AN ABSTRACT OF THE THESIS OF Kaely Horton for the degree of Master of Arts in English presented on April 29, 2014 Title: “Land of War And Blood”: Spectacular Violence, Conflicting Medievalisms, and Chivalric Legacies in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones
Abstract approved: ______________________________________________________ Evan M. Gottlieb
This thesis examines depictions of medievalism in three central texts: Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Each of these texts provides an entry point for exploring the ways in which English and American writers have struggled to reconcile themselves with a medieval history that both defines and eludes them. Although Ivanhoe has traditionally been viewed as a classic example of romanticized medievalism, Chapter One highlights its ambivalence toward the medieval England it represents. Chapter Two explores the equally fraught relationship between Connecticut Yankee’s Hank Morgan (and, by extension, Mark Twain himself) and the medieval world he finds himself in. Finally, Chapter Three suggests that A Game of Thrones both exists within a long tradition of glorified medieval landscapes and also subverts that tradition by dismantling the concept of a chivalric code. Collectively, these texts suggest both the endurance of medievalism and the complex relationship contemporary audiences have with medieval pasts.
©Copyright by Kaely Horton April 29, 2014 All Rights Reserved
“Land of War And Blood”: Spectacular Violence, Conflicting Medievalisms, and Chivalric Legacies in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones
by Kaely Horton
Oregon State University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Presented April 29, 2014 Commencement June 2014
Master of Arts thesis of Kaely Horton presented on April 29, 2014
Major Professor, representing English
Director of the School of Writing, Literature, and Film
Dean of the Graduate School
I understand that my thesis will become part of the permanent collection of Oregon State University libraries. My signature below authorizes release of my thesis to any reader upon request.
Kaely Horton, Author
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS A big thank-you must go to Evan Gottlieb, my major adviser, whose constant feedback and encouragement made me feel supported every step of the way. Thank you also to other members of my committee, Tara Williams and Peter Betjemann, for much-needed counsel regarding pivotal elements of the project, and to Jonathan Katz for graciously agreeing to serve as my Graduate Council Representative. Finally, thank you to Lisa Ede for support and advice in the early stages of this project, and for playing a substantial part in making my grad school experience wonderful. Renate Boronowsky, a lifelong friend, for countless phone conversations, pep talks, and shared laughs. Thank you for believing in me even when I didn’t. Amelia England, my roommate, friend, and fellow MA, for late-night kitchen conversations and library days, and also just for being an all-around awesome person. Clare Braun, Nazifa Islam, Matt Dodson, and Adrian and Britta Stumpp, for your warm friendship and support over the last two years. It has meant more than you will ever know. (Special thanks to Nazifa for the paper punch thing.) To my entire cohort, MA and MFA, in the SWLF: You have been such a joy to work, play, live, teach, and write with. I feel lucky to be one of you. Adam Michaud, for so many things: Bringing me brownies in the library, refusing to hang out with me when I was supposed to be working, believing in me, reminding me that there is a life outside of grad school and it is a good one. My parents, Creight and Jo Horton, and my aunt Barb, for your unwavering love and support. I love you guys and couldn’t have done this without you. And finally, my sister, Eyrie Horton. You know why. And if you don’t, you should.
TABLE OF CONTENTS Page Introduction: The “Patchwork” Middle Ages ..................................................................
Chapter I: Imagining Medievalism: Conflicting Chivalries in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe
Chapter II: Hank Morgan Goes To War: The Shadow of Chivalry in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ...................................................................
Chapter III: The Empty Suit of Armor: Perspective, Spectatorship, and Disillusionment in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones .....................................................................
Conclusion: Looking Back—and Forward—to Medievalism ..........................................
Works Cited ......................................................................................................................
1 Introduction The “Patchwork” Middle Ages The European Middle Ages: An era of chivalry, tournaments, rigid class and gender divides, brutal violence, lush tapestries, nobility, corruption, and intrigue. When it comes to contemporary audiences, few eras have maintained the staying power and appeal of medieval Europe. From Camelot to Avalon, from Sir Launcelot to Rossetti to Ned Stark, the Middle Ages has remained a prevailing force even within a modern American cultural milieu that ostensibly endorses vastly contrasting social structures, ideologies, and values. Gail Ashton and Daniel Kline describe the well-known tropes of the Middle Ages that remain ubiquitous in both modern popular culture and literary landscape: “knights, shepherds, crones, monsters, alluring women . . . its emblems, the castles, tears, magical objects” (4). The genre of fantasy fiction makes heavy use of these tropes, frequently setting stories in quasi-medieval imagined worlds. The connection between medievalism and fantasy is no accident, perhaps, since even historically situated depictions of medieval landscapes tend to be questionable in their accuracy. Tison Pugh and Angela Weisl write that “the ‘Middle Ages’ emerges as an invention of those who came after it; its entire construction is, essentially, a fantasy” (2). Both in overtly fantastic and theoretically realistic contexts, the Middle Ages serves as a frequent backdrop for our stories. For many authors, the implications surrounding the Middle Ages have proven to be both contradictory and mesmerizing. Umberto Eco suggests that we are “dreaming the Middle Ages” (64). But precisely what we are dreaming and why, he writes, varies widely. Rather than treating the time period—or its depiction—as a continuous whole, Eco lists ten “little” Middle Ages that are frequently presented in modern literature and mass media, suggesting that the
2 Middle Ages can be, among other things, a mythological backdrop, a site of ironical revisitation, a place of barbarism, a center for Romantic nostalgia, or a way to reconstruct or emphasize national identity (68-70). Eco claims that “the Middle Ages have never been reconstructed from scratch: We have always mended or patched them up, as something in which we still live” (6768). The fact that we “still live” in the Middle Ages, that it echoes so strongly in our customs, ideologies, social structures, and above all, our entertainment, makes it imperative that we study, not just the time period itself, but also our endless re-imaginings of it. What is (or are) the Middle Ages? This is a central question to any study that seeks to explore medievalism(s), and one that defies a simple or final answer. In their landmark text Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present, Tison Pugh and Angela Jane Weisl tackle the thorny questions of how one might define both the medieval time period and the deluge of representations that focus on or attempt to recreate it. Part of the reason these questions are so difficult to resolve, as Pugh and Weisl point out, is embedded in the very nature of the terms we struggle to define. The word “medieval,” as one definition in the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, is directly related to “medium” or “middle”: “of or relating to a period of time intervening between . . . ancient and modern” (5). One might say, then, that the Middle Ages constitutes a liminal space between an ancient world so far behind us we can barely conceive of it and the one we live in now. Yet even this definition seems inadequate. Perhaps it is no accident that “the Middle Ages” is notated in the plural form: It is not a single, unified “age”; rather, the plural implies both incomprehensible time and a multitude of disparate eras. Thus, perhaps we are not talking about a liminal space, but liminal spaces. Due to its status as an elusive placeholder between ancient and modern, the Middle Ages defies clear definition.
3 It is also, perhaps, telling that this time period(s) has frequently been described as the “Dark Ages”—“dark” implying both mysterious, elusive, and unknown, and also brutal, barbaric, bleak, and undesirable. Pugh and Weisl point out that the word “medieval” is also inextricably connected to violence, particularly by a more modern and theoretically more enlightened audience. One definition states that to “get medieval” means “to use violence or extreme measures on, to become aggressive” (5). Interestingly, the OED situates this particular meaning within the late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century United States, suggesting that Americans may be especially keen to link medieval Europe with primitive qualities. Certainly, there is no shortage of possibilities for violent depictions in medievalist texts—executions, duels, mobs, sieges, rape, torture, and combat in battle, to name a few. Ian Haywood describes events like these in the context of what he calls “spectacular violence”—a term which signifies both the extreme (and potentially sublime) nature of these violent events and also their highly public nature (2). In this thesis, I argue that Haywood’s “bloody vignette” of suffering, which he claims is central to the Romantic literary imagination, can also be found in many contemporary manifestations of medievalism (4). A central theoretical question within this project involves the ways in which spectators, both characters and readers, process violence they witness from a perceived physical or psychological distance. In exploring the development of our fascination with medievalism—and the violent depictions it frequently implies—I engage with this question through both textual analysis and cultural speculation, attempting to unpack the various social and historical legacies we have inherited from our competing medievalist pasts. An awareness of literary historicity, or, as Ruth Mack writes, the “historical quality . . . of written texts . . . their functions as historical objects and representations of the past,” is crucial in
4 any study involving texts set in bygone eras (3). This awareness becomes even more pressing when one considers the cultural instability surrounding the Middle Ages. As Pugh and Weisl emphasize, it is frequently difficult to separate historically accurate definitions of the Middle Ages from the contemporary assumptions and associations it evokes—assumptions which frequently have far more to do with modern reimaginings of the Middle Ages than they do with historical reality. Medievalism—the all-encompassing term that refers to the many ways in which we look back at the Middle Ages—has provided us with a multitude of reimaginings upon which to base our beliefs about that time. More than telling us anything factual about the period in question, however, such retroactive fantasies frequently offer insight into the modern social and cultural structures that produce and consume them. Pugh and Weisl write, “In its simplest sense, medievalism refers to the art, literature, scholarship, avocational pastimes, and sundry forms of entertainment and culture that turn to the Middle Ages for their subject matter or inspiration, and in doing so . . . comment on the artist’s contemporary sociocultural milieu” (1). Furthermore, as Eco details, because nostalgia for and retroactive depictions of the Middle Ages essentially began as soon as the time period ended, these portrayals have come to far outnumber depictions created within the time period of itself. To complicate matters, Pugh and Weisl point out that even these depictions are suspect, frequently appearing as “dreams of what medieval people believed their world should be” rather than what it was. Thus, “reimaginings of the Middle Ages are essentially fantasies built upon fantasies,” (3) with little necessary relation to the reality of the time period. The rise of neomedievalism adds a further wrinkle to this tissue of fantasies. Described by Amy Kaufman as “not a dream of the Middle Ages, but a dream of someone else’s
5 medievalism,” neomedievalism embraces the lack of historical accuracy that others lament (Pugh and Weisl 3). Neomedievalism does not seek to recreate a historically correct Middle Ages; instead, it uses the tropes and customs of medieval worlds as generic or satirical settings and props for contemporary stories, offering an “image of the past that is divorced from any chronology, the image of an alternative past divorced from history” (Marshall 23). Neomedievalism accepts the possibilities of re-creation, keeping its focus squarely on the present world, with little regard for the historical reality that inspired its subject matter. This trend is evident in films such as A Knight’s Tale, which features a medieval setting that incorporates modern rock music, ideologies, and slang. In keeping with Eco’s description of the Middle Ages as constantly under renovation by modern writers (67), neomedievalists select the features of medieval history that appeal to them while excluding others, participating in a patchwork process which combines medieval features with modern social and cultural structures. The Middle Ages thus serves as a medium through which contemporary writers can engage in cultural commentary, poking fun at both the present and the past. One of the most prominent ideological and cultural elements of medievalism, chivalry, constitutes another central focus of this project. Yet its perceived meaning, both in medieval history and in our own contemporary cultural milieu, has frequently shifted. In his Essay on Chivalry, Sir Walter Scott writes that “it was peculiar to the institution of chivalry, to blend military valour with the strongest passions which actuate the human mind, the feelings of devotion and those of love” (Essay 4). In addition to demonstrating a common Romantic understanding of this term, Scott’s definition also speaks to the paradoxical nature of chivalry, highlighting the fact that it is simultaneously associated with warfare and love. Chivalry,
6 according to Scott, was a singularly noble endeavor, a way to combat inhumanity, barbarism, and injustice. The key word here, perhaps, is “combat,” since chivalry has always been closely connected to prowess in battle. Initially, the word “chivalry” simply meant “men-at-arms” or “horsemen,” a denotation for which the modern equivalent is “cavalry” (“chivalry, n.”). Gradually, it came to be associated with gallantry, acquiring meanings such as “knighthood,” “warlike distinction or glory” and “a feat of knightly valour.” By the nineteenth century in which Scott was writing, “chivalry” had taken on a far more complicated meaning than its original roots might suggest. The Oxford English Dictionary’s most recent definition— and also the one with which most twenty-first century Americans are probably familiar —reads: “The brave, honourable, and courteous character attributed to the ideal knight; disinterested bravery, honour, and courtesy; chivalrousness” (“chivalry, n.”). As this definition makes clear – and as Scott had already intuited in his Essay – “chivalry” is not only a functional term indicating a certain type of soldier or his physical abilities but also the name for an entire ideological code. This evolving definition of chivalry seems to mirror evolving attitudes toward warfare and those who participate in it. According to chivalry’s more expansive definitions, it is not enough for a knight to be physically skilled; in order for him to be chivalrous, he must also exhibit certain character and moral traits. He must be well-mannered, courageous, honorable, devoted to king and country, and committed to defending those who are unable to defend themselves. Furthermore, the chivalric commitment to protecting the weak, innocent, and pure of heart frequently manifested itself as “devotion to the female sex” (Scott, Essay 10). One might imagine that in a European medieval landscape characterized by oppression and persecution of women, knightly dedication to the welfare of females—even as it often still
7 viewed those females in terms of rank and property —was both conspicuous and necessary. When twenty-first century Americans refer to chivalry, they frequently allude to its implications regarding gender roles; the phrase “Chivalry is not dead!” is often applied to situations when men open doors for women, offer them seats, or perform other gender-normed acts of gallantry associated with knighthood. Thus, both in depictions of medieval worlds (such as Scott’s own medieval romances, or, more recently, the neomedieval milieu of pop culture) and in modern social and cultural norms, the echo of chivalry remains. But chivalry, like many other artifacts of real and imagined medieval worlds, has acquired so many meanings that its roles in modern America(s) are difficult to parse out. The word “chivalry” is inextricably connected to both appearance (i.e., genteel good manners) and underlying morals (honesty, integrity, kindness); it has been used to indicate both aesthetic glory (a knight in shining armor) and laudable behavior (a knight rescuing someone in need). Above all, as Scott points out, the term “chivalry” implies both bloody warfare and a keeping of the peace, suggesting some semblance of order in a world of barbaric chaos (Essay 10). Even as it borders on contranymic—that is, holding two opposing meanings at the same time—one must wonder if the word “chivalry” still holds much power in the contemporary American cultural landscape; if, despite the fact that it means so many things, it has lost much of its meaning to modern Americans who are unaware of its complex origins. This text will examine the varying meanings “chivalry” has acquired in more modern texts that look back at the Middle Ages with varying levels of nostalgia, scorn, and ambivalence, alternately glorifying and condemning an era which is as much obscured by textual representation as it is revealed. While the main character in Scott’s Ivanhoe describes chivalry
8 as the “stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant” (247), Mark Twain’s character in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank Morgan, focuses on chivalry as it relates to appearances, mocking the impracticality of armor and decrying the custom of single combat as “a sign and mark of childhood” (14). Ned Stark, the protagonist in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, is a staunch believer in the honorable ideals that characterize the most recent definition of chivalry—yet these beliefs do not serve him well. Each of these characters represents a facet of the complex relationship modern audiences have with the concept of medieval chivalry, and on a wider level, with medievalism itself. The previously mentioned three texts, published over the last two hundred years, provide insight into the development and endurance of this trend. The first, Scott’s Ivanhoe, offers a grand and glorious picture of medieval England on the surface, but its attitude toward medievalism becomes more ambiguous when one considers the persecuted and prophetic character of Rebecca. The second, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, offers a satirical, burlesque view of medieval England, a view which becomes more complicated when one considers both the inconsistency of its main character and the fact that much of its criticism is echoed in Ivanhoe itself. The final text, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, simultaneously perpetuates the endurance of medievalism and systematically dismantles its traditional concepts of chivalry, monarchy, and honor. Taken together, these three texts simultaneously suggest both chivalry’s endurance and its fundamental unsustainability. Even as they respond to an imagined or recreated past, these texts also respond to each other, creating a clear temporal and international trajectory for the impulse(s) toward medievalism: from nineteenth-century historical romance to twenty-first century epic fantasy, from English desires
9 to acknowledge directly their national and cultural history to American attempts to address, claim, or reimagine an indirectly inherited medieval pseudo-past. There are, of course, a multitude of texts one might examine when studying medievalism and its legacies. Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, although it falls well outside the temporal scope of this particular project, is one of the first texts to engage comprehensively with a (re)created Middle Ages. Another landmark text for medievalism, and a touchstone for the way many people view the Middle Ages, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. This text emphasizes the longstanding connection between fantasy and medievalism, depicting a world in which medieval customs and social structures exist alongside various forms of magic and imagined races such as elves, hobbits, and Orcs. The debt more recent works of medieval fantasy owe to The Lord of the Rings must be acknowledged when engaging with those texts; that said, I have chosen not to focus on The Lord of the Rings for several reasons. As a wellestablished text with a vast body of scholarship, The Lord of the Rings is an accepted classic within both medieval and fantasy studies; however, it is also dated, and therefore less effective in establishing contemporary American fascination with medievalism. In addition, despite its clear medieval influence, one might argue that The Lord of the Rings inhabits spaces of fantasy, allegory, and pre-historical mythology far more comfortably than it does the time-specific, historical Middle Ages “known” to the general public. Ironically, this does not preclude the possibility that The Lord of the Rings may encompass a certain degree of historical accuracy, assuming such a thing exists: as a dedicated medieval scholar, Tolkien was certainly better equipped to create an accurate medieval world than most writers, even if that world contained elements of fantasy and did not completely conform to popular conceptions of the Middle Ages
10 (Ashton & Kline 123). For this project’s purposes, however, I am far more interested in considering the ways in which nineteenth-century English medievalist depictions informed nineteenth- and 20th-century American attitudes toward (and reimaginings of) the Middle Ages. The Lord of the Rings, an early 20th-century English creation of a vaguely medieval national mythology, does not comfortably fit this trajectory. The three texts that form the backbone of this project, by contrast, suggest a clear line of inheritance—from English nineteenth-century historical romance, which despite external appearances is frequently ambivalent toward the medieval past it depicts, through late nineteenth-century American satire, which attempts to differentiate itself from a rejected European historical tradition, to twenty-first century American epic fantasy, which simultaneously displays respect for English traditions of medievalism and unmistakable ideological departure from them. The American impulse to reclaim, reject, or reimagine a European Middle Ages that is both theirs and not theirs is a constant source of tension within medievalist depictions. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and A Game of Thrones each offer entry points for exploring different facets of this tension, even as Ivanhoe demonstrates the long-standing complexity that has frequently surrounded medievalist reimaginings. Collectively, the three texts I examine suggest an enduring struggle—both American and English—to reconcile a medieval history that both defines and eludes us. Published in 1820, Ivanhoe – the focus of my first chapter -- marked a shift away from Scott’s early Waverley novels, which were set in the relatively recent past, and featured Scottish settings and characters. On the surface, this text is an adventure story for children, featuring all the requisite outlaws, brave knights, damsels in distress, kings in disguise, noble servants, and
11 lush descriptions of tournaments. Perhaps because of this overarching frame, Ivanhoe has frequently been marketed and received as the quintessential glorification of an English medieval past. Yet in-depth analysis of both this text and Scott’s other writings reveals an entirely different story, suggesting that even as Scott paid tribute to the highest ideals of chivalry, he also understood its fallibility, its potential for corruption, and its unsustainability in a modern world. The chapter “Imagining Medievalism: Conflicting Chivalries in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe” highlights and explores these paradoxes, presenting a reading of Ivanhoe’s ultimate ambivalence toward its medieval subject matter. This sense of ambivalence only grows stronger when we turn our attention to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Although Mark Twain—along with his protagonist, Hank Morgan—deliberately sets out to undercut concepts of medieval chivalry as both laughable and obsolete, he succeeds only in demonstrating the fundamental inescapability of America’s pseudo-medieval cultural past. Chapter Two of this text, “Hank Morgan Goes To War: The Shadow of Chivalry in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” explores the ways in which Twain and his protagonist both inadvertently become inverted reflections of the very thing they are trying to defeat; by “going to war” against chivalry and medieval glorification, they adopt the same language, metaphor, and underlying ideology as the knights they are fighting against. Thus, Connecticut Yankee serves as a testament to the deeply conflicted relationship nineteenth-century American writers had with an English medieval history that simultaneously belonged to them and represented everything they wanted to escape. The American fascination with medieval customs, trappings, and social structure that triggered the writing of Connecticut Yankee has only grown stronger in more recent years.
