Archive for ‘medievalism’


“Believing he listened while laughing you flew…”

[This is the fourth of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The first post can be found here, the second can be found here, and the third one is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

Six years passed between the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third “Philippe” story and the fourth and final entry in the series. By the time “Gods of Darkness” debuted in the November 1941 issue of Redbook―which hailed the seven-page sketch as its “novelette of the month”―Fitzgerald had been dead for almost a year. According to scholar Janet Lewis, Redbook had been the only magazine willing to print the stories, and I’m guessing they ran this final installment out of some combination of nostalgic tribute and contractual obligation.

A reader who’s made it this far into the Philippe stories knows what’s coming. There’s the ninth-century warlord inspired by Ernest Hemingway, the anachronistic 1930s gangster slang, the dull prose that always tells and never shows, and a boyish obsession with the building and maintenance of forts.

I’m not kidding about the forts:

Half a dozen horsemen, irregularly strung out, began feeling their way down the forty-five-degree angle of the slag-and-sand slope.

“That’s my fort,” Philippe said. “You like it?”

[ . . . ]

In sight of the castle he had made on the hilltop, he drew rein for a moment, to reward his own work admiringly. New wooden structure was risen to replace the first crude one, destroyed by the King’s incendiaries. This one, like the first, was of logs, but it was taller, more elaborate within and without. His current problem was to try to make a moat by letting in the Loire; but having no engineering education, and commanding no one who understood the process, the venture had so far been confined to digging fine-looking ditches and then seeing them either washed quickly away, or else coquettishly avoided by the choosy water of the river.

“It’s good, though, isn’t it?” he demanded of Griselda. “We’ve got a house; we’ve got quarters for the boys; we’ve got pasture for the animals―and we’re beginning to have a little city down here around the foot of the hill. There’s ten, twelve houses….”

If Fitzgerald had spent even half that much time exploring the conflicting subtleties of the medieval mind, the Philippe stories might feel inhabited by humans. Instead, the banter between Philippe and Griselda is as flat as a scene from a 1930s “B” movie:

Griselda, fatigued, dismounted in the pasture halfway up. Pale and lovely, she sat in the last lush grass of October.

“I love you, Philippe,” she said as he dismounted beside her. “Oh, I don’t mean that―I was just thinking: can’t I love you sometimes when you don’t expect it?”

The pale wonder of her skin was a texture so like death that for a moment Philippe hardly knew what he held in his suddenly gentle arms. Only when a bearer of water had come and returned, did Griselda move and whisper: “I know I’m difficult, Philippe; but you’re so difficult, and I never had anything like this happen to me before.”

“Cheer up―you’re all right,” said Philippe. He had a dread of anything happening to her delicate health.

Despite his oppressive deadpan, Fitzgerald tries here and there to be playful, to no real end. “In less time than it has taken to describe Philippe’s bodyguard, he met the approaching party,” he writes at one point, a wink from a narrator who rarely steps forward with thoughts. I’m not the first reader to wish that the Philippe stories were filtered through the eyes of an observer, a ninth-century Nick Carraway who could have given Fitzgerald’s version of the Middle Ages a solid sense of place.

Fortunately, “Gods of Darkness” delivers a plot twist that at least deserves points for novelty. During the months Fitzgerald spent immersed in scholarly books and working out historical timelines, he was beguiled by Margaret Murray’s 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. As Philippe starts to become a competent ruler of his ancestral lands, he realizes that his girlfriend and his henchman both speak a strange language and hold secret influence over the locals. His military prowess and burgeoning administrative skills will mean nothing unless he allies himself with an unpredictable force, the local witch cult:

“I haven’t got any conscience except for my country, and for those who live in it. All right―I’ll use this cult―and maybe burn in hell forever after…But maybe Almighty Providence will understand.” He looked toward the swift flow of the Loire. “Maybe He built a castle once. Maybe He knows.”

And then defiantly:

“But if these witches know better, then I’ll be one of them!”

If Fitzgerald had stopped at “Maybe He knows,” then Philippe might have become a broken-down idealist worthy of noir. Instead, the big, dumb warlord bellows his intentions, drowning out a moment when Fitzgerald should have respected his readers’ capacity for inference. We’re detached from the fate of a character we’ve barely been persuaded to care about, with none of the gut-punch thrill of pulp.

In the only major scholarly article about the “Count of Darkness” series, Janet Lewis floats a theory: Philippe’s compromises are an allegory for the need of the United States to team up with the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler. The Redbook issue with “Gods of Darkness” did hit the stands a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, so maybe some readers saw things that way, but these stories feel less like political exhortations than clumsy studies of people dealing with dark times. Perhaps any sociopolitical message is an accidental echo: Fitzgerald told editor Maxwell Perkins that he enjoyed the escapism of writing about medieval Europe, even if it was risky to write a massive novel that revisited Philippe at three phases of his 60-year career. “The research required for the second two parts would be quite tremendous,” Fitzgerald confessed, “and the book would have been (or would be) a piece of great self indulgence.”

The Philippe stories are self-indulgent, and their rare readers end up disappointed or indifferent. Yet I haven’t seen anyone appreciate one obvious insight in these tales: that if you drop Ernest Hemingway into the crucible of boundless chaos and war, he may seem at first like the sort of man to rebuild the world―but he’ll get in over his head, and he’ll end up believing in nothing.

* * *

The Philippe stories might be more revealing if we read them alongside Fitzgerald’s other work. After the letdown of “Gods of Darkness,” I turned back to This Side of Paradise, his 1920 debut novel. For the medievalist, the highlight of Chapter Two, “Spires and Gargoyles,” is a passage with its own precocious subtitle, “A Damp Symbolic Interlude,” the musings of Princeton underachiever Amory Blaine as he wanders the campus:

The night mist fell. From the moon it rolled, clustered about the spires and towers, and then settled below them, so that the dreaming peaks were still in lofty aspiration toward the sky. Figures that dotted the day like ants now brushed along as shadowy ghosts, in and out of the foreground. The Gothic halls and cloisters were infinitely more mysterious as they loomed suddenly out of the darkness, outlined each by myriad faint squares of yellow light. Indefinitely from somewhere a bell boomed the quarter-hour, and Amory, pausing by the sun-dial, stretched himself out full length on the damp grass. The cool bathed his eyes and slowed the flight of time―time that had crept so insidiously through the lazy April afternoons, seemed so intangible in the long spring twilights. Evening after evening the senior singing had drifted over the campus in melancholy beauty, and through the shell of his undergraduate consciousness had broken a deep and reverent devotion to the gray walls and Gothic peaks and all they symbolized as warehouses of dead ages.

The tower that in view of his window sprang upward, grew into a spire, yearning higher until its uppermost tip was half invisible against the morning skies, gave him the first sense of the transiency and unimportance of the campus figures except as holders of the apostolic succession. He liked knowing that Gothic architecture, with its upward trend, was peculiarly appropriate to universities, and the idea became personal to him. The silent stretches of green, the quiet halls with an occasional late-burning scholastic light held his imagination in a strong grasp, and the chastity of the spire became a symbol of this perception.

“Damn it all,” he whispered aloud, wetting his hands in the damp and running them through his hair. “Next year I work!” Yet he knew that where now the spirit of spires and towers made him dreamily acquiescent, it would then overawe him. Where now he realized only his own inconsequence, effort would make him aware of his own impotency and insufficiency.

The college dreamed on―awake.

Look at what Fitzgerald can do when he knows what he’s doing. To a status-addled Princetonian, the Gothic embodies imagination, ambition, humility, and the weight of tradition all at once. A rainy walk across campus can make the heart swell with giddy confusion. Those three paragraphs show a sensitivity to human emotion that’s absent from dozens of pages about warlords and fort-building.

The nod to Gothic architecture is also a sign of the times. When Fitzgerald attended Princeton from 1913 to 1917, the campus’s oldest Gothic spires were still fairly recent, having been built only after the Civil War, and many of the gargoyles had begun leering down at cocky undergrads only three or four years earlier. Fitzgerald knows to tap into not only the romanticism of Gothic Revival architecture, but also its pretensions. He failed to make sense of the 1930s through the lens of medievalism, but he was smart to see that the Middle Ages could be fertile ground for ambiguous symbolism and complex allusions.

You wouldn’t know it from The Great Gatsby, but Fitzgerald was haunted by medieval shadows. His biggest failure in the “Philippe, Count of Darkness” stories is his inability to figure out if the Middle Ages were a warning about the problems of his own age or the beginning of a way out of them. The mind of a Jazz Age author turns out to have been a Gothic novel: enter the mansion, get lost far beneath it in medieval crypts.

