Thursday, December 29, 2016

On Neo-Arthurian Neo-Tolkienism: Genre troubles

Recently, I was on the Steampunk Scholar, reading through his many writings on Steampunk. Eventually, I came to his posts where he dealt with some of his criticisms which he received over at Ferratbrain. In short, a writer over there took issue with how the Steampunk Scholar arrived at his thesis—that what we call ‘steampunk’ is not actually a genre but rather an aesthetic. Reading through both the scholar’s incomplete response and the critic’s original remarks, I felt compelled to think on how Arthuriana functioned as a genre or aesthetic.

                Now, I must say this: I do not care much about genre. I am mildly fascinated by aesthetics, but not by genre. Why is because I am one of those poststructualists who does not believe that genre can be fitted into any inherent niche; what constituted one genre, may, to another, constitute something wholly different. The difference between genre, sub-genre, and how one should differentiate just is not something which fascinates me as the debate often trickles down into hair-splitting. I hold that there is something loosely defined as genre, in the sense, that there is a sizable difference between what we call “High Fantasy” and “Space Opera,” and that each of those specific sub-genres belong to something which is, in turn, a sort of umbrella term for its numerous sub-sets, but beyond that, I care not for trying to create a totality out of fragments.

                So, when it comes to the Arthurian tradition, what do we have? Should it be classified as a genre or perhaps as an aesthetic?

                Paradoxically, I feel that Arthuriana can be both. Yet also more paradoxically, neither.

                Let me explain.

                In the Middle Ages, it is no doubt that the Arthurian legend constituted a genre; much scholarship has elucidated how numerous texts—Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Chr├ętien de Troyes’s Arthurian Romances, Thomas Malroy’s Le Morte Darthur—were either hugely influential on the legend or were outright blockbusters when it came to circulation. People clearly used the legend to promote political agendas as well as riddling out the great moral questions of life. Part of what I feel constitutes a genre (or sub-genre) is how to reacts to the social-material reality of its day, how it interacts with both the past and future. The medieval King Arthur mythos did this and more, creating a thread which, as controversial as it sounds, came to rival that of Jesus Christ.

                But, and here is where it gets sticky: if in the Middle Ages the Arthurian legend constituted a genre, then it probably no longer even constitutes a sub-genre (or however it is you want to define those ambiguous terms).

                Why this is, is very muddled. But it has to do with cultural fragmentation and the decay of late capitalism. Essentially, what we see from the Early Modern Period onwards, is an increasing cannibalization of the Arthurian tradition; it becomes hacked piecemeal and integrated into numerous different genres and aesthetics, its own originality as a moral or political genre, or as a Christianized aesthetic, vanished.

                Whereas back in the medieval period you could clearly see people use the Arthurian tradition for their own moral or political ends, while retaining the characters, settings, and basic narrative outline, we do not see this (as much) in our own epoch; rather, what we see is an act whereupon the Arthurian canon has become a kind of literary means of subsistence for other genres and aesthetics.

                Essentially, the Arthurian idea has become fodder: crime shows, modern romances, dramas, action-adventures, and more, all use pieces of the Arthurian tradition, but rarely anything more than that. So, Arthuriana has become inspiration rather than content in itself. 

                Contemporary texts either appropriate fragments of the text—pushing the Roundtable idea of unity, the titular female villain as a recurring antagonist with vague ties to Morgan le Fay, serendipitously named characters, etc. – in order to make their own text seem clever and intertextual, or, fail this, they cleave out narrative devices, such as the Holy Grail vis-a-vie the Fisher King, to augment their own morality tale or piece of political theater.

                Aesthetically, we no longer see something which is a clearly defined Arthurian aesthetic (arguably one never existed since the medieval Arthurian idea was so heavily steeped in a Christian coating). As I said before, what could be vaguely defined as an aesthetic, has become subject to thievery by the other genres—a uniquely decorated, and important, cup becomes the Holy Grail, Sir Gawain’s Christianized armor is transmogrified into revolutionary modernity (A t-shirt with a political symbol on it), while King Arthur is reduced to any authority figure with a crown or predestined fate/career path. But, today, this appropriation takes on a deeper quality due in no small part to J.R.R Tolkien, but more specifically, Peter Jackson.

