Culture reflects medieval fascination
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 31, 2013 20:01
It’s hard not to think of the various societies of Europe and perceive them to be radically different from our own. Their approaches to democratic governance, welfare-state economics and family structure are so unlike the American that, in a sense, we could say that the fates of these two Western societies must have diverged around the year 1492 to have become this different. But we are nonetheless descended from the cultural lineage of Europe. The foods we eat, the forms of our schools and businesses and the gods we worship are all part of this great inheritance and our fear and hatred of native American cultures possibly explains why it has been so dominant and the Others so marginalized.
America has indeed had its own unique mythology, generated from westward expansion of settlement over the continent. For most of our history, the presence of an almost limitless tract of unexplored and untamed land – by Western minds, at least, served as the rejuvenating force of American culture and promised its moral resurrection from the corruption and debauchery of urban civilization. But the frontier is no more. The American landscape has been totally consumed. In response to the ending of the great American epoch of Western expansion, our culture has largely turned away from the Western to two new genres – one indulging our fantasies of the not-so-distant future and the other nostalgia for the not-so-distant European past from which we have been orphaned. The former genre is science fiction, which carries to its logical conclusion the expansionist theme in the “Final Frontier” through fascination with technology and extraterrestrial exploration. But while space travel is actually within the scientific grasp of mankind so long as we choose to invest in it mythically and economically, we can never return to the medieval, feudal past of Western Europe, Renaissance faires to the contrary.
Themes and archetypes characteristic of the medieval – or at least our historical understanding of it – are everywhere in the books that we read, films that we watch and figurative language that we use. The Hobbit protagonists of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series inhabit an idyllic pastoral landscape which we would recognize to be basically feudal in its economics. The narrative of Martin’s “Game of Thrones” contains all of the tropes of medieval fantasy, from honor to nobility to dragons. Even Nolan’s series of Batman films deftly incorporates a modern interpretation of the deeply fraught duties and responsibilities of chivalry – the second and third films refer in their titles, after all, to the “Dark Knight.” Our level of cultural sophistication regarding the medieval is such that we can even subject it to satire and parody – think of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Men in Tights” and even the “Shrek” films. But the most fascinating of all our treatments of this theme is the “Harry Potter” saga. Perhaps we read in Harry’s escape from a suburban neighborhood and a cruel, gluttonous pseudo-family to a beautiful and dangerous world of magic and wizardry our own dreams of flight from the banalities of modern life. This is perhaps the great temporal frontier of Western culture – it is only accessible through fantasy and imagination.
Our fascination with the medieval recalls, in the words of the elegiac song “Time Table” by the British band Genesis, “a time of valor, of legends born; a time when honor meant much more to a man than life…”. But this is a past that America cannot claim as its own – it must indulge its collective fantasies through the admiration of the literature of medieval Europe and the imitation of its culture. Medievalism is thus condemned, in a sense, to be merely imitative. History does not permit us to reverse its course, to undo the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, world wars or to dismantle the market economy or the massive state apparatus or the great cities it made possible. Jerusalem may not have been built here among these dark, satanic mills but neither too could it be found among the fiefdoms of medieval Europe or its oppressive serfdom. That is clearly for the best. But the moral atmosphere of medievalism is fundamentally lamentative and insistent that there was something more pure and noble about life in that time than exists today. Peter Gabriel puts it nicely: “Gone the carvings, and those who left their mark; gone the kings and queens, now only the rats hold sway…” What does it mean for the future of our society when we believe that our best days are now behind us?