“How soft your fields so green can whisper tales of gore…”

Only one man in American history can claim to have been both a baking-powder revolutionary and a passionate medievalist, and nobody else is going to note this anniversary, so let me do the unasked-for honors: This week marks the 200th birthday of Eben Norton Horsford, the chemist and engineer who spent his golden years trying to convince a highly skeptical world that he had discovered hard, undeniable, multidisciplinary evidence of a thriving Viking city—in Massachusetts.

If your instinct is to laugh at the idea, please reconsider. As fond as I am of intellectual and architectural follies for their own sake, Horsford’s Viking fixation left us with a useful monument to the weird ways we work out what is or isn’t true, which are often a more subtle folly of their own.

Horsford helped popularize the notion that the Vikings had rambled higgeldy-piggeldy through New England. Evidence would surface much later that the Vikings had hung around Newfoundland, but no one has found proof of their presence farther south, despite its plausibility. Scholars didn’t buy into Horsford’s theories, but he did have his fans, perhaps because he had credentials any popularizer would envy. After Horsford studied civil engineering and taught mathematics, two years in Germany made him one of the first Americans formally trained in chemistry. He then spent sixteen years at Harvard putting his research to practical, profitable use. In the late 1840s or early 1850s, Horsford found that baking powder no longer needed to come in two separate packets of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar, the supply and price of which were erratic. Instead, he proposed replacing cream of tartar with calcium acid phosphate, invented a way to manufacture it, got a patent, figured out to how dry it and sell it safely pre-mixed, and became wildly rich. If you’ve baked anything this week, you can thank a Viking-obsessed Harvard chemist.

And so Eben Horsford—scientist, industrialist, education activist—apparently decided that since he had prospered in mathematics, civil engineering, chemistry, and business, then nothing else human was alien to him. And what were Vikings in America but the next laboratory puzzle to be solved? More than a century after its publication, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, Horsford’s book-length 1890 report to the American Geographical Society, is a remarkable read: Horsford is certain that the new scientific techniques of his era have helped him unearth evidence of Vikings in his own back yard. The implications beguile him:

As we all know, there have been before the world many scores of years, in some instances for as many centuries, certain grand geographical problems, challenging the spirit of research, the love of adventure, or the passion for discovery or conquest. They are such as these: Where was Atlantis? Where was the Ultima Thule? What is there at the North Pole? Was there a Northwest Passage? Where were the Seven Cities? Where were the El Dorado of Raleigh, and the landfall of Leif Erikson, of Columbus, of John Cabot, of Verrazano? And where were Vinland and Norumbega?

“Vinland,” of course, is mentioned in the Viking sagas. “Norumbega” has a later, legendary pedigree as a large and impressive city somewhere south of Nova Scotia, based on maps and travelers’ accounts from 16th-century Europe. Horsford is convinced it was a specifically Viking city, and he’s eager to convince you too—but first he reprints a response from Judge Charles P. Daly, president of the American Geographical Society.

“We have hitherto but inadequately appreciated the Northmen as a race—their adventurous spirit, their capacity, and the degree of civilization to which they had attained in an age when Europe was but emerging from the darkness that had enveloped it for many centuries,” Daly writes, invoking recent scholarship suggesting that the “Aryans” came from Scandinavia, “which would make the Northmen the progenitors of the Greeks, the Romans, and with the exception of one or two races, of all the nations of modern Europe; which, if further researches should establish to be fact, would make them the greatest race in the history of mankind.”

These 19th-century racial notions aren’t surprising, but they’re a good reminder to be wary when authoritative scholars in any age argue primarily from trendy thinking. Horsford isn’t content with his wealth, his impressive accomplishments in chemistry, or his legacy in the kitchens of the world. Driven in part by racial pride, he hopes to use his well-trained mind to disentangle the knotted mysteries of human civilization.

Delving into philology, Horsford is convinced that local place-names—among them Nanset, Naumkeag, Namskaket, and Amosheag—are of “Norse derivation.” He claims that a quirk of Algonquin speech accounts for the name “Norumbega”: The Algonquin, he explains, couldn’t pronounce the “b” sound without putting an “m” in front of it, so the ancient name of Norway, “Norbega,” became “Norumbega.” He bolsters his argument by pointing out that the “mb” quirk is common in African languages, and that plenty of cultures can’t properly pronounce the languages of others. By tinkering plausibly with proto-linguistics, Horsford writes Vikings into the history of Massachusetts. “I may say,” he declares, “there is not a square mile of the basin of the Charles that does not contain incontestable memorials of these people, that will presently be as obvious to others as they now are to me.”

Horsford the philologist is also Horsford the close reader of literary sources. He’s fascinated by an obscure object in the Saga of the Greenlanders: a húsa-snotra that Viking explorer Karlsefni refuses to sell for any price. Even now, nobody knows what a húsa-snotra is. At various times scholars have supposed that it was a carved ship’s ornament, a weather vane, or an astrolabe. Horsford thinks it’s the pans for a set of scales. Whatever it was, a húsa-snotra was said to have been made of North American mǫsurr wood, which Horsford believes is a wet tree with burrs or large warts—just like the trees he sees around the Charles.

Horsford the philologist and Horsford the literary scholar then cede the floor to Horsford the geographer and archaeologist. Using travelers’ descriptions, local history, and colonial sources, he deduces that the Vikings built a fort at the mouth of Stony Brook, which now separates the towns of Waltham and Weston: “I drove directly there,” he proclaims, “and found it on my first visit.” An area paved with boulders fascinates him, and his scrutiny of alluvial soil deposits leads him to believe that a colonial stone dam is the ancient handiwork of Vikings.

It’s really rather amazing: Everywhere Horsford looks, he sees the remnants of a Viking economy—specifically, a system of canals used to float blocks of coveted mǫsurr wood out to waiting ships. His belief in the existence of a thriving wood-block trade prompts him to theorize that every tributary of the Charles must have evidence of a Viking dam or pond either along it or near its mouth—and when he goes looking, he sees what he was predisposed to see. Centuries of Native American and European habitation notwithstanding, nothing along the Charles doesn’t make Horsford see Vikings: “The canals, ditches, deltas, boom-dams, ponds, fish-ways, forts, dwellings, walls, terraces of theater and amphitheater, scattered throughout the Charles, are the monuments I had in mind.”

And so Eben Horsford, profoundly invested in this imagined heritage and desiring to make it tangible, built the rest of us a tower.

* * *

Horsford donated so much money to Wellesley College that in 1886, they flattered him with the naming of Norumbega Hall, a rather un-medieval wooden building that hardly evokes a spirit of exploration or adventure. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a sonnet for the occasion, one that flatters Horsford’s romanticism while backing away from any promise of authenticity:

Not on Penobscot’s wooded bank the spires
Of the sought City rose, nor yet beside
The winding Charles, nor where the daily tide
Of Naumkeag’s haven rises and retires,
The vision tarried; but somewhere we knew
The beautiful gates must open to our quest,
Somewhere that marvellous City of the West
Would lift its towers and palace domes in view,
And, lo! at last its mystery is made known—
Its only dwellers maidens fair and young,
Its Princess such as England’s Laureate sung;
And safe from capture, save by love alone,
It lends its beauty to the lake’s green shore,
And Norumbega is a myth no more.

It’s a curious poem, full of Wellesley girls re-cast as maidens from medieval romance, but not a single Viking.

The most lasting physical remnant of Horsford’s folly, though, is the Norumbega Tower, which he built in 1889 at the mouth of Stony Brook to mark the supposed site of the Viking city and fort. Architectural follies are usually their own justification, but Horsford gave more specific reasons than most people who build such things. In The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega he explains, at first graciously:

It will invite criticism, and so sift out any errors of interpretation into which, sharing the usual fortune of the pioneer, I may have been led.

And then rather less so:

It will help, by reason of its mere presence, and by virtue of the veneration with which the Tower will in time come to be regarded, to bring acquiescence in the fruit of investigation, and so ally the blind skepticism, amounting practically to inverted ambition, that would deprive Massachusetts of the glory of holding the Landfall of Leif Erikson, and at the same time the seat of Europeans in America.

Committed to the falsifiable nature of science, Horsford nonetheless hopes romanticism will encourage future generations to lean his way.