                During the sixties and seventies, as we know, is when The Lord of the Rings truly came into its own. Imitators of all stripes started to write their own stories based loosely from or inspired by Tolkien’s original works. This is what we typically call the birth of so-called “High Fantasy”. It is fantasy with tall, battle ready elves, some kind of goblin/orc-foe, perhaps some trinket or weapon which needs to be destroyed, and a great evil rising on the horizon. If the Arthurian idea was a blockbuster in the Middle Ages, then the Tolkien idea is our epoch’s blockbuster, our own Arthurian idea re-imagined.

                But this presents a problem since the Arthurian idea has not vanished: Arthurian texts still remain and there still is a great deal of interest in both the King Arthur legend, Arthur-figure, and his narrative mythos. The Arthurian and Tolkien ideas co-exist. Neither have died.

                I am not going to try and sketch out all of the difference between these two ideas, as that is really the work of some ambitious Ph.D. candidate (of which, I am not), but I will call attention to how powerfully Peter Jackson’s imaginings have retrospectively altered what we see as fantasy, to the degree, where the lines of demarcation between Tolkien and King Arthur have been blurred.

                To me, it seems that writers are fusing both traditions together. They are taking parts from each and ending up with a hybrid form; after Peter Jackson’s re-telling, we have a Tolkien-inspired aesthetic which disseminated itself through popular culture. Once disseminated, young millennial imaginations, especially when they came of age, started to explore the Tolkien idea through their own encounters with prior fantasy (i.e., the Arthurian tradition). Whether or not that they knew they were encountering the Arthurian tradition is not relevant, as we see a focus on battle-elves, orc-creatures, and the like, while trappings of the Arthurian legend have been retained; today, it is hard to even differentiate the two influences since each are generic enough to blend into one another, yet just unique enough to warrant investigation by genre historians. The end result, of course, is that we have now a Tolkien-Arthurian Frankenstein’s monster which no one knows what to do with.

                But, again, this is not to say that what is called the Arthurian-idea does not exist on its own, because it does, it is just that it has been greatly altered.

                Modern Arthuriana is no longer interested, per se, by the Arthurian legend in itself. What modern writers are interested in is re-telling the Arthurian legend so as to deconstruct its conservatism.

                Some writers, yes, use it as a re-telling to justify some long-lost conservative world which never was, such as T.H White, but others, such as Merriam Zimmer Bradley, use the legend to push a feminist reading and flesh-out the female subjectivity trapped within the mother text. But that is the point: that whether it is a feminist, Queer, or Post-colonial reading, contemporary writers, by and large, tend to only associate with the legend insofar as it acts as a template for their own politicized fantasy world.

                Because of this, the aesthetic—whatever could really be called as such— becomes lost in the author’s own Frankensteinian aesthetic—it becomes less about the genre (Tolkien-Arthurian), less about the aesthetic, and more about the fusion of genre into aesthetic (and vice versa). The sign-systems are de-functionalized; whatever it meant to write a neo-Arthurian text, or a neo-Tolkien text, no longer matters when compared to the author utilizing tropes and conventions from whatever ideas they borrow in order to build their own fantasy world re-imagined from pilfered pieces of other ideas.

                Due to everything above, I do not see a great deal of reason as to why issues of genre and aesthetic should be thought of in relation to the Arthurian tradition. I am certainly not going to deride anyone who does think of these things, since, after all, an erudite investigation could yield fantastic results. It is just that for my own interests, in studying on the medieval and modern collide, genre and aesthetic is not as important as understanding the conceptual framework for how the legend survived into the modern, and found its own expression among the ruins of postmodernity.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Let's Read: The Once and Future King (Ch.13)

Ants in this chapter!

Wart is recovering from his outing in the forest with Mr. Erection-connotation, when he starts to beg Merlyn to transform him into an ant because he is so bored; again, life before video games was very dangerous.

and Merlyn was reduced to shouting his [Wart’s] eddication through the keyhole, at times when the nurse was known to be busy with her washing” (121).

