K’Zoo Confidential

I haven’t been at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan U for a couple of years now, what with my dissertation (and the Ph.D. that I got for it) being over and done with.  But I still find stories about K’zoo fascinating, in the manner of “Oh, God, it’s true, it’s true!” of somebody who’s been there.  (And, of course, the Bunny and Happycrow still make the annual pilgrimage, being still active scholars in the field.)

And so, I present this July 6 article from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Enjoy!


From the issue dated July 6, 2007

Knights of the Faculty Lounge

From dragons to scholars, one man’s journey through medieval studies

I had a fat chance of finding a Dungeons & Dragons game in Kalamazoo, they told me. It was a harebrained quest. But it was a quest, at least, and that seemed appropriate.

In early May, I set out for the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, the world’s premier annual gathering of scholars who study the middle ages. The congress is probably the best place to hear the latest research on early vernacular Bibles and Norse myths, but my goal was to find a fantasy role-playing game.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I had spoken to some youngish scholars who said they found their way to medieval studies via an adolescence spent playing D&D, the iconic role-playing game. I spoke to scholars at elite universities and scholars at sleepy institutions; to associate professors, adjuncts, and graduate students; to men and women. All of them had cast spells, slain goblins, and rolled the many-sided dice of Dungeons & Dragons.

They still seemed to love pondering the kinship between fantasy and the Middle Ages. But when I asked some of them whether I might find a role-playing game at the congress, their academic superegos kicked in.

“If you locate a D&D game, I will be extremely surprised,” one of them, Jeff Sypeck, a medievalist blogger, wrote me in an e-mail message. “I can’t imagine that such a pastime would be viewed fondly at Kalamazoo.”

That response revealed something interesting and awkward: the uneasy coexistence of academic medievalists and the burgeoning subcultures of recreational medievalism (Quasi medievalism? Pseudo-medievalism? Neo-medievalism? The terms vary according to levels of interest or contempt). Recent decades have produced millions of medieval re-enactors, role players, and fantasy buffs — and billions of dollars for the industries that fuel them. “There is big, big money flowing into commercial medievalism,” says Richard Scott Nokes, an assistant professor of medieval literature at Troy University. “There is this deep desire out there for these things.”

Often, academic medievalists have viewed this engorged popular interest not as an embarrassment of riches, but as a plain embarrassment.

Yet those same re-enactors, role players, and fantasy buffs — the young ones, at least — make some of the most natural candidates for academic study of the Middle Ages. Surely, the two worlds must be mixing. Surely, there must be a role-playing game somewhere in Kalamazoo.

And so I set out.

So ‘Juvenile’

Here’s a quick rundown of those burgeoning subcultures:

The Lord of the Rings, a sprawling, three-part saga full of orcs and Anglo-Saxon inside jokes, has become one of the most popular works of 20th-century literature and now of film. Elvish, a language created by Tolkien, is one of the most widely spoken invented languages — along with Esperanto and Klingon.

The Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that formed in the 1960s as “a protest against the 20th century,” is an elaborate organization that superimposes a set of imaginary kingdoms over the modern political map and stages combat tournaments to determine who will rule them. In 2006 the society reported 30,000 members.

In 2007 there will only be two weekends when a Renaissance Faire is not scheduled to take place somewhere in America. (Despite the name, Renaissance Faires often focus on the Middle Ages. Go figure.)

And those are just activities for skin-bags, as online citizens sometimes refer to nonvirtual folk. World of Warcraft, the largest online role-playing game, boasts 8.5 million subscribers with avatars roaming around its medieval-style landscape. And according to some reports, Lord of the Rings Online is closing in on those subscriber levels. Another, similar online game, EverQuest, has earned the nicknames “Never-rest” and “Ever-crack” for its addictive tug.

Meanwhile, far away from the movies and festivals and virtual worlds, medieval scholars do the arduous detective work of unearthing, interpreting, and contextualizing the evidence that has survived from the actual Middle Ages — a period when real people lived, labored, imagined, and died. Yet it was also a period when knights and monsters were pressing literary concerns.

“There’s so much about the medieval that’s associated with the juvenile, the popular, the low,” says Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, a professor of medieval English literature at George Washington University. As specialists in Arthuriana and other literature heavy on adventure and light on introspection, he says, medievalists already dread being regarded as scholars of so much juvenilia.

And so sometimes their responses to the truly puerile strains of pop medievalism are downright grouchy and exasperated — as when medievalists point out for the umpteenth time that turkey legs, consumed with such gluttonous abandon at Medieval Times restaurants, did not exist in medieval Europe.

But another factor that heightens the tension between medievalists and their dress-up counterparts is this: Alongside the painstaking manuscript work, medievalists have a lot of fun. At Kalamazoo, or K’zoo, or the Zoo, as the scholarly congress is often called, the agenda is salted with events like medieval beer and ale tastings, demonstrations of medieval weaving techniques, and campy dramatic readings of tales in Middle English. Year after year, the conference culminates in a dance legendary for its debauchery. (“I only know one person who left the profession because of bad choices at the dance,” writes the medieval blogger Michael Drout, an associate professor of English at Wheaton College and a leader in the field of Tolkien studies.)

“There’s an embarrassment that most medievalists feel for enjoying the work they do so much,” says Mr. Cohen. None of them want to be taken for mere enthusiasts.

