Parution: “Fantasy and SF Medievalisms”

Helen Young (ed.), Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms. From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones, Amherst (NY), Cambria Press, 2015.

medievalism SF fantasy

From advertisements to amusement parks, themed restaurants, and Renaissance fairs twenty-first century popular culture is strewn with reimaginings of the Middle Ages. They are nowhere more prevalent, however, than in the films, television series, books, and video games of speculative genres: fantasy and science fiction. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies and George R. R. Martin’s multimedia Game of Thrones franchise are just two of the most widely known and successful fantasy conglomerates of recent decades. Medievalism has often been understood as a defining feature of fantasy, and as the antithesis of science fiction, but such constructs vastly underestimate the complexities of both genres and their interactions. “Medieval” has multiple meanings in fantasy and science fiction, which shift with genre convention, and which bring about their own changes as authors and audiences engage with what has gone before in the recent and deeper pasts.

For several decades after medievalism was established as a field of legitimate scholarly inquiry in the 1980s and 1990s, popular culture iterations were largely viewed with some suspicion if not outright disdain. The twenty-first century, however, has seen growing recognition of the importance of what has been termed the “neomedieval”: medievalisms which playfully reimagine the past rather than attempting historically accurate re-creation.

Science fiction and fantasy, with their necessarily impossible worlds, are perhaps the ultimate in neomedievalism. Earlier volumes have examined some of the ways in which contemporary popular culture re-imagines the Middle Ages, offering broad overviews, but none considers fantasy, science fiction, or the two together. The focused approach of this collection provides a directed pathway into the myriad medievalisms of modern popular culture. By engaging directly with genre(s), this book acknowledges that medievalist creative texts and practices do not occur in a vacuum, but are shaped by multiple cultural forces and concerns; medievalism is never just about the Middle Ages.

Studies of genres, moreover, often focus on a single medium—fiction, film, or television. Each section, and some individual chapters in the volume explores at least two, reflecting the multimedia nature of contemporary popular culture in general and genres in particular. By exploring the way medievalist discourses travel and shift across media within connected genres, the volume explores some of their internal complexities.

Studies of popular genres illuminate social and cultural trends and concerns, while medievalisms reveal far more about the milieu in which they were created than they do about the Middle Ages. By exploring how popular genres develop, pulling on and being pushed by changing approaches to “the medieval,” this collection sheds light on twenty-first century popular culture’s dynamic and at times conflicting moves, and those of the society which creates and consumes it. Individual chapters take diverse approaches, both synchronic and diachronic, some offering detailed case studies and others broader reviews of themes and trends. The variety enables a detailed picture of the complexities of fantasy and science fiction medievalisms to emerge.

The first section explores the reception of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the two chapters together demonstrate that fantasy’s “Tolkienian” medievalism is not that of a single author, but of many readers and creators making and remaking it in different media. The second shows that the dark and dirty medievalism of Game and Thrones and the subgenre of gritty fantasy is complex and at times contradictory. It illustrates the impact of market trends and forces on popular culture texts and the ways they are understood to engage with the past. The third section demonstrates that medievalism has been at the heart of science fiction since the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1960s, and illustrates that use of medieval material and reference points connects it with fantasy as much as it separates the two genres. The final chapter shows that in the twenty-first century, fantasy definitions of medievalisms are expanding to include more than just references to the European Middle Ages which have long been conventional in the genre.

Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms will be of much interest to scholars of fantasy and science fiction, and of medievalism.