Aside from reminding me of Kingdom Hearts with all this talk of keyholes, this section is actually really funny. Just imagine Merlyn stooped low at a door, peering through a keyhole and shouting out various facts about a subject as Wart is being washed by his nurse. It is ripe for an animated cartoon.
But then Wart starts to beg to be transformed into an ant, getting the idea from his miniature glass ant habitat, something which, I am sure, is an anachronism. Merlyn protests.

The ants are not our Norman ones, dear boy. They come from the Afric shore. They are belligerent.”
Only because this chapter is so filled with conflicting, and largely unfilled political potentials, do I give White the pass here on whether it is a racist-y thing to say that ants from Africa are more belligerent than, supposedly, nice and tame Norman ones. There are different species of ant, after all, and I am privy that some are more aggressive than others, so I suppose there is nothing to freak out about here, not yet, anyways.

So he gets transformed and lands in the upper dirt valley of his ant habitat.

The place where he was seemed like a great field of boulders, with a flattened fortress at the end of it—between the glass plates. The fortress was entered by tunnels in the rock, and, over the entrance to each tunnel, there was a notice which said: EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDON IS COMPULSORY” (122).

Spooky! Do I hear echoes of a story concerning totalitarian single-party dictatorship? I believe I do.
So Wart acts like a dupe and wanders around. He hesitantly enters a tunnel but quickly backtrack to the surface after the weird songs he receives through his antennae creep him out. 

Back on the surface he meets another ant. Turns out that all ants have not names, of course, but rather serial numbers, a combination of numbers and letters. If I was a nerd with this kind of thing I could, perhaps, riddle out some idea of coherency to the long strings of digits White gives, but as I am not, and as I am sure there is nothing to the strings anyways, I am just going to move on.

Wart encounters some dead ants. (I’m not sure why dead ants are up here as, what little I know about ant societies, is that the graveyard is located at the bottommost portion of the underground nest.)

“They were curled up, and did not seem to be either glad or sorry to be dead. They were there, like a couple of chairs” (123).

I actually like this. Sure, it is part of White’s odd diatribe against impersonal systems of rule, but it is a beautifully expressed metaphor.

Following this lovely, yet unsettling, sentence, White gives us an equally wonderful description of how the ant carrying the dead bodies cannot seem to decide how to arrange the bodies; the ant is likened to a man eating a sandwich and drinking a cup of tea with his hands, yet wants to light a cigarette, but does not know how to make the logical conclusion of needing to put down what he is presently eating and drinking in order to take hold of the cig and lighter. White describes the ant finally finding room for the body as arriving at the conclusion by accident, like a series of random actions which finally result in the desired end by pure chance.

Wart continues along his adventure until he finally ends up in the tunnels, because, he is an ant, you see, and ants belong in the tunnels. Wart becomes accustomed to the ant language. It is not the most poetic of languages.

There were no words for happiness, for freedom, for liking, nor were there any words for their opposites.
Wart discovered that there were only two qualifications in the language, Done and Not-Done—which applied to all questions of value” (124).

My ignorance, and lack of internet connectivity at the time of writing this, makes me wonder when George Orwell’s 1984 was written since this seems very close to the sort of linguistic collapse we see in that classic dystopian text. 

So far we see that ants do not have individual value as lifeforms and that language is on a need to know basis. I wonder what other macabre wonders this ant society holds.

After a misunderstanding, Wart takes the place of an ant who fell off the edge of the colony, or something, and who now cannot remember who he is, so the others call him insane; it seems here that if Godwin’s law doesn’t apply to the ants, then its mental health equivalent, at any rate, is in full swing.

But Wart enters the kitchen area where he eats large amounts of bland gook, only to later discover that he is actually storing it in his body to later distribute to the other ants. It is like if you eat everything at an all you can eat buffet and then threw up in the mouths of hungry shoppers. (Have fun imagining that?)

While he is stuffing his mandibles Wart overhears this

’I dew think our beloved Leader is wonderful, don’t yew? They sigh she was stung three hundred times in the last war, and was awarded the Ant Cross for Valour’” (126).

Wart has a curious habit of wandering across militaristic animal societies; a commentary, of sorts, on the human animal? Something deeper or something lighter?