12 Twenty-first century Americans attend medieval fairs, crown prom kings and queens, attend jousting sessions, and flock to the medievalist fantasia that is Disneyland. They also revel in bestselling fantasy epics and blockbusters, many of which are set in worlds that only vaguely resemble medieval England. Amidst this deluge of medieval reimaginings, the reality of the European Middle Ages has subsided from the public view; perhaps more than any other time period, the Middle Ages has been obscured by our own recreations of it, to the point that it proves elusive even to those earnestly seeking some semblance of historical accuracy. The idea that such historical accuracy is possible or even extant, moreover, is called into question by Reinhart Koselleck in his book Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Koselleck challenges our assumptions surrounding historicity, suggesting that “all historical knowledge is locationally determined and hence relative” (132). Koselleck emphasizes the inherently temporal—and therefore unstable—nature of historicity, suggesting that our understanding of history is dictated by the assumptions our particular time period maintains about historical knowledge, progress, and the eras which have come before. Thus, he argues, historians are unable to create completely accurate historical narratives; their very concepts of historical knowledge are predicated upon the eras they live in, and therefore unreliable. In a way, then, those who seek to depict historical reality must do so by “reimagining” that history through the perspective dictated by their own eras, just as neomedievalists recreate quasimedieval worlds based on contemporary expectations and assumptions about the Middle Ages. Even as historians must acknowledge their complex role as storytellers, limited by their own temporality, storytellers take on power as pseudo-historians by creating, perpetuating, and disseminating depictions of historical pasts.
13 One such storyteller is George R.R. Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire series seeks to create some semblance of accuracy in an imagined medieval world. This intention may sound oxymoronic, if not impossible, especially considering Koselleck’s assertion that all historical knowledge is, to some extent, incomplete. Yet the inherent unreliability of historical recording Koselleck highlights, coupled with the “patchwork” quality of the Middle Ages, suggest that a fantasy writer like Martin does not necessarily have less agency in the (re)creation of the Middle Ages than either historians or writers of historical fiction. Regardless of its historical accuracy, Martin’s series—and in particular, his first book, A Game of Thrones—is an excellent testament to Americans’ enduring fascination with medieval worlds of political intrigue, brutal violence, and cultural landscapes in which glamour and grit, nobility and corruption, exist inextricably side by side. In Chapter Three, “The Empty Suit of Armor: Perspective, Spectatorship, and Disillusionment in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones,” I explore the ways in which Martin’s story simultaneously exists as part of a longstanding tradition of glorified medieval landscapes and also subverts that tradition. Through the fate of its main character, as well as a number of its other features, A Game of Thrones undermines the concept of chivalry that has historically been a crucial element in romanticized medieval worlds. This depiction brings the analysis within this project full circle, echoing Scott’s belief that chivalry, while noble in theory, is unsustainable in a modern world. Despite their differences, then, the three texts examined share a common ambivalence regarding their subject matter—a tension between glorification and condemnation, between historical accuracy and neomedievalist appropriation, between tribute and rejection of a medieval history that, in one form or another, simply refuses to die. In addition, these texts highlight the
14 ambiguous role of chivalry as both an ideology promoting peace and an apparatus of war—a contradiction which mirrors the larger connection between violence and beauty Haywood identifies and explores. Finally, in my conclusion, I will briefly suggest some additional ways in which the legacy of chivalry—and its conflicting ideological impulses—lives on in twenty-firstcentury America, further highlighting how the study of medievalism(s) can illuminate modern cultural assumptions, traditions, and values.
Chapter I Imagining Medievalism: Conflicting Chivalries in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe A 1942 comic book version of Ivanhoe sports two clashing knights on the cover, a glorious blend of bright colors, gleaming armor, and eagerly watching spectators. In the corners are mini-portraits of the main characters—Rebecca, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, Brian De Bois Guilbert. They entice the reader, representing archetypes of medievalism that are widely familiar to modern audiences: the brave and distressed damsel, the chivalrous hero, the cunning outlaw, and the villain. Everything about this cover promises excitement, adventure, glory—in short, what Una Pope-Hennessy called the “wonderful pageant-land” of Scott’s medieval novels (qtd. in Duncan 293). Nearly two hundred years of such depictions have led many critics to believe this medieval glorification represents the sum total of Ivanhoe’s significance. Yet the original work tells an entirely different story. Throughout Ivanhoe, Scott repeatedly suggests that the Middle Ages was a dark, brutal, and unenlightened time, claiming that “fiction itself can hardly reach the dark reality of the horrors of the period” (188). Despite later interpretations of Ivanhoe as a romanticized depiction of medieval combat and splendor, its final message regarding medievalism is ambiguous at best, painting a picture of a world fractured by civil war, prejudice, corruption, hypocrisy, and cruelty. When it comes to Scott’s breathtaking popularity and influence, critics do not mince words. In her article “Did Mark Twain Bring Down the Temple on Scott’s Shoulders?,” Susan Manning describes Scott as “arguably the single most influential writer in the shaping of nineteenth-century American literature” and suggests that Ivanhoe was “arguably the single most influential novel” (9).
James Hillhouse points out that even though Scott has always had his
16 detractors, “yet, after all, they do write about Scott, and at length; at least they find it important, even necessary, to explain that he is now unimportant and is no longer read” (4). For critics and admirers alike, Scott has remained an enduring presence, a literary giant who must be dealt with in some way—either through imitation, condemnation, or cool acknowledgment—and, despite all the times critics have attempted to inter him, his literary shadow continues to haunt. Ivanhoe, one of his most well-known and popular works, has met with an especially mixed reception. Arriving at the peak of a flourishing Romantic movement, Ivanhoe (1819) quickly became a touchstone for those who looked back on a glorified past with nostalgia. Yet this very popularity became a crippling feature in the eyes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century realists, who viewed the medieval glorification they saw in Ivanhoe as childish, inappropriate, and unrealistic. One of the most significant critics of Scott’s own time, Francis Jeffrey, was not overly impressed with Ivanhoe, offering criticisms that foreshadowed those to come in the ensuing centuries. As Hillhouse explains, “Though doubtless the most broadly popular of all the novels, Ivanhoe has never had the support of the critics. The author, Jeffrey says, has been reduced to the vulgar staple of armed knights, jolly friars, serfs and fools, though he has at times given these theatrical creatures the illusion of humanity” (45). Jeffrey’s objection to Ivanhoe would be broadly echoed by future critics, many of whom have since accepted the consensus that while medieval stories of chivalry and adventure may appeal to the masses, they ultimately have little literary value, and that works of realism remain the proper focus of serious critics and novelists. This attitude is especially intriguing in the context of Scott’s placement at a turning point in literary history. Often called the “father of the historical novel,” Scott was a literary
17 trailblazer, forging a place for the novel which had not previously existed. Indeed, the journal for which Jeffrey was writing, the Edinburgh Review, had not deigned to review the lowly genre of the novel until Scott’s works appeared on the scene (Hillhouse 40). Scott’s Scottish Waverley Novels—that is, the early novels set in Scotland, and within living memory—were widely praised by critics, who viewed them as adding respectability to the genre as a whole. The critical reaction to his medieval romances, however, was more complicated. Ivanhoe marked a striking departure from Scott’s previous work, and reviewers disagreed—and continue to disagree—on whether that departure was successful. Though Ivanhoe met with high praise from many critics, that praise was frequently tempered by unfavorable comparisons to his Scottish Waverley Novels. In comparing Ivanhoe to Scott’s other works, Ivanhoe always seems to come up short. Some critics have suggested that it is unfair to compare Ivanhoe to Scott’s other novels on the grounds that Ivanhoe is from an entirely different genre than the Scottish novels that preceded it (Hillhouse 51). Along with Scott’s other medieval romances, Ivanhoe has often been placed squarely within the Romantic tradition, a position that many critics seem to view as inherently at odds with any legitimate sense of historicity. Although, as Ruth Mack points out, “for most of the eighteenth century history and fiction are not separated by the great generic divide of our contemporary moment,” by the nineteenth century, an emphasis on historicity was on the rise (2). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “historicity” as “the fact, quality, or character of being situated in history; esp. historical accuracy or authenticity” and cites its first usage in 1854 – only thirty-five years after Scott published Ivanhoe (“historicity, n.”). Thus, Ivanhoe originated at a crossroads, caught between a period that indiscriminately melded history with fiction and a period that valued historical realism and factual correctness. Criticisms
18 centering on Ivanhoe’s lack of historical accuracy are indicative of the increased expectation— not necessarily present in the past—that novels represent factual depictions of their historical settings and characters. Although its setting and aesthetic may be considerably different from Scott’s earlier novels, Ivanhoe seems to have come from a similar mold: even as the novel is littered with anachronisms and set hundreds of years in the past, it remains rooted in its historical setting, just as the Scottish novels are. Perhaps it is this very tension—between medieval frills and underlying commitment to historical depiction—that has left so many critics uncertain what to make of Ivanhoe. Recent critics, however, have suggested that this tension may be exaggerated. James Chandler describes the ways in which both Ivanhoe and Scott’s other historical novels “play a significant role in the emergence of modern historiography” and warns against the common critical mistake of “attempting to resist Romanticism by means of historicism” (136). The iron divide between these two camps, Chandler suggests, may be misguided; ultimately, Romanticism is inextricably linked to historicism, and to disregard this connection is to miss an opportunity to gain fuller understanding of both theories. Ivanhoe, like Waverley, embodies a continual traversing of the boundary between history and literature; while the specific circumstances and details may be different in each text, the underlying impulse is the same. Both novels are deeply rooted in the development of national identity, and both are products of a nineteenth-century cultural push to reimagine—or, in some cases, reinvent entirely—the past. The lines between history and literature become even more blurred if one considers Reinhart Koselleck’s depiction of history as a deeply unstable and constantly changing entity. He writes, “All historical knowledge is locationally determined and hence relative” (132) and
19 traces the evolution of ideas about historical perspective from a “naïve realism” (133) to the gradual realization that any depiction of historical events is inherently unreliable, incomplete, and heavily influenced by both individual and socio-political perspective (138). During this shift, which occurred near the middle of the eighteenth century, the perceived role of the historian changed from a slavish recorder of supposedly unabridged “truth” to someone who “could henceforth be in a position to ‘produce’ history by weighing causes, examining long-term relations, reorganizing the beginning and end . . . He was able to design systems which appeared more appropriate to the complexity of histories than the simple addition of knowledge” (139). In other words, rather than simply recording history, the historical writer was now in a position to “make” history by recreating, organizing, and interpreting. If one accepts the historian’s ability to “produce” history through narrative, the divide between the historian and the writer of historical literature becomes even more complicated. As both historical writer and (under the eighteenth-century theory of historical knowledge) potential historian, Scott cast a wide influence on nineteenth-century writers, European and American alike. This influence has resulted in both overwhelming popularity, and—perhaps as a result—backlash that borders on the absurdly hyperbolic. Perhaps the harshest of Ivanhoe’s detractors, Mark Twain, accused Scott of “[running] the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his mediaeval romances” (Life 332-333). Where most previous critics had only seen idle foolishness, Twain saw danger, declaring that Scott “did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote” (Life 375). His characteristic use of hyperbole notwithstanding, Twain assigns Scott enormous power in this critique: the power to shape and influence an entire culture, the power to singlehandedly
20 implement a new idealized view of humanity across decades and continents, and the power, through works of fiction alone, to cripple an otherwise thriving society. The consistency and vehemence of Twain’s criticisms support Hillhouse’s speculation that it is Scott’s critics, perhaps even more than his loyal followers, who keep him alive in our modern age. Despite various attempts to dismiss or dismantle it, Ivanhoe remains one of the most polarizing and popular works of nineteenth-century fiction. The tension between medieval nostalgia and contemporary realism remains an ongoing thread in modern criticism of Ivanhoe. This tension is also evident in re-imaginings of Scott’s medieval work, from the aforementioned comic book to film adaptations, as well as in modern works of fantasy and historical fiction which have been influenced by his vision of medieval England. And when one considers his influence as the “father of historical fiction” as well as Tison Pugh and Angela Weisl’s assertion that “Scott’s novels defined the Middle Ages for the nineteenth-century cultural imaginary” (40), it seems safe to say that there are few contemporary novels set in medieval worlds (real or imagined) which have not been influenced, knowingly or unknowingly, by Scott’s works. But just how accurate was Scott’s envisioning of twelfth-century England? This question has been a sticking point for critics. One of the major criticisms (past and present) of Ivanhoe has been the fundamentally unrealistic nature of its medieval world. A Monthly Review critic in Scott’s own time identified the “‘glaring’ departure from authentic history” (Hillhouse 74). Ivanhoe has come under fire both for specific anachronisms and inaccuracies and for a more widespread, overly romanticized view of the medieval world. Bruce Beiderwell argues that in Ivanhoe, Scott “replaces history with nostalgia; moral complexity with chivalric codes; and unsatisfying scenes of punishment with perfectly unqualified, swift, and certain acts of
21 righteousness” (82). He focuses on Ivanhoe’s depiction of Rebecca’s trial-by-combat, writing that under the tournament system, “judgment and justice are dramatically realized in a single, trusty act of competitive violence” (84). According to Beiderwell, part of the appeal of Ivanhoe comes from precisely this idea of a simplified moral code, which can be relied upon to exact justice. Beiderwell also points out that, regardless of the seemingly horrible legal and social circumstances under which they live, all of the “good” characters of Ivanhoe survive and are acquitted, while the “bad” characters are killed or punished (85). The genre of the novel may support this impression, conditioning readers to expect a happy ending and therefore to assume that the protagonists will eventually escape their predicaments. Knowing this in advance, one might argue, leaves the reader free to view Scott’s medieval world in much the same way that the general public in Ivanhoe views the bloody pageantry of tournaments, enjoying the spectacle while remaining one step removed from its reality. Thus, despite Scott’s attempts to remind readers of the awful conditions of Ivanhoe’s medieval world, perhaps it is the images of the chivalrous knight, the colorful banners, and the successfully rescued damsel which endure. Beiderwell’s objections echo a continuous trend of critics who seemingly have little patience for the unabashedly romantic elements of Ivanhoe. Like the blunt Saxons who reject ideals of flowery Norman chivalry in the story itself, many modern critics reject what they see as an obsolete, overly romanticized depiction of medieval England—a depiction in which “knights held their long lances upright, their bright points glancing to the sun, and the streamers with which they were decorated fluttering over the plumage of the helmets” (Scott 104). The late nineteenth-century push toward realism left little room for favorable impressions of such descriptions. Nineteenth-century realists seemed to disregard the idea promoted by J. Chandler,
22 who argued that works like Ivanhoe could have a significant impact on the development of modern historiography. Rather, they assumed that such works of medieval romance were inherently ahistorical, unrealistic, and potentiall harmful. In popular American culture, as well, Ivanhoe and other medieval romances inhabit a complicated position. While many people maintain an ongoing love affair with thrilling tales of knights, ladies, castles and trials-by-combat, the chivalric values and lavish medieval settings of Ivanhoe may also run glaringly counter to generally accepted American values, such as pragmatism, realism, and simplicity. This incongruence frequently manifests itself in modern retellings or revisions of stories like Ivanhoe; one of the earliest and most pointed of these was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is the subject of the following chapter of this thesis. Yet several critics have suggested that Ivanhoe’s flashy medievalist exterior is deceptive, masking far more complex intentions and potential interpretations. Graham Tulloch claims that Scott’s anachronistic choices in Ivanhoe may have been deliberate, suggesting that rather than merely sticking to facts, Scott attempted to paint a “composite picture of the medieval period that includes all its iconic features” (166). Tulloch’s description of Scott echoes Koselleck’s depiction of the historian as someone who “designs systems which appear more appropriate to the complexity of histories than the simple addition of knowledge” (139). Perhaps, then, Scott was not setting out to create an accurate view of England in the twelfth century; rather, he sought to create an impression, an imaginary medievalism in which ideals of chivalry, nobility, and glory could be recreated for a nineteenth-century audience. Knowing that such romantic ideals could not be sustained in any real world, past or present, Scott created his own.
