Alain Corbellari is Associate Professor at the Department of French. He is a specialist of the history of medieval studies and of the reception of medieval literature in the modern world. He is also a composer (opera for children and symphonic poems), and a columnist (music and comics) for various newspapers.
Marc Attalah has a MSc in Theoretical Physics and a Master of Arts in Philosophy. After a PhD in Literature obtained at the University of Lausanne, Marc Atallah now leads the Maison d’Ailleurs, a Museum dedicated to Science-Fiction. As Senior Lecturer at the Department of French he also teaches narrative in literature, comics, video games and cinema.
Never have the Middle Ages, accompanied by a whiff of the supernatural, been so all-pervasive. The Hobbit trilogy; Game of Thrones and Vikings prevail; comic books and video games exploit the genre. So, why this passion for chainmail and swords in the age of smartphones?
It could hardly be said that our era lacks fantasy with this particular mix of medieval and marvellous appealing to a wide audience. Each episode of the fourth series of Game of Thrones thus attracted 18.6 million viewers, and that is not including the millions of illegal downloads. In a more historical vein, audiences are discovering the series Vikings. The animated film Dragons 2 has gone down rather well, and the final film in The Hobbit trilogy is now in cinemas. The fifth expansion of the irrepressible online game World of Warcraft is now available, while a fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, forerunner of the role-playing game, has been issued. Lastly, the graphic and teen sections of bookshops offer numerous works from this genre.
“It’s a golden age for fantasy publishing in terms of production, translation and re-publication,” confirms Marc Atallah, director and curator of the science fiction museum La Maison d’Ailleurs and Senior Lecturer in Modern French at the University of Lausanne. The academic is, on the other hand, more sceptical as regards quality: “There is a market for it, particularly among young people, and so lots of titles are being launched to exploit this. But originality is only rarely in the frame.”
Where does this passion for a period in which the dragon is a recurring feature come from? The Centre for Medieval and Post-medieval Studies at UNIL recently devoted a series of workshops to The Middle Ages in Today’s Popular Culture. The event provided an opportunity to probe the multiple causes of this craze.
A long-running love story
One initial explanation for our interest in the Middle Ages lies in our long love-hate relationship with the period. “In our imaginations, we have a view of the Middle Ages that alternates between romanticised and unremittingly dark,” maintains Alain Corbellari, Associate Professor of French. Generally perceived as obscure, this era was negatively viewed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. But, at the end of last century, “a few authors attempted to rehabilitate the medieval world,” he continues. “Some fabliaux were re-published and the troubadour style reborn.” In England in the nineteenth century, the Pre-Raphaelites and the artist William Morris – one of those who inspired Tolkien – wanted to recapture the spirit which prevailed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Conversely, Romantic and Gothic writers at the time rather ambiguously focused on the darkest aspects of the past.
This is the moment when fantasy was born. The genre at the start of the twentieth century was still aimed at a fairly narrow readership. At the same time, “an idealised vision of the Middle Ages, driven by a reactionary ideology, dominated French literature between the wars. But as this movement led to Vichy, medievalism was subsequently discredited after 1945, except for in popular literature and comic books which were disparaged at the time,” continues Alain Corbellari, who co-edited the recent book Le Moyen Age en bulles (Infolio, 2014).
Romanticised Middle Ages
From the American Prince Valiant (1937) to Johan and Peewit and The Smurfs, originally published in the 1960s as Johan et Pirlouit and Les Schtroumpfs respectively, a romanticised version of the Middle Ages, peopled with knights, damsels in distress and traitorous villains, was offered to the general public. Occasionally didactic and moralising, these publications were aimed at children in an era with a greater belief in progress and technology. “From the subsequent decade onwards, the comic novel broke free from this juvenile straitjacket and came of age,” explains Alain Corbellari. He is a perceptive connoisseur of the medievalised comic book, with an office housing an impressive collection. This coming-of-age is characterised by greater cruelty, fewer noble sentiments and series of books which were historically better informed. In vogue in the 1970s, the movement referred to as new social history or “la Nouvelle Histoire prompted authors to take an interest in heroes from the peasant classes and to show feudalism in a less attractive light,” adds Alain Corbellari.
A slightly earlier literary phenomenon that originated in England acted as a catalyst: although The Lord of the Rings had been written in 1954-55, it was in the mid 1960s that it enjoyed its first real success. Later, cinema with its blockbuster films “spread the fantasy aesthetic”, a phenomenon which, notes Marc Atallah, continues today. In 1977, Star Wars, which takes place in an indefinite past peopled with knights, swords and initiation quests, “opened the flood gates to heroic fantasy”, observes Alain Corbellari. What else would follow but a natural blend of both? Idealism and historicising tales receded, despite a recent revival in the latter, and what has emerged is a fusion of the dark and the romantic.