So, the ants lack individuality, have a curt language, and are formed under an aristocratic military-junta. Where is the Proletarian Ant Liberation Army when you need them?

’How lucky we are to be born in the ‘A’ nest, don’t yew think, and wouldn’t it be hawful to be one of those orrid ‘B’s.’’”

Haha… White’s satirization of nationalism is great, made further amusing by its linguistic reinforcement (“hawful” “orrid” “yew”). Aren’t we all so blessed to be born in [A Nation] instead of that horrible [B Nation]? Thank the Queen! But, yeah, the ants are also fiercely nationalistic.
Oh, and in a throwaway line, we learn that the ant Queen also regularly executes her subjects, convicted of criminal offenses not elucidated. Perhaps these criminals are ‘insane’ like Wart is originally thought to be?

It was not only that their language had not got the words in which humans are interested—so that it would have been impossible to ask them whether they believed in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—but also that it was dangerous to ask questions at all” (127-8).

The Americanism of this part sticks out all the more because it is contrasted against the image of a queen, which is very reminiscent of the American Revolutionary War of Independence. I think that White is constructing a pastiche of negative forms of government according to an early twentieth century progressive-liberal standard. But maybe I am wrong.

So after this off inclusion, we learn that the ants are religious. This is where the deeper oddities come into play. But not before fighting breaks out between two ant scouts belonging to the different nests in Wart’s ant habitat.

and all the streams of orders were discontinued in favour of lectures about war, patriotism, or the economic situation. The fruity voice [of the Queen] said that their beloved country was being encircled by a horde of filfthy Other-nesters…” (128).

Encirclement references hawk back to Soviet propaganda about encirclement by the Western imperialist powers, but the “horde of filthy Other-nesters” seems a clear allusion that this nest is not so much a communistic state as much as it is the inverse. Plus, I am not even sure how much the idea of capitalist encirclement against the early USSR was a well-known idea outside of the Soviet Union itself. Since this book was written in 1939 it seems late enough, with the outbreak of World War Two, and all, but I am not sure on the history of the encirclement thesis; besides, linguistically speaking, I know enough that words like “horde” and “filthy” are usually spouted by Rightists against immigrants and rival imperialist powers, not by the early Soviet propagandists.

Following this, the reader is treated to two kinds of ant broadcasts, both of which, are of a circular reasoning; the first is the idea that since we, Nest A, is starving, the population should increase so as to starve more and goad the nest into a wartime state. The second broadcast, meanwhile, regurgitates a self-negating delusion on racial superiority and self-defense before, ultimately, being subsumed under alleged economic benefits (that both nests are of equal footing and acting under the same premises but that Nest A is somehow offering the better armistice terms). This second broadcast follows the idea that “starving nations never seem to be quite so starving that they cannot afford to have far more expensive armaments than anyone else, an unsettling assumption on White’s part since it connotes a whole host of idealist positions.

But now we get to the real content.

After the second kind of address, the religious service began. These dated—the Wart discovered later—from a fabulous past so ancient that one could scarcely find a date for it—a past in which the emmets had not yet settled down to communism. They came from a time when ants were still like men, and very impressive the services were” (129).

What makes this paragraph so confusing is that I have no idea what White is getting at. Is he trying to say that the setting of The Once and Future King is actually set in a far future reversed to medieval neo-feudalism being rebuilt under a sort of communistic regime? Is he trying to say that the ant society, as it presently stands, is a communist society and these services are a holdover from this ancient past? Or is White trying to speak of something else entirely?

If it is the second, than White’s reaction is a hilarious inability to understand basic Marxian ideas and theories, combined with the worst of anti-communist pseudo-intellectual hysteria (the mishmash of various negative govermentalites into a form labeled ‘communism’). If it is the former, then that is just odd. I am leaning more heavily on the second interpretation as it is clear that these religious rituals are not taken seriously by the ants.

At any rate, the two ant armies are about to fight—while Wart is growing sick of the tireless monotony and lack of privacy which comes with ant life—before Merlyn suddenly scoops Wart back up in the nick of time and transforms him back into a boy. Thanks, Mer!