23 In a similar vein, Alice Chandler argues that the characters and events of Scott’s medieval novels are meant to be symbolic rather than realistic, and thus should not be evaluated by the same standards as his realistic fiction. Rather than trying to refute or make excuses for Ivanhoe’s romanticism, Chandler’s reading embraces it, arguing that to view Scott’s works as romances is to discover new levels of depth and value in them. Scott, Chandler claims, was “an acute and subtle realist who . . . all his life asserted the values of chivalry and the attractions of romance” (200). Although Scott placed a high value on the ideals of chivalry, Chandler argues, he also understood the impossibility of their real-world application. Supporting the idea of Scott as a disillusioned Romantic, Susan Manning writes that in Ivanhoe, “the reader is never allowed to turn aside from the reality that chivalric violence, though harnessed, is real, and costs” (20). Similarly, Tulloch suggests Scott is “ever conscious of the contradictions within chivalry and of chivalry’s tendency to degenerate into the fantastic and absurd” (166). Scott’s romanticism, then, was tempered by the knowledge that the time about which he wrote was unequivocally and irrevocably in the past. But was Scott a Romantic at all? In “The Anti-Romantic in Ivanhoe,” Joseph Duncan questions this idea, writing that “It is only the surface and the padding of Ivanhoe that provide the romantic boy's adventure story. Scott's main concern in this novel . . . was with the difficult but necessary transition from a romantic, heroic era to a comparatively drabber period of unity, peace, and progress” (299). Ultimately, Duncan argues, Scott makes it clear that the old romantic ideals have actually outlived their usefulness in Ivanhoe, and must be thrown out if true unity is to be achieved. Despite all the depictions of Ivanhoe as a nineteenth-century precursor to role-playing fantasy, resplendent with gleaming armor, colorful banners, and untainted
24 heroism, a closer look reveals this impression as a lie. Throughout Ivanhoe, Scott repeatedly makes a point of emphasizing the fact that the twelfth century was a brutal and dangerous time, rife with civil war, social injustice, and physical and mental discomfort. This is not to say that he skimps on describing the glory of his medieval world. Scott describes the bedroom of the Lady Rowena, daughter of the Saxon Cedric, in the following way: The walls were covered with embroidered hangings, on which differentcoloured silks, interwoven with gold and silver threads, had been employed with all the art of which the age was capable . . . The bed was adorned with the same rich tapestry, and surrounded with curtains dyed with purple. The seats had also their stained coverings, and one, which was higher than the rest, was accommodated with a footstool of ivory, curiously carved. No fewer than four silver candelabras, holding great waxen torches, served to illuminate this apartment. (45) Such a passage could easily have come from a number of modern fantasy novels set in medievally inspired worlds, many of which stem from the legacy of Ivanhoe. But Scott continues: Yet let not modern beauty envy the magnificence of a Saxon princess. The walls of the apartment were so ill finished and full of crevices, that the rich hangings shook in the night blast, and, in despite of a sort of screen intended to protect them from the wind, the flame of the torches streamed sideways into the air . . . Magnificence there was, with some rude attempt at taste; but of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed. (45) Even as he acknowledges the appealing splendor of the age about which he writes, Scott also is careful to acknowledge its inconvenience, lack of advancement, and primitivism. In the seven hundred years between when Ivanhoe takes place and when it was written, Scott implies, human progress advanced in immeasurable and infinitely desirable ways. If Scott does not hesitate to shine a spotlight on human discomfort in the medieval world—drafts, holes in the walls, faulty architecture—he is also quick to point out what he views
25 as the deeper problems of his chosen time period. Technology and innovation may have advanced wildly in the intervening years, Scott implies, but the more significant progress has come on a societal and spiritual level. Midway through Ivanhoe, Scott pauses in his tale to provide some historical background, quoting the Saxon Chronicle, an Old English text recounting the history of the Anglo-Saxons, to support his assertion that the twelfth century was a horrible time: “[The lords and barons] grievously oppressed the poor people by building castles . . . They suffocated some [prisoners] in mud, and suspended others by the feet, or the head, or the thumbs, kindling fires below them. They squeezed the heads of some with knotted cords till they pierced their brains, while they threw others into dungeons swarming with serpents, snakes, and toads” (188-189). By emphasizing the injustices that could befall the poor, innocent, and unlucky in the twelfth-century medieval world, Scott suggests that the misfortunes his characters suffer reflect reality. In this example, as in the rest of the novel, Scott emphasizes the potentially dire consequences of medieval traditions, norms, and laws, and so suggests the barbarism of the era he describes. The ultimate impact of these descriptions on readers, however, is debatable, especially when one considers the concept of spectatorship as it relates to Ivanhoe. Scott writes of Ivanhoe’s tournament spectators that they “saw the conflict with a thrilling interest certainly, but without a wish to withdraw their eyes from a sight so terrible” (105). A chilling parallel appears in the scene of Rebecca’s trial by combat, when the people of the surrounding area come to see her death: “It was a scene of bustle and life, as if the whole vicinity had poured forth its inhabitants to a village wake, or rural feast” (385). These spectators are fully aware that a woman is about to be burned, yet instead of deterring them, the cruelty and violence of her
26 intended death only seem to excite them more. In light of Scott’s other asides regarding the barbarism of the 1100s, one might expect him to describe this collective bloodthirstiness as yet another deplorable but obsolete sign of the times. But instead of attributing this to a bygone custom of an archaically brutal Middle Ages, Scott suggests that this is one human impulse that has not changed: [T]he earnest desire to look on blood and death, is not peculiar to those dark ages; though in the gladiatorial exercise of single combat and general tourney, they were habituated to the bloody spectacle of brave men falling by each other’s hands. Even in our own days, when morals are better understood, an execution, a bruising match, a riot, or a meeting of radical reformers, collects, at considerable hazard to themselves, immense crowds of spectators . . . . (385) Scott suggests that the general public—both in the twelfth and the nineteenth centuries—is guilty of a sort of voyeuristic sadism, constantly eager, if not to commit acts of violence themselves, at least to see them committed by others. To further support this assertion, he writes that the crowd is “rather disappointed at the champions choosing the arms of courtesy” (70) in the tournament of Ivanhoe, since this choice symbolizes less potential for bloodshed. Although the phenomenon of spectators craving violence is not limited to a particular time period, clues regarding its origin arise from the era in which Scott himself was writing, namely the early nineteenth century. In Bloody Romanticism, Ian Haywood explores the “controversial pleasure which [can] be derived from witnessing someone else’s extreme suffering” (3) and suggests that the peculiar circumstances of the Romantic Period—slavery, the Napoleonic Wars, the rise of national and international revolutions and internal social unrest— combine to make the concept of “spectacular violence” crucial for understanding Romanticism (2). Those living in the Romantic period, Haywood argues, were simultaneously traumatized by
27 extreme violence and aesthetically drawn toward it. Haywood echoes the theory of Sublime Terror pioneered by Edmund Burke, who, in his writings on spectatorship, suggests that the level of distance may make the difference in how spectators process violence: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful” (67). According to Burke’s theory, then, spectatorship at a distance allows the watchers to experience the thrill and sublimity of violence without feeling any of the fear or pain themselves. The concept of spectatorship becomes more complex when one considers the place of readers who experience violence indirectly, buffered by both the “unrealness” of the text and the existence of multiple perspectives with which to identify. According to Haywood, the presence of spectators within a violent work of fiction allows the reader a certain level of freedom, even as it complicates his place in the narrative (6). One might hypothesize that these different subject positions allow the reader to detach from the proceedings, to retreat into the more comfortable realm of the observer, imagining himself in the crowd rather than tied to the stake with Rebecca or facing the lance with Ivanhoe. Looking back at the comic book cover from the introduction, one must wonder whether modern audiences are so different from the crowd of colorful spectators depicted in the background of the tournament—thirsty for excitement, reveling in the clash of spears, conveniently unmindful of the fact that the tournament must by definition result in death. Yet it would be overly simplistic to imagine that that these readers view Ivanhoe’s scenes of violence with cool indifference or untempered delight. Haywood emphasizes the importance of the “spectacle” of suffering, in which “a staged and framed display of violence . . . [is]
28 designed to carry a highly charged emotional and moral message” (3). Similarly, Scott presents the tournament-goers in Ivanhoe as not merely bloodthirsty, but also deeply invested in the proceedings: “[T]he spectators seemed as if they themselves had dealt and received the blows which were there so freely bestowed” (106). Scenes of spectacular violence can be highly enjoyable to those who witness them, yet as the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume points out, sympathy plays a role in spectatorship too. Hume argues that “No man is absolutely indifferent to the . . . misery of others” (71). Burke seconds this assertion, saying that people “are never suffered to be indifferent spectators of almost anything which men can do or suffer” (76). To witness violence, according to Burke, is to experience strong emotion; the specific nature of that emotion, however, is frequently ambiguous. Burke points out that the mere fact that people are drawn toward these experiences implies some level of pleasure, despite the fact that it “is not an unmixed delight, but blended with no small uneasiness” (80). The spectator’s reaction to violence, suffering, or pain, it would seem, is highly complicated, carrying at least some measure of pleasure or delight combined with an underlying sense of unease. Regardless of the exact nature of these emotions, Scott implies that ultimately, tournaments, executions, and other spectacles of staged, socially sanctioned combat—whether real or literary—are popular, not despite their bloody content, but because of it. He writes, “the same sort of persons who, in the present day, applaud most highly the deepest tragedies, were then interested in a tournament exactly in proportion to the danger incurred by the champions” (70). Although Scott attributes this attitude to specific members of society—namely, the ladies, and many of the “lower-order” spectators” (70)—it seems safe to assume that the phenomenon of spectators reveling in the danger of others is much more widespread than he leads us to believe.
29 These spectators know they are in no danger themselves, and this knowledge leaves them free to enjoy the proceedings with emotional immunity. Yet the question remains to what extent they are morally culpable for what they see, even as the social structures and norms surrounding them purport to absolve them of blame. Questions about the nature of spectatorship—and spectacular violence—become especially pressing when one considers Ivanhoe’s intrinsically violent nature. At its heart, Ivanhoe is a story of human brutality and suffering, depicting a time in which the Catholic Church is both deeply powerful and deeply corrupt (307); the majority of the population is uneducated and obedient, watching gleefully as men are murdered in the tournament lists (105); civil war and anarchy rage, eroding illusions of personal or national safety (189); and those on the fringes of society—Jews, slaves, women—are treated like animals (37, 169). Many of these forces converge on the character of Rebecca, the persecuted Jewess who is first taken prisoner and nearly raped by the licentious Brian de Bois-Guilbert, then later tried for witchcraft and sentenced to die by the Church. Rebecca is an outsider in a society that is dangerous and cruel even to those inside it; brave and compassionate, yet powerless to combat the evils of twelfthcentury England, she eventually leaves it. Yet the fact that she survives at all is, as Beiderwell points out, an aberration: according to the corrupt laws of her society, she should have been killed at the hands of the Church. It is only an act of chivalry—quickly followed by a stroke of improbable luck—that saves her. At the last possible moment, Ivanhoe comes riding to her rescue, and Bois-Guilbert perishes “a victim to the violence of his own contending passions” (395). One might argue that in this final sequence, Scott tips his hand, registering
30 simultaneously an unequivocal objection to the social conditions of medieval England and praise of chivalry as an ideal. A. Chandler writes: It was chivalry, [Scott] believed . . . that was the chief cause of difference between the ancients and the moderns. Its strength lay in its combination of military valor, not with a purely intellectual code, but with the strongest passions of the human mind, its feelings of reverence and love. Sharply critical of chivalry in practice, he could nonetheless praise the ideal. He claimed that it operated on the “beautiful” theory that the soldier who “drew his sword in defence of his country and its liberties, or of the oppressed innocence of damsels, widows, and orphans, or in support of religious rights . . . [was inspired in his deeds by] a deep sense of devotion. (189) Ultimately, Chandler argues, Scott believed chivalry was the use of military force to defend beautiful, noble, and otherwise defenseless ideals, “the only redress available to a barbarous age” (193). According to Chandler’s reading of the novel, chivalry is the only thing preventing human life in medieval times from sinking into relentless misery and barbarism. Yet this viewpoint is complicated by the fact that for every instance of chivalry as a noble calling in Ivanhoe, there is a corresponding instance in which chivalry is invoked as an excuse for religious intolerance or selfish motives. Even as Scott lauds the ideals of chivalry as it applied to the defense of innocents, he also warns of the perils of encouraging knights to act with untempered zeal. In an 1818 essay on the subject he wrote for the original Encyclopedia Britannica, Scott observes that “The obvious danger of teaching a military body to consider themselves as missionaries of religion, and bound to spread its doctrines, is that they are sure to employ in its service their swords and lances . . . the slaughter of thousands of infidels is regarded as an indifferent, or rather as a meritorious action” (Essay 8). This danger, Scott recognized, was part of the dark side of chivalry—its potential to be perverted, used to justify atrocities. Ivanhoe contains several chilling demonstrations of this potential. Chivalry’s nobler
31 ideals break down during Rebecca’s trial; in defending the Knight Templar who abducted her, the Grand Master says, “Our brother, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, is well known to ourselves . . . as a true and zealous champion of the Cross, by whose arm many deeds of valour have been wrought in the Holy Land, and the holy places purified from pollution by the blood of infidels . . .” (Ivanhoe 321). Knighthood, valor in combat, and dedicated destruction of “infidels” are seen as excusing all other sins, just as being Jewish automatically implies guilt. Thus, Bois-Guilbert is unfairly acquitted, while Rebecca is unfairly condemned. The very value system which is supposed to protect the innocent and ensure justice instead serves to uphold a brutally unjust society, justifying persecution and prejudice. Chivalry then becomes both an instrument of human salvation and a catchall abstraction which opens the door for hypocrisy, intolerance, and cruelty. These two conflicting—and coexisting—realities become evident in a debate that takes place between two of the major characters in Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe is an avowed knight who has devoted his life to the chivalric ideal; as a healer, a Jew, and a woman, Rebecca is far more skeptical. During the battle of Torquilstone, both characters are confined to a tower, able to view the action below but not to participate. Rebecca laments the violence taking place; Ivanhoe, on the other hand, is yearning to fight below, frustrated by the injury that holds him immobile. This context sparks the following exchange, worth considering at length: “Rebecca . . . thou knowest not how impossible it is for one trained to actions of chivalry to remain passive as a priest, or a woman, when they are acting deeds of honour around him. The love of battle is the food upon which we live—the dust of the melee is the breath of our nostrils! We live not—we wish not to live—longer than while we are victorious and renowned . . .” “Alas!” said the fair Jewess, “and what is it, valiant knight, save an offering of sacrifice to a demon of vain glory . . . What remains to you as
32 the prize of all the blood you have spilled . . . of all the tears which your deeds have caused, when death hath broken the strong man’s spear, and overtaken the speed of his war-horse?” “What remains?” cried Ivanhoe; “Glory, maiden, glory! which gilds our sepulchre and embalms our name.” “Glory?” continued Rebecca; “alas, is the rusted mail which hangs as a hatchment over the champion’s dim and mouldering tomb—is the defaced sculpture of the inscription . . . are these sufficient rewards for the sacrifice of every kindly affection, for a life spent miserably that ye may make others miserable?” (247-248) The idea of glory, sacred to Ivanhoe, means nothing to Rebecca. As a Jewess, an outsider, who has never felt any benefit from chivalry and has, in fact, repeatedly been persecuted as a result of the society it promotes, she associates it with death and suffering. Ivanhoe is dismissive and impatient of this attitude; there is a hint of derision in his response to her that “thou speakest, maiden, of thou knowest not what” (248). As a knight himself, Ivanhoe has a strong background in chivalry; as he tries to explain to Rebecca, he has built his entire life around it. In a last attempt to show her why he finds it so important, he says: “Thou wouldst quench the pure light of chivalry, which alone distinguishes the noble from the base, the gentle knight from the churl and the savage; which rates our life far, far beneath the pitch of our honour; raises us victorious over pain, toil, and suffering, and teaches us to fear no evil but disgrace . . . Chivalry! Why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection—the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant—Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.” (248) Rebecca seems to back down after this impassioned speech, saying only that “‘it ill beseemeth the Jewish damsel to speak of battle or of war’” (248). This statement could be read in several ways. It might suggest that Rebecca views herself as Ivanhoe seems to view her—as a mere “damsel” who is not qualified to offer opinions on the masculine concepts of knighthood and chivalry. Yet the second reading—and the one which is more supported by Rebecca’s internal
33 monologue—suggests that she knows she will not change Ivanhoe’s mind, and therefore does not wish to pursue the subject any further with him. Even as she publicly demurs her position to Ivanhoe, Rebecca privately reaffirms her own courage and compassion, thinking to herself, “‘How little he knows this bosom . . . to imagine that cowardice or meanness of soul must needs be its guests, because I have censured the fantastic chivalry of the Nazarenes!’” (248). One might imagine a sense of indignation at having been so misunderstood accompanying this musing. Her use of the word “fantastic” is also notable, especially since during both Scott’s and Rebecca’s time periods, this word did not have the positive connotations it does today. Earlier meanings include “fanciful, impulsive, capricious, arbitrary; also, foppish in attire” and “one who has fanciful ideas or indulges in wild notions” (“fantastic, adj. and n.”). By calling chivalry “fantastic,” Rebecca suggests that it is a product of overactive imaginations and foolish notions of grandeur, further undermining its status. Thus, even though Ivanhoe seems to get the last word in the debate, the fact that we are privy to Rebecca’s decidedly unconvinced thoughts complicates our perceptions of the exchange. Ivanhoe may believe that he has successfully silenced Rebecca’s incongruent stance, but we, as readers, know better. This sense of ambiguity—between silent reaffirmation and spoken avowals, between blind glorification and skeptical condemnation—may well mirror Scott’s own ambivalence on the subject. Scott’s writings on chivalry are ultimately inconclusive; one gets the sense that he himself alternates between the viewpoints of Ivanhoe and Rebecca, alternately lauding the noble ideals of chivalry and unequivocally confining it to an earlier, less enlightened era. In his Essay on Chivalry, he writes, “we cannot doubt that its institutions, virtuous as they were in principle, and honourable and generous in their ends, must have done much good and prevented much evil”
34 (64). This position dovetails with Ivanhoe’s description of chivalry as “‘the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances’” (Ivanhoe 248). Scott’s next sentence in Essay on Chivalry carries a distinct sense of nostalgia, even lamentation: “we can now only look back on [chivalry] as a beautiful and fantastic piece of frostwork which has dissolved in the beams of the sun!” (64) From a modern perspective, it may seem that Scott’s adjectives in this sentence are extreme, a reading that would suggest over-the-top adulation towards chivalry. Yet if one considers the earlier definitions of “fantastic,” in fact, the terms balance each other out. Chivalry, Scott argues, is something that is “beautiful” but also “fantastic”—in other words, fanciful, foolish, and impractical. Scott’s use of the word, like Rebecca’s, initially suggests a compliment, but may actually be an indictment. Rather than suggesting unbridled endorsement, Scott’s use of both terms in quick succession illustrates his ambiguous stance regarding chivalry. Yet his comparison of chivalry to a “piece of frostwork” highlights his belief that chivalry, while it lasted, was something beautiful, something elevated above ordinary human life and worthy of the highest admiration—a stance which matches Ivanhoe’s passionate monologue on its behalf. It might seem, then, that Ivanhoe’s voice in this debate is a stand-in for Scott’s own, in which case it is fitting that Rebecca ultimately demurs. The idea that Ivanhoe wins the argument could be supported by the ensuing narrative, when Rebecca herself is rescued as a result of his chivalric ideals (Tulloch 165). Yet one hears hints of Scott’s own doubts in Rebecca’s voice as well. In Essay on Chivalry, Scott repeatedly connects the decline of chivalry to the advancement of human thought and civilization, writing that “As the progress of knowledge advanced, men learned to despise [chivalry’s] fantastic refinements; the really enlightened, as belonging to a system inapplicable to the modern state of the world” (64). Published in 1818, the year before
35 Ivanhoe, Essay on Chivalry indicates both Scott’s enduring interest in the subject of chivalry and his consistently nuanced view toward it—a view that ultimately aligns far more closely with Rebecca’s than with Ivanhoe’s. Scott’s and Rebecca’s shared use of the word “fantastic” as a descriptor implies their common belief that while the ideals of chivalry may be admirable, the reality of the modern world renders them both inapplicable and insufficient. Rebecca’s question to Ivanhoe alludes to the concept of time as an eroding force where chivalry is concerned: “What remains to you as the prize of all the blood you have spilled . . . when death hath broken the strong man’s spear, and overtaken the speed of his war-horse?” (Ivanhoe 247) Where Ivanhoe speaks of chivalry as eternal and unchanging, Rebecca is constantly mindful of the impact of time, astutely warning of a future in which the specter of glory no longer applies. Perhaps, then, Rebecca’s voice in the debate with Ivanhoe echoes Scott’s own knowledge that chivalry cannot endure: a voice representing modernity, contrasted against the height of chivalry’s influence. In this reading, Rebecca’s voice becomes prophetic; despite the fact that she may “lose” the debate within the context of the era in which she lives, her stance predicts the eventual doom of chivalry, looking ahead to a time when glory will become nothing more than “the rusted mail which hangs as a hatchment over the champion’s dim and mouldering tomb” (247) in the eyes of modern audiences. It is not only in her debate with Ivanhoe that Rebecca becomes the harbinger of modernity, however. Throughout the novel, her character exists at a crossroads; the events surrounding her, almost without exception, relentlessly complicate the ideals of medieval chivalry promoted and embodied by other characters. Repeatedly, Rebecca becomes the exception: the example of an instance in which chivalry simply does not work. There are several
36 ways in which she is perfectly positioned to fulfill this role. As a woman, she should theoretically be poised to receive many of the benefits of chivalry, which places high emphasis on “devotion to the female sex” (Scott, Essay 10). Yet she finds herself captured and threatened by a knight who, despite his devotion to the laws of chivalry, seemingly has no respect for her virtue. Her status as a Jew endangers her further, placing her squarely outside the circle of protection implied by chivalry. In his reading of Ivanhoe as it intersects with Zizek’s theory of subjectivity, Evan Gottlieb suggests that it is precisely the presence of the Jew as an excluded figure that “allows an otherwise contradictory and self-conflicting symbolic order to appear coherent to itself” (27). Under Gottlieb’s reading, ironically, even as Rebecca is an outspoken opponent of chivalry, her very existence perpetuates it: by serving as a scapegoat upon which the predominating society can place its grievances, she and those like her prevent that society from being forced to examine itself (28). Scott himself seemed well aware of the problematic relationship between proponents of chivalry and those who existed outside their jurisdiction. Not only did knights fail to protect those excluded from participation in medieval power structures, they often actively persecuted them. As Scott points out in his Essay on Chivalry, knights frequently viewed the slaughter of “infidels” to be not only in keeping with the code of chivalry, but demonstrative of its highest possible ideals. Thus, Rebecca, a woman who is both innocent and defenseless, repeatedly falls prey to the very set of principles that is supposed to protect her. The fact that Rebecca exhibits many of the highest values of chivalry—honesty, courtesy, courage—without succumbing to its darker impulses also serves to undermine Ivanhoe’s glorification of chivalry. Rebecca is as willing to die for her people and beliefs as any knight,