I get a kick out of discredited scholarly theories, but Horsford’s isn’t luridly presented, at least not in this book. He leaves us few nutty-sounding reveries and no McKinley-era equivalent of all-caps exhortations. A man of his time, he turned his polymath’s mind toward the credible techniques of “scientific history” as pioneered in European universities, and off he went on the trail of his preferred past. He found it, as he knew he would. Human prejudices are as consistent as chemistry, if not as quantifiable.

As the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage approached, a vocal minority of Americans, many of them New England autodidacts inspired by a popular 1837 edition of the Vinland sagas, cringed at the prospect of letting an Italian Catholic in the service of Spain get credit for the European discovery of North America. (My favorite manifestation of their protest: a replica of a Viking ship that floated past the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.) The racial assumptions of the day helped stoke Horsford’s efforts, but even though few scholars bought into his theories about Vikings on the Charles, contemporaries did consider him rather progressive for his support of women’s education. Horsford’s example just goes to show how ephemeral many social standards will prove, and also how wrong we’re all going to be about something, even the cleverest among us, in the fullness of time.

The man who literally gave us our daily bread longed for a more romantic legacy, one that would link him to his presumed ancestors and affirm their superiority. His 200th birthday is a chance for the rest of us to feel a link to the past, not to some silly racial or tribal forefathers but to anyone whose sincere disorientation humanizes him and humbles us. Let’s all then chase our theories, pore over books, and tromp along riverbeds chasing the boot-prints of phantoms. If your confidence in your own worldview is as unshakeable as Eben Horsford’s, than the Norumbega Tower is a warning: pray that posterity is no less kind to you.

“And they burn so bright, while you can only wonder why….”

[This is the third of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The first post can be found here, and the second can be found here, and the fourth is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third story about medieval France “shows that national chaos does not fail to bring forth a leader.” That’s the chirpy editorial comment just below the byline in the August 1935 issue of Redbook, and it makes me wonder if the magazine’s staffers actually read the story. By this point, they’re no longer touting Fitzgerald’s contributions on the covers, so readers would have had to stumble upon “The Kingdom in the Dark” while flipping through an issue already packed with other, lighter fiction. I wonder how many of them even remembered where the story of Count Philippe of Villefranche left off eleven months earlier.

To my surprise, Fitzgerald’s name still carries cachet for Redbook readers. Elsewhere in the issue, his name pops up in the introduction to a complete novel, We’ll Never Be Any Younger:

WHAT F. SCOTT FITZGERALD DID FOR THE “LOST GENERATION”—FOR “FLAPPERS” AND “SAD YOUNG MEN”—IN “THIS SIDE OF PARADISE” AND “THE GREAT GATSBY,” ELMER DAVIS IS DOING NOW FOR THOSE WHO ARE LIVING UNDER THE SIGN OF ALPHABET AGENCIES AND GREAT PROMISES.

That’s a kind endorsement of Fitzgerald’s influence, but it’s also a backhanded compliment that casts Fitzgerald as a has-been, a generational spokesman now receding into mere precedent. It makes sense, I suppose, that his medieval stories would dramatize rebuilding a world from scratch, and the unavoidable failures that follow.

As with Fitzgerald’s previous medieval stories, “The Kingdom in the Dark” doesn’t have a complicated plot. Count Philippe continues to consolidate power on his hereditary lands by building a fort overlooking the Loire, where he can collect tolls and taxes from merchants as they ford the river. There’s a charming, boyish innocence to Fitzgerald’s pride in writing about this fort, which is clearly the product of his own historical research:

Philippe had no education in military architecture, and probably any engineer-centurion of Caesar’s army would have laughed it to scorn, yet he had planned with a great deal of shrewdness:

To the north the hill fell straight to the river; westward it was protected by a sheer cliff fifty feet high. The vulnerable points were east and south. It was with the eastward side, a slope of shifting sandy soil that would bear no solid construction, that he was unsatisfied . . .

Later, Philippe explains the fort to the local abbot:

“Father couldn’t defend his house, God rest his soul! But I have an idea that the Northmen will have some job trying to crack this crib in a hurry. Look—this thing is only the first palisade—then there’s a second palisade, then the rampart and trench. On two of the other sides I’ve got the river and the cliff.”

Then Fitzgerald gives us an arid little lecture on ninth-century forts:

In an hour they were in sight of the house or fort. Land was easy to get in those unsettled days, but the ability to dominate and cultivate it was another matter. The prohibition of forts and castles had only just been withdrawn by the king, in the face of repeated invasions of Northmen; and though this law had not been observed literally for a half century, the art of fortification had fallen into desuetude.

Finally, Philippe shows off his fort to a girl:

“Like it?” Philippe asked the girl, with ill-concealed pride.

“I think it’s fine,” she said, and took a side glance at him, with pity for his pride in his homely effort.

“It’s not so good,” he said, with the modesty of possession. “Still, we’ve got three buildings up there—there’s the log fort and the houses for my men-at-arms and servants made of mud and rock. They’re part of the defenses.”

“It’s nice.”

She looked at him as a little boy playing soldiers, and for a moment they regarded each other. Then, reluctantly, he turned his eyes from the lovely head.

Fortunately, “The Kingdom in the Dark” isn’t entirely about forts. Philippe is intrigued by the girl, Griselda, who’s on the run from the new king, Louis the Stammerer, apparently because he made her lover in his court disappear. Fitzgerald’s description of her isn’t terrible, but it’s little better than the sort of prose that earns aspiring fantasy novelists a thorough critique from their peers:

The girl rode well. Her rather small curly head perched on a long body that carried it proudly. She was pale, and her lips were very red. There was a lovely necklace of faint freckles above an amber-colored surtout belted at the waist. Her eyes were small and hazel, with lashes of a delicate pink tan.

Nothing in this description of Griselda tells us anything useful about her. Can this really be the same novelist who could imply so much about Gatsby and his acquaintances through subtle descriptions of posture and clothing?

Fitzgerald revels in costuming, but little else, in an interminable passage about the king’s entourage:

To a man of our time, associating the Middle Ages with plate mail, the column would have seemed singularly dissimilar to any mental picture he might have formed of chivalry—and it was not chivalry in the sense that the word implied five hundred years later.

At the head of the procession rode a squad of scouts, carrying short spears, and short flat swords slung at their belts. Some wore cap-like padded helmets, turbans almost; others wore headgear of the same shape but of leather. There was no attempt at uniformity—under short tunics of blue, red, green or brown, there were usually perceptible a rough mail: rings sewed on leather, or crude coats of rings entire. Universally they wore leather moccasins, short or long, held in place by crisscross strips of hide.

After this casual advance party followed the King and his attendants—Louis in a long white tunic of fine linen shouldered with a cape of purple. Round his head was a light golden circlet; around his middle a golden chain of flexible links from which swung a flat jeweled sword . . .

King Louis was flanked by a gray-haired knight and an ecclesiastic. Following them came a quartet of esquires, then about sixty horsemen, dressed with as little uniformity as the advance guard . . . Then came the supply wagons, drawn by huge horses instead of oxen, and driven by men who served also as cooks and sutlers. A group of horsemen, well armed and knightly of bearing, brought up the rear.

Are you still awake? Anyone who’s written historical fiction or popular nonfiction knows what’s going on here. Fitzgerald has done his homework, and by God, he’s going to exhaust every last scrap of his notes. It’s painful to behold, all the more so because he opens this pageant with a paragraph that distances the reader from the world of the story. We’re glancing backward through time at a museum display of mannequins in costumes, not characters we ought to care about.

Briefly, Fitzgerald catches sight of a morally intriguing premise: Philippe conceals Griselda from a cruel, absurd king, even though he ought to be loyal to him, and even though Griselda has stolen one of the king’s horses. Philippe swears falsely that he knows nothing about her—when he does, Fitzgerald tells us that “invisible girths tightened on Philippe’s diaphragm”—and this false oath would have potentially interesting implications in a more thoughtful story. Instead, the king’s men burn down Philippe’s precious fort, Philippe executes the conspirators, and the gloomy count spends just two sentences wondering if he’s being punished: “I took a false oath this morning, and maybe Almighty Providence doesn’t believe me anymore. But someday, by God, I’ll build a fort of stone that all the kings of Christendom can’t burn up or knock down!” Is this a moment of heroic defiance, or hypocritical futility? Beats me. There’s no sense of Providence in this story, no appeal to truth, no sense that anything matters in “The Kingdom in the Dark” but brute force.

