Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Myth of the Medieval Setting: Masculinity and Heroism in Modern Film

Everybody’s getting medieval lately and I don’t just mean politicians. Film and television have glommed onto the Middle Ages—or a sort of, kind of version of the Middle Ages—with great success. While the age has been popular with filmmakers since the beginning of the industry, the period got a huge boost from the breakthrough success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films which led to stretching the thin volume of The Hobbit over three films, as well as similarly medieval-esque products like The Game of Thrones, and Vikings.

Promo for "Vikings" on the History Channel
Promo for “Vikings” on the History Channel

One of the reasons for the popularity of these narratives is their nostalgic approach to masculinity. It’s the belief that back in the day, things were simpler. In ‘olden times’ there wasn’t the confusion and nuance we have today. If we could only get back to those simple truths, the thinking seems to go, we’d understand ourselves better. Men were men then; they had no doubts. The naïve assumption about the stability of gender roles reveals more about how we think now than the truth about then. Even in the fifteenth century—the high Middle Ages—writers like Mallory and Caxton were already looking back to that past as “a time of uncomplicated morality, bold action, and human and divine justice,” as Clare A. Simmons argues.

In other words, you can learn a lot about how we think about men and the ways they should behave by looking at films set in the past even when they’re not particularly realistic—and they’re seldom realistic.

The Myth of the Middle Ages

Medeival Women were virtually slaves... just another myth
Medeival Women were virtually slaves? Just another myth

Medieval films offer filmmakers a chance to suggest that gender issues were once simpler and clearer than they are now, with our messy and sliding conceptions of gender boundaries. The theoretical work of gender scholars like Judith Butler have become so common place that it is possible for a celebrity to encapsulate their complex notions, as RuPaul did with the assertion, “We were born naked and the rest is drag.”

While J.R.R. Tolkien spent a great deal of time studying materials in Old English and Old Norse, as well as learning a wide variety of languages to perfect his ability to create plausible new languages, few of those who would follow in his footsteps do the same preparation. Most are content to pillage from other films and television programmes rather than submit to arduous study, which is no surprise. People resist the past as irrelevant. As a medievalist I can tell you it’s often difficult to work references to obscure Anglo-Saxon poems into daily conversation, though I manage it more than I should, but it’s hard to rid even my students of that contempt for the past.

A lot of what the average person assumes to be true about the medieval period is wrong. I start every semester by telling my students they’ve been lied to and sharing various myths about the Middle Ages. It’s an important corrective. However, this isn’t simply about truth and history: this is about how people use history to veil the way they think about how things are now.

Men Making Movies about Themselves

A lot of films use the Middle Ages as a setting: they vary from the painfully accurate (Sorceress, Vision) to the intentionally inaccurate (Black Knight, A Knight’s Tale) and sometimes both at once (Monty Python & the Holy Grail). They use the medieval setting as a way (consciously or not) to talk about how they want things to be.

Let’s face it: Hollywood is mostly men making movies about themselves. When they turn to the Middle Ages it’s often in search of an ideal of masculinity untouched by the ‘complexity’ of modern life. This has been true throughout the century or more of Tinsel Town’s existence.

The Irresistible Lure of Beowulf

siebert-beowulfTake for example adaptations of Beowulf. There are so many! Over 3000 lines long, the  poem exists in a single, early eleventh century manuscript that was nearly lost in a fire. Many scholars believe the poem may have been circulating orally in one form or another for centuries before that, but what we know for sure is that it was copied out by two different hands at that time and collected in what came to be called the Nowell Codex. No doubt about it, it’s a weird thing: a heroic poem about pagan Scandinavians written down in English, most probably by Christian monks, at a time when there may well have been a Scandinavian king on the English throne. The events of the narrative take place in about the fifth century in Denmark and southern Sweden.

