Jiwon Ohm (SUNY University at Buffalo)
In “Dreaming of the Middle Ages,” Umberto Eco asks the question: “What would Ruskin, Morris, and the pre-Raphaelites have said if they had been told that the rediscovery of the Middle Ages would be the work of the twentieth-century mass media?”
Indeed, the twentieth-century mass media has disseminated what Eco calls, “escapism à la Tolkien” which has influenced many modern writers and cultural producers in other mass media such as films and video games. Although such “escapism à la Tolkien,” or “Tolkienesque” fantasy, seems harmless as pure entertainment, its consumption is massive, and many picture the Middle Ages not as it actually was, but how it is depicted through medievalist fantasy.
The theme of the 2020 NeMLA convention is “Shaping and Sharing Identities: Spaces, Places, Languages, and Cultures.” This gestures towards the important question of identities, and how we imagine ourselves and “others” to be. Medievalist fantasy fiction is a common form of popular culture which imagines, questions and reinforces our identities through depictions of geographies and nations and/or identities such as race, gender and class in a secondary/ another world. It depicts lands full of unfamiliar beings such as talking trees and animals, but also of men and women of different class, sexuality, race and spaces.
This session hopes to explore where creators and consumers of medievalist fantasy wish to “escape” and to, and highlight the powerful impact of medievalist fantasy in the shaping both our past and present identities in the popular mind.
Since the mass-market paperback publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in the US in 1965, medievalist fantasy has become one the most influential genres in the current popular culture. Although the fantasy genre has since expanded, with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series and GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and their visual adaptations, medievalist fantasy still remains as one of the most consumed genres in popular culture. Furthermore, although the settings of medievalist fantasy are oftentimes in the past, they nonetheless overlap with the author’s or adapter’s contemporary world. This session will discuss how such (neo-)medievalist fantasy works affect the way consumers of the genre imagine the past in the current world, and how such imaginations shape the present world. Papers that question and investigate the depictions of imagined geographies and nations and/or identities such as race, gender, and class in medievalist fantasy are especially welcome.