“But Philippe was wasting his passion,” Fitzgerald writes. “Three days later Louis the Stammerer, King of the West Franks, obligingly died.” That’s the final line of the story, a conclusion that snuffs out whatever embers of tension and conflict that Fitzgerald has spent nine pages struggling to kindle.

“The Kingdom in the Dark” is an unsatisfying mess, but I’d be a lazy reader if I didn’t dig for something more. The jarring, meaningless ending doesn’t have to be a sign that Fitzgerald, like Philippe, was “wasting his passion.” Maybe the closing of the story is a statement in itself, Fitzgerald’s implication that history doesn’t unfold in a coherent narrative.

For some writers, the Middle Ages are an admirably pure foil to the miserable complexity of the modern world—or they’re a era of ignorance that reflects our own superior wisdom, or a supposed source of cultural origins, or a period that highlights timeless aspects of human nature, or a setting whose violence bestows “authenticity,” or a distant carnival of irreproducible human strangeness. Novels, movies, and TV shows cover all this ground, but Fitzgerald’s Middle Ages may be one of the bleakest fictionalizations of the Middle Ages I’ve come across. In his vision of ninth-century France, he can’t imagine spontaneous human organization or the persistence of culture. After Viking raiders blast the landscape to rubble, the locals are reduced to helpless savages. Only a nobleman can motivate them and impose order.

Yet even Philippe falters: The destruction of his precious fort makes him despair, and he considers joining the Norsemen as a mercenary. Only his new squeeze, Griselda, brings out the best in him, insisting that he has a responsibility to his subjects and reminding him that one can hate the king as a person but still be loyal to him. It’s the second time a woman has tempered Philippe with reason and softened his heart. In “The Kingdom in the Dark,” he gets noticeably nicer, showing a genial rapport with his majordomo and the local abbot that was absent from earlier stories.

Even so, this is a tale in which the hero who rebuilds civilization will defy his king, swear false oaths, and ignore laws that aren’t of his own devising. In his notes, Fitzgerald wrote that the character of Philippe, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, was meant to represent the “modern man,” but three stories in, the comparison isn’t flattering. Modern stories set in the Middle Ages inevitably comment on the present. Is Fitzgerald rationalizing corruption if it’s for a good cause during desperate times? Is his medieval world a warning, or a template he thinks we’ll someday require? I can’t tell; I don’t think Fitzgerald knew either.

“It’s not really you I see, when I look real close…”

[This is the second of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The first post can be found here, the third one is here, and the fourth one is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

It’s a shame that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second “Philippe” story begins with an editor’s lie: “The brilliant thought quality and style of the creator of ‘The Great Gatsby’ are very much in evidence in this majestic story of 879 A.D.” Two lies, really: By design, there’s nothing “majestic” about “The Count of Darkness.” Fitzgerald wallows in sketching out civilization at its lowest ebb, but it turns out that his version of the Middle Ages give him more than he’s prepared to confront.

When last we checked in with Philippe in the October 1934 issue of Redbook, Fitzgerald had dropped Ernest Hemingway into ninth-century France, dressing him up as a noble exile-hostage returning from Spain to France to reclaim both land and leadership. It’s now June 1935, and while the story picks up only a day or so after Philippe has rallied a scruffy band of locals, routed a band of Northmen, and invented feudalism in the process, Redbook editors are presuming a great deal about their readers’ ability after eight months to recall any of that.

“The Count of Darkness” opens with the nicest bit of writing in this series so far:

It was a cold dawn. Over the low hills it was iridescent, opalescent, then flowing into morning. The master of the domain, who had eventually fallen off to sleep against a wagon-wheel, woke quickly—under the impression that he was attacked. The prospect of the Tourainian countryside was so lovely that he could not again compose himself to rest—this fact, adjoined to the fact of his so recent conquest of the farmers’ allegiance. Not yet could he count on their adherence to him in principle. And he was no one for taking chances.

That’s far from an elegant paragraph. Fitzgerald tells more than he shows: “iridescent, opalescent” gives us only adjectives, not images; “under the impression that he was attacked” conveys no real sense of alarm; and the pedantic clarity of “this fact, adjoined to the fact” is at odds with Philippe’s groggy restlessness. Still, I can hear faint traces of Fitzgerald in those sentences, laboriously rallying the ghost of his former gifts in a failed effort to set a suitable mood.

But then Philippe chats up a 17-year-old Aquitainian girl, and things get weird:

“What do you want, little chicken?” he asked.
“I wanted to see you. I could only see you a little from the tent, and—”
“Don’t grovel in the dirt, for God’s sake! Get up from your knees!”
“I’m not a man.” She stood and faced him. “How do I know about your habits for gals?”
“There are no habits—I make the habits.”
His eyes had become covetous as he looked at her. “How would you like to become one of my habits?”
“Oh, sire, I would be so glad to be yours—”
“What’s your name, little baggage?”
“Letgarde.”
“Who gave it to you? That Norman?”
“It was my christened name.”
“Come here and see what you taste like.”
After a while he released her with:
“I’ve met worse kids. How you going [sic] earn your keep? Can you get together some stew from the rations in the wagon—if we get up a couple boys to do the heavy stuff?”
“I’ll try it, darl—”
“Call me ‘Sire’! . . . And remember: There’s no bedroom talk floating around this precinct!”
“All right, darl—I mean sire.”
“Well, run along.”

I think we’re supposed to hear the voices of a 1930s gangster and his moll—but are “chicken” and “baggage” 1930s slang, or are they Fitzgerald’s way of sounding “medieval”? In the first story, Philippe was stern and humorless. Is he still being a grim, flinty strongman, or is he flirting here? In The Great Gatsby, several telling moments arise when the narrator elides a potentially revealing or uncomfortable event, so again I saw the old Fitzgerald in the “[a]fter a while he released her” line, which invites us to fill in the blanks—but it’s clunky and obvious and fosters no sympathy for Philippe.

But maybe that’s the point. Philippe’s second act that morning is to find women who can cook and clean for the men in his nascent army. He later addresses what he considers a “minor problem”: “announcing to the half-dozen girls who had been rounded up that for the moment each would be permitted her parents’ hut for the night, but that in the future there would be no marriage permitted in the country save with his permission. He would expect them to choose their mates among his own men.” Later, when Philippe spots a Syrian caravan attempting to ford his river, he proposes robbing the merchants before downgrading his plan to merely extorting the heck out of them. Fitzgerald has a lurid preoccupation with how nasty and brutish people get when civilization shatters. He wants to shock and enlighten the magazine-reading public of 1935, like an Ivy League freshman who comes home at Thanksgiving and has grown so much wiser than everyone else.

Even so, “The Count of Darkness” isn’t just a retread of the previous story; Fitzgerald wants to dramatize setbacks in the campaign to renew the world. Philippe focuses so coldly on surveying land for a hill fort that he neglects the niceties that hold civilization together:

Catching the beast and saddling him, he pulled Letgarde up with him after he had mounted. The force of his pull almost wrenched her arm from its socket.

Smarting with sudden rage at the indignity, she waited in fright as, guiding the animal with his legs only, he next swung her about from a position facing him, to one that would later be called postilion. Furious and uncomfortable, she rode off behind him toward a destination of which she knew nothing. Perforce she clung to his body.

“Don’t let go, baby, and nothing can happen to you.”

Tasked with watching from a hilltop and signaling if she sees marauders, Letgarde bails:

He had scarcely gone galloping toward the other hill when Letgarde, quivering with indignation, set off on a dead run back to the wagons. She had never, from the most ruthless marauder, received such treatment—and she did not understand it. She came from a civilized province of old Roman Gaul. The Norse chief who had adopted her was little more than a sugar-daddy—he treated her always as a sort of queen.

But this man!

When Letgarde vanishes, rumored to have run off with a wandering singer, her memory haunts Philippe. He thinks he glimpses her, ghost-like and hateful, through the trees, and he can’t shake off a peasant’s story about “some nutsy girl down-stream that lives on a little island and thinks she’s Venus or something.” But in the midst of his obsessive fishing—a nighttime spear-hunt for eels that made me jot “Hemingway leaves Spain to fish in medieval France!” in my notes—he and his men behold a baleful sight:

Philippe’s voice was almost blasphemous on the dark tide, the lovely surface mirroring a round full moon, till—

“Oh my God in heaven!” he cried.

And then:

“Don’t you see?”

On the breast of the water rode the body of a girl; she was attired in only a shift, and for a moment she gave an appearance almost lifelike. Philippe pulled her into the glossy surface, illumined her by candles on the dark bank.