37 and this willingness is not dependent on her adoption of the chivalric code. Whatever she tells Ivanhoe, she remains staunch in her own convictions that chivalry—at least as she has thus far seen it manifested—is not the way to promote justice. But it is not long before those convictions are tested: when she is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to die by a wholly unjust trial, Rebecca has no choice but to appeal to the very forces she recently condemned. She demands a trial by combat, saying, “‘It cannot be that in merry England—the hospitable, the generous, the free, where so many are ready to peril their lives for honour, there will not be found one to fight for justice’” (Scott, Ivanhoe 330). Judging from her previous remarks, it may very well be that Rebecca does not actually believe in the merry, chivalric England she describes, yet she is now dependent on those who do believe in it— those who are willing to risk their lives for an ideal. Her only hope is that someone like Ivanhoe will fight on her behalf in the name of the chivalric ideal she does not believe in; what is at stake is no longer merely “‘an offering of sacrifice to a demon of vain glory’” (247) as she once told him, but her life. Yet while the idea of chivalry as it connects to honour, justice, and knighthood ultimately saves Rebecca’s life, it also serves to endanger her further. For all his talk of protecting the weak and providing justice and safety to those who need it, Ivanhoe also emphasizes the overarching importance knights place on the concept of honour: “‘We live not—we wish not to live—longer than while we are victorious and renowned’” (247). It is this very mindfulness of personal reputation that dissuades the Knight Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, from his impulse to fight on Rebecca’s behalf. Despite his feelings for Rebecca and his knowledge of her fundamental innocence, he refuses to act against orders to save her, saying, “‘Come of it what may, recreant
38 shall never be added to the name of Bois-Guilbert’” (348). In the figure of Bois-Guilbert, we see the breakdown of chivalry—quite literally, as he ultimately falls prey to the internal struggle of conflicting honours and passions. Rebecca chastises him for his weakness, saying, “‘you who boast your freedom as your birthright, how much deeper is your disgrace when you stoop to soothe the prejudices of others, and that against your own conviction?’” (341). Where BoisGuilbert is relentlessly focused on the opinion of the outside world, Rebecca retains her own internal compass, always following her own convictions of right and wrong, honour and bravery, and thus it is that she is able accurately to tell Bois-Guilbert at the edge of her death that “‘when we enter those fatal lists, thou to fight and I to suffer, I feel the strong assurance within me, that my courage shall mount higher than thine’” (345). Even as she is alternately threatened and saved by both the ideals and corruption of chivalry, Rebecca remains unfailingly steadfast and courageous—arguably the only character in the novel, apart from Ivanhoe, to do so. Perhaps, then, it bodes ill for the chivalric ideal that, despite having been rescued through a demonstration of chivalry, Rebecca nonetheless departs England at the conclusion of the novel, gently declining Rowena’s plea for her to stay: “[A]re you not then as well protected in England?” said Rowena. “My husband has favour with the King—the King himself is just and generous.” “Lady,” said Rebecca, “I doubt it not—but the people of England are a fierce race, quarrelling ever with their neighbors or among themselves, and ready to plunge the sword into the bowels of each other. Such is no safe abode for the children of my people . . . Not in a land of war and blood, surrounded by hostile neighbours, and distracted by internal factions, can Israel hope to rest during her wanderings.” (403) The fact that Rebecca, perhaps one of the most courageous characters in the novel, and certainly one of the most compassionate, cannot find safe haven in the romanticized medieval England of
39 Scott’s Ivanhoe, should be a warning to modern readers that, for all the colorful banners and noble knights and tournaments, despite isolated acts of bravery and honour, it is no place for nostalgia, and it is not an era we should be idealizing. And yet we idealize it repeatedly, in adaptations, in retellings, in new stories retracing the same steps. Modern readers frequently romanticize the glory days of tournaments, castles, fair damsels, and honourable outlaws. Often, they forget what Tulloch calls the “dark side of chivalry—for errant knights to rescue damsels in distress, the women have to be in danger, and that danger is often the threat of rape” (169). They forget what Scott himself attempted to emphasize—that “[t]he condition of the English nation was at this time sufficiently miserable . . . the people of England suffered deeply for the present, and had yet more dreadful cause to fear for the future” (Ivanhoe 56-57). One must wonder why, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, readers—both in Scott’s time and our own—persist in idealizing the Middle Ages, in seeing in it a golden time which has been tragically lost to modernity. Pugh and Weisl write: “[T]he “Middle Ages” emerges as an invention of those who came after it; its entire construction is, essentially, a fantasy . . . The ostensible allure and magic of the Middle Ages should implode as a cultural fantasy for multiple reasons, beginning with the prosaic realization that the various wars, plagues, diseases, turmoil, and strife of the period rendered life rather miserable for much of the populace . . . And yet, despite the unpleasantness of historical reality, the Middle Ages is magic: it is continually reborn in new stories, new media, new histories. It continues to enthrall for its pageantry and its manners, for its ideals of courtly love and chivalry, for its literary and artistic accomplishments . . . . (1) If one is inclined to believe Twain and other critics like him, this romanticization was largely born as a result of Scott’s medieval romances, particularly Ivanhoe: Scott reimagined the English medieval world for a new generation, which then continued to perpetuate and recreate it. Amid
40 the ensuing influx of comic book covers, Silver Screen retellings, fantasy epics and Renaissance fairs, the quiet protest inherent in Rebecca’s departure was lost. Like so many other parts of Ivanhoe, the description of the tournament is an exercise in contradictions. Before the combat begins, Scott describes “so many gallant champions, mounted bravely, and armed richly . . . their long lances upright, their bright points glancing to the sun . . .” (104). Yet the picture changes drastically once the fighting begins: “The splendid armor of the combatants was now defaced with dust and blood . . . The gay plumage, shorn from the crests, drifted upon the breeze like snowflakes. All that was beautiful and graceful in the martial array had disappeared, and what was now visible was only calculated to awake terror or compassion” (105). As in other parts of Ivanhoe, Scott makes a point of focusing on the very real and brutal consequences of the tournament: “although only four knights . . . had died upon the field, yet upwards of thirty were desperately wounded, four or five of whom never recovered. Several more were disabled for life . . .” (109). These casualties are underscored by the heralds’ cries: “‘Fight on, brave knights! Man dies, but glory lives!—Fight on—death is better than defeat!— Fight on, brave knight!—for bright eyes behold your deeds!’” (106). Glory, honor, beauty, suffering, death, bloodlust, compassion—all are hopelessly commingled in the tournament scene, incapable of being unraveled or separated. Yet one must ask whether it is truly possible to separate them in the first place, or whether, in the end, these human impulses and conditions are intrinsically linked, dependent on their opposites to give them their full impact. Glory lives, cries the herald in Ivanhoe. But according to Rebecca, glory is death itself— the “rusted mail which hangs as a hatchment over the champion’s dim and mouldering tomb” (247). As impossible as it seems, it may be that both of these things at once are equally true. For
41 two centuries, critics have asked whether Ivanhoe is an accurate impression of medieval violence and brutality or an overly romanticized depiction of a chivalric code that is both beautiful and false. Perhaps they have been asking the wrong question. Ultimately, Ivanhoe is both of these things. It “creates” history which, though in many details inaccurate, nonetheless paints a comprehensive picture of a bygone era that refuses to stay bygone. It offers images of violence that are both beautiful and brutal—perhaps, according to Burke, Hume, and Haywood, beautiful in part because they are brutal—and invites us to look on. It presents us with both sides of a debate for which Scott himself may have had no answer, then leaves us with no clear resolution. Everything about Ivanhoe is inconclusive, open to individual perceptions and interpretations, ripe for various (mis)understandings. Ivanhoe’s capacity to baffle, delight, and frustrate comes largely from its embracing of one of the central contradictions of chivalry: its application of beauty—noble ideals and actions, shining armor, colorful banners—in the context of brutal and gruesome warfare. Ivanhoe is unnerving to the modern reader precisely because of the fact that it refuses to let us forget one of the inescapable paradoxes of our existence: the intrinsic connection between violence and beauty.
42 Chapter II Hank Morgan Goes To War: The Shadow of Chivalry in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Hank Morgan, the protagonist of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) introduces himself in the following way: “I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the state of Connecticut . . . So I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words” (3). With these lines, Morgan hints at several crucial contrasts which will inform his story: between sentiment, or “poetry,” and practicality; and between nineteenth-century American Hartford and the medieval England he eventually finds himself in. By characterizing himself as a “Yankee” who is “barren of sentiment,” Morgan foreshadows the deep-set aversion to chivalry that leads him to do battle, not just against the institution, but against the very ideas behind it. With its romanticism, impracticality, and promotion of an inhumane monarchy, chivalry is everything that the sensible, rational, modern Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan cannot abide. So when he finds himself in King Arthur’s Camelot, he almost immediately takes steps to eradicate it. Ironically, by “going to war” against the chivalric tradition, Morgan inadvertently engages in the very type of honorable warfare he is trying to stamp out, thus proving its endurance. Along with his main character, Mark Twain also goes to war in Connecticut Yankee, denouncing the institutions of English medievalism, including monarchy, knight-errantry, religious influence, lack of education, and, of course, chivalry. Yet just as Morgan ends the novel sick and confused, calling out for the remnants of a bygone age, one might argue that Twain also found himself far more ambiguously entangled in his medieval world than he ever intended. For all its purported intentions to debunk, mock, and discredit all that the Middle Ages
43 represents, Connecticut Yankee exists within a larger framework of American medievalism—a framework that endures not just in spite of works like Connecticut Yankee, but perhaps partly because of them. At first glance, Connecticut Yankee seems like an untempered indictment of English chivalry, monarchy, brutality and ignorance. Morgan frequently interjects extended monologues on these subjects into his narrative, never missing an opportunity to favorably compare his nineteenth-century America to medieval England. He writes, “Men write many fine and plausible arguments in support of monarchy, but the fact remains that where every man in a State has a vote, brutal laws are impossible” (142). Dismayed and horrified by the conditions of sixthcentury England, Morgan works to recreate it in the image of modern America almost from the moment he sets foot in Camelot. Morgan is a strong advocate of modernity, staunch in his conviction that the cure for medieval England’s ills can be found in technological and ideological advancement. Cushing Strout describes Morgan as “Victorian in his belief in progress, which had its root in the common American idea that the Old World and the New were polarized” (337). Despite its seeming importance, Henry Nash Smith suggests that the medieval world of Connecticut Yankee exists merely as “a backdrop designed to allow a nineteenth-century American industrial genius to show what he can do with an underdeveloped country” (36). Within this setting, according to Smith, Morgan is portrayed as a potential hero whose defiance of the English medieval monarchy resembles Prometheus’s defiance of the Greek gods “for the sake of bringing to man . . . intellectual light and technological power” (39). This reading casts modern America as the source of human enlightenment and freedom, and Morgan as its benevolent ambassador, seeking to free medieval England from its barbaric oppression.
44 This reading, however, does not take into account Connecticut Yankee’s satirical nature, its deliriously shifting tone, or its decidedly inconclusive conclusion. In these ambiguous elements, many critics have seen a far more complex—and possibly contradictory—set of messages within the novel. Despite its seemingly noble intentions, Morgan’s quest to destroy medieval ideologies through modern technology hints at other, more troubling interpretations. In addition to its obvious critiques of English medieval history and social structures, Connecticut Yankee’s critics have frequently detected undertones challenging nineteenth-century America’s faith in its own advancement. Everett Carter points out that the novel’s perceived meaning has changed over time, perhaps because of hindsight and current events; more recent critics, he says, “have seen it as a premonition of what they assume is an American danger to the world: a story that ends in massive destruction of a large number of the inhabitants of an underdeveloped country is obviously suggestive to the modern mind” (419). Cynthia Wachtell calls Twain’s depiction of the battle “an eerie preview of twentieth-century writers’ and readers’ preoccupation with nuclear warfare and nuclear fallout” (140-141) and suggests that, far from sharing his protagonist’s belief in progress, Twain set out to ridicule “the modern age’s blind faith in military technology” (138). The fact that Morgan ultimately fails in his quest to bring technological and ideological enlightenment to medieval England—and ultimately leaves it in ruins—necessarily complicates the way readers must view Morgan’s convictions and choices. Taken within this larger context, Connecticut Yankee becomes a chilling cautionary tale about possible futures resulting from modern hubris and technology, rather than a smug condemnation of a barbaric past.
45 Even this reading, however, seems incomplete when one considers the paradoxical components of Connecticut Yankee. As a satire which mingles Mark Twain’s characteristic humorous overstatement with political diatribes and pathetic descriptions of human suffering, Connecticut Yankee is singularly difficult to pin down. In the fluctuations in tone and the wild shifts in the attitudes of Hank Morgan, some critics see a fundamental struggle of intention in Twain’s chivalric satire; they have continually debated both what it attempts to convey and whether it succeeds. Smith suggests that the story ultimately collapses under its own weight (7), burdened both by Twain’s own wavering opinions about his subject matter and his personal problems. This strain, Smith argues, results in a depiction of the Yankee that is “badly confused” (62), a “growing uncertainty of tone” (61), and uneven symbolic overtones which ultimately fail to cohere over the course of the novel. This confusion manifests itself in Morgan’s frequent contradictions of his beliefs, as when he writes first that “the king certainly wasn’t anything more than an average man, if he was up that high” and then “as he stood apart there, receiving his homage in his rags, I thought to myself, well really, there is something peculiarly grand about the gait and bearing of a king, after all” (211, 227). He also seems undecided as to whether he is a stock character in an allegorical tale of mirth, existing solely to spout lines like “hang a man that would make a suit of armor without any pockets in it” (58), or a compassionate witness to cruelty, as when describing a slave woman: “She reeled . . . giddy with fatigue, and down came the lash and flicked a flake of skin from her naked shoulder. It stung me as if I had been hit instead” (113). Throughout the novel, Morgan attempts to place himself in relation to the inhabitants of medieval England, alternating continually between different evaluations of medieval England, yet his judgments and
46 hierarchies are unstable, breaking down in the face of new information or events. Thus, rather than conveying a cohesive, unified message regarding either the sixth or the nineteenth centuries, Connecticut Yankee is intrinsically both destabilizing and destabilized, resisting interpretations that are overly simplistic or self-assured. Morgan’s—and his creator’s—contradictory attitudes reflect a larger cultural ambivalence toward both medievalism and modernity during this time (Smith 67). Americans in the late nineteenth century were frequently drawn to depictions of medieval England, simultaneously viewing it an alien world and one from which they had inherited crucial cultural traits. This fascination manifested itself both in rejection of a barbaric Dark Ages in favor of American progress (as in Morgan’s case) and in attempts to resurrect idealized versions of medieval pasts. T.J. Jackson Lears situates these latter resurrections within the rise of antimodernism, citing a “transatlantic dissatisfaction with modern culture in all its dimensions: its ethic of self-control and autonomous achievement, its cult of science and technical rationality, its worship of material progress” (4). Even as the later nineteenth century saw unprecedented technological advancement, comfort, and knowledge, Lears argues, it also saw an increased longing for escape from this new, strange modern world—Victorian parlor and capitalist office building alike—as well as an impulse to recapture the intensity and authenticity of “real life” as it was supposedly lived in earlier times (5). In their quest to resist the purportedly soul-numbing properties of their current world, antimodernists looked to earlier cultural literary, philosophic, and social traditions—including various manifestations of medievalism—with nostalgia and longing.
47 Connecticut Yankee was therefore written amidst and in response to a sea of medieval revivals, from Pre-Raphaelite portraits of Arthurian legends to renewed interest in Gothic architecture. Americans in the Victorian age were intensely fascinated with anything that suggested medieval history; Robin Fleming describes “Gothic and Romanesque-revival churches and town halls” in American urban centers, and houses “crammed with Gothic-inspired kerosene lamps, encastled teapots, and dangerously crenelated baby cribs” (1061). In keeping with antimodern ideals, Fleming connects these trends with “a love of the Romantic, a notion that the trappings of the medieval represented deep and profound virtues . . . and a habit of collecting historical details and then pasting them together to form a grand, anachronistic whole” (1061). However, Kim Moreland argues that, rather than merely indicating a nostalgic love for the Romantic, the movement was ultimately about an adolescent America reclaiming its roots. For Americans “trying to ground themselves in history,” she writes, “the Middle Ages served as a historical link between this still young nation and an older tradition. What is perhaps most surprising is the sense that Americans were not borrowing the history and traditions of another culture but were rightfully reappropriating their own” (5). The strange paradox Moreland describes—that Americans did not themselves have a Middle Ages, yet remained, in many cases, profoundly affected by its legacy—manifested itself in the nineteenth century through constant attempts to situate English medieval history in the context of American values, traditions, and beliefs. These attempts had resounding effects in the cultural landscape of late-nineteenth-century America, particularly in the South. In his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi, Twain crossly notes the existence of the “sham castle” Capitol building in Baton Rouge, and reacts to it with
48 curt disapproval: “By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake” (333-334) Twain suggests that a single castle is a perfectly innocent thing: it is only when it becomes a trend and a symbol, wrongly inhabiting “the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries” that he feels the need to object to its existence. It would seem, then, that Twain was well aware of the overwhelming trend toward Victorian medievalism, and viewed it as an unworthy interloper in an age of progress and American common sense. Perhaps, for Twain, the “sham castles” and other expressions of medievalism were just one more indication that America maintained a more-than-healthy respect for its mother country, England, glorifying historical customs and values that, in his mind, ought to simply die out. Twain’s complicated role within the medievalist cultural milieu of nineteenth-century America may initially seem simple: he, like his protagonist Hank Morgan, never misses an opportunity to mock, belittle, and undermine England and its history. According to one interviewer, Twain wrote Connecticut Yankee in order to “get at” the English, hoping to cast light on the absurdity of “shams, laws, and customs of today under pretense of dealing with England of the sixth century” (qtd. in Williams 288). In 1879, Twain wrote, “For some years a custom has been growing up in our literature to praise everything English and do it affectionately. This is not met half-way and so it will cease . . . We shall presently be indifferent to being looked down upon by a nation no bigger & no better than our own” (qtd. in Hoben 203). Seemingly stung by a wounded sense of national pride, Twain embarked on a number of public
49 statements, speeches, and writings aimed at attacking the English in an expression of what John Hoben calls “raging Anglophobia” (202). Hoben places Twain’s writings in the larger context of a period in American history “when twisting the British lion’s tail became a national pastime” (203), perhaps in backlash to the pervasive medievalism Twain observed. For an adolescent America, only a century old and still under the shadow of its predecessors, England remained a major sticking point, symbolic of a cultural and social history which needed to be addressed, integrated, or rejected in some way. Based on many of Twain’s writings, it would be tempting to place him squarely within the tradition that praises American ideological advancement while relentlessly condemning English monarchy and medieval history. But the contradictory impulses evident in Connecticut Yankee—as well as in Twain’s own life—suggests a larger complexity. At various times in his life, “Twain was actually attracted to Europe, making at least a dozen trips there and living in Europe for nine successive years” (Strout 338). Hoben writes that early in the writing process of Connecticut Yankee, “[Twain’s] comic or burlesque impulse had come into conflict with an overwhelming sentimental admiration for his chief source of subject matter” (200)—namely, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which, according to biographer Albert Paine, Twain “loved . . . to the end of his days” (891). When Twain was first introduced to Le Morte d’Arthur, Paine writes, “[h]e read and reread those quaint, stately tales and reverenced their beauty, while fairly reveling in the absurdities of that ancient day” (790). Here, Twain’s infamous animosity toward medieval England is tempered with appreciation, both for its aesthetic qualities and its humorous absurdity. This sense of respect for England and its traditions is also evident in Twain’s 1872 assertion that “you couldn’t satirize any given thing in England in any but a half-hearted way,
50 because your conscience told you to look nearer home and you would find that very thing at your own door” (qtd. in Hoben 203). This statement hints at an understanding of the crucial connections between England and the United States, fostered by their shared cultural and social inheritance. It is impossible to satirize or condemn one, Twain seems to suggest, without condemning the other—a sentiment that becomes oddly prophetic when applied to Connecticut Yankee. Twain’s frequent visits to Europe, regard for Sir Thomas Malory, and repeated choice to write about European medieval history (in, for example, The Prince and the Pauper and, later, Joan of Arc), indicate that he, like other nineteenth-century Americans, maintained an ongoing fascination with the Middle Ages. Yet the precise nature of that fascination is often difficult to determine. If, as the previous chapter suggests, the opposing viewpoints of Rebecca and Ivanhoe represent Scott’s own ambivalence regarding chivalry, then Morgan’s status as a deeply conflicted character may be equally telling in its reflection of Twain’s own shifting views. Many critics have traced the evolution of Connecticut Yankee within the context of Twain’s own evolving attitudes toward England, claiming that his original intentions—which he wrote in an 1886 letter to a friend was only to create a humorous contrast, rather than a satire— did not survive the long gestation period between 1884 and 1888 (Hoben 200). By the time Twain returned to Connecticut Yankee, he viewed it as an appropriate medium for enacting revenge on the English critics who had targeted both him and his mother country (Hoben 211). Thus, what was originally intended as a good-natured and affectionate parody became a weapon, another blow in the war against British chivalry, monarchy, and tradition. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the resulting work was also snubbed by English critics. A friend of
51 Twain’s, Andrew Lang, panned the book without reading it, writing that “[Twain] has not the knowledge which would enable him to be a sound critic of the Middle Ages. An Arthurian knight in New York or in Washington would find as much to blame, and justly, as a Yankee at Camelot” (qtd. in Paine 897). The war between Twain and his English detractors would continue for several years. In his parries and pointed jabs, in his staunch condemnation of British customs and values, and in his satire of chivalric ideals, Twain seems enmeshed in his own private combat, albeit perhaps one of his own making. Nowhere is this combat more pointed or vehement than in Twain’s treatment of Sir Walter Scott. Twain made no secret of his feelings toward Scott’s work, frequently singling out Scott as a chief offender for his works’ perpetuation of chivalric medieval ideals. Susan Manning notes that Twain’s work is characterized by “running skirmishes with Scott” and highlights the “enormous cultural anxiety of nineteenth-century American writers: if Scott, the colossus, cannot be got round, he must be encountered on his own territory—taken on, we might say, ‘at outrance’ in single combat” (10). In describing Scott as the “Great Enchanter” who “sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms,” Manning argues, “Twain sets himself up as the champion who shall challenge and expose the sorcery” (9). In Connecticut Yankee, Twain does just that, recreating and mocking plots, settings, and characters from Scott’s medieval romances. Paine writes, “Reading [Connecticut Yankee], one can visualize the author as a careering charger, with a bit in his teeth, trampling the poetry and the tradition of the romantic days, the very things which he himself in his happier moods cared for most” (891). As these excerpts demonstrate, Twain’s critics frequently adopt the imagery or metaphor of battle when discussing his work, acknowledging its deeply combative nature toward
52 medieval England. In case there was any doubt regarding Twain’s intentions, he directly references Ivanhoe in the scene where Morgan first encounters King Arthur’s court: “Suppose Sir Walter, instead of putting the conversation into the mouths of his characters, had allowed the characters to speak for themselves? We should have had talk from Rachel (sic) and Ivanhoe and the soft lady Rowena which would embarrass a tramp in our day” (20-21). In this example, as in others, Twain systematically dismantles the glamorous, dignified, and noble imagery medievalism evokes with the deliberate swings of a soldier wielding a sword. Twain’s tumultuous relationship with Scott can be traced through several of his works; as Samuel Baker points out, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains a shipwrecked steamboat fortuitously named the Walter Scott (61). Huck is also shown reading various nonsensical and improbably plotted books regarding monarchy to Jim, books he salvaged from the Walter Scott. Regarding this example, Baker proposes that Twain is “evidently working through his own troubled relation to his disavowed literary forbearer” (62). In Life on the Mississippi, Twain laments the impact Scott’s popularity had had on the American South, accusing him of “[running] the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances” and noting that “Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque ‘chivalry’ doings and romantic juvenalities still survives [in the South]” (332-333). According to Twain, in the wake of the American and French Revolutions, the world had experienced substantial progress, having finally rejected the monarchy, ignorance, and brutality that characterized earlier ages: Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs . . . and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm;