Beowulf, 1999
Beowulf, 1999

Its three monster battles have proved irresistible for many filmmakers. The primary warrior of English literature seems to offer some kind of touchstone for manliness to filmmakers. I have sat through an awful lot of really terrible versions of Beowulf’s adventures, but I keep hoping for something good. Some are so bad they’re not really worth seeing, like the 1999 Christopher Lambert version; I show only the fight with Grendel to my students because it’s so deliciously bad, full of primitive CGI to obscure how poor the rubber monster suit is. The best is Lambert’s slo-mo backflips in water for no earthly reason.

But there have been many well-intentioned or at least serious attempts to capture this amazing story. They also fail for the most part, too, usually because the makers don’t want to know anything about the story or its time; they want to make a point about now. The poem has kept its resonance over the years because it deals with timeless topics like heroism, mentoring, honor and ambition. But modern adaptors always betray their own beliefs about the past—often to make themselves feel better about the present.

Zemeckis, 2007: A Dearth of Heroism

A good example of this is the 2007 Robert Zemeckis production of Beowulf. Apparently it may have been meant as a critique of the concept of heroics but failed to have a basic understanding of the poem and its context. According to a Salon review, Zemeckis claimed, “Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me.” What he did like was the screenplay that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote. The key to that script appears to be that they thought that monks would take out all the racy stuff, so they invented a lot of racy stuff to squeeze into it like (presumably) the Austin Powers-flavoured hide-the-sausage naked fight scene.

Trust me, medieval monks were no prudes: read some of the Anglo-Saxon riddles for a good example of their love of bawdiness. The monks weren’t even necessarily all that religious: why do you think the popes had to call for so many reforms over the years? It wasn’t because people were overly pious. Read Chaucer’s description of the monk in The Canterbury Tales. He loved hunting, had a stable full of horses and dined on swan.

A scene from the  2007 "Beowulf" (Zemeckis)
A scene from the 2007 “Beowulf” (Zemeckis)

The thing that bugged me most about Zemeckis’ film: Why have a movie about heroics where there is not a single person who embodies the supposed ideal? Of it was intended as a critique of the concept, it failed miserably. The script was a mishmash of half-articulated ideas. A barely developed theme about the effects of storytelling on the truth ought to have been heeded.

Worse, they demonstrated that modern Hollywood film makers have even less regard for women than Anglo-Saxon monks, because at least the latter actually thought women had a purpose beyond sexual titillation. Not so this team. Women are only of interest as sexual prizes. Wealtheow in the poem sets standards of behavior, commands the men and reins Hrothgar in when he steps beyond propriety, deftly balancing both his honor and Beowulf’s. In the film, she’s just a powerless sexual prize. The motion-capture animation turns Robin Wright-Penn’s lovely face into a bland approximation of Hollywood “beauty” and it loses any sense of attractiveness. Jolie as Grendel’s mother (as designed by John Bolton) is an adolescent dream of sexless Barbie doll sexuality: smooth, hairless, flawless and dipped in gold with stiletto heels actually part of her body. She has power, but only to destroy.

The men don’t come off much better. With all the digital breasts on display, it is likewise ironic that the other subtext is all about impotence. This script robs the father figure Hrothgar of most of his offspring and all of his glory. He’s a buffoon from start to finish. Beowulf is no longer the confident hero, but a liar and a fake, conscious of his shortfalls.

Anachronistically they inserted Christianity into the narrative. The narrator of the poem is a Christian looking back with admiration on his distant pagan ancestors.  For the film, Christianity is the killer of the age of heroes. Far be it from me to defend Christianity, but that’s pointless as well as reductively simplistic. Doing so displaces the blame for modern failures onto an institution instead of people. Plus it puts the age of heroes (even a false one) far out of reach of possibility: Christianity is meant to be a civilizing force. You can’t be a real man and civilised.

