Éowyn, the two most active female characters in the novels, “…both possess the traditionally masculine traits of leadership, strength and endurance, with which Tolkien felt secure” (Smith, 46). Of the two, while Galadriel is indeed married, she is “…both kindly and forceful, showing sympathy for Frodo and his worn-out companions when they enter her domains, yet also quite ready to interrupt and correct her husband…at good length when she considers him mistaken” (46).

Éowyn on the other hand, can be said to “… [achieve] the passing of the ‘Heroic Age’ – the age in which girls rebel against their sex and their limitations and dream of male deeds” (Bradley, 115). In the Return of the King, Éowyn disguises herself as a man to join in the battle of Pelennor Fields, and significantly defeats the Lord of the Nazgul, revealing herself as woman as she defeats him uttering “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you are not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him” (116). However, although these two women characters are the strongest representations of women within the book, there are little or no other significant portrayals. While this may seem erroneous and misogynistic from a contemporary critic’s point of view, at the time Tolkien was writing, this was not the case.

Although “…there is certainly a bias… an emotional charge pushing women to the margins of stories or deep into their symbolic cores” (Green, 4), it is much more likely that this is a case of Tolkien’s fear of sexuality, and his “…vague discomfort with the creation of leading female characters…” because of his traditional Christian based views of “…male and female roles being clearly delimited, and in which trying to cross the divide produced some perplexity in the author” (Smith, 46). Not only does he not emphasize female characters within the novel, he pushes heterosexual relationships to the periphery, only marrying the main characters off at the end of the series, and paralleling their relationships with a return to normalcy – perhaps symbolic of his experiences fighting in World War I. This lack is further emphasized by Peter Jackson’s rewriting of the story to ascribe a stronger female presence, especially in his portrayal of Arwen. While having almost no part of the novels, Arwen’s role is considerably bolstered in the films through both exaggerating her relationship with Aragorn, and by giving her the actions of male characters. One example of this occurs in The Fellowship of the Ring, where she usurps the role of Glorfindel in carrying the injured Frodo to Rivendell (Jackson, 2001).

Through altering the text of the original novels in order to give women more of a role, Peter Jackson acts as an instrument of post-modernism, similar to the manner in which Bradley rewrites the Arthurian legend to emphasize women’s role. Also relevant to the problematic conceptions of gender within The Lord of the Rings due to the differing times of the author and reader, is the concept of demonstrative masculinity. In contemporary society, “…dominant discourses of masculinity provide competing scripts of male solidarity and heterosexuality…” often based on the “…popular view that men are unemotional, inexpressive, and impersonal” (Kiesling, 695). However, this was not always the case. During the period in which Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy, male friendships were not necessarily free from intimacy and physical context. As Anna Smol argues in her article “‘Oh…Oh…Frodo!’: Readings of Male Intimacy in The Lord of the Rings”, “The male intimacy that Tolkien describes, particularly the relationship between Frodo and Sam…reflects a historically contingent mode of British male friendship that belongs to the First World War”(950).

She goes on to note that their “…relationship has been variously misunderstood, ridiculed, cherished, or elaborated by a vast readership across historical and cultural divides”(975). Several times throughout the novels, Frodo and Sam both share extremely intimate moments involving touching each other’s hands, kissing each other on the forehead, embracing, sleeping next to each other, and even declaring their love openly. “He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: ‘I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’” (ROTK, 659) However, viewing their actions and relationship from a contemporary point of view is problematic in that readers ascribe their own ideologies of masculinity onto characters within the novels, ideologies which Tolkien did not share The most obvious application of a post-modern re-conceptualization of this trend to mistrust the masculinity of the characters within the novel can be found in the realm of slash fiction, or fiction – produced by fans – which “…[refers] to the consumption of texts that do not feature overt homosexuality… as romantic or erotic representations of homosexual desire”(Allington, 44).

As noted by Roger Kaufman in “Lord of the Rings Taps a Gay Archetype”, “Surely it is significant that he chose to make same-sex companionship so central to a narrative that’s explicitly companionship from Tolkien’s point of view does not require the characters to have explicitly homosexual desire towards one another, it is relevant that in a post- modernist consumption of the close masculine relationships within the work, this is so often written to be the case. The view that the male to male relationships within the book are examples of a “…queering of traditional masculinity…” symbolic and archetypal…”(32). However, allows “…the friendship between Frodo and Sam [to challenge] contemporary notions about masculinity…” and uses “…Tolkien’s Secondary World [to provide] fans with a creative space in which to explore further the characters and situations that he writes about” (Smol, 970). By positioning the mythology of The Lord of the Rings as a site of the medieval to further explore ideas about traditional notions of gender and sexuality, both Peter Jackson and slash-fiction perform a similar post-modernist project as Bradley’s work in The Mists of Avalon.

Just as she rewrites the Arthurian legend to incorporate women, so Peter Jackson emphasizes the role of female characters in his films, and slash-fiction authors rewrite The Lord of the Rings to incorporate homosexual desire – something that Tolkien did not intend, and probably couldn’t imagine if he were alive today. While The Mists of Avalon, and The Lord of the Rings are fundamentally different in the cultural movements influencing the writers, and hence the constructions of gender within them, they share an essential similarity in their consumption by modern audiences. Bradley’s work is interpreted more closely in the vein she intended only because she and her readers share a similar cultural and ideological background, something few people alive on earth today share with Tolkien. However, this is not to say that post-modern readings of The Lord of the Rings are inaccurate or offensive in their implications.

Rather, they reflect the remarkable power of medievalism as a fluid site of play, in which audiences can explore the conflicts and social paradigms within their own lives, ascribing meaning where they will, and taking from it what they want. In the end, whether women are the ones in charge of Camelot or hobbits are gay doesn’t matter as long as the reader can still find their own personal relevance within these texts thirty or even fifty years after they were written, and continue to enjoy reading them into the future. Word Count: 2,954 (including primary source citations) 2,665 (not including primary source citations)

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