An enduring phenomenon
Why has fantasy endured while cowboy stories and science fiction have waned? “The western is associated with one country, one period and one ideology: it leaves little room for manoeuvre,” observes Alain Corbellari. “The Middle Ages, vast in terms of all three aspects, avoids these limitations because of the variety of themes and locations it offers.” Today’s science fiction for its part often stages “characters caught up in a technological world which alienates them and which they try to resist. The adventure is essentially internalised,” notes Marc Atallah. Fantasy and its cousin the Star Wars-style space opera look outwards, playing out epic quests and battles on a grand scale
Epic adventures and emotional thrills
Our century’s familiarity with the Middle Ages – or rather the various versions of it presented in fiction – in part explains our interest. But there are more personal reasons behind the phenomenon. Contrary to a widely held notion, Marc Atallah does not believe that “fantasy represents a flight from reality or from technology perceived as invasive.” But in our daily lives “emotions are rarely experienced on an epic scale. In which other cultural universe could we find the stimulus we need?” Blockbusters, based on the Bible or Classical Antiquity and laden, besides, with the supernatural, fulfil this role to a limited extent. Science fiction, given to introspection, offers little help at all.
So “the modern world no longer offers quests or conquests of symbolic spaces,” continues the director of La Maison d’Ailleurs. “Apart from setting up one’s own business, I don’t see anything to resemble this in the real world; except maybe teenage romances!” Caught up in routine, homo occidentalis is perhaps advancing but towards nothing very much, as Michel Houellebecq astutely observes.
Acting as a powerful antidote, fantasy offers a close encounter with the epic in the form of a hackneyed but nonetheless effective scenario. A character starts out with virtually nothing, is initiated by a master from whom he detaches himself before launching into a seemingly impossible mission in which he suffers a succession of ordeals and ends up a better individual. “This scenario responds to the concept of the monomyth developed by the psychologist Joseph Campbell in the 1940s,” explains Alain Corbellari. “In very general terms, Campbell expresses the notion that all heroic stories in the world are one and the same.”
In this universal context, fiction conveys an ancient and very simple message: questing is the only healthy way to live. Far from being escapism, fantasy thus offers us an invasion of reality. It encourages us to set off on travels, like Bilbo Baggins. Superheroes, manga and space-opera-style science fiction, very much to the fore in film, all say the same thing. Furthermore, it is striking to note that the word quest is used in video games to describe the missions players must accomplish. Objection! All this has nothing whatsoever to do with the daily routine of our workaday lives. But “since when has fiction been accountable to what is real?” exclaims Marc Atallah. “The more it offers us models and archetypes which differ from those we know, the healthier we are. Human beings are not particularly nourished by realism. In fact it is failure that makes realists of us all!”
Tough and vulnerable heroes
The presence of the hero figure is one of the ingredients of fantasy’s success and has always been an essential element. “In medieval English literature, his role consists of leading a group of men in combat, while giving them ideals to follow: remaining courageous, not attempting to escape one’s destiny and dying in war if needs be,” notes Sarah Baccianti, Junior Lecturer in English at UNIL and an expert on the Vikings.
An oft-repeated cliché claims that our era, which is seen as dark and confusing, has produced the archetypal doubting hero, when in fact tales from the Middle Ages abound with characters that make mistakes. “Beowulf is not perfect. Having vanquished Grendel and the latter’s mother, he then confronts a dragon in spite of his advanced years. This leads to his death,” Sarah Baccianti points out. Lancelot and Arthur are not without their faults: quite the contrary. The Icelandic Grettis Saga, which dates from the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century, introduces the outlaw hero, Grettir Ásmundarson. Thus these admirable but fallible leaders have long served as role models.
Alain Corbellari has discovered another link between us and the public of the Middle Ages. “Chrétien de Troyes offered his twelfth-century readership a model of society. As a result of chivalry, civilisation was advancing. But at its frontiers lurked the barbarian threat. This same tension is to be found once more at the heart of Game of Thrones. Kingdoms seek to survive while to the north and east savage hordes prepare to annihilate them.”