Besides Christianity didn’t have that kind of instant impotence on the heroes of the age. The poem presents warriors of the pagan past as models for contemporary Christians. If that seems incompatible, it’s helpful to know that the Anglo-Saxons also portrayed Jesus as a warrior who climbed up on the cross. They tended to like the Old Testament a lot more than the new because of all the battles in it. Even the story of Judith gets an Anglo-Saxon poem. Her enemy Holofernes and his men are described like drunken Vikings. When she returns with his head, the warriors hail her as they would a hero like Beowulf and clash their swords on their shields.

Gunnarson 2005: Scorn for the Womanly

"Beowulf and Grendel", 2005 (Gunnarson)
“Beowulf and Grendel”, 2005 (Gunnarson)

Masculinity is clearly one of the most apparent themes in Beowulf; even my sophomores have no trouble exploring the topic once I give them the outline of Germanic heroic behavior. However, I don’t think the original poem’s focus on heroic masculinity could have prepared them for Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 re-imagining of the story. Beowulf & Grendel blends stark Icelandic vistas with utterly modern and sometimes depressingly simple-minded masculine performances that rely on superficial noise to convey status and power.

In this film, the ‘monster problem’ comes about because King Hrothgar shows mercy to the child Grendel when the Danes kill his father. Mercy seems to be a feminine trait and it crumbles Hrothgar’s masculinity.  From here on in, he begins to lose all the markers of his masculine image, usually in public ways. After the night when grown-up Grendel attacks the mead hall, Hrothgar sits by the side of his fallen thane in the morning light, a discarded helmet on the ground beside him. The film portrays mourning as ‘womanly’ behaviour here, though medieval poems like ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’ show how keenly men mourned the loss of their friends. The warrior’s relationship to his leader was the most important in his life.

Hrothgar is the picture of abjection, abandoning leadership to mourn. To rebuke his lapse, the queen Wealtheow strides out of the mead hall to confront him with the only possible excuse for his behavior. “Are you injured?” she snaps and a morose Hrothgar moans that “The thing wouldn’t fight. He spared me to witness this.” She urges him to get up with “this is no ground for a king,” but Hrothgar insists it is “for a king who’s had his balls hauled up in his guts.” The queen suggests burying him with the dead and Hrothgar acquiesces, asking “is that what you wish?”  Wealtheow becomes so provoked by his abjectness that she is moved to slap him, a transgression which further destabilizes the image of Hrothgar before the cowering Danes.  She leaves him with a final taunt, “Whose wife would you have me be?” If a king can’t play the masculine role, his wife will not do it for him. The only solution is to bring in Beowulf, the real warrior, to sort things out. But Gerard Butler’s warrior doesn’t believe in heroes either.

Lost Heroes

That’s the real modern view: heroes can only exist in the past because heroes were always a lie, a story we invented. Or heroes existed, but only in a lost and brutal time that we can’t return to unless we sacrifice civilization. And no one wants to give up their smart phone. Either way, we lose.

It’s made me reluctant to invest the time to watch series like Game of Thrones and The Vikings. I’ve seen a lot of bad medieval films. But I’m always curious to hear what people think. Do these programmes manage to get beyond this conundrum?

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2 comments

  1. Keith 2 years ago

    I would hesitantly suggest you give Vikings a go. It took a little while to grow on me, but eventually it clicked. It deals with the introduction of Christianity into the Pagan world with more complexity than “it killed off the awesome mead hall times,” features female warriors (including one of the leads), men who mourn (King Ragnar’s love for his Christian monk buddy Athelstan gets pretty emotional), more nuanced visions of heroism, and of course, people getting crushed by big spiky rolly things. I wouldn’t call it perfection by any means, but they do seem to be trying pretty hard to be more than gruff men being posed by fourteen-year-old mentalities.

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    1. D. H. Robison
      D. H. Robison 2 years ago

      I’ve heard excellent things about “Vikings”, Keith… I’ll add that to my queue. It’s success was actually my biggest concern… if the story line is compelling for modern audiences, I wonder how much historical fact they sacrificed in the name of making it accessible.

      That’s a minor quibble though… I LOVES me some vikings :D

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