Philippe’s reaction is one of the only genuine surprises in this story. When a henchman reveals that Letgarde had been waiting desperately in this spot for the rain-swollen river to subside so she could cross, Philippe snaps:

Straight as straight, Philippe threw his ax at the man’s head. It hit, cleaved, biting deep, and Philippe went over with his sword and dispatched him. Then he turned to the others:

“Nobody told me this!”

Fitzgerald is on the verge of something noteworthy here: He’s taken the basic Astolat/Shalott motif, drenched as it is in medieval notions of love perfumed with Victorian romanticism, and made it unexpectedly useful in what could be a passable pulp yarn for early 20th-century men—and then he wrecks it. Letgarde’s avoidable death, Philippe’s fondness for her, his apparent liberty to murder his subjects in anger—Fitzgerald doesn’t let any of this resonate:

“When I got tough on you, you decided to go off with that gang—and you tried to find another ford? And you got stuck? And you got killed—so you wouldn’t have to come back to me!”

He picked up her body and rocked it to and fro.

“Poor little lost doggy—if you could have taken it a little better, you’d maybe be queen of these parts.”

Inert, her body slid from him; almost as inert, he retreated to a birch tree.

“She followed that damn’ tramp,” he thought, “just because I used her rough on the horse when I was in a hurry.”

By explaining everything, Fitzgerald leaves readers with nothing to do, no connections to make, no implications to ponder. When Philippe, “choked with emotion” and “lost in sorrowful contemplation,” meets an orphan outside his fort and adopts her as his own daughter, he tells his majordomo that the girl will be “sacred here forever”—and we’ve crossed the river into a weird new realm of hokey sentimentality.

“The Count of Darkness” does a poor job of making worthy points: Leadership is a burden, but its responsibilities include pragmatism and mercy, and warriors alone can’t bring civilization to fruition. Even amid chaos be mindful, Fitzgerald says, of the possibilities of love and affection, not just utilitarian arrangements, and remember that expediency is not necessarily wisdom. To that end, the story includes brief appearances by a wandering minstrel whom Philippe contemptuously calls a “hobo” and a “singing tramp.” At first I thought the singer was Fitzgerald’s way of suggesting how frivolous the arts must seem when people are starving, but maybe Fitzgerald felt similarly marginal as a writer in his own society by 1935, warbling lyrics in a world that has no use for them.

So far, Fitzgerald’s medieval stories have told me less about his perspective on the 1930s and more about his own fears. I thought he was using the Middle Ages only as a metaphor for the fragility of civilization, allowing him to trot out an example of the sort of rough man he believed could save or rebuild it, but his veer into sentimentality makes me think he found more in the past than his plan for the “Philippe” tales could accommodate. Most writers and artists who dabble in medievalism make their own highly selective version of the Middle Ages, the version they went looking for in the first place, but Fitzgerald wades into the ninth century and can’t make sense of things. That doesn’t necessarily make “The Count of Darkness” an interesting failure, but it does make it an honest one, underneath the kitsch.

“I wait outside the pilgrim’s door with insufficient schemes…”

[This is the first of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The second post can be found here, the third one is here, and the fourth one is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

Two weeks ago, a footnote jumped out at me like a desperate spark from a dwindling fire. A scholar had ignored what was, to me, a marvel, rushing past it with such haste that he obviously couldn’t dream that I’d want to know more. For eleven years I’ve used this blog to root out medievalism in weird corners of American life—but it had never occurred to me that F. Scott Fitzgerald, of all people, was, for a while, obsessed with writing  fiction set in medieval Europe.

But then maybe I’m the only person who didn’t know that in the waning years of his too-short life, Fitzgerald published four medieval-themed short stories in the women’s magazine Redbook in the hope of turning them into his great comeback work: Philippe, Count of Darkness, a novel set in ninth-century France.

The Philippe stories take effort to locate and patience to read. Fitzgerald’s daughter, I’ve learned, thought they were awful, and only one has been reprinted. I tracked down the necessary back issues of Redbook, half-expecting to find that these stories were the El Dorado of forgotten American medievalism, legends that inspired only folly—but after a few clicks on Ebay it was in my hands: the first story, “In the Darkest Hour,” from the October 1934 issue, where evocative illustrations by Saul Tepper make you long for more from the facing-page ads for soup, sink cleaner, and booze.

What can I tell you about “In the Darkest Hour”? It’s so unlike anything I’ve read by Fitzgerald that if I hadn’t seen his byline on the cover of its crumbling original source, I wouldn’t believe he had written it.

The plot is simple. Spoiler alert: It’s A.D. 872 in the Loire valley, and Philippe, having been whisked away to Andalusia as a child and raised as the stepson of the Muslim vizier, returns to Villefranche as an adult to reclaim his ancestral lands and fulfill his duties as the rightful count. When he finds his homeland ravaged by Vikings and his ignorant subjects scrounging through rubble, he rallies a small band of dubious locals, instructs them in rudimentary horsemanship, and sets them up on mules and donkeys,

as grotesque a caricature of chivalry as could be imagined. Nevertheless, mounted they all were, after a fashion; and Philippe’s idea was a prefiguration of an age already beginning, when mounted men were to take over the shaping of feudal Europe.

Philippe’s pathetic remnant defeats a small band of predatory Norsemen, inspired in part by their count’s promise: He’ll protect his people and keep the peace, in exchange for their good service. Thus by one man, sayeth Fitzgerald, is feudalism invented:

There are epochs when certain things sing in the air, and certain strong courageous men hear them intuitively long before the rest. This was an epoch of disturbance and change; all over Europe men were thinking exactly like Philippe, taking directions from the arrows of history that seemed to float dimly overhead. Each of those men thought himself to be alone, but really each was an instrument of response to a great human need. Each knew that the spirit of man was at low tide; each one felt in himself the necessity of seizing power by force and cunning.

This might be wieldy stuff in the hands of a writer like “Conan” creator Robert E. Howard, who knew that readers clamored for vivid, thrilling tales. They wanted to smell a dank battlefield, feel the rough grip of a spear, sink deep into realms ruled purely by muscle and brawn. The best pulp writers were enwound in their worldviews and knew without doubt what they wanted to say. Fitzgerald isn’t at home here; you can see it in his failing prose. In “certain things sing in the air,” “certain things” should be something more specific, something more evocative of the medieval mind, ideally something that sings. Arrows, though deadly, are too small and fragile to represent the larger forces of history when used so concretely, and saying they only “seemed” to float overhead (rather than speed, whistle, rush, or fly) makes for a week, feeble image. “An instrument of response” evokes nothing specific; a civilizational “low tide” is a cliché. And then after the climactic battle, which ought to leave us feeling like Western civilization is at stake, Fitzgerald observes, lazily: “It was a busy day.”

You’ll search in vain for one sentence in “In the Darkest Hour” that’s worthy of the author of The Great Gatsby. You will, however, find hoard-loads of dialect. People in this story speaks like hard-boiled 1930s gangsters at a poker game in the Old West. Philippe greets the first person he sees with “Howdy! God save you!” and asks “hey, where’s this place at?” When a monk is reluctant to join the fight, Philippe thinks “he’s yellow!” and tells the monk he plans “to protect the jakes.” One local declares: “High time somebody did somethin’ around here. Everything’s rottin’ away.”

I suppose Fitzgerald wants the anachronistic dialect to draw meaningful connections between 1934 and 872, but it’s neither consistent nor emphatic enough to conjure the wisp of a metaphor. In addition to Philippe the Franco-Andalusian expat, we also meet Irish monks, French peasants, and Norsemen, all of whom distrust each other based on differences in appearance and speech. Fitzgerald is hyper-aware of the fact that medieval Europe wasn’t culturally homogeneous, but in a story that otherwise says everything and implies nothing—”[i]t was a desolate countryside, the more so, as there was evidence here and there that it had been once been highly cultivated”—he doesn’t give us a hint as to what he thinks this clash of cultures ought to mean in 1934.

Fitzgerald’s fascination with the Middle Ages surprised me, but maybe it shouldn’t. Raised in a Catholic family, he spent his truncated college years at Princeton, where he read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and volumes of early Celtic history on a campus of recently built Gothic halls. By the time he published “In the Darkest Hour” in 1934, American museums were increasing their medieval collections, the cranky medieval-obsessed church architect Ralph Adams Cram had recently been on the cover of Time magazine, and the New York Times was reporting that 370,000 children nationwide were enrolled in youth clubs that preached the virtues of knighthood and chivalry. We think of Fitzgerald as a chronicler of his times, but I think he wanted to understand the foolishness of his era in a much grander scheme, more so than most of us realized.