53 more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. (375) Clearly, when it came to Scott and his works, Twain did not mince words. This passage is a characteristic example of Twain’s penchant for overstatement; considering this, one might be tempted to dismiss it. But as Manning points out, Twain’s objections to Scott seem just a bit too frequent, a bit too vehement (9). Twain’s vehemence toward Scott feels especially peculiar when one considers that Scott had been dead for decades, a fact which begs the question of why Twain felt the need to take him on so repeatedly and relentlessly. In his seminal work The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom explores the haunting impact canonical writers have on those who come after them, suggesting that all writers must somehow grapple or come to terms with the influence of their predecessors. One way that writers do this, Bloom argues, is by “misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves” (5). Yet it is often this very impulse to misread, oppose, or otherwise respond to previous work that perpetuates its influence. Bloom writes, “The dead may or may not return, but their voice comes alive, paradoxically never by mere imitation, but in the agonistic misprision performed upon powerful frontrunners by only the most gifted of their successors” (xxiv). Although Bloom is discussing poetry, his description of “gifted successors” performing “agonistic misprision” in either deliberate or unconscious misinterpretation of their literary predecessors could easily be describing Twain. Twain’s “agonistic misprision” regarding Ivanhoe and his wildly conflicting feelings toward medieval England are both evident in Connecticut Yankee’s protagonist, Hank Morgan. Describing the inhabitants of King Arthur’s court, Morgan writes: “[T]hey were a childlike and innocent lot, telling lies with a most gentle and winning naiveté . . . It was hard to associate them
54 with anything cruel or dreadful; and yet they dealt in tales of blood and suffering with a guileless relish that made me almost forget to shudder” (12-13). Morgan’s depiction of the knights as both childlike and brutal contrasts sharply with the nineteenth-century American values he supports: reason, honesty, education, and humane treatment of others. Additionally, his characterization of Camelot’s knights as “childlike” mirrors the common American nineteenthcentury assumption that the Middle Ages constituted the “childhood of the race” (Lears 143). At its most negative, this phrase suggested unrefinement, ineptitude, and a crippling immaturity, an implication Morgan evokes when he compares the knights of Camelot to boys fighting in the streets of Connecticut: “Many a time I had seen a couple of boys . . . say simultaneously, ‘I can lick you’ and go at it on the spot; but I had always imagined until now, that that sort of thing belonged to children only, and was a sign and mark of childhood” (14). The mocking nature of this description calls to mind Twain’s description of the “romantic juvenalities” of the South. Morgan’s suggestion that duels are “a sign and mark of childhood” echoes his ongoing trend of referring to the medieval inhabitants as “children”—the implication being that children need to grow up. Yet even as he denounces the knights’ ignorance, lack of reason, and willingness to be oppressed, Morgan admits with parental affection that “there was something very engaging about these great simple-hearted creatures, something attractive and lovable” (14). His characterization of the knights as “engaging,” “attractive” and “lovable” hearkens back to Romantic perspectives on childhood, which idealized it as a time of purity and contrasted it with the much-feared “overcivilization” of Western industrial capitalism (147). As this idealization indicates, while Americans may have agreed that the Middle Ages was the “childhood of the
55 race,” they often differed sharply in their characterization of this childhood. These conflicting views are simultaneously embodied in Morgan; even as he purports to denounce the knight’s behavior, he also refers to the alternate possible interpretation. Morgan, like both Twain and the larger cultural milieu of nineteenth-century America, is caught in ambivalence, unable to condemn the mythical Middle Ages, unwilling to let it go, torn between antimodernist nostalgia and worldly disdain. When he arrives at King Arthur’s court, Morgan quickly takes stock of the situation, noting the medieval people’s lack of education, their perceived inability to reason, and their staunch belief in magic. It does not take him long to decide that “certainly a superior man like me ought to be shrewd enough to contrive some way to take advantage of such a state of things” (23). Using both the foresight that comes from knowing the future and his nineteenth-century education regarding warfare, reason, and technology, he manipulates his way into power and soon becomes more influential than King Arthur himself. In his attempts to reform medieval England into a technologically advanced republic, Morgan seems intent on recreating the world he left behind—gunpowder, telegraphs, and all. Early on, Morgan singles out the institution of chivalry as one of the single largest obstacles to his vision of modernity. The idea of knighthood is baffling to Morgan; of the knights’ tales of glory, he writes: As a general thing—as far as I could make out—these murderous adventures were not forays undertaken to avenge injuries . . . no, as a rule, they were simple duels between strangers—duels between people who had never even been introduced to each other, and between whom existed no cause of offense whatever. (14)
56 The chaotic and seemingly nonsensical quality of duels, quests, and tournaments clashes with Morgan’s nineteenth-century American value system, which emphasizes utilitarianism, civility, and reason. Speaking of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, Morgan says that “brains were not needed in a society like that, and indeed would have marred it, hindered it, spoiled its symmetry—perhaps rendered its existence impossible” (14) Yet brains—the ability to reason— are exactly what is needed in Morgan’s ideal enlightened, democratic, progressive society. Thus, in his quest to attain that society, Morgan declares war against, not just the practitioners of chivalry, but against the very idea of chivalry itself—first covertly, then openly. Like his creator, who assigned Scott’s medieval romances a disproportionate share of the blame in creating the Civil War, Morgan views chivalry as a harmful force, a deterrent to progress, freedom, and enlightenment (Wachtell 36). Morgan’s war on chivalry is initially a covert and subtle operation; once he comes into power, he sends “confidential agents trickling through the country . . . whose office [is] to undermine knighthood by imperceptible degrees” (49). As an alternative to the knight-centered war model of the time period in which he lives, Morgan creates hidden military academies and centers of technology. He also employs some of the knights themselves as walking advertisements for modern conveniences, such as soap, in a “furtive, underhanded blow at this nonsense of knight errantry” (78). Morgan seems captivated by the idea of making knights look ridiculous, recognizing the importance of personal image and reputation in the culture of chivalry. Even as he claims to clearly see and manipulate medieval cultural structures, his own unconscious dependence on nineteenth-century American cultural assumptions is evident in his choice to ridicule the knights by enlisting them in advertising—an image-based phenomenon that
57 is as prominent in Morgan’s time period as shining armor is in medieval England. Morgan’s blindness toward the similarities between his own culture and the one he has been dropped into, coupled with his vehement attempts to destroy the opposing culture, suggests an uncomfortable familiarity on his part, an unsettling realization, lurking just beneath the surface, that he is not so different from the knights he demeans. When Morgan himself sets out on a knightly quest, however, he does not hesitate to disparage every aspect of the experience. He complains incessantly about his armor, critiquing it from a modern, utilitarian point of view: “a man that is packed away like that, is a nut that isn’t worth the cracking, there is so little of the meat, when you get down to it, by comparison with the shell” (55). As “another illustration of the childlike improvidence of this age and people,” Morgan writes, “there was probably not a knight of all the Round Table combination who would not rather have died than have been caught carrying such a thing as [a basket of sandwiches] on his flagstaff. And yet there could not be anything more sensible” (61). Like his earlier efforts to undermine the institution, this episode emphasizes the crucial importance of appearances in chivalry. As a practical Connecticut man, Morgan prides himself on rejecting the idea that appearances are more important than utilitarian reality (an rejection that is itself questionable, considering the print-advertising mania of Morgan’s time), even as he acknowledges their power to manipulate the masses. It is the power of appearances—and the ease with which they can be dismantled—that ultimately allows Morgan to vanquish King Arthur’s knights. When at last Morgan brings his fight into the open, he does so with the full benefit of his nineteenth-century “effects” and a clear intention of destroying chivalry altogether: “I was a champion, it was true, but not the champion of the frivolous black arts, I was the champion of
58 hard unsentimental common sense and reason. I was entering the lists to either destroy knighterrantry or be its victim” (231). This resolved statement calls to mind Manning’s description of Twain as the self-appointed “champion who shall challenge and expose the sorcery” (9). Yet in calling himself a “champion” who is “entering the lists” to do battle with knight-errantry, Morgan unwittingly brings himself one step closer to the thing he is trying to destroy: he has accepted the language and underlying mindset of chivalric warfare, even as he claims to oppose its practices. During the ensuing tournament, Morgan continues to display a canny understanding of how to manipulate his audience through the systematic dismantling of appearances. Morgan lassoes his opponent, Sir Sagramor, and completely robs him of any knightly dignity by “[yanking] him out of his saddle” (233) in full-fledged American cowboy style. He then ropes several more knights and proceeds to shoot those who remain with a dragoon revolver, proclaiming, “Here I stand, and dare the chivalry of England to come against me—not by individuals, but in mass! . . . Take it, or I proclaim you recreant knights and vanquished, every one!” (236). By urging the knights to fight him in mass and using their own language and customs against them, Morgan indicates his desire to completely abolish, not just the physical manifestations of chivalry, but also any accompanying beliefs, values, customs or superstitions surrounding it. Despite his purported rejection of knightly standards, Morgan adopts its flowery language and ideological ultimatums, invoking the laws of combat and challenging his opponents’ honor. It seems that, paradoxically, he must temporarily become a knight in order to destroy the institution of knighthood. Whether this is a strategic decision on Morgan’s part—to beat King Arthur’s knights at their own game—or another unintentional assimilation into the
59 world in which he finds himself is unclear. Regardless, Morgan finds himself once again inhabiting a liminal space, caught between his identity as a Connecticut Yankee and the bizarre role he takes on as a knight opposing knighthood. When he has vanquished the remaining knights, he believes his victory to be complete, saying, “The day was mine. Knight-errantry was a doomed institution. The march of civilization was begun” (236). Yet the victory is both temporary and external, as Morgan has not yet realized the extent of his own entanglement in the medieval mindsets he is working to reform. Over the course of his quest to destroy chivalry, Morgan’s initial impressions of the medieval English—as “animals” who “[don’t] reason” (24) and are “just like so many children” (19)—slowly become more complicated. Not long after he comes into power, Morgan ruminates, “Inherited ideas are a curious thing . . . I had mine, and the king and his people had theirs” (39). In this passage, Morgan acknowledges the importance of historicity, understanding that he is defined by his time, just as the medieval inhabitants are defined by theirs. Morgan writes, “I liked the king, and as king I respected him . . . but as men I looked down upon him and his nobles—privately. And he and they liked me, and respected my office; but as an animal, without birth or sham title, they looked down upon me . . .” (41). Morgan gradually becomes aware that the members of Arthur’s court view him much as he views them—as an ignorant animal who is not entirely worth their consideration. Morgan’s understanding of historicity, along with the sporadic respect it allows for those living in medieval England, is constantly “at war” with his deeply held belief in his century’s superiority. As he becomes increasingly torn between nineteenth-century America and medieval England, Morgan’s initially simplistic view of his circumstances evolves into an intolerable complexity that leaves him broken, confused,
60 and out of time—both figuratively in the historical context of his world, and literally at the end of his life. When, near the end of the novel, the remaining knights rebel against Morgan and his friends, Morgan succeeds once more in defeating them—but at a terrible cost. In a development Smith calls “one of the most distressing passages in American literature” (65), Morgan’s dynamite and charged wires create a level of destruction beyond anything medieval England has seen before: “Our camp was enclosed with a solid wall of the dead—a bulwark, a breastwork, of corpses, you may say” (263). This image eerily echoes Morgan’s earlier description of being packed into his suit of armor, when he writes that “a man that is packed away like that, is a nut that isn’t worth the cracking, there is so little of the meat, when you get down to it, by comparison with the shell” (55). The empty “shell” created by the wall of corpses encloses Morgan’s camp, just as a suit of armor encloses a knight. In both cases, ultimately, these shells serve only to mask a central emptiness, both within and without. The sense of protection implied by Morgan’s characterization of the dead knights is an illusion: there is nothing left for the “bulwark” of bodies to protect Morgan’s men from, and ultimately, there is no one left inside it to protect. Thus, Morgan has created a shell, much like the one he criticized: in his attempts to reform the medieval society he despises, he has both reproduced and destroyed it. Ultimately, the massacre poisons the very air around the survivors, killing even those who, along with Morgan, are on the winning side. Morgan himself is forced to sleep for thirteen centuries and wakes up in the nineteenth century a broken man, delirious, homesick for the medieval England he destroyed and left behind. Rather than the “champion” he proclaimed himself as earlier, he has become an anachronism, with “an abyss of thirteen centuries yawning
61 between . . . [him] and [his] home” (268). He has become a part of the era which he so vehemently declared war against for so long. Just as Hank Morgan ultimately assimilates into the culture he resists so strongly, one must wonder whether, despite his attempts to reject it, Twain himself remained fundamentally under the shadow of Scott’s influence. The central irony of Ivanhoe and Connecticut Yankee may be that, in seeking to mock Scott’s work, Twain inadvertently recreates the very thing he was attempting to undermine. After all, as I have explored in the previous chapter, Scott was far from blind to the ambiguity, darkness, and ultimately archaic nature of chivalry. Manning suggests that “Scott’s writing did not take itself seriously enough to be susceptible to [Twain’s kind of] burlesquing demolition . . . Scott is a wilier, murkier, and more ambivalent writer than Twain could afford to allow him to be” (21). Under Manning’s reading, Twain misreads Scott, either deliberately or unknowingly, in much the same way Bloom suggests new writers frequently misread their predecessors, distorting what has come previously in order to clear imaginative space for themselves. There is evidence in both texts to support this reading. In Ivanhoe, the character of Rebecca famously questions the long-term value of chivalry, asking the title character, “What remains to you as the prize of all the blood you have spilled . . . when death hath broken the strong man’s spear, and overtaken the speed of his war-horse?” (Scott, Ivanhoe 247). I have argued that Rebecca’s voice in this debate represents a modern view that chivalry is outmoded, warning of its downfall. Hank Morgan’s evaluation of chivalry is wildly different in language and tone, but similar in its resolve that the “trade” of chivalry is fundamentally unsustainable: “when the market breaks, in a knight-errantry whirl, and every knight in the pool passes in his
62 checks, what have you got for assets? Just a rubbish pile of battered corpses and a barrel or two of busted hardware. Can you call those assets?” (Twain, Connecticut Yankee 100). Morgan views knight-errantry from a business perspective, rejecting the “speculation” (99) that the occupation requires, while Rebecca approaches it from a much more humanitarian perspective. Yet despite their apparent differences, both of these characters act as spokespersons for modernity, relentlessly pushing against the status quo of medieval England. In addition to their criticisms of chivalry, Rebecca and Hank Morgan also share a sense of humanitarian shock at the conditions in medieval England, along with an egalitarian spirit of justice. When he arrives at Camelot, Morgan is startled by the “tales of blood and suffering” told by members of King Arthur’s court, finding it “hard to associate them with anything cruel or dreadful” (13). He follows this musing with a description of the brutal treatment of other prisoners present in the room: “Poor devils, many of them were maimed, hacked, carved, in a frightful way, and their hair, their faces, their clothing, were caked with black and stiffened drenchings of blood” (13). This is the first hint of an ongoing theme in Connecticut Yankee: the cruelty of the medieval age, contrasted with the shock and humanity of the enlightened nineteenth-century Morgan. Yet Ivanhoe’s Rebecca seems equally enlightened, despite being a product of her age; she is sharply critical of the fighting spirit and customs of England, referring to it as the “land of war and blood” (Scott, Ivanhoe 403). Some of her last words on the subject could potentially be viewed as also belonging to Scott: “[T]he people of England are a fierce race, quarrelling ever with their neighbors or among themselves, and ready to plunge the sword into the bowels of each other” (403). This statement mirrors Morgan’s baffled observation that
63 King Arthur’s knights seem all too ready to duel even those with whom they have no quarrel (Twain, Connecticut Yankee 14). But despite Twain’s focus on Ivanhoe as a root cause of many of the South’s problems, he seemed oddly blind to the ways in which Rebecca’s subversive voice mirrored his own. It seems telling that, in his sole explicit reference to Ivanhoe in Connecticut Yankee, the one name that Twain gets wrong is Rebecca’s. There is no “Rachel” in Ivanhoe, and one can only assume Twain was referring to Rebecca. Yet the flubbing of her name indicates that she may have been an afterthought in Twain’s mind, a secondary character to whom he did not assign sufficient agency or importance to be subversive. Considering his seeming endorsement of democracy and individual liberty in Connecticut Yankee, it is highly ironic that Twain chose to overlook a character who, as a female and a Jew, so clearly challenged the class-based medieval world Scott depicted. Perhaps, if he had paid a bit more attention to his source material, Twain would have found a voice whose instincts regarding the Middle Ages were far more aligned with his. On the other hand, in order for Twain’s reading of Ivanhoe to remain valid, he had to overlook, misunderstand, or trivialize Rebecca’s role. Thus, her exclusion and renaming constitute a classic example of what Harold Bloom calls “misprision”—the misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) of a previous author in order to “clear imaginative space” for new readings and representations (5). While Twain’s voice, blended as it is with Morgan’s, can be difficult to find in Connecticut Yankee, Scott’s voice frequently punctuates the narrative of Ivanhoe, often to emphasize the undesirability of the medieval period about which he writes. Often this results in ambiguous or contrasting descriptions which offset the Middle Ages’ aesthetic appeal with its
64 lack of creature comforts and its culture of violence. In describing the bedroom of Saxon princess Rowena, Scott contrasts “embroidered hangings” and “silver candelabras” with walls that are “ill finished and full of crevices.” Scott writes, “Magnificence there was, with some rude attempt at taste; but of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed” (45). This contrast between magnificence and lack of comfort is also present in Connecticut Yankee. Morgan describes his apartments in King Arthur’s court in the following way: “They were aglow with loud-colored silken hangings, but the stone floors had nothing but rushes on them for a carpet . . . As for conveniences, properly speaking, there weren’t any . . . There was no soap, no matches, no looking glass” (Twain, Connecticut Yankee 32). Morgan laments the lack of modern amenities, having little use for what he sees as the gaudy grandeur of medieval England. But despite his generally negative attitude toward his surroundings, he is not blind to the splendor of the Camelotian way of life. Early in his account, he describes a noble cavalcade, “glorious with plumed helmets and flashing mail and flaunting banners and rich doublets and horsecloths and gilded spearheads . . . through the muck and swine, and naked brats, and joyous dogs, and shabby huts it took its gallant way” (8). The contrast between the flashy exterior and the “barbaric” underbelly of Morgan’s Camelot counterpoints the contrast between Morgan’s vision of progressive, civilized, modern America and the depiction of medieval England. Yet in both Connecticut Yankee and Ivanhoe, these contrasts reach far beyond appearances. Ivanhoe’s reputation as a glorious “adventure stories for boys” notwithstanding, Scott paints twelfth-century medieval England as a time of lawlessness, anarchy, injustice, and brutality, claiming that “fiction itself can hardly reach the dark reality of the horrors of the period” (188). Hank Morgan, similarly, laments the conditions of Morgan Le Fay’s dungeons
65 and the nobility’s unchecked wielding of power (Twain, Connecticut Yankee 84-88). Later, he is dismayed when King Arthur assumes the position that “To imprison . . . men without proof, and starve their kindred, [is] no harm, for they [are] merely peasants, and subject to the will and pleasure of their lord” (175). It is this very type of reasoning that, in Ivanhoe, leads Rebecca, her father Isaac, the knight Ivanhoe, and the Saxons Cedric, Athelstane, and Rowena, to be unjustly apprehended by false knights Maurice De Bracy and Brian de Bois-Guilbert. Basking in his status as a knight returned from the Crusades, Bois-Guilbert tells Rebecca, “thy narrow Jewish prejudices make thee blind to our high privilege . . . Thou art the captive of my bow and spear— subject to my will by the laws of all nations” (Scott 195). In Ivanhoe, as in Connecticut Yankee, the highest laws are those of brute force and nobility; the rights of individuals are all but irrelevant. It is ironic, then, if Twain was truly seeking to mock, not just medievalism in general, but also Scott as a more specific target, that closer examination of both texts reveal them to be doing very similar things. Both Connecticut Yankee and Ivanhoe depict religious intolerance, unjust laws, and sham knighthood, and the oppression of defenseless women, children, and slaves. In these texts, the concept of chivalry, rejected by Rebecca and actively attacked by Hank Morgan, remains ambiguous at best. Ivanhoe, Scott’s protagonist, suggests that chivalry is “the only redress available to a barbarous age” (A. Chandler 193), the use of military force to defend the otherwise defenseless. Yet Scott also recognized the dangers of chivalry, the potential it had to create further injustices. Under the code of chivalric or religious knighthood, Scott argued, “the slaughter of thousands of infidels is regarded as an indifferent, or rather as a meritorious action” (Essay on Chivalry 8). This concern is reinforced within the narrative of Ivanhoe; Brian de Bois-
66 Guilbert believes that his status as a Knight Templar exempts him from moral judgment, saying, “a man that has slain three hundred Saracens, need not reckon up every little failing, like a village girl at her first confession upon Good Friday Eve” (Scott, Ivanhoe 168). Yet through the arguments and actions of its title character, Ivanhoe also depicts chivalry as a redemptive and positive force, supporting Scott’s supposition that its institutions, “virtuous as they were in principle, and honourable and generous in their ends, must have done much good and prevented much evil” (64). Interestingly, in Connecticut Yankee, there is little mention of this underlying ideal of chivalry as a code of justice, defense, or compassion. Morgan’s descriptions of chivalry emphasize the spectacle surrounding it, including the “stirring and picturesque and ridiculous human bullfights” of the tournaments (Twain, Connecticut Yankee 42), and the gleaming suits of armor which Morgan never misses an opportunity to mock. Most of Morgan’s descriptions paint the knights of King Arthur’s table as dunderheads, “professional liars” (68) who put their pride before common sense, wildly exaggerate their own importance, and duel against each other for the most nonsensical and pointless of reasons. One wonders the extent to which, in these overthe-top condemnations, Morgan’s voice constitutes a stand-in for Twain’s own, a medium through which Twain can poke fun at his own biting one-liners regarding medievalism. How far does Twain’s satire extend in such passages, which echo many of his own indictments in Life on the Mississippi and other works? The extremity of Morgan’s views ultimately discredit them, hinting that if chivalry is unsustainable, so too is Morgan’s rigidly anti-medieval stance. This unstable binary is at the heart of Connecticut Yankee, and the level of Twain’s awareness and deliberate crafting of it, is often inconclusive. It seems likely, however, that for all of his own
67 complex relationships regarding his subject matter, Twain was far from blind to the comic and dramatic possibilities within such extremity, and that his satire encompassed not just the inhabitants of medieval England but also his main character, and by extension, himself. In Morgan’s eyes, King Arthur’s Round Table is not a representation of an ideal, but rather a symbol of outmoded and barbaric traditions. Yet, like Rebecca, Morgan later finds his life dependent on the very institution he decries. On the verge of being hanged, Morgan and King Arthur are delivered by five hundred knights riding bicycles to their rescue. Morgan writes, “Well, it was noble to see Launcelot and the boys swarm up onto that scaffold and heave sheriffs and such overboard” (227). Although Morgan quickly takes credit for the incident, declaring it “one of the gaudiest effects I ever instigated” (228), it is worth noting that this is one of the very few scenes in the book which depict knights upholding the chivalric ideals Scott promoted: defending the defenseless, righting wrongs, and supporting justice in the face of a barbaric, lawless society. Considering this, perhaps Morgan’s chosen adjective of “noble” in describing the knights is no accident. His use of the term to suggest bravery, glory, and moral purity also reflects the shifting (and connected) meanings of “noble” as both a description of class ranking and an adjective implying merit. The knights Morgan describes may be “noble” in the class-based sense of the word, “belonging to a high social rank,” but it seems more likely that Morgan is using it to mean “of a deed or action: illustrious, renowned, celebrated” (“noble, adj. and n.”). In Morgan’s democratic, merit-based view of the world, nobility stems from what people do, rather than which class they are born into. Yet this definition does not preclude the possibility of Morgan’s high-ranking knights exhibiting nobility, as they do in this scene.