The phenomenon of ‘expanded universes’
Another interesting parallel should be noted between modern medievalising output and texts such as the Icelandic sagas and Beowulf: as Sarah Baccianti points out, they are not written in the readership’s present day and deal with a distant past, peopled with giants and monsters. Thus, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, whose oldest manuscript dates from the ninth century, tells of the arrival of the Vikings in Lindisfarne in 793, mentioning that “fierce dragons have been seen flying through the air.” The medieval public did not believe any more than we do in the existence of these creatures, but their power as symbols of imminent catastrophe has remained undiminished until today. Thus the ingredients of the dish have simmered for centuries. However – and this is new – the twenty-first century offers something more than the contemplation afforded the medieval imagination: we can, to a certain extent, live the experience. “The problem for novels and films is that the emotional experience only lasts as long as we remain immersed. Neither the spectator nor the reader holds sway over the story,” notes Marc Atallah. So how can the experience be prolonged once the book is closed, once the lights come up?
Video games and live action role-playing games, which bring together costumed participants, immerse participants in the Middle Ages. Other fans buy figurines, board games, Lego and other products derived from the cultural objects that appeal to them. These collections, shaped by the books and their offspring, are called ‘expanded universes’ and constitute a phenomenon that is particular to our time.
Everyman’s Middle Ages
A proponent of the Long Middle Ages, Alain Corbellari offers an original cultural theory to explain our passion for swords and castles. While barbarian invasions separate us from Antiquity, there has been no such clear break between the medieval period and our own. Alain Corbellari highlights an important factor – printing – which dominated the period between the fifteenth and twentieth century. For some years, print has been derailed and its very existence threatened even by information technology. “Re-interpreting Marshall McLuhan, we could claim that the trust placed in the book – that is the material expression of western thought – as a finite, stable and defined object was shattered with the advent of the computer.” The era of printing, a process that creates a form of continuity with the world that has gone before, is thus portrayed as an incidental and gradually vanishing moment in history.
Alain Corbellari suggests another factor. Our times feed on interminable series, collections of books, works in progress. There is a similarity here with how art was perceived in the Middle Ages. “Cathedrals were places of eternal happenings. Styles changed; there was a pattern of destruction and reconstruction.” This mindset extends to other fields: between the dramatic rise in Arthurian literature in the twelfth century and its dying echoes in the sixteenth century, the texts were shamelessly rewritten. This approach persists today. “Alexandre Astier, author of Kaamelot, is no more disrespectful of the myth than the medieval authors,” maintains Alain Corbellari. “The adaptations he introduces regarding the blood lines and roles of the Knights of the Round Table represent a very medieval way of looking at literature.” It is hard to imagine changing even one letter of a novel by Proust.
Even though he distrusts the notion of a history of world views, Alain Corbellari generally speaking considers that we are much further from the neoclassical ideas of the seventeenth century, “obsessed with perfection”, than from medieval times, when it was thought that “the Golden Age is long over and the future is uncertain.”
And finally, what if our imagined Middle Ages were more a place than a period; a place with surroundings both familiar and unfamiliar; a country of such varied landscapes that each finds his own small plot; an archipelago that has no problem sheltering reactionary-thinking conservatives alongside a ragbag of anarchists? Plenty scope there, one might think, for carving out a niche for oneself.
Some further reading
The plethora of medieval works on offer makes it difficult to pick out good quality books. Here are some suggestions from the academics at the University of Lausanne.
To return to the source of medieval literature, it is essential to read an English translation of Beowulf. Sarah Baccianti recommends either the poetic but challenging version by Seamus Heaney (W. W. Norton & Company), the reference version by Roy Liuzza (Broadview Press), or lastly that produced by J. R. R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The Poetic Edda (translated by Carolyne Larrington, Oxford University Press) and The Prose Edda (translated by Jesse L. Byock, Penguin Classics) will appeal to those who love Norse mythology.
To explore what a blend of fantasy and science fiction has to offer, try the Nicolas Eymerich series by Valerio Evangelisti (originally in Italian, published in French by La Volte).
For graphic novels in French, Alain Corbellari heartily recommends François Bourgeon’s Les compagnons du crépuscule (The Twilight Companions), published by Delcourt, a series which weaves its way between history and fantasy. See also Hermann’s “sensitive and well-documented” Les Tours de Bois Maury (The Towers of Bois-Maury), published by Glénat.
Another much appreciated title in French is Isabelle by Jean-Claude Servais (published by Dupuis). “And for its amusement value”, the unclassifiable Bec-en-fer series by Jean-Louis Pesch. Lastly, one of Corbellari’s enduring favourites is Peyo’s Johan et Pirlouit (Johan and Peewit), published by Dupuis, which serves up an idealised version of the Middle Ages laced with humour and magic.