In The Medievalist Impulse in American Literature: Twain, Adams, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, Kim Moreland argues that Jay Gatsby is a modern adherent of medieval courtly love. Gatsby navigates a set of rules in the service of adultery and practices a religion of love, “a commitment to the dream, the ideal, the essential, rather than the material, the accidental, the existential…a desire for mystical transcendence.” According to Moreland, Fitzgerald’s own fleur-de-lys fancies eventually withered:

In his novels Fitzgerald explores the cost of a modern allegiance to the courtly model. Yet the validity of the model itself is not seriously called into question. Only in Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel, The Last Tycoon, does he suggest that the male protagonist perhaps errs in desiring a courtly relationship, that his desire for a courtly lady rather than a modern women might be misbegotten.

In need of new matière, Fitzgerald looked again to the Middle Ages and wrote—what? “In the Darkest Hour” isn’t sufficiently lurid to join the ranks of the best (or even the middling) historical pulp fiction of its era. You’d never know that the author of this flat, prolix story had written sentence after eloquent sentence in Gatsby, a novel that reveres the reader’s powers of inference. Did something other than escapism make a keen observer of his own times look back a thousand years for fresh new things to say?

An editorial note at the end of the story offers a clue: “F. Scott Fitzgerald has written another vivid drama of the dark ages which even more significantly illuminates recent events in Europe and which will appear in an early issue.” Almost nobody delves into medievalism because they wish they had lived in the real Middle Ages; like many before him and many since, Fitzgerald grabs at a medieval metaphor to help him make sense of the here and now. But is the devastated and chaotic Loire valley of “In the Darkest Hour” the Europe of rising fascism and Nazism? A nation wrecked by the Great Depression? An America greatly changed by immigration? There’s little in the story itself that encourages a reader to see anything here but stilted actors in medieval dress.

But then there’s this, a remarkable jotting from Fitzgerald’s notes: “Just as Stendahl’s portrait of a Byronic man made Le Rouge et Noir so couldn’t my portrait of Ernest as Philippe make the real modern man.” Yes, “Ernest,” that Ernest: Philippe, the Spanish-raised French nobleman, is Ernest Hemingway transported to early medieval Europe, where he’ll crack a few skulls and rebuild civilization.

Cheerless after his first modest victory, Philippe holds vigil while weaker men sleep: “Let the others get tired,” he sneers. “I keep the watch.” The closing line of “In the Darkest Hour” sets up Philippe as an indispensable savior: “Embodying in himself alone the future of his race, he walked to and fro in the starry darkness.”

The future of his race. The human race? Christian Europe? Or just the medieval French? As a stand-in for what or for whom? Does it matter that Philippe has blue-blooded authority but is a stranger in his own land? What so ails the world in 1934 that Ernest Hemingway in medieval kit is the only man who can save it?

My questions may be futile. One scholar has called the publication of the Philippe stories by Redbook “an act of charity toward an author in decline.” I don’t doubt he’s right, but in future blog posts I’ll slog through the three later Philippe stories—not to sully the memory of Fitzgerald, whose best work places him safely beyond embarrassment, but to figure out what the heck inspired his obsessive rooting through the rubble of medieval Europe. I want to know what he was looking for, and why he failed so badly to find it.

“The time has come to conquer, and I’ll provide your end…”

Back when Turkey was up for membership in the European Union, pundits wondered: What’s “European” about the Turks? Not my country, not my continent—if the question still matters, then others can hash that one out. It so happens that at least in one respect, the Turks aren’t all that different from their neighbors to the west. I was intrigued, but not surprised, by a grand burst of Turkish medievalism reported in The Economist:

In a mighty motorcade, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, descended on the sleepy town of Malazgirt near the Armenian frontier on August 26th. He came to celebrate a millennium-old victory that Turks hail as the dawn of Muslim domination of these once-Christian lands.

Largely forgotten in the West, the battle of Manzikert in 1071 saw Seljuk Turks, led by King Alp Arslan, crush an imperial Byzantine army said to be twice their size. This Turkic push into Anatolia laid the foundation for the Seljuks’ eventual sucessors, the Ottomans, who took Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, in 1453 and whose empire at its peak extended from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Erdogan’s commemoration of a 946-year-old battle is a bid to woo Turkish nationalists . . . At Malazgirt, he linked the failed coup to the medieval campaign.

“We faced an assault on July 15th that appeared to be a coup attempt but was actually aimed at enslaving us…[we] fought the same figures as Alp Arslan,” Mr Erdogan told a crowd of thousands, alluding to wild rumours of Western interference. He was flanked by men posing as soldiers, clad in reproduction chain mail and brandishing scimitars. Other entertainment included displays of horsemanship and archery.

[ . . .]

He has been dusting off other episodes of martial history, presiding over lavish festivities that include fireworks and a laser show to mark the Ottoman victory of 1453. At Gallipoli, he has exhorted Turks to venerate their final victory before the empire was defeated in the first world war and dismembered by the victors.

All of this is darkly, depressingly familiar. On June 28, 1989, not all that far west across the Bosphorus, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia spoke at a ceremony to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The 1389 battle hadn’t been a victory for the Serbs; it was one of a series of defeats that left the Serbs under Ottoman rule for quite a long time. In poem and song, Serb nationalists turned the calamity into a spiritual victory, a martyrdom on behalf of Christian Europe that the West never honored or even acknowledged. To Serbs, Kosovo was holy ground: a battlefield, a birthplace of saints, a homeland pried from their grip in the Middle Ages and denied once more by the region’s Albanian Muslim majority. The battle was so meaningful among Serb nationalists that Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on its 525th anniversary. Yes, Balkan medievalism helped send millions of men to their deaths.

Milosevic’s defenders still argue that the speech he gave that day wasn’t inherently inflammatory, but it didn’t need to be. The location, the date, the conflicts brewing at the time, and Milosevic’s dramatic apotheosis by helicopter all told nationalists a story that cheered them. No one grinds axes without also honing their yearning to use them. The aspiration of Erdogan’s medievalism is the fate of Milosevic’s. That ended badly; this will too.

Diorama of the Battle of Manzikert (via Wikimedia Commons)

“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

As the teacher in my household prepares to steer her ninth-graders through tricky literary currents, she’s revisiting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I’ve hopped aboard and joined her on the raft. I read Twain’s novel when I was 14, but returning to it more than three decades later has been a revelation. I hadn’t expected to find that the natural focus on slavery and race had obscured Twain’s other related ideas.

I’m probably the last adult reader to notice what makes it such a rich and challenging book: the perfect ease of the narrative voice, the tender passages about life on the river, and the wrenching moments when Huck starts to comprehend Jim’s humanity. And holy crow, Huck Finn is an epic catalog of the deficiencies and absurdities of the antebellum South: family feuds of long-forgotten origin; the poisonous grafting of codes of honor to lawlessness and mob violence; and grifters peddling phrenology, cynical revivalism, and mutilated Shakespeare to yokels who fully deserve to be conned. I can’t be the first person to imagine that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes far more to Huck Finn than to The Odyssey for its episodic mythologizing of Southern culture.

What leaped out at me the most, though, is Twain’s full-on satire of people who take their entertainment way too seriously. I’ve written before about the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where the state capitol in Baton Rouge ignites Twain’s rant about the South’s destructive obsession with the Middle Ages:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[…]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

Twain is sincere in his loathing of romanticism, but in Life on the Mississippi he’s too blunt and unfunny about it to sound like anything but a crank. In Huck Finn, published two years later, he more effectively vents his ire through the excesses of Tom Sawyer, whose mania for tales of adventure tests the patience of his more practical friend:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.

One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready.  He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said there was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn’t we see them, then?  He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.

Huck and Tom argue about wizards and genies, and Huck decides to test his friend’s claims. It’s one of many times when he tries on the world-views of others as he struggles to work out his own:

I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it. I got an old tin lamp and an iron ring, and went out in the woods and rubbed and rubbed till I sweat like an Injun, calculating to build a palace and sell it; but it warn’t no use, none of the genies come. So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.

