Historians of medieval Europe would be surprised at the pallid, static and simplistic depictions of their subject in the work of many modern fantasy writers. In the past fifty years, medievalists have overturned Western Renaissance and Enlightenment assertions that the “middle time” was an opaque, undifferentiated hiatus endured between the glittering peaks of Rome and Modernity.
Equipped with digital tools, platoons of medievalists today are able to mine, compile, sort, and index more data about medieval people and places than any prior generation.[i] Advances in aerial archaeology surveys, underwater excavations, and isotope analysis -- to name but three-- have dramatically expanded our knowledge of daily life (everything from how bricks were made to how bread was baked), migration and settlement patterns, trade routes, funerary practices, and much more.[ii]
A willingness to use methods from anthropology, geographical studies, and other social sciences
-- epitomized by the widely influential Annales school in France, the Cambridge Group for the History of Population & Social Structure in the U.K., and the Quaderni storici in Italy -- has buttressed our new interpretations of the era.[iii] Above all, medieval studies has -- to great advantage -- wedded its traditional strengths in manuscript analysis and paleography with modern literary critical approaches and semiotics, framing our questions in entirely new ways and forming new understandings from materials previously neglected or ignored.[iv]
I hope we might see more variety, more dynamism and more nuance in the pseudo-medieval settings adopted by many fantasy authors. Transposing modern analogues, or what we perceive as similarities, won’t work. We need to rasp, file, chisel and mallet ourselves back to another reality, before we can use it for our modern fabulistic purposes. We must translate ourselves, in the word’s literal Latin sense of carrying over, of removing from one place to another. And then the real work begins. Even medieval concepts we think we know, after having laboriously scrubbed off the verdigris, will betray us because the context is gone.
I want fantastical epics that take as their point of departure the life of the Jewish community documented by the Geniza repository in Cairo, or of Muslim merchants in Aleppo and Damascus establishing a foundation or school via waqf deeds.[v] I seek spec fic based on the adventures of Malian mathematicians and astronomers, and on the exploits of sastra of jyotisa practitioners in India.[vi] How about using as a setting the embassy King Harsa of Kanauj in India sent to the T’ang emperor T’ai Tsung or the mission King Pulakesin II of Badami dispatched to the Sassanian emperor Khusru II?[vii] Imagine riding with the spec fic counterpart of the great Muslim admiral Zheng He on his seven epic voyages for the Chinese emperor in the early 15th century, reaching as far as East Africa -- focusing on the common sailors. Delve into fictional versions of Sundiata’s empire, or the adventures of Oranyan, a prince of Ile-Ife, who followed a serpent as was foretold and thereby founded the Yoruba Empire. Or explore Cambay in Gujarat and Calicut on the Malabar, and Aden, which 10th-century traveler al-Muqaddasi described as “the anteroom of China, entrepot of Yemen, treasury of the West, and mother lode of trade wares.”
Feminist perspectives, postcolonialist approaches, and frameworks established by scholars from within the African Diaspora have each revolutionized literary, historical and cultural studies in the United States. [viii] Insights gained from the study of modern history are helping us identify the thorns in the romance of the rose.[ix] For instance, Sharon Kinoshita observes that “many of the best-known works of medieval French literature take place on or beyond the borders of ‘France’ or even the French-speaking world,” and argues that the origins of vernacular French writing is “inextricably linked to historical situations of contact between French-speaking nobles and peoples they perceived as their linguistic, religious and cultural others.”[x]
Geraldine Heng makes a similar point:
“Allowing fantasies of race and nation to surface with remarkable freedom, and to flex themselves with astonishing ease and mobility, medieval romance becomes a medium that conduces with exceptional facility to the creation of races, and the production of a prioritizing discourse of essential differences among peoples in the Middle Ages.”[xi]From essentializing the Other to erasing the Other altogether is all too often a small step in the medieval European tradition, and in the later scholarship about the Middle Ages. Erasure is sometimes a part of creating the canon upon which -- unknowingly or not -- the modern fantasy genre rests. (I am reminded of how medieval scribes would use pumice stones “ad radenda pergamena,” i.e., “for scraping parchment.”) Maria Rosa Menocal gives a classic example when she notes that the root word for the quintessential medieval figure of the troubadour may be Arabic, not Latin, and that until recently the Arabic possibility was mostly ignored or obscured.[xii] Ananya Jahanara Kabir discusses how nostalgia can similarly erase and reorder the past to justify current power dynamics, using as her example 19th-century Britons building a history that showed medieval England inheriting leadership from Rome and in turn bequeathing the right to rule to the Victorians.[xiii]
I close with two voices that may point us where I believe we need to go one voice from the medieval era but strikingly “modern,” the other modern but translating our oldest desire.
