Medievalism and the shocks of modernity: rewriting northern legend from Darwin to World War II
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Literary medievalism has always been critically controversial; it has often been dismissed as reactionary or escapist. This survey of major medievalist writers from America, England, Ireland and Iceland aims to demonstrate instead that medievalism is one of the characteristic literatures of modernity. Whereas realist fiction focuses on typical, plausible or common experiences of modernity, medievalist literature is anything but reactionary, for it focuses on the intellectual circumstances of modernity. Events such as the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, many political revolutions, the world wars, and the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and above all those of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), each sent out cultural shockwaves that changed western beliefs about the nature of humanity and the world. Thus, intellectual anachronisms pervade medievalist literature, as some of the greatest writers of modern times offer new perspectives on old legends. The first chapter of this study focuses on the impact of Darwin’s ideas on Victorian epic poems, particularly accounts of natural evolution and supernatural creation. The second chapter describes how late Victorian medievalists, abandoning primitivism and claims to historicity, pushed beyond the form of the retelling by simulating medieval literary genres. The third chapter crosses into the twentieth century and examines the relationship between the skepticism of a new generation of medievalist writers and their exploration of radical new possibilities in artificial mythology. The fourth chapter examines the gender dynamics of medievalist works, discussing how medievalist writers reinterpreted stock character types through metafiction. The final chapter’s focus is on war, propaganda, and human nature; it documents the iconoclastic trend in postwar medievalism, as writers examine the role of literature in encouraging nationalism and organized violence. Tying together the major threads of medievalism from the previous chapters, this final chapter chases the greatest shockwave of the twentieth century through inverted medieval landscapes where the author may be the greatest villain of all. Rejecting the critical Balkanization of medievalism, this study instead offers a unified view of nineteenth- and twentieth-century responses to northern legend, one which shows medievalism closely tracking the shocks of modernity.