Of course—spoiler alert for time-traveling readers from the 1880s—Tom Sawyer plays a huge role in the climax of Huck Finn when he agrees to help free Jim from imprisonment in a shack. Tom and Huck could easily break him out in a moment, but the liberation has to happen on Tom’s convoluted terms. Day after day, Tom draws out Jim’s captivity by insisting on all the elaborate trappings of a swashbuckling adventure novel: a secret tunnel, a coat of arms, snakes and rats, a rope ladder baked in a pie—there’s even talk of sawing off Jim’s leg even though he could free himself from his chain simply by lifting the leg of his bed.

Many readers find the whole episode tedious and cruel, but the cruelty is the point. It would be easy to see the better-educated, middle-class Tom Sawyer as a lovable scamp who just wants others to share his bookish whims, but in Huck Finn he embodies a trend that Twain found troubling: the triumph of fantasy over reason and reality. Whatever the character meant to him elsewhere, Tom Sawyer is a figure of dangerous foolishness here. Wouldn’t Twain glower disapprovingly at the emergence of fandoms so all-encompassing that they inspire cosplay, cultural squabbling, and vicarious reinterpretations of history? He might have said that what our geeky age has wrought from harmless escapism will someday prove harmful to people who won’t play along. I guess we’ll see.

Jim is held captive for far longer than he needs to be because of storybook romanticism. You could see the whole Civil War in that, if you want.

“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

Longtime readers might be surprised by how few medieval-ish doodads we have in our home. My office houses a framed copy of the opening of an Icelandic manuscript and a tiny set of Domesday Book postage stamps, and until recently that was about it. When we began renting a large house in the woods, the owners left us with a great deal to work with: not only sunny flower beds and several acres of bird-besieged trees but also walls with so many nails and hooks for hanging photos, artwork, and curios that we weren’t sure we could fill them all.

We did find art for most of them—but not all. And so a few weeks ago, when I noticed two bare nails over a doorway, I decided to put up some blemmyae.

The myth of the blemmyae goes back to the ancient world, when Herodotus described this race of creatures who resembled headless men but carried their faces in their chests. He placed them alongside other humanoids, such as dog-faced men, who were believed to abide along the coast of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the blemmyae got dragged into texts about the wonders one might find in Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great captures several of them in one romance, and that wonderful liar Sir John Mandeville claimed to have seen some near India. Some medieval writers drew a comically fine distinction between headless men with faces in their chests and headless men with eyes in their shoulders. These beings went by various names, but their legend carried over to the Americas, where Sir Walter Raleigh chased rumors of their existence near what’s now Venezuela.

My blemmyae came from England. Oakapple Designs, a lovely company in South Yorkshire, has acquired the right to make casts of artwork at certain cathedrals and sell them to the public, and the cost is very reasonable. You can browse their assortment of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which runs rampant with angels, bats, dragons, green men, and monks.

According to Oakapple, the two blemmyae over my doorway were made in the 15th century for Ripon Cathedral, where they’re apparently carved onto misericords: folding wooden seats in the choir that can be leaned on in times of need.

I can only guess why people believed in these creatures for so long. Maybe they mistook certain stoop-necked primates as headless; perhaps real tribes of humans wore armor or helmets that gave Europeans peculiar ideas. I find these particular blemmyae rather ambiguous. I’m not even entirely sure what the one on the left is doing with that stick. What I do know is that the carver at Ripon Cathedral thought they were civilized: take note of the clothing and shoes. That’s good enough reason to welcome them into our home—and if they inspire a story or poem, so much the better. I doubt they’ll be the strangest things to emerge from our time in the woods.

“I must admit, just when I think I’m king…”

Last month, when suicide bombers attacked an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the world was aghast that ISIS specifically targeted girls and young women. Unfortunately, no one who understands the pseudo-medieval image ISIS has built around itself was all that surprised. In “Muscular Medievalism,” a prescient article in the 2016 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Amy S. Kaufman makes important points about the misogyny of ISIS and their obsession with a fantasy version of the medieval past:

[A] key component of muscular medievalism is its need for the suffering and exploitation of women in order to validate its vision of masculinity. In the autumn of 2014, the new caliphate declared that the enslavement and rape of women and girls is central to its ideology. ISIS’s glossy, almost corporate, monthly English language magazine, Dabiq, included an article called “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which explicitly argued, “One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar—the infidels—are taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law.”

After giving several harrowing examples of ISIS’s brutality, Kaufman draws a bitter conclusion:

And yet, despite the explosion of reporting on the fate of ISIS’s conquered territories, the world’s reaction to this horrific violence against women and girls—apart from the usual Twitter outrage—is largely complacent. The enslavement, ritual rape, and murder of thousands of children and grown women—on a scale that would demand immediate action of the persecuted group were anything other than women—is lamented, but ultimately dismissed as part of the “medieval” nature of life under the Islamic State, thanks, in part, to our misguided fantasies about the past.

What does Kaufman mean by that, and why does she implicate all of us, including Westerners? Throughout her article, she draws a provocative connection between the way ISIS asserts its “authenticity” and what we as readers and viewers in the West seek in our entertainment. I hope she won’t mind if I quote her at length:

Take, for instance, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which holds such a revered place in contemporary American popular culture that it’s treated to weekly recaps in respected newspapers like the Washington Post. The author of the epic fantasy series the show is based on, George R. R. Martin, claims to be delivering an unapologetically “real” version of the Middle Ages in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin says he was inspired to pen his particularly brutal portrayal of medieval times because other writers “…were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that.” And if Martin’s novels are any indication, getting it right means saturating the faux-medieval world with rampant misogyny and rape . . . However, Martin explains away the sexual violence in his novels with his vision of history: “Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex,” he clarified to one interview. “It’s medieval.”

For Martin—and his legions of fans—the abundance of sexual violence and the disturbing conflation of sex and rape in the books and on the show are, in fact, markers of medieval authenticity. Indeed, rape-as authenticity is a key component of the show: “It’s not our world,” argued executive producer D.B. Weiss in defense of the rape scenes on HBO’s show, “but it is a real world, and it’s a violent world, a more brutal world . . . It’s a world where these horrible things are definitely pervasive elements of their lives and cultures. We felt that shying away from these things would be doing a disservice to the reality and groundedness of George’s vision.” To be clear: violence against women isn’t just a byproduct of historical authenticity in the show and in the novels. It is, according to their creators, what makes these medieval-inspired works of entertainment authentic. The violence against and degradation of women in the world of Westeros is as important to the “medieval” setting as the armor, the castles, the weapons, and the charmingly fetishized details about food. But using violence against women as a shortcut to bolster authenticity is hardly limited to Martin’s creative endeavors: the casual rape of women and girls, often as a kind of “background noise” behind the “real” plot, pervades almost every work of medievalism that is proclaimed “gritty” or “authentic,” the often-anonymous victims themselves rendered disposable tropes in the service of historicity, from the Channel’s show Vikings to popular games like The Witcher and Dragon Age.

When someone questions the decency of our fondest shows and books, it’s tempting, and awfully easy, to recite a familiar refrain: “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.” But to answer too quickly is to evade self-examination. Even though I think there’s too much moralistic finger-wagging at artists and writers these days, there are ethical dimensions to reading and watching television, especially where the Middle Ages are concerned. Goodness knows I’ve heard plenty of parents complain about the overwhelming influence of the “Disney princess” franchises on their impressionable daughters. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, harmless in themselves, possessed antebellum Southern planters with such absurd visions of chivalric grandeur that Mark Twain blamed him, not facetiously, for the Civil War. Centuries earlier, the Spanish conquistadors who hacked and slashed their way through the Americas were obsessed with chilvaric romance, seeing the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan not for what it was, but as a magical city out of the sprawling tale Amadis of Gaul—and seeing themselves as the latest wave of crusading heroes, called to convert, conquer, and rule.

Even though Kaufman isn’t blaming Game of Thrones viewers for ISIS, her article won’t sit easily with many fantasy fans. I appreciate that she isn’t just sniping on Twitter; she’s drawing a sober, thought-provoking analogy. I like her strident contrarianism, and I think she’s right to wonder what the pop-culture ubiquity of Game of Thrones actually means. Even if you’re certain the answer is “not much,” why not ponder it further anyway? As I write this, my TV is advertising “Game of Thrones Night” at Nationals Park in D.C., complete with t-shirts and a chance to “visit an authentic Iron Throne.” If someone mugs for a selfie with a TV-show prop on a fun night at the ballpark, what is it they’re trying to be a part of? Why do they need to believe so badly that fictional violence gets us closer to the “real” Middle Ages?