The first is the provost Wolmarus, writing to his friend the abbess Hildegard of Bingen near the end of her life, fearing that the lingua ignota would go untransmitted: “Where, then, the voice of the unheard melody? And the voice of the unheard language?" And, in fact, the secrets of the hidden language and the mystic melody died with Hildegard...but we can resurrect them -- translate them -- through our speculative fiction today.
“Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story. And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth.”[xv]
[i] “Medievalists and classicists have, over the past twenty years, taken up the use of computers in their work more eagerly than almost any other group of academics working in the humanities” (Marilyn Deegan, “Computers and Medieval Studies: Points of Convergence,” special issue of Literary and Linguistic Computing, 6:1/1991). The fervor continues undimmed today.
[ii] For a good introduction, see the U.K. Society for Medieval Archaeology, http://www.medievalarchaeology.org/, and the U.K.’s Archaeology Data Service, http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/
[iii] See Carole Fink, Marc Bloch: A Life in History (Cambridge University Press, 1989), chapters 6, 7, 12; Sheila McIsaac Cooper, “Historical Analysis of the Family,” in M. Sussman et al. (eds.), Handbook of Marriage and the Family (Plenum: 2nd ed., 1999); Edward Muir & Guido Ruggiero (eds.), Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe (Selections from Quaderni Storici) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991; trans. E. Branch).
[iv] Gabrielle Spiegel, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); Lee Patterson, Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature (University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); Derek Pearsall, ed., Manuscripts and Texts: Editorial Problems in Late Middle English Literature (Boydell & Brewer, 1987); William Marx, ed., Sources, Exemplars and Copy-Texts: Influence and Transmission (Trivium vol. 31, 1999).
[v] Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 26-27.
[vi] Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, http://www.sum.uio.no/research/mali/timbuktu/project/index.html ; David Pingree, “The Logic of Non-Western Science: Mathematical Discoveries in Medieval India,” Daedalus 132:4 (Fall, 2003).
[vii] Daud Ali, Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 32.
[viii] Representative works: Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness & the Literary Imagination (Random, 1992); Benjamin Alire Saenz, “I Want to Write an American Poem: On Being a Chicano Poet in Post-Columbian America,” in R. Gonzalez (ed.), Currents from the Dancing River: Contemporary Latino Fiction, Nonfiction & Poetry (Harcourt Brace, 1994); Jose David Saldivar, Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies (U. California P., 1997); Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House (Oxford U.P., 1993); Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity & Double Consciousness (Harvard U.P., 1993); Okwui Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition,” in Enwezor et al. (eds.), Antimonies in Art & Culture (Duke U.P., 2008); Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind (Heinemann, 1986); Edward Said, Orientalism (Random: 1978).
[ix] Examples include: Linda Lomperis, “Medieval Travel Writing and the Question of Race,” Journal of Medieval & Modern Studies, 31 (Jan., 2001); Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “On Saracen Enjoyment: Some Fantasies of Race in Late Medieval France and England,” ibid.; Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Princeton University Press, 1993), esp. chapters 8 & 9 ref. “race relations on the frontiers of Latin Europe”; Maghan Keita, “Saracens and Black Knights,” Arthuriana 16.4 (2006).
[x] Kinoshita, Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 1.
[xi] Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (Columbia U. Press, 2003), p. 7.
[xii] Menocal, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (U. Pennsylvania Press, 1987).
[xiii] Kabir, “Analogy in Translation: Imperial Rome, Medieval England and British India,” in Kabir & D. Williams, eds., Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages; Translating Cultures (Cambridge U. Press, 2005).