Hence recreational medievalists have had an off-and-on relationship with their scholarly brethren. Years ago, the Society for Creative Anachronism had a presence at Kalamazoo. They came in costume. They jousted. Then the congress organizers told them the jousting and codpieces were out. Unless they were willing to learn Latin and deliver papers, they were not welcome anymore.

Journey’s End

But as generations of gamers and fantasy buffs have matured into scholars — and as role-playing games have migrated from dice and tabletops into the brave new world of online avatars — something has begun to shift in medieval studies. As evidence, I submit this: My quest to find the D&D game lasted ten minutes.

When I arrived in Kalamazoo on a warm Thursday evening, my first glance around the conference lobby revealed a couple of men in bow ties, a cash bar, and a nun. (And indeed, bow ties, alcohol, and robed clerics studying early church history, I would learn, are all plentiful at the congress.) Then I saw the stack of fliers.

“Medieval Video Gaming: A Festive Workshop,” the fliers announced. “Also featuring GrailQuest — a board game that involves a killer rabbit!” I looked down at the posted time. “Thursday, May 10th, 7:30 p.m.” That was ten minutes away.

So I hurried up to the second-floor computer classroom where the event, sponsored by something called the Medieval Electronic Media Organization, was already drawing a crowd. Each of the computer terminals was loaded with a different massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG, as gaming aficionados call them), and the seats were filling up. If any of these stalwart medievalists were ill at ease in this den of pseudo-medievalism, they did not show it.

“When they remade Quest for Glory, I didn’t like the remake,” said one.

“The landscape details in Lord of the Rings Online are just insane,” said another. “I mean, you can pick out constellations.”

Then I saw it. There, near the middle of the room, was a computer running Dungeons & Dragons Online. Bingo. Quest closed. But I still had a nagging question on my mind — and I wasn’t alone.

In the back of the room, a clutch of Canadian doctoral students was gathered around a bearded man with swirls of gray hair and a Hawaiian shirt. This was Daniel T. Kline, a professor of medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and one of the event’s hosts. At one point, one of the students — a pale young blond woman — leaned forward and asked him the fundamental, runic question behind the evening’s proceedings.

“When you say ‘fantasy,'” she said, “you think ‘medieval.’ So: Why?”

Father of Fantasy

The simplest answer to that question is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, EverQuest: All of them derive from Tolkien’s vision of Middle Earth, a world built from medieval languages, references, and literary conventions. And some scholars say Renaissance Faires and the Society for Creative Anachronism got their momentum from Tolkien’s surge in popularity in the 1960s.

At the same time, Tolkien, an Anglo-Saxonist, is an immensely important figure in medieval studies. Sessions on Tolkien’s scholarship as well as his fiction abound at Kalamazoo. Modern medievalists credit him with being the first scholar to treat Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as texts with literary depth, instead of just as linguistic time capsules. It is thanks to him, many believe, that those poems have become canonical works rather than obscurities.

And so in Tolkien, modern academic medievalism and fantasy culture share a common ancestor — as it happens, one who clearly favored the academic side of the family. Tolkien, who originally wrote his fantasy books for a tiny circle of colleagues and kin, called his fans “my deplorable cultists.” So the uneasy coexistence started with gramps.

That’s one way to answer the question of how fantasy got associated with the medieval. But Mr. Kline answered the Canadian student’s question differently. Mr. Kline, along with several other scholars of the middle ages, has begun thinking about fantasy literature and role-playing games as actual revivals of medieval literary forms.

Arthurian legends, he and others say, had a similar open-ended narrative structure built of quest after quest, a similar relationship to an ahistorical imagined past (Sir Thomas Malory wasn’t writing about his present either), and a similar kind of open authorship (there were hundreds of medieval Arthurian yarn spinners). Unlike more modern forms, the medieval approach to storytelling is one that lends itself perfectly to fantasy worlds that can be endlessly constructed, reconstructed, and traversed. “The grail quest never ends,” said Mr. Kline.

By contrast, there will probably never be any massive multiplayer online Henry James novels.

“We can define the Middle Ages in terms of a historical time period,” says Mr. Nokes, of Troy University. “But medievalism just keeps moving forward.” Geeking out on medieval quests is as old as Don Quixote — who, come to think of it, resembles nothing so much as someone who refuses to leave the Renaissance Faire. (Or someone who might have disappeared into his online avatar.) But oddly enough, we may now be more medievalist than ever.

Mr. Nokes, who also runs a popular medievalist blog, happens to be on a quest of his own. A couple of years ago, he started attending fantasy and gaming conventions as an emissary from the scholarly world. He started giving talks in libraries. He started e-mailing his local Society for Creative Anachronism chapter. And this summer, he plans to attend Dragon*Con, the largest fantasy and science-fiction convention in the world. “I think we need to talk to people in the pseudo-medieval world,” he says, “people who are into this stuff just because of the joy of it.”

Because if fantasy buffs are willing to put in the time to learn Elvish, he figures, it is not too far-fetched to think they might actually be looking for someone to teach them Old English. “Some people are going to want to put on elf ears and watch people joust, and that’s all that they’ll want to do,” Mr. Nokes says. “But some people are going to want to know more.”

Section: The Faculty
Volume 53, Issue 44, Page A8

Copyright © 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher EducationSubscribe | About The Chronicle | Contact us | Terms of use | Privacy policy | Help


About lizardqueen

If single-mothering were a paid job, I'd be rich. However, it doesn't, so I write (which doesn't pay the bills) and teach (which does). I'm overly-educated in the liberal arts, but that doesn't hinder my ability to be pragmatic and realistic. YAY.
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