68 Even as he briefly assigns nobility to King Arthur’s knights, Morgan remains convinced of his own superiority. He repeatedly refers to himself as the best or brightest man in the kingdom, calling himself “a giant among pygmies, a man among children . . . by all rational measurement the one and only actually great man in that whole British world” (40). When he and the king are about to die, he laments that “Nothing in the world could save the King of England; nor me, which was more important. More important, not merely to me, but to the nation—the only nation on earth standing ready to blossom into civilization” (225). In his fight against chivalry and his attempts to bring modernity to the medieval world, Morgan seems to view himself as being on a sacred quest, not unlike those of the knights he mocks. He looks forward to “an event which should be the first of its kind in the history of the world—a rounded and complete governmental revolution without bloodshed” (238). Interestingly, Morgan’s description of this ideal dovetails with the “Round Table” of King Arthur and the theoretical egalitarianism, prosperity, and justice it represents. Yet Morgan’s description of King Arthur’s court is a far cry from this ideal. As an enlightened and humanitarian modern man, sickened by the brutalities of medieval England, Morgan works toward his vision gradually and systematically, seeking a peaceful—yet total—shift in the society he controls. The tragic irony of both this stated goal and Morgan’s shock at medieval brutality, however, is the fact that his own weapons are capable of causing far more bloodshed and devastation than the chivalric tradition he seeks to abolish. In the midst of his quest, outnumbered by knights, Morgan and his followers prepare a massive explosion. Morgan tells his soldiers, “English knights can be killed, but they cannot be conquered. We know what is before us. While one of these men remains alive, our task is not finished, the war is not ended.
69 We will kill them all” (259). This speech chillingly echoes Scott’s warning that when knights fight for a cause with untempered zeal, “the slaughter of thousands of infidels is regarded as an indifferent, or rather as a meritorious action” (Essay on Chivalry 8). Even as Morgan fights tirelessly to end the customs and beliefs associated with knighthood, he has himself become a mirror of that which he seeks to destroy. Confident in his quest to promote his own customs and beliefs, he does not hesitate to slaughter the “infidel” knights who do not share those beliefs. In so doing, he destroys the very thing he sought to establish: the “noble civilization-factories” (Twain, Connecticut Yankee 258) go up in smoke along with the knights, and amidst the twentyfive thousand dead men that surround the fifty-two survivors, Morgan’s original vision of a “revolution without bloodshed” is lost forever. Over the course of Connecticut Yankee, Morgan moves between staunch conviction in the superiority of his age and grudging respect for his medieval comrades, until at last he is left adrift back in the nineteenth century, longing to return to the earlier age he was so intent on leaving behind. In his dying delirium, he speaks to his absent medieval wife, saying, “such dreams! Such strange and awful dreams . . . I seemed to be a creature out of a remote unborn age . . . a stranger and forlorn in that strange England, with an abyss of thirteen centuries yawning . . . between me and all that is dear to me, all that could make life worth the living!” (268) The “dream” of Morgan’s medieval life has become his reality, while his original life as a nineteenthcentury Connecticut Yankee has become nothing more than a faded nightmare. This temporal shift, this homesickness for a time long ago, may evoke a larger societal nostalgia for medieval England—perhaps another way in which, despite what may have been intentions to satirize sentimental nostalgia, Twain reflected it instead.
70 In the end, Connecticut Yankee is far more than a simple indictment of a bygone age; it glorifies and condemns indiscriminately, mocking its protagonist and his surroundings alike. The novel moves freely between Morgan’s over-the-top hubris; monologues on monarchy, relativism, and religion; playful discussions of the absurdity of medieval trappings, such as armor; and pathetic descriptions of human suffering. At times, it seems difficult to take seriously—yet there are also moments when its medieval inhabitants and bombastic main character seem all too real. For all of its irreverence and inconsistency, Connecticut Yankee’s themes of past warring with present, ongoing violence, inequality, and injustice, feel just a bit too authentic to be dismissed as pure satire, just as Ivanhoe feels too dark and unforgiving to be nothing but a “romantic boy’s adventure story” (Duncan 299). Upon closer examination, neither of these texts is what it appears on the surface. Both of them, however, depict a fundamental struggle between past and present, between violence and harmony, between equality and injustice—and these conflicts frequently exist, not merely within the narratives themselves, but also within the larger frameworks in which these novels were created. In Connecticut Yankee, as in Ivanhoe, the reader is left in doubt as to what message she is meant to take away. Is the enduring impression in Ivanhoe the moment in which Ivanhoe, the embodiment of chivalry, comes riding to Rebecca’s rescue? Or is it the moment in which Rebecca, her life saved but still under persecution in English medieval society, is forced to leave? Should one be shocked by Morgan’s descriptions of Camelotian brutality, struck by his ultimately tragic destruction of his medieval world, or detachedly amused by the entire story? Just as Hank Morgan dies calling for the past and grief-stricken over the devastation he caused, just as Rebecca’s departure and parting words create a darkness underlying the seemingly happy
71 ending in Ivanhoe, the writers of these texts seem inherently caught in contradiction, unable—or perhaps unwilling—to offer any resolution. Yet far from undermining these texts’ value, their lack of resolution reflects the cultural ambiguity that has always surrounded the Middle Ages in both England and the United States, ultimately making them fascinating objects of study. Despite the appearance of combat between them, both texts (and both authors), exist in a similar state of uncertainty and contradiction, flirting with medieval glorification even as they put condemnations in the mouths of their characters, exploring concepts of spectacular violence, and looking simultaneously back toward the past and ahead toward the future. If one accepts Reinhart Koselleck’s theory of historical knowledge as “locationally determined and hence relative” (132) and his assigning of power to historians and writers as the creators of that history, then it is easy to see Scott and Twain as mutual promoters of medieval history—both writing in a similar tradition, perhaps even writing for similar reasons. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, like Ivanhoe and like the “sham castles” Mark Twain claimed to despise, highlights both the disdain and the enduring fascination with which modern Americans have consistently viewed medieval pasts.
72 Chapter III The Empty Suit of Armor: Perspective, Spectatorship, and Disillusionment in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones Halfway through George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996), eleven-year-old Sansa Stark attends her first tournament in Westeros’s capital city of King’s Landing. Raised in the isolated Northern stronghold of Winterfell, Sansa has heard stories and songs all her life about the duels, knights, and chivalric customs she is now witnessing: “The splendor of it all took Sansa’s breath away; the shining armor, the great chargers caparisoned in silver and gold, the shouts of the crowd, the banners snapping in the wind . . . and the knights themselves, the knights most of all. ‘It is better than the songs,” she whispered’” (293). Yet Sansa’s happiness does not last. By the end of the novel, she is terrified of the prince she was once thrilled to be betrothed to, Prince Joffrey, “tall and handsome and strong, with hair like gold” (140) and is brutally beaten by one of the knights she idolized: “The knight was on her before she could think, yanking back her hand as she tried to shield her face and backhanding her across the ear with a gloved fist . . . Ser Meryn Trant stood over her, with blood on the knuckles of his white silk glove” (744). Her father, a man who lived by deep-seated codes of honor, has been murdered. After a lifetime of glorifying the medieval world in which she lives, Sansa is ultimately betrayed by it: “[A] voice inside her whispered, There are no heroes, and she remembered what Lord Petyr had said to her . . . ‘Life is not a song, sweetling,’ he’d told her. ‘You may learn that one day to your sorrow.’ In life, the monsters win, she told herself” (746). Sansa’s painful journey from naïve idealization to pragmatic clarity about the world in which she lives spans the widely divergent attitudes twenty-first-century Americans have toward both real and imagined medieval pasts. In contrast to more glorified depictions, Martin’s
73 fictional quasi-medieval world of Westeros depicts a society in which knighthood is nothing but a surface sham, masking and at times enhancing widespread corruption, brutality, and injustice, even as those who exhibit true chivalry in Sir Walter Scott’s “noble” sense of the world are defeated. In Ivanhoe, as we have seen previously, the title character works to redeem the ideals of chivalry against a backdrop of religious corruption and human suffering; in A Game of Thrones, by contrast, the man who most ardently clings to codes of honor, justice, and chivalry does not survive. In addition to causing his own death, Ned’s code of honor indirectly triggers a war that devastates the kingdom he was trying to save. That the presence of a chivalric hero in A Game of Thrones does not result in justice, victory, or peace—if anything, the opposite is true— directly contradicts Ivanhoe’s defense of chivalry as the “stay of the oppressed” (Scott, Ivanhoe 248), and instead suggests that a chivalric code is powerless to combat the injustice and corruption that is systemically inherent in a quasi-medieval world (or at least one that aspires to historical accuracy). Although Connecticut Yankee’s protagonist, Hank Morgan (along with his creator, Mark Twain), actively wages war against chivalry, the storyline in A Game of Thrones may be far more effective at dismantling cultural paradigms of both chivalric justice and medieval glorification for a twenty-first-century American audience. Yet as I have explored in the previous chapters, explorations of misplaced faith in traditional ideals or a nostalgic past is hardly unique to A Game of Thrones. Rather, Martin’s depiction of a medieval world devastated by false knights, backfired chivalric intentions, and corrupted quests for power is a logical continuation of a longstanding tradition of textual ambivalence toward medievalism. Chivalry may win out officially in Scott’s Ivanhoe—a text that has been both accused of and credited with spawning the tradition of medieval
74 glorification—yet Rebecca’s voice of dissent and critique complicates this victory. Similarly, even as Connecticut Yankee’s Hank Morgan goes head to head with medieval ideologies, his narrative and its conclusion find as much to critique about Morgan’s nineteenth-century Connecticut as they do about medieval England. Where Connecticut Yankee depicts a “modern” hero betrayed by his faith in modern technology, A Game of Thrones depicts a hero who is betrayed by his belief in traditional ideals, providing perhaps the most direct and pointed condemnation of medieval ideology in all three texts. Chivalry in the noblest sense, A Game of Thrones seems to say, is not necessarily wrong in its ideals—but regardless of its moral high ground, it cannot hope to win out against naked ambition, greed, human cruelty, and deeply ingrained social injustices. A chivalric code that is rigid, refusing to take those things into account, must inevitably fail in its attempts to provide justice. Thus, A Game of Thrones echoes the view several critics have attributed to Scott, depicting chivalric ideals as simultaneously noble and unsustainable. The first of seven planned novels (five of which have now been published) in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones tells the intertwined stories of several major families vying for power on a continent called Westeros. Though ostensibly set in a fictional world, A Game of Thrones, like many similar modern fantasy sagas, contains references, customs, and a cultural backdrop highly reminiscent of received ideas regarding the Middle Ages. The political and social structures of Westeros are built on feudalism, monarchy, and inherited tradition. Its inhabitants are divided into common folk, servants, knights, noble families, and monarchs, all with varying degrees of ambition, corruption, and power. In the daily life of Westeros, knights wage tournaments, young girls dream of marrying princes, kings and queens rule from glittering
75 castles, and peasants work land owned by their lords. This underlying milieu reflects what Umberto Eco calls “fantastic neomedievalism”—in other words, the tendency for writers in the fantasy genre to create settings that dovetail with, if not the real cultural and social conditions of the Middle Ages, at least the romanticized, popular, contemporary impressions of this time (Selling 211). Yet while Martin freely borrows from the literary tradition of fantastic neomedievalism in the creation of his world, he denies readers what Selling calls “the preindustrial Golden Age of myth” (214). Selling suggests that “the medieval world of modern fantasy is persistently portrayed as a time when life was rich, satisfying, and authentic: people had causes to fight for that imbued existence with meaning and purpose” (214). A Game of Thrones inverts this pattern, highlighting the corruption, injustice, and suffering inherent in the world of Westeros. Instead of a triumphant fight against evil, A Game of Thrones constructs a plot in which—at least in Volume 1 of the series, which for reasons of space will remain the focus of this chapter—as Sansa thinks bitterly, “the monsters win.” Instead of supporting an idealized view that rewards virtue with triumph (or at least self-satisfaction), A Game of Thrones hints at a certain futility, a feeling that, far from being imbued with meaning and purpose, life in Westeros—and, by extension, in a medievalist world—is unjust, brutal, and ultimately pointless. In an interview with Time magazine, author George R. R. Martin discusses his wish to depict a “real” medieval world, in contrast to the depictions he saw in many works of fantasy: “[A] lot of the fantasy of Tolkien imitators has a quasi-medieval setting, but it’s like the Disneyland Middle Ages . . . they’ve got tassels and they’ve got lords . . . but they don’t really seem to grasp what it was like in the Middle Ages.” Martin contrasts these romanticized depictions with those in works of historical fiction, “which are much grittier and more realistic
76 and really give you a sense of what it was like to live in castles or be in a battle with swords” (Poniewozik). In his attempt to create a world that depicts the precarious and gritty nature of a medieval landscape, Martin defies a long-standing tradition in which authors have disregarded historical accuracy—a tradition, some might argue, which began with Scott. The depictions Martin criticizes may frequently stem from ill-conceived nostalgia for a bygone age, but they do not always do so. In his exploration of how modern medieval depictions—and the impulses behind them—are fundamentally fragmented, David Marshall suggests the need for use of the term “medievalisms” to signify the lack of a unified, coherent whole. In contrast with more traditional, nostalgic, or romanticized representations, which critics have accused of repainting history in falsely gilded colors, Marshall describes neomedievalism as “a playful reimagining of the medieval that has no concern for a veracious relationship to the past” (23). Rather than existing within a shamefaced inaccuracy, Marshall seems to argue, neomedievalism embraces and flaunts its departure from historical reality, appropriating iconic images to portray a medieval world that is “self-conscious, ahistorical, [and] non-nostalgic” (22). This type of depiction can manifest itself as parody, or exist as an all-purpose background for a narrative, game, or cultural event. One might argue that the neomedieval is no longer medieval; cut off from historical context—or, at least, from any intention of adhering to it—the neomedieval grounds itself in modern popular culture rather than the historical time period which inspired it. Thus, peasants sing along to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in Brian Helgeland’s film A Knight’s Tale; real-life American jousters gather to test their skills, drawn to the activity not from any abstract regard for chivalry or appreciation for history, but because they consider jousting to be an extreme sport (24, 27-28). Neomedievalist culture seems largely
77 uninterested in historical accuracy, viewing it as beside the point. What comes to matter within this framework is not a slavish, derivative return toward a real or perceived authenticity of the medieval age, but rather the constant reimagining of what medievalisms can and do represent in the modern world. Hence, the Middle Ages as a time period rooted in history, as an actual temporal event in our physical universe, ceases to exist, eclipsed behind an endless cycle of recreations, reappropriations, and reimaginings. Considering that Martin’s work is set in a blatantly fictional world containing elements of fantasy, it seems ironic that he claims to restore a sense of what it was actually like to live in a medieval kingdom. Yet perhaps the idea is not so far-fetched, if only for the reason that, as Koselleck points out, any attempt to create a “realistic” depiction of history is inherently limited to some extent by historical and temporal perspective, and any “true” understanding of this history is only possible after one has acknowledged these limitations (132). If the storyteller, like the historian, is limited in his ability to write about the past, then perhaps there is a sense in which medieval depiction is inherently fictionalized, regardless of whether it claims to exist in our historical past or in a world of quasi-medieval fantasy. Perhaps Ivanhoe’s medieval England, with its well-documented anachronisms and historical inaccuracies, is ultimately no more real than Martin’s imagined world of Westeros: despite its purported real-world century and location, it remains a conglomerate of iconic medieval characteristics that say more about modern interpretations of the time period than they do about what twelfth-century England was actually like (Tulloch 166). Similarly, Connecticut Yankee depicts a medieval world which never existed; its described events, from Hank Morgan’s fantastical time travel through thirteen centuries to an apocalyptic war with modern technology in sixth-century England, are clearly
78 fictionalized. Even as these texts use their medieval settings as backdrops for cultural commentary (albeit in very different ways), neither of them succeeds in accurately depicting the medieval period, if only because they, like all texts dealing with the past, are limited by the perspectives of their creators—perspectives, one could argue, which are inherently and inescapably modern. Perspectives—not just George R.R. Martin’s, but also those of his myriad characters— are crucial to the structure of A Game of Thrones. Whereas Ivanhoe’s omniscient narrator roams easily between varying character interactions—often showing us what different characters are thinking in the same scene, as with Ivanhoe and Rebecca—and Connecticut Yankee is told squarely in the first person through Hank Morgan’s eyes, A Game of Thrones has nine thirdperson viewpoint characters, which alternate chapter by chapter. Each of these viewpoint characters—which Mieke Bal would call “focalizers” (150)—offers a different window onto both the world of Westeros and the brewing conflict. Although seven of the nine focalizers in the first book are from the Stark family, the remaining two belong to families and factions which are enemies of the Starks. These oppositional viewpoints evoke the ideas of eighteenth-century historian Chladenius, who believed that acknowledgement of varying perspectives is crucial for anyone who seeks to understand history. According to Chladenius, Koselleck writes, any full account of history must necessarily involve a “break in perspective” (137). Chladenius argues that perspective is “why we see the thing in this way and no other . . . persons regarding one thing from different points of view must have different conceptions of the thing” (qtd. in Koselleck 137-138). Koselleck then recounts the importance Chladenius places on questioning multiple witnesses, though even this, Chladenius claims, is not enough to ensure accuracy, for
79 there is no escaping the fact that the historian herself is inextricably tied to her own perspective. Thus “the coherence of past events is not reproducible in its entirety by any form of representation” (138). The only way to record history is by transforming it through “creation of a narrative” using “‘rejuvenated images,’” which must arise at least partly from the historian’s own imaginings, to approximate one version of the past (138). This is exactly what Martin does. In A Game of Thrones, we are offered a multitude of eyewitnesses, different focalizers viewing the same events, all filtered through the perspective of their creator. Koselleck suggests that the “prospects enjoyed by historians are kaleidoscopic in their variety of standpoints” (138) and in his role as pseudo-historian, Martin takes full advantage of this kaleidoscope, employing an ever-growing repertoire of spectators and actors in his efforts to fully develop and depict the “historical” events of Westeros. As the author of an imagined world, Martin becomes a historian of sorts, even as the historians described by Koselleck must become storytellers. Once again, the lines between historical reality and perspective-based narrative become blurred. Of course, it goes without saying that the places and people Martin writes about are not real—but neither, perhaps, are the characters and settings of medieval romances such as Ivanhoe. And as Koselleck points out, perhaps the illusion that it is possible to depict untainted historical reality is in some ways every bit as fantastical as Westerosian princess Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons. Perhaps any attempt to attain a constantly receding medievalist reality is missing the point. If, as Koselleck suggests, the ability to attain pure historical accuracy is questionable even for historians, perhaps it is no surprise that many writers of medievalist fiction have abandoned any attempt to maintain it, reveling instead in anachronistic parodies, earnest