[xiv] Chabon, Maps & Legends: Reading & Writing Along the Borderlands (Harper, 2008), pp. 157-179; Okorafor, “Stephen King’s...,” Strange Horizons, October 25, 2004; Delany, “Racism and Science Fiction,” New York Review of Science Fiction, Issue 120 (August, 1998); Myles Balfe, “Incredible Geographies? Orientalism and Genre Fantasy,” Social & Cultural Geography 5:1 (2004); Ahmed’s essay is in Salon, April 1, 2012; Miller’s is in Salon, November 9, 2011; Anderson Rearick, “Why is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark Face of Racism Examined in Tolkien’s World,“ Modern Fiction Studies 50:4 (2004); Christopher Warnes, “Baldur’s Gate and History: Race and Alignment in Digital Role Playing Games,” Digital Games Research Assoc. conf. proceedings, 2005; Margaret Sinex, “ ‘Monsterized Saracens,’” Tolkien’s Haradrim, and Other Medieval ‘Fantasy Products,’” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010); Hopkinson & Mehan, So Long Been Dreaming (Arsenal Pulp, 2004); Hopkinson, “A Reluctant Ambassador from the Planet of Midnight,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 21.3 (2010); Rieder, Colonialism (Wesleyan U.P., 2008). See also: Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct, 2005), Helen Merrick, The Secret Feminist Cabal (Aqueduct, 2009), and the Sheree Thomas Dark Matter anthologies.
[xv] Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions (Doubleday, 2008), p. 1.
London 1817. Maggie Collins, born into slavery in Maryland, whose mathematical genius and strength of mind can match those of a goddess, must build the world's most powerful and sophisticated machine - to free the lost land of Yount from the fallen angel Strix Tender Wurm. Sally, of the merchant house McDoon, who displayed her own powers in challenging the Wurm and finding Yount in The Choir Boats, must choose either to help Maggie or to hinder her. Together - or not - Maggie and Sally drive to conclusion the story started in The Choir Boats - a story of blood-soaked song, family secrets, sins new and old in search of expiation, forbidden love, high policy and acts of state, financial ruin, betrayals intimate and grand, sorcery from the origins of time, and battle in the streets of London and on the arcane seas of Yount.
Daniel A. Rabuzzi studied folklore and mythology in college and graduate school, and keeps one foot firmly in the Other Realm.
ChiZine Publications published his first novel, The Choir Boats: Volume One of Longing for Yount, in 2009, and in 2012 brought out the sequel and series conclusion, The Indigo Pheasant: Volume Two of Longing for Yount.
Daniel's short fiction and poetry have appeared in Sybil's Garage, Shimmer, ChiZine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Abyss & Apex, Goblin Fruit, Mannequin Envy, Bull Spec, Kaleidotrope, and Scheherezade's Bequest. He has presented at Arisia, Readercon, Lunacon, and the Toronto Speculative Fiction Colloquium. He has also had twenty scholarly and professional articles published on subjects ranging from fairy tale to finance.
A former banker, Daniel earned his doctorate in 18th-century history, with a focus on family, gender and commerce in northern Europe. He is now an executive at a national workforce development organization in New York City, where he lives with his wife and soulmate, the artist Deborah A. Mills (who illustrated and provided cover art for both Daniel's novels), along with the requisite two cats.
Novel preview links:
The Choir Boats: http://chizinepub.com/media/choir-boats/TheChoirBoats-Preview.pdf
The Indigo Pheasant: http://chizinepub.com/media/indigo/indigo_preview.pdf
Book page links:
The Choir Boats: http://chizinepub.com/books/choir-boats.php
The Choir Boats Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Choir-Boats/67307451458
The Indigo Pheasant: http://chizinepub.com/books/indigo-pheasant.php
Daniel's web site: www.danielarabuzzi.com
Daniel's Twitter: @TheChoirBoats
Deborah's web site: http://www.deborahmillswoodcarving.com/Our blog tour for The Indigo Pheasant kicks off, with guest posts, interviews, and giveaways!
Tour stops include:
Sept 11 - Small Beer Press/Not a Journal
Sept 14 - Civilian Reader
Sept 17 - Fantasy Book Critic
Sept 18 - Bibliophile Stalker
Sept 24 - That Artsy Reader Girl
Sept 26 - Layers of Thought Book & Yount greeting cards giveaway.
Sept 27 - Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews
Sept 28 - So Many Precious Books, So Little Time Book giveaway.
Sept 30 - Disquieting Visions
Oct 4 - Charlotte's Library
Oct 5 - The Cozy Reader
Oct 11 - Jess Resides Here
TBS - Grasping for the Wind
TBS - Bull Spec's new Wednesday feature "The Hardest Part"