“The medieval era is the dumping ground of the contemporary imagination,” Kaufman writes, “rife with torture, refuse in the streets, rape, slavery, superstition, casual slaughter, and every other human vice we supposedly stopped indulging in once we became ‘enlightened.'” It’s worth asking what we miss seeing in the Middle Ages if we’re invested in only this view. Despite what George R. R. Martin believes, his dark, despairing fantasy isn’t any more “authentic” than the Disney-princess version, nor is it less harmful. Observations like Kaufman’s always bring me back around to a blunt conclusion by medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“No risk, I’ll whisk them up in no moonlight…”

When Harriet Tubman let an author of sentimental children’s books write her first real biography in 1869, she knew she’d be cast in some curious roles. Abolitionists had already dubbed her “Moses,” and John Brown, who sometimes referred to her with masculine pronouns, had loved to address her as “General.”

Even so, when I read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, I hadn’t expected to see Sarah Hopkins Bradford liken her subject to one of the most complex figures of the Middle Ages, a saint, a warlord, a visionary, and a child—but there she is, on the very first page:

It is proposed in this little book to give a plain and unvarnished account of some scenes and adventures in the life of a woman who, though one of earth’s lowly ones, and of dark-hued skin, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name (we say it advisedly and without exaggeration) deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with the names of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale; for not one of these women has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than has this woman in her heroic and successful endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed and suffering race, and to pilot them from the land of Bondage to the promised land of Liberty. Well has she been called “Moses,” for she has been a leader and deliverer unto hundreds of her people.

By 1869, well-read Americans had tried to make sense of the Maid of Orleans. Mark Twain published Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc that same year; two years before, abolitionist and women’s-suffrage crusader Sarah Grimké translated a French biography of Joan into English. Somebody, somewhere, may have dimly recalled Female Patriotism, or the Death of Joan of Arc, a 1798 play by Irish-born newspaperman John Daly Burk. If these works have anything in common, it’s a sense of Joan of Arc as enviably childlike. Perhaps from there it was an easy leap to the paternalism that even open-minded white Americans felt about their black countrymen.

But I think there’s more to the Tubman-Joan connection than that. In an engaging 2003 bio, Kate Clifford Larson provides a well-researched life of Tubman that offers glimpses of a Joan-like figure for anyone hoping to find them. Tubman was a nurse, a spy, and a scout during the Civil War, but she was also a warrior who led a daring and brutal raid on Confederate ships in South Carolina―and like Joan, and indeed like many memorable women and men of the Middle Ages, she was also a religious mystic.

When Tubman was in her teens, an overseer threw a two-pound weight at a fugitive slave; he missed him, but hit Tubman square in the head. This freak accident, the source of lifelong pain, helped turn her into a fearless leader who inspired (and sometimes terrified) the people around her:

Tubman broke out, often unexpectedly, into loud and excited religious praising. If this injury caused her great suffering, it also marked the beginning of a lifetime of potent dreams and visions that, she claimed, foretold the future. Some of her dreams eventually took on an important role in Tubman’s life, influenced not only her own course of action but also the way other people viewed her.

Larson offers temporal lobe epilepsy as a scientific explanation for Tubman’s visions, but she stresses the need to understand the influence of African culture and evangelical Protestantism on what, to my mind, are visions that also wouldn’t be out of place in the Middle Ages:

Sounds of music, rushing water, screaming, and loud noises would overcome her without notice. Her dreams, visions, and hallucinations often intruded amid daily work and activities. “We’d be carting manure all day,” Tubman once explained to an interviewer, “and t’other girl and I was gwine home on the sides of the cart, and another boy was driving, when suddenly I heard such music as filled all the air.” Soon she began to experience a profound religious vision, “which she described in language which sounded like the old prophets in its grand flow.” Persistent shaking by her fellow slaves brought her back to reality, though she protested that she hadn’t been asleep at all.

[…]

Such experiences reinforced her notions of an all-powerful being that guided her through her life, protecting her and providing divine instruction. Tubman “used to dream of flying over fields and towns, and rivers and mountains, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.’” She claimed she had inherited this ability from her father, who “could always predict the weather, and that he foretold the Mexican war.”

I dug into the Tubman-Joan comparison and was surprised by how much there was to find―but less surprised that the notion thrived and faded with trends in the culture at large.

Bradford likened Tubman to a white European warrior-saint in 1869. That makes sense: Before the Civil War, Joan of Arc turns up in one of the most important cultural magazines for budding Confederates, the Southern Literary Messenger. She’s the subject of a romantic poem that calls for national defense, and in a bitter, blustery review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she’s the exemplar of everything Harriet Beecher Stowe is not, an “unsexed” knight whose chivalry gives her a rare exemption from having to act like a lady.

By the time Bradford wrote Tubman’s bio, though, chivalry was up for grabs. The Civil War was over. Black Southerners were heading to Congress, and the Freedmen’s Bureau sought to educate former slaves, some of whom helped draft new state constitutions. Abolitionists and African Americans and radical northern Republicans all must have marveled as racial taboos and prejudices looked ready to collapse. Casting Tubman as Joan of Arc didn’t just pay tribute to her complexity; it also acknowledged that she was comparable to white people and fully human, perhaps even superhuman―and it tweaked conquered Confederates as well.

The comparison caught on. An 1896 profile of Tubman in The Woman’s Era, an African-American newspaper, picks it up without apology:

So at the very beginning of this new day let us all meet in the benign presence of this great leader, in days and actions, that caused strong men to quail this almost unknown, almost unsung “Black Joan of Arc” . . . The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.

But that’s the black press; white readers may have felt otherwise.

Suddenly it’s 1897. Reconstruction has failed. Racist white Democrats have prevailed in the South; Civil War veterans are already holding genial North-South reunions; all eyes are on railroads and the West; and a country obsessed with business and finance is starting to haul itself out of a four-year depression. Sarah Hopkins Bradford revises and reissues her Tubman biography as Harriet, the Moses of Her People. Deprived of the dignity of a surname in the new title, Tubman is now quoted in dialect, and her sharp edges have been bravely bent down and taped over. Such is the national spirit of compromise. Tubman is still Joan of Arc, but Bradford, flaunting her own refinement, now calls her “Jeanne D’Arc.” Since the comparison pleases her, she trots it out a second time:

Her color, and the servile condition in which she was born and reared, have doomed her to obscurity, but a more heroic soul did not breathe in the bosom of Judith or of Jeanne D’Arc.

There’s heroism and praise in Bradford’s revision, but she no longer makes the page-one Harriet-Joan connection “advisedly and without exaggeration.” A woman who once “deserves to be handed down to posterity” is now “doomed…to obscurity.” Within a few years, comparisons to a medieval European saint will start to bother white writers, even when Tubman impresses them―as in a 1907 article in the New York Herald that got picked up by newspapers nationwide:

There is not a trace in her countenance of intelligence or courage, but seldom has there been placed in any woman’s hide a soul moved by a higher impulse, a purer benevolence, a more dauntless resolution, a more passionate love of freedom. This poor, ignorant, common looking black woman was fully capable of acting the part of Joan d’Arc.

Look at what’s happened: In four decades, comparing Harriet Tubman to Joan of Arc has gone from natural and straightforward to unlikely and ironic. At best, Joan is a “part” she was able to act.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans formed their own secular cult of Joan. French nationalists rallied round the saint in 1870 after the humiliating loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Americans, looking to Europe for trends, were beguiled by her purity, her simple faith, her romantic communion with nature. In 1915, a statue of Joan got its own park in Manhattan. Determined to out-spectacle D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille released his movie Joan the Woman the following year. Joan was drafted during World War I, serving as a model soldier and the subject of poems and articles in Stars and Stripes. A illustrated biography for children hit the shelves in 1918, and her equestrian statue first looked across D.C. from Meridian Hill Park in 1922.

At last, Joan of Arc was whatever America wanted her to be―except black, except a battle-ready warrior, except an aged ex-conductor on the Underground Railroad. According to Kate Clifford Larson, by the time a well-intentioned radical started researching a new biography of Harriet Tubman in 1938, publishers shooed him away. Random House in particular “balked at her being compared to Joan of Arc.”

Joan of Arc was quite a few things Harriet Tubman was not, and vice-versa. Tubman wasn’t a child hero, a martyr, or a national symbol. In fact, Larson’s bio shows that she wasn’t like anyone else; she deserves to be remembered in all her complex and baffling humanity. Still, it’s remarkable that for a few promising years, comparing Tubman to a visionary child warrior saint felt right and just. That we’re now surprised by a colorblind metaphor doesn’t speak well of the century since.