80 glorifications, and modern-world satire that just happens to be set in the Middle Ages. In light of these neomedievalist depictions, Martin’s devotion to historical realism itself seems vaguely anachronistic. Unlike many writers of fantasy, Martin is committed to historical accuracy, criticizing narratives that center on feudalism without showing the danger, injustice, or realworld penalties it implies: The bad authors [of fantasy] adopt the class structures of the Middle Ages . . . But they don’t seem to realize what it actually meant. They have scenes where the spunky peasant girl tells off the pretty prince. The pretty prince would have raped the spunky peasant girl . . . I mean, the class structures in places like this had teeth. They had consequences . . . And I tried to reflect that. (Poniewozik) Like Scott before him, Martin seems to equate historical accuracy with brutality; a true medieval world, Martin suggests, is a world in which bad things happen to ordinary people with little reason, in which violence is commonplace, and in which power and greed are the driving forces behind why things happen. His novels scrupulously and unrelentingly detail all of the darker norms associated with the time period: political corruption, forced marriage, rigid class structure, human rights violations, widespread brutality, rape, and seemingly pointless bloodshed. Glowing ideals, such as chivalry and honor, survive as cautionary tales or not at all. Through this bleak portrayal, Martin seems to suggest, he has restored a previously lopsided perception of medieval Europe, resurrecting it from romanticized modern trends and instead proffering a more realistic impression of gritty horror. Martin’s departure from the “toothless” class system portrayed in whitewashed neomedievalism may diverge from current trends in the medieval fantasy genre, but he is far from the first writer to emphasize the idea of a Middle Ages that was gritty, unforgiving, dangerous, and deeply socially unjust. In fact, this depiction of medieval life has a great deal in
81 common with those presented in both Ivanhoe and Connecticut Yankee. When Rebecca condemns Ivanhoe’s medieval England as the “land of war and blood, surrounded by hostile neighbours, and distracted by internal factions” (Scott, Ivanhoe 403) she could easily be talking about Westeros. Similarly, Scott’s description of the “cruelties exercised . . . by the great barons and lords of castles” in Ivanhoe’s twelfth-century England could equally apply to the world of A Game of Thrones (188). As I discuss in detail in my first chapter, Scott took great pains to impress upon his readers the brutality of the time period, frequently breaking from his central narrative to do so. For Scott, as for his title character in Ivanhoe, the sole recourse in such a world was the justice and decency provided by the knightly chivalric code. Thus, Rebecca is rescued from unjust persecution by Ivanhoe, who gallantly volunteers to fight on her behalf. But in A Game of Thrones, chivalry is quickly debunked as a possible remedy for the troubled social landscape of Westeros. Knights who are supposed to exhibit traits of chivalry frequently act in ways that are corrupt, cruel, or indifferent, while those who believe in these traits often find them to be crippling liabilities. For an example of one of these individuals, we need look no further than the novel’s purported protagonist, Lord Eddard Stark. Like Rebecca in Ivanhoe, Ned Stark finds himself unjustly persecuted by corrupt external forces in A Game of Thrones. Yet while Rebecca, who rejects chivalry, is ultimately saved by it, Ned Stark’s acceptance of chivalric ideals ultimately leads to his downfall. Where Rebecca seems to have been merely the wrong person in the wrong place and time, imperiled through no fault of her own, Ned Stark makes a series of choices that clearly lead up to the moment he is beheaded in the square. And those choices, almost without exception, are driven by some of the strongest forces in his life—underlying concepts of honor, duty, loyalty, and justice that define
82 his identity and parallel the chivalric ideals of “love, devotion, and valour” described in Scott’s Essay on Chivalry (25). It is worth noting that these ideals also echo those Twain grapples with in Connecticut Yankee, as he—and, by extension, his protagonist—simultaneously rejects and upholds the concept of a chivalric code. Ned is introduced in his role of lord, judge, and executioner, beheading a deserter from the Night’s Watch—an event which simultaneously underscores the brutality of Westeros and foreshadows his own death later. The punishment is harsh, yet Ned’s conversation with his seven-year-old son, Bran, offers insight into the deep currents of honor, duty, and justice that define him. He tells Bran that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words . . . One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman . . . When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away” (Martin 16).
Clearly, this is a man with strong
convictions about the way things should be done, a man who places great importance on decency and civility in an otherwise brutal world. Yet despite his status as an uncommonly honorable man, Ned remains ideologically entrenched in the unjust system in which he lives. As Hand of the King, he works to maintain the political apparatus headed by King Robert, even as he privately acknowledges its corruption. As the head of a noble family, he tries to rule in ways that are honorable, just, and compassionate, but his status as a lord suggests an implicit acceptance of the monarchy and its inherent injustice. And while he is far from indifferent to suffering inflicted on others, he often seems powerless to prevent or even react to it, as when he witnesses one of the royal family’s knights, the Hound, bring back the slaughtered remains of his youngest daughter Arya’s friend:
83 “Bending, Ned pulled back the cloak . . . It was the butcher’s boy, Mycah, his body covered in dried blood. He had been cut almost in half from shoulder to waist by some terrible blow struck from above” (159). Despite the fact that incidents like this one contradict his moral code, Ned does not interfere. His fear for his family and sense of duty to his country frequently prevent him from challenging or jeopardizing the precarious equilibrium of Westeros’s political and social systems—however brutal or unjust they may be. Throughout his time in King’s Landing, Ned walks the careful line between acceptance and rejection of the status quo, between being an insider and outsider, between honor and safety. Like Hank Morgan in Connecticut Yankee, Ned seeks to change a corrupt system from within, preferably without bloodshed. Yet neither of these protagonists succeeds, and both ultimately prove to be inseparable from that which they oppose. Despite his strong internal compass, Ned fundamentally remains a complacent and privileged member of a corrupt society, accepting many of its systems and traditions without question. However strongly he may oppose the idea of a corrupt king, Ned never questions the assumption that there must be a king in the first place; monarchy, hierarchy, and gender roles are ingrained in him to the point that he would never think to question them. When Arya asks Ned, “Can I be a king’s councillor and build castles and become the High Septon?”, he replies, “You . . . will marry a king and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes and lords and, yes, perhaps even High Septon” (256). Ned’s perspective on his world encompasses, and indeed is premised on the rightful and continued existence of certain pre-ordained traditions and roles; he is unable to entertain the concept of Arya’s becoming a king’s councillor or a builder of castles because in the world to which he belongs, women do not do those things. Thus, even in his enlightened justice and
84 affection for his daughter, Ned remains a product of the medieval ideology that brought him to power and that will eventually betray him. In Slavoj Zizek’s book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, he rejects the frequent—and tempting—position that violence is “performed by a clearly identifiable agent” (1). Rather than focusing on this “subjective” violence that arises from rebellion, crime, or other obvious causes, Zizek argues, “[w]e need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts” (1). Ultimately, according to Zizek, violence is not only localized or individualized, but also “symbolic” and “systemic”—the result of overarching, seemingly functional social, economic, and political structures, as well as the language we use to talk about those structures (1-2). Zizek writes, “A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance” (1). In addition to echoing chivalry’s dual nature—as both instigator of violence and mediator against violence—this statement also helps explain how the localized efforts of both Ned and other characters in Martin’s novel cannot stem violence that is ultimately systemic in nature. As a proponent of chivalry, Ned functions as both peacekeeper and creator of war; his implicit acceptance of Westerosian political and social structures doom him to be equally implicit in perpetuating the violence they produce. Although Ned is a lord, not a knight, in Martin’s imagined medieval world , his values and actions most closely match the knightly code of chivalry that has frequently been applauded by writers of medieval tales. Yet they also eclipse his judgment, blinding him to the realities of his society. Much like his daughter, Sansa, Ned makes choices based on the world he wants to live in, rather than the one to which he is actually confined. Perhaps the greatest example of an instance in which Ned places chivalric ideals before practical reality occurs when he discovers
85 that, rather than being the king’s legitimate son, Prince Joffrey is the incestuous product of Queen Cersei and her twin brother Jaime Lannister. Instead of going directly to the king—who he knows will likely want Cersei and her three illegitimate children killed—Ned confronts Cersei and warns her to flee King’s Landing with her offspring, in a misguided noble attempt to protect them from the king’s wrath (487). Rather than taking his advice, Cersei gives Ned a warning: “‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground’” (488). Cersei’s statement implies that while the superficial external manifestations of chivalry may provide moral justification or political immunity for the actions of knights and nobles, genuine belief in its ideals, or attempts to live by them, is not only improper but dangerous. To hold to these beliefs in the backstabbing, power-hungry political landscape of Westeros invites betrayal, punishment, and eventually, death. Paradoxically, as Ned’s case demonstrates, such noble ideals can also themselves create and perpetuate violence, rendering those who hold them perpetrators as well as victims. Ned’s code of honor cannot abide the slaughter of (relatively) innocent children, and his unwillingness to do what must be done makes him blind to the possible consequences of his actions. These consequences come to pass when Cersei kills the king and imprisons Ned, who receives a second warning when Varys, a councillor with twisted loyalties and frequently unclear motivations, comes to visit him in his cell. He rebukes Ned for speaking to Cersei and then says, “‘You are an honest and honourable man, Lord Eddard. Ofttimes I forget that. I have met so few of them in my life . . . When I see what honesty and honor have won you, I understand why’” (634). It would be easy to read Ned as an innocent bystander in this situation, a sympathetic martyr whose impulse toward mercy cost him his freedom. Yet Varys challenges
86 this assumption, highlighting the clear cause-and-effect relationship between Ned’s choices, however well-intentioned, and all that happens after: “It was not wine that killed the king. It was your mercy” (634). If Ned had gone directly to the king, pragmatically privileging the wellbeing of the kingdom over the welfare of the queen and her children, Cersei would not have had the opportunity to act. Although Ned’s choices are well-intentioned and noble, Varys does not absolve him of responsibility. He then urges Ned to cast aside his convictions and keep his life, a notion that Ned finds unbearable: “You want me to serve the woman who murdered my king . . .?” Ned’s voice was thick with disbelief. “I want you to serve the realm,” Varys said. “Tell the queen that you will confess your vile treason, command your son to lay down his sword, and proclaim Joffrey as the true heir . . . [Cersei] knows you are a man of honor . . .” “If I did, my word would be as hollow as an empty suit of armor. My life is not so precious to me as that.” (635-636) By comparing his broken word to an “empty suit of armor,” Ned evokes both the physical manifestations of chivalry and the underlying convictions it represents. This metaphor also evokes Hank Morgan’s flippant dismissal of a man in armor as “a nut that isn’t worth the cracking”—a dismissal which implies that chivalry favors appearance over substance (Twain Connecticut Yankee 55). Despite Varys’s warning, Ned refuses to sacrifice his internal convictions about honor, justice, and truth ultimately costs him his life. Ned’s death scene is perhaps the most pointed example of what Haywood would call the “bloody vignette” of spectacular violence. This vignette, according to Haywood, constitutes “a ‘spectacle,’ a staged and highly framed display of violence which was designed to carry a highly charged emotional and moral message” (3). When Ned is publicly beheaded in the town square, his death carries deep undertones regarding the morality (or lack thereof) of the world in which
87 he lives. His execution occurs in a ritualistic manner, in the presence of spectators—including the audience of anonymous townspeople in the square, and, on a meta-level, the readers and viewers of Martin’s work. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes the brutal, public execution of a would-be regicide, a description which also chillingly echoes Ned’s beheading (3). The power of such an execution, according to Foucault, comes from the fact that it is public: without spectators to view and implicitly accept the criminal’s punishment, the execution is far less effective in either upholding justice or maintaining existing social structures (58). Foucault writes, “In the ceremonies of the public execution, the main character was the people, whose real and immediate presence was required for the performance . . . But, in this scene of terror, the role of the people was an ambiguous one” (57-58). These spectators, according to Foucault, were simultaneously recipients of the warning implicit in public executions, witnesses who ensured the punishment took place, and participants who assisted in punishing the accused. When, as often happened at public executions, it was assumed that audience members would throw mud, refuse, or insults at those sentenced to die, “The vengeance of the people was called upon to become an unobtrusive part of the vengeance of the sovereign” (59). We see this in Ned’s execution scene: “A stone came sailing out of the crowd . . . Blood ran down his face from a deep gash across his forehead. More stones followed” (Martin 725-726). Ned is condemned, not just by the political apparatus of Westeros, but also by the people who witness his sentencing. Another crucial element Foucault identifies in ceremonial punishment, the amende honorable, occurred when those sentenced were forced to kneel before the doors of churches and confess to their crimes. This custom “made the guilty man the herald of his own condemnation.
88 He was given the task . . . of proclaiming it, and thus attesting to the truth of what he had been charged with . . . the condemned man solemnly acknowledged his crime” (43). The amende honorable is also present in A Game of Thrones, when Ned is forced to publicly renounce his convictions and confess his guilt: “[Ned] raised his voice still higher . . . ‘I betrayed the faith of my king and the trust of my friend, Robert . . . I swore to defend and protect his children, yet before his blood was cold, I plotted to depose and murder his son” (Martin 725). Foucault also gestures toward the underlying motivations surrounding such public spectacles of punitive violence, saying “The right to punish . . . is an aspect of the sovereign’s right to make war on his enemies” (48). Prince Joffrey hints at this connection in his declaration ordering Ned’s death, telling the crowd that “So long as I am your king, treason shall never go unpunished” (726). Thus, a public execution can be seen as merely an extension of war—or as a microcosm representing it. When an offender is viewed as having jeopardized the stability and sovereignty of the state, that offender must be punished in extreme brutality, in the presence of the public, in order to restore that which has been jeopardized: “[B]y breaking the law, the offender has touched the very person of the prince; and it is the prince—or at least those to whom he has delegated his force—who seizes upon the body of the condemned man and displays it marked, beaten, broken” (49). In questioning Joffrey’s sovereignty, Ned challenges the very foundation of his right to rule. From the perspective Foucault describes, Joffrey has no choice but to behead him, rendering his body “broken” after forcing him, through an amende honorable, to retract his dangerous words. Ned’s death—and, perhaps even more so, his confession—contradicts traditional assumptions that within medievalist texts, chivalric ideals will endure and emerge victorious.
89 Despite his resistance to the “empty suit of armor” that symbolizes his own loss of integrity, Ned ultimately becomes what he despises, abandoning his honorable ideals and lying to support a corrupt political regime. This transformation and eventual defeat hints at a deeper sense of disillusionment within the text. This disillusionment is finalized when Joffrey forces Sansa, the girl who had dreamed of princes and knights, to walk the ramparts and view the severed heads of the executed, including her father’s. The defeat is total and unrelenting, manifested not only in the external realities of who dies or loses power, but also in the internal evolution of the characters. The most honorable character in the novel, Ned, is betrayed and ultimately betrays his own beliefs, to no avail; Sansa, who glorifies the medieval world in which she lives—with its princes, knights, and external representations of chivalry—is similarly betrayed by the very ideals that are supposed to uplift and protect her. Ned’s honor not only costs him his life, but also ushers in a war that will shatter the family and home he tried to save. In response to his death, his oldest son, Robb, marches on the capitol, seeking revenge. He is not the first character to adhere to the societal code of retribution, and he will be far from the last. Perhaps sensing this, Ned’s widow, Catelyn Stark, urges him to reconsider: “Robb, if that sword could bring him back, I should never let you sheathe it until Ned stood at my side once more, but he is gone . . . I want you safe, Robb, ruling at Winterfell from your father’s seat. I want you to live your life, to kiss a girl and wed a woman and father a son. I want to write an end to this” (795). Yet there is no ending the cycle of war in Westeros, and her pleas go unheeded. Catelyn realizes the futility of her attempt to dissuade Robb as her son is cheered by his followers: She had come so close, she thought. They had almost listened, almost . . . but the moment was gone. There would be no peace, no chance to heal,
90 no safety. She looked at her son, watched him as he listened to the lords debate, frowning, troubled, yet wedded to his war. He had pledged himself to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, but she saw his true bride plain before her now: the sword he had laid on the table. (796) Just as Ned Stark’s belief in a moral code led to his demise, Robb’s adherence to a code of family loyalty ensures that the pattern of revenge and violence will continue. This connection hints at a dark truth about chivalry. In Westeros, like the medieval England depicted in Ivanhoe, like King Arthur’s court in Connecticut Yankee, chivalry is inextricably connected to war. Its cultural accessories—knights, tournaments, duels, quests, shining armor—exist as manifestations and reflections of this greater power. Matthew Strickland describes the evolution of the concept of chivalry, or chevalerie, a word which originally signified a “group of mounted warriors”—in other words, cavalry (23). In an unstable society prone to frequent bouts of regional violence, the ability to identify, value, and adhere to certain crucial tenets must have made for some comfort; the code of chivalry offered some semblance of order, a proper way of conducting oneself during warfare in an otherwise chaotic and deeply unjust world. Strickland writes that “when confronted with the actuality of war and the threat of death, the warrior’s appeal to divine aid and protection . . . the loyalty felt towards his lord and companions, the need to suppress fear and display courage through prowess in arms, must have been a near-universal experience” (28). Over time, these communal experiences, values, and expectations evolved into a martial code of conduct; chivalry became shorthand for these values, which included courage and prowess in arms, but also emphasized loyalty, civility, and honor. Ultimately inextricable from the circumstance that spawned it, the code(s) of chivalry exists as a direct response to, and defense against, the numbing brutality of war.
