How the History of Medieval Romance Shows Us Why Representation Matters
Representation matters. It’s a movement, it’s the #ownvoices hashtag, and it’s been pushing institutions like the book publishing industry and Hollywood to find more diverse creators and to cast more diverse characters and actors in the stories we love.
Much has already been said on the matter, but I’d like to add my two cents by highlighting how changes in representation have transformed genres in the past and have the power to transform them now.
Oddly enough, it is in European romance where this observation of historical change can be observed. This could be seen as ironic. After all, fantasy is a stereotypically eurocentric genre, where the tropes of European romance stand for the very antithesis of diversity in the genre.
However, the story of medieval romance’s history of development is a tale of the transformative power of representation. Why? Because genres evolve to reflect changes in societies.
As a Master’s student, I read Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, a book that adopts a historical approach towards reading the unconscious political messages embedded in literature. A famous line from Jameson’s book is the mantra, “Always historicize.”
The Political Unconscious, a theoretically complex text, contains a great insight into why fantasy and adventure fiction is burdened with the baggage of morally stultifying good versus evil binaries, in which otherness is equated with evil.
In our present climate of xenophobia, writing against the tendency of society to demonize those whom it considers other is a moral choice. For more of my thoughts on this subject, read the first post in this series.
For now, suffice it to say that fantasy’s history of colour-coded good-versus-evil binaries owes itself largely to its medieval taproot texts. But how did medieval romance itself evolve?
In his “Magical Narratives” chapter, Jameson goes into detail about how medieval romance evolved from the older form of the chanson de geste. While romance is the predecessor of fantasy fiction and adventure stories, the chanson de geste, or “song of great deeds,” is the predecessor of romance.
Chanson de geste is a literary genre in which knights and their battlefield kill scores were set to verse. The genre’s morality was absolutely black and white, with Christians labelled as “us” and Muslims as “them.” There is none of the subtle complexity of “good” and “evil” that there is in Tolkien’s nuanced juxtapositions of Gollum as an aspect of Frodo, and Shelob as an aspect Galadriel.
In chanson de geste, you’re either on the side of the Christians, or you’re already dead.
It was this ideology, or some modern form of it, that inspired the Christchurch mosque shooter, who wrote slogans on his guns. “Charles Martel” and “Tours 732” commemorated the heroes of the chanson de geste and the historical events they reference (Elaine Graham-Leigh “Far-Right Terrorists and the Meaning of the Battle of Tours”).
In other words, this old, somewhat quaint genre of medieval literature is closely connected with one of the worst, most violence xenophobic attacks in recent years. That should give us all pause.
The battles scenes in chanson de geste are bloodbaths fought against impossible odds. In fact, they’re reminiscent of Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s 300, a comic book and movie appropriated by the alt-right. What’s important to remember here is not only that modern Nazis look towards these medieval texts for inspiration but also that they contain an ideological structure that colonizes our mentality and insinuates itself into the genres we consume.
The good and evil binary is so prevalent within our culture that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. However, we have to think beyond it to dismantle the harmful ideological structures that lie in the stories we love.
The Case of the Unmasked Black Knight
I once read a chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland,” in my first year of college.
From memory, I remember it is far more concerned with whether Roland’s sword cleaved this or that “Saracen” in twain than it is in parsing out the morality of a genocide. Morality here is absolute, a binary choice between good and evil, which corresponds respectively to Christianity and Islam with no room allowed for simultaneous truths, or coexistence.
The chanson de geste is so absurd, this black-and-white morality even determines physics; the sheer righteousness of Archbishop Turpin keeps him alive and fighting vigorously despite his many wounds. It would be funny in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight sketch kind of way, if the over-the-top violence were not so repetitive and, frankly, dull.
Thankfully, a shift occurred when chivalric romances like the tales of King Arthur evolved from the chanson de geste. In fact, a remarkable thing occurred: the “bad” characters (Muslim knights, anonymous Christian knights in black armour) became human.