91 But as all three of our texts demonstrate in different ways, chivalry—at least as it is depicted in literature—often fails to serve as an adequate defense against the barbaric paradigm of the Middle Ages. Whether this is a result of internal corruption—as with Sansa’s idealized knights of King’s Landing, who exhibit all the external representations of chivalry but none of its underlying moral implications—or the inability of a chivalric code to account for real-life consequences and gray areas, chivalry frequently seems to exist as a glorified but impossible idea, an ineffectual spectacle, or a false god. Rebecca views it as ultimately meaningless; Hank Morgan views it as dangerous. Ned Stark believes in it and dies. Except in rare cases, as when Ivanhoe rescues Rebecca, Scott’s ideal vision of chivalry as someone fighting “in defence of his country and its liberties, or of the oppressed innocence of damsels, widows, and orphans, or in support of religious rights . . . [out of a] deep sense of devotion” remains unfulfilled (A. Chandler 189). It is notable, also, that Robb Stark’s belief in upholding his family’s honor—one of the traits commonly associated with chivalry—leads to continuing war. Like his father, Robb makes choices based on a well-established moral code; his determination to avenge his father continues the chain of violence. Thus, despite its purported attempt to create order, chivalry is equally capable of initiating and maintaining chaotic violence. As Ned Stark discovers, in the A Game of Thrones world, genuine belief in the values that characterize chivalry—honor, loyalty, duty, compassion, and love—does not translate to immunity from either suffering or culpability. Neither is adherence to the chivalric code a foolproof method for insuring the positive outcomes one might commonly associate with it. As seen with Ned, even when characters try to uphold chivalric values, their actions frequently have unintended negative effects. Another
92 character in A Game of Thrones who wrestles with issues of chivalry and culpability is exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen. Forced into marriage by an abusive brother, Daenerys (Dany) experiences the inherent brutality of Martin’s Westeros firsthand. This history remains with her even after she has gained power as an aspiring queen of Westeros, her background making her an outspoken, relentless proponent of freedom, justice, and compassion. In both her persecution and her resulting humanitarian sensibilities, it would be tempting to compare her to Ivanhoe’s Rebecca who, despite not being a knight, nonetheless exhibits some of the most obvious and outspoken traits associated with chivalry. But where Rebecca pleads for nonviolent forgiveness, Dany is ruthless toward those who seek to enslave and persecute innocents. She kills those who betray her without mercy and marches toward Westeros with the intention to conquer. Yet she is met with misgivings when she sees the destruction of towns that her people have raided, a direct result of her wish to take the Iron Throne: “She wanted to cry, but she told herself that she must be strong. This is war, this is what it looks like, this is the price of the Iron Throne” (Martin 667). Like Ned, Dany struggles to reconcile herself with the compromises, casualties, and moral ambiguity of her chosen path. Throughout A Game of Thrones, it is implied that Dany wants to rule with the intent of creating a better, more just and peaceful world, yet the pursuit of that intention results in ongoing devastation. Daenerys, like Ned, is an active participant in the cycle of violence, not merely in spite of her chivalric ideals, but sometimes because of them. The tension between Dany’s humanitarian inclinations and her violent actions culminates when Dany commands her knights to free a woman who was raped during the raid on her village. Instead of being grateful, the woman eventually causes Dany’s son to die and her husband to sink into a vegetative state. When Dany confronts her, she says, “I spoke for you . . . I saved
93 you.” The woman responds, “Saved me? . . . Three riders had taken me . . . I saw my god’s house burn, where I had healed good men beyond counting. My home they burned as well, and in the street I saw piles of heads . . . Tell me again what you saved” (760). The woman does not absolve Dany of responsibility based on her good intentions, just as Varys does not refrain from blaming Ned for the king’s death. Both Dany and Ned highlight the unshakeable fact that Martin’s Westeros is a place of deep structural violence, brutality, and injustice, and that the discourse of chivalry is frequently an active part of that structure. Even characters who reject, see through, or actively manipulate the institutions of chivalry are still subject to participating in the patterns of violence it implies. A central example is Ned’s youngest daughter, Arya. Unlike Sansa, Arya is quick to notice injustices in her society and instinctively understands that the courtiers of King’s Landing are dangerous. Galvanized by the murder of her friend Mycah, she rejects her place as a noblewoman and chooses instead to learn to fight. Although born into a noble, privileged family, Arya chooses a different role for herself, one in which she is far more associated with common people, and therefore far more privy to the suffering and injustices they face—often at the hands of the knights her sister idolizes. Like Ivanhoe’s Rebecca, Arya exists within a liminal space, not wholly integrated into the framework of her society, and is therefore able to see it more clearly. One of the first examples of this comes when she and Mycah play at swordfighting in the woods on the road to King’s Landing. They are interrupted by Prince Joffrey, who cruelly taunts Mycah, saying, “‘A butcher’s boy who wants to be a knight, is it? . . . Pick up your sword, butcher’s boy’ . . . Mycah shook his head. ‘It’s only a stick, m’lord. It’s not no sword, it’s only a stick.’ ‘And you’re only a butcher’s boy, and no knight,’” Joffrey responds, before pointing his
94 own, very real sword at the boy (150). In the face of this injustice, Arya responds with cold fury, learning to fight and holding long-standing grudges as she yearns for revenge. By the time the knights come to take her away after her father’s arrest, she is fully prepared to defy them: “My father wouldn’t send you,” Arya said. She snatched up her stick sword. The Lannisters laughed. “Put down the stick, girl,” Ser Meryn told her. “I am a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard, the White Swords.” “So was the Kingslayer when he killed the old king,” Arya said. “I don’t have to go with you if I don’t want.” (532) At this point in the novel, Arya’s faith in the institution of knighthood has been completely eroded; she no longer associates knights with anything resembling honor. Rather, she views them with suspicion, understanding that their title more often masks or even facilitates unmitigated brutality. Without faith in the institutions or the ideals of chivalry, Arya nonetheless finds herself contributing to the endless cycle it represents, fighting in self-defense when she is waylaid by a stable boy while fleeing the castle: She stuck him with the pointy end, driving the blade upward with a wild, hysterical strength . . . The boy dropped the pitchfork and made a soft noise, something between a gasp and a sigh. His hands closed around the blade. “Oh, gods,” he moaned, as his undertunic began to redden. “Take it out.” When she took it out, he died . . . Arya stood over the body, still and frightened in the face of death. Blood had gushed from the boy’s mouth as he collapsed, and more was seeping from the slit in his belly . . . She backed away slowly, Needle red in her hand. She had to get away, someplace far from here, someplace safe away from the stableboy’s accusing eyes. (538) With a single act, Arya has become part of the endless, brutal violence that characterizes Westeros. She will go on to become an accomplished and ruthless assassin, repeating the names of those she wants dead before she goes to sleep every night. Whether her actions constitute
95 murder, justice, or self-defense varies depending on perspective—and perspective is something that changes frequently in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Despite rejecting other elements of the culture they live in, Dany and Arya both conform to the idea that violence is necessary to achieve higher ends; so does Hank Morgan in Connecticut Yankee, with devastating results. Rebecca, however, does not; she withdraws, unable to remain in such a world, and devotes herself “to works of kindness to men, tending the sick, feeding the hungry, and relieving the distressed” (Scott, Ivanhoe 404). Regardless of how these characters respond to the violence that defines their medieval world, no one is exempt from its influence—or from their role in its creation. Zizek writes, “violence is not a direct property of some acts, but is distributed between acts and their contexts, between activity and inactivity. The same act can count as violent or non-violent, depending on its context” (213). Whether the characters accept the tenets of chivalry or reject them, they are nonetheless actors in the same type of perpetual, lawless warfare that spawned the creation of chivalry in the first place. The question remains, however, why modern-day audiences seem so keenly addicted to stories set in war-torn medieval worlds. What about these settings and circumstances draws fans to the Song of Ice and Fire series in such large numbers? Why did the corresponding HBO television show, with its unrelenting pessimism, stomach-turning gore, and tendency to kill off beloved characters in horrible ways, become such a cultural phenomenon? It seems counterintuitive, to say the least, that today’s audiences should be so drawn to a narrative that emphasize violence, corruption, and destruction of cherished ideals. Yet perhaps there is already a precedent established for fans of A Game of Thrones; perhaps this pattern of spectators who relish watching bloody spectacles which are (at least in
96 theory) far removed from them is something we have seen before. Consider, for example, Scott’s description of the spectators watching the tournament in Ivanhoe: “[T]he poor as well as the rich, the vulgar as well as the noble, in the event of a tournament which was the grand spectacle of that age, felt as much interested as the half-starved citizen of Madrid . . . Neither duty nor infirmity could keep youth or age from such exhibitions” (57). Both in this scene and in the later scene when Rebecca is about to be burned, Scott emphasizes the spectators’ diversity, their excitement, and their bloodlust. Of the tournament, Scott writes: The lower order of spectators in general—nay, many of the higher class, and it is even said several of the ladies, were rather disappointed at the champions choosing the arms of courtesy [indicating that the fight would not be to the death]. For the same sort of persons, who, in the present day, applaud most highly the deepest tragedies, were then interested in a tournament exactly in proportion to the danger incurred by the champions engaged. (70). These types of spectators, Scott suggests, crave blood, and he does not hesitate to point out that such spectators exist within his own time as well. Haywood would certainly agree with this assessment, as he suggests that the depiction of hyperbolic violence was crucial to the Romantic literary imagination. Similarly, Foucault writes of spectacular punishment, “The very excess of the violence employed is one of the elements of its glory: the fact that the guilty man should moan and cry out under the blows is not a shameful side-effect, it is the very ceremonial of justice being expressed in all its force” (34). In Scott’s period as well as in others, the very elements of violence which appear repulsive to audiences may actually attract them. One must also wonder how A Game of Thrones’ focalization affects readers’ ability to process its violence. Purely from a structural perspective, the “dynamic system of competing gazes and visual collisions” that Haywood describes as the bloody vignette sounds suspiciously
97 similar to A Game of Thrones Haywood emphasizes the “distancing effect” that occurs when spectators are able to view violence from a safe distance, experiencing it vicariously while still feeling sufficiently detached from it. This distance, Haywood argues, is dependent on “the foregrounding of the violent gaze” and the “configuration of multiple points of view” which allows the viewer to alternate between subject positions (6). A Game of Thrones offers a reassuring sense of distance to its readers, not just through its multiple perspectives—which ultimately offer readers a superior vantage point to that of any individual character—but also through its grounding in a fictional medieval world which, one may assume, is very far removed from our own. Protected by both time and space, readers are free to experience all the intensity of extreme violence, without having to fear that the same forces at work in the A Game of Thrones society may also threaten their own lives. With A Game of Thrones, there is a sense in which we, the readers, become the spectators, able and perhaps even encouraged to simultaneously relish and condemn violence from a safe distance. The realization that readers may enjoy this type of narrative, not in spite of its excessive gore, but because of it, is deeply unsettling, although if Scott is correct in his assertions, this impulse toward spectatorship is a nearly universal part of human nature. Yet the unabashed spectacular violence in A Game of Thrones cannot be the only reason readers are drawn to it. The narrative’s backstabbing politics and ongoing subversion of the expectation that “good” characters will be rewarded (rather, they seem to be chronically unlucky, assuming one can identify them at all) may bear uncanny resemblances to predominant twentyfirst century beliefs about politics. Thus, A Game of Thrones walks a careful line between depicting medieval barbarism and alluding to political corruption and barely contained social
98 tension that modern audiences may find all too familiar. Just as the presence of spectacular violence requires a precarious balance between investment and detachment, perhaps so too does the presence of real-world political and social tensions in fantasy worlds. As in most works of fantasy, it is the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, vital intensity and secure detachment, that gives A Game of Thrones its power to attract, repel, and move modern audiences. With its grittiness, violence, and disillusionment, A Game of Thrones represents the intersection of conflicting cultural traditions and impulses surrounding both chivalry and medievalism. Even as Martin’s work challenges contemporary assumptions about medievalist narratives, it also perpetuates and reflects our fascination with neomedievalist renderings of a Middle Ages that eludes us. Furthermore, A Game of Thrones presents a panorama of spectacular violence for both characters and readers, creating a comprehensive vision of the systemic violence its characters implicitly support. This vision suggests that ultimately, despite its purported attempts to embody noble ideals, chivalry is, in fact, nothing more than the empty suit of armor Ned Stark describes.
99 Conclusion Looking Back—And Forward—To Medievalism The phrase “chivalry is not dead” implies that it is often believed to be, that chivalry is associated with a medieval world that we have long since left in the dust. Even a brief glance through the fantasy aisles of a bookstore, the new releases in movies and comics, or the children’s toy aisles in department stores, however, indicates that—at least when it comes to medievalism—this is far from true. The reality of the Middle Ages may be elusive and obscure for the majority of the American population, but its representational descendants are thriving. It seems safe to assume that medievalism(s) will remain a prominent element of American popular culture for the foreseeable future. One must wonder why, out of all the time periods Americans could have idealized, they chose the one in which, to quote Thomas Hobbes, life was “nasty, brutish, and short” (70). Why the Middle Ages? Why medievalism? The very paradox of this question may provide a possible answer. If nothing else, the Middle Ages is polarizing; it is, as its name suggests, a middle space, a placeholder for the thousand-year gap between an ancient world we no longer understand and the modern world we live in. As such, the Middle Ages provides us with a crucial touchstone both for understanding how things came to be the way they are and for offering a space for imagination. Kim Selling emphasizes the role of the Middle Ages in nostalgic and antimodern impulses that arose in the 19th century in both Britain and America; for the Romantics, she says, “the Middle Ages were held up as a yardstick against which modernity was found wanting” (214). These impulses, she claims, survive in modern fantasy stories, in which medieval worlds are depicted as lush, real, and morally satisfying. Yet the Middle Ages is also often perceived as
100 a barbaric and unenlightened time period, in which economic, ethnic, and gender disparities were widespread and human rights almost unheard of. Tison Pugh and Angela Weisl point out that “not many of even the most devoted of today’s ‘medieval’ aficionados would surrender the comforts of the twenty-first century for the uncertainties of the fourteenth” (1). Whatever discomforts, anxieties, injustices, or other problems modern life may have created, it is hard to reconcile Selling’s account of the Romantic view of a utopian Middle Ages—one to which, as we have seen, even a Romantic-era author like Scott does not subscribe—with the frequently dire descriptions of medieval life that have historically been widespread. The inversion of the antimodern impulse to glorify (and in so doing almost completely recreate) the Middle Ages is the haunting knowledge that it was, in fact, the preceding era that helped to create our own. Umberto Eco writes that “both Americans and Europeans are inheritors of the Western legacy, and all the problems of the Western world emerged in the Middle Ages . . . the rise of modern armies, of the modern concept of the national state . . . the struggle between the poor and the rich” (64). The irony of those who “dream” of the Middle Ages, Eco seems to suggest, is that logically, the dream should in fact be a nightmare. Rather than soothe ourselves with escapist origin stories of a time when life was simple and knights rescued damsels, Eco says, we should be “looking at our infancy . . . in the same way that a doctor, to understand our present state of health, asks us about our childhood” (65). The Middle Ages should be a diagnostic tool, a way for us to learn more about our roots, rather than a Romantic fairy tale. When looking at these two theories of why Americans and Europeans turn so frequently to medieval settings when seeking fairy tales, background settings, inspirational epics, or
101 historical intrigue, one must wonder about the ultimate impact of recreating this crucial time period so unabashedly and thoroughly. If, as Eco claims, the Middle Ages are akin to the infancy of American and European social and cultural circumstances, then to what extent might their reinvention constitute the equivalent of hiding a long-standing illness? To what extent might these reimaginings imply a suppression of symptoms, a wish to transcend current social problems by retroactively revising past ones? The answers to these questions lie far beyond the scope of this thesis, yet it is difficult to resist speculating on what chivalry—if indeed it is not dead—may look like in current and future Americas. Has it been reduced from a complex history that mingled warfare and peacekeeping to the gender-stereotyped expectation of opening a door? Has it been trivialized in American cultural depictions to its external glamour—chivalry as shining armor, banners, knights seeking personal glory—with little remaining of the ideological code it once implied? Or is it possible that this code has evolved into other incarnations, albeit ones to which we would not immediately attach the label of “chivalry”? In searching for modern chivalry, we might, for example, examine expectations of behavior in public spaces, workplaces, and other institutions. I would hypothesize that the strange combination of competition and courtesy characterizing chivalry could also be found in some form in many arenas of American modern life. Our capitalist economic structure dictates a lifestyle of constant competition—much like knights embarked on quests to attain personal glory and honor, viewing it as their sole purpose, Americans must compete for awards, jobs, college admission, sports triumphs, or other “quests”. One might argue that these modern examples imply tangible rewards beyond the abstract pursuit of glory, yet as Ivanhoe explained, for knights
102 who had little option in a socially rigid medieval world but to continue being knights, the rewards of seeking glory may have ultimately been equally tangible. As different as these two sociohistorical contexts are, in both cases, emphasis is placed on ambition, on striving toward achievement. The impulse to seek greatness—whatever that may entail—appears to have translated from the time of medieval chivalry to our own. Yet this impulse is tempered by the expectation that—at least publicly—individuals show particular courtesy toward those who are especially defenseless or vulnerable. The widespread requirement that riders of public transportation give up their seats for the elderly or disabled is one manifestation of this expectation. Rather than being limited to individual knights or intended for members of the dominant society, however, this expectation has been extended to everyone. All citizens, not just knights, are expected to perform these small courtesies. Fortunately, modern American perceptions of who can and must be allowed into the circle of chivalric protection have been expanded: with the advent and constant adjustment of laws mandating equal rights, freedom of speech and religion, and democratic government, the elements of the chivalric code that apply to what we now think of as “common decency” now apply to everyone. It is important to note, of course, that these legal gestures toward noble ideals do not always translate to the real-life practice of those ideals. In modern America, as in medieval England, frequently the external manifestations of ideological beliefs do not ensure their application. But if nothing else, these sanctions’ purported intentions to defend the defenseless echo the purported intentions of chivalry, and the danger exists in both cases that these surface-level social codes will provide justification for underlying injustice.
103 If we accept Scott’s vision of chivalry as “the only redress available to a barbarous age” (A. Chandler 193), we must hope that the structural changes in our modern world indeed render chivalry as it was practiced in medieval England obsolete, that we no longer need knights to protect the defenseless because we no longer live in a barbarous age—if indeed we ever did. If chivalry originated as a line of defense against an otherwise dark age(s), then perhaps, as Twain claims, its death implied movement into an age of progress and enlightenment, an age when such measures were no longer needed. Or perhaps it lives on in a more measured, egalitarian reincarnation, one that maintains its ideological code of honor while rejecting its previous role in instigating and supporting violence. The latter optimistic view, however, assumes that it is possible to separate the different elements of chivalry—an assumption which this thesis argues is inherently flawed. Despite its advancements, America remains plagued with violence: inner-city shootings, domestic murdersuicides, hate crimes predicated on race or sexual orientation, and ongoing international conflict. To what extent our modern reincarnations of chivalry may serve to perpetuate that violence is a question for another study. Considering the term’s contranymal nature as a signifier of opposing meanings, however, it seems likely that, in inheriting chivalry, we have also inherited both the violence it created and the violence that created it. If Eco is correct in his assertion that many of the problems of the Western world originated in the Middle Ages, then extended study, not just of the time period itself, but also of the many reactions and reimaginings it has triggered, may help us to understand the nature of those problems. The popularity of works like A Game of Thrones suggests that spectacular violence and medievalism are both alive and well in twenty-first-century America. The ultimate
104 impacts of these longstanding cultural traditions are elusive; what is clear, however, is that they have endured for centuries, crossing international borders and cultural lines, and continue to play substantial roles in contemporary American narratives. As such, to study their influence and development is to study, in some fundamental way, how we became, and are still in the process of becoming, ourselves.
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