This can be explained because the social class of knights, who were chivalric romance’s main audience, had consolidated itself across Europe. Europe was no longer a paranoid society where you couldn’t trust your neighbour. If you were a noble, your neighbour was just another wealthy noble, perhaps bound to the same king. You shared more in common with him than any differences you might have, even if you found yourselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.
What happened next, Fredric Jameson describes best. There arose
“what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of good and evil, perpetuated by the chanson de geste, and this emergent class solidarity. Romance in its original strong form may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, the which-points of honor, challenges, tests of strength-he reflects as in a mirror image.
[…] This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, distinguishes the romance narrative from those of chanson de geste”
(Jameson, Unconscious, 118–9).
At this moment in medieval history, class solidarity was signaled by a change in literary production: knights were no longer locked in absolute good versus evil combats. The villain is unmasked after he yields, and on the other side of that mask is revealed not a demon’s face but that of another knight, a member of the hero’s community.
The solidarity of the feudal nobility resulted in a rise of communal consciousness. According to Jameson, this solidarity is what triggered the rise of medieval romance, which later evolved into the modern novel.
Without this solidarity, there would have been no willingness to be empathetic and humanize the enemy and thus no drive towards psychological complexity. Without that willingness to empathize, we would not have the realism we so value in our storytelling today.
Now, I’m not saying medieval romance became less Islamophobic. It is true that Muslim knights in European romance would frequently convert to Christianity after being defeated by the hero, thus eliminating their difference. What I am saying, however, is that group solidarity determines who gets seen as an “us” in the stories we tell.
In the case of the medieval romance, Muslim knights could now be included within the same social class as Christian knights — though peasants were excluded. While it became more inclusive in some ways, in other ways it maintained exclusions.
Everyone wants to see themselves in stories. This doesn’t mean that everyone has always been given the chance to be a hero, however. Yet, when we include different kinds of people in our community, the literature our society produces must change to reflect its new audience.
This principle, according to Jameson, is a major part of what happened to bring about the rise of European romance. It’s also how a widening middle-class audience influenced the development of the novel. People wanted to read about everyday life in a way that more closely reflected their own. This is known as humanity’s need for mimesis, the capacity of literature to mimic life.
If the history of literary genres show us one thing, then I guess it’s that literature is highly narcissistic.
Beat the Drums of Peace
The modern age is globalized and this brings people from all corners of the world closer together. This material change in our historical circumstances is reflected in our literature as it becomes more diverse.
As publishers and movie produces let different kinds of people into their creator communities, they foster a sense of shared belonging and solidarity. The “other” becomes an “us.”
Now, Jameson’s argument does not so much say that writing differently will somehow change society. His argument is that material changes and class solidarity serve as the primary impetus of literary change. However, it is not untrue that writing the other can encourage solidarity.
Accompanied by changes in media industries, telling stories that resist the dehumanization of others can bring about social change.
When governments beat the drums of war, however, we encounter opposition to this utopian goal: the atavistic battle songs of the chanson de geste. War drums and ethical binaries encourage the idiotic thought that some human beings embody “evil” while others are “good.” This reduces “the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off” (Ursula K. Le Guin, “Afterword,” A Wizard of Earthsea (2012 ed.)).
Under the sound of those drumbeats, our literature stands to lose the complexity of psychological realism, the result of hundreds of years of literary development. The intelligence of our literature stands to be reduced to the moral binaries of chanson de geste.
To beat the drums of peace, as storytellers we must encourage solidarity between members of different classes of society. We need to create selves out of others, integrate those who have been othered into an “us.” We must use our powers of empathy to show that “they” are human beings and no different from you or I. And we must do this at the level of the industry, as well as the level of narrative representation.
If we storytellers can accomplish this and inspire true change in who gets to be represented as an “us” in our books, video games, and movies, then we are on the cusp of radical change in the genres we write about. The stupid binaries of the chanson de geste are not dead literature; they have colonized our minds and infected how we think about our fellow human beings. The good and evil binary reaches out like an atavistic spectre of the past to haunt our present.
Our work as writers is to resist that atavism. We must take a position and continue the work of humanizing the other.
N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.
If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.
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