Archive for ‘medievalism’


“Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”

When Gary Gygax died in 2008, I called him “one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century.” I still think that’s true: without the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, medieval-ish fantasy and gaming wouldn’t have blossomed into mainstream obsessions. Gygax lashed together the conceptual trellis for both, but exactly how he did it was a mystery to me. As a kid, I knew him only as a distant sage who beguiled the rest of us with eldritch parlance and baroque prose, but thanks to Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons, I can at least glimpse the outlines of this legendary tabletop adventurer—but not much more. As it turns out, his was a far more labyrinthine mind than even his biographer anticipated.

At first, E. Gary Gygax of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was the bright, nerdy child I knew he would be: a lover of strategy games, especially chess; a fan of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories; and a dungeon-delver who led his friends through an abandoned sanatorium in the dark of night. Witwer presents him as a smart, undisciplined underachiever who dabbled in a little of everything, from fishing to cobbling, but whose passion for late-night wargames in his friends’ basements was so all-consuming that his wife was convinced he was cheating on her. Empire of Imagination explains how Gygax and dozens of like-minded misfits found each other, how they elevated tabletop wargames into guided improv with dice, and how their hobby became a commercial phenomenon that unfurled its leathery wings and abandoned them all. It’s a straightforward story, but it probably shouldn’t be; several cryptic anecdotes hint that the journey was circuitous and strange.

Witwer mentions that in the late 1950s, after dropping out of high school but before getting married, Gygax served briefly in the Marines. But for how long, and in what capacity? When the subject is an ardent wargamer, these details matter. In one of several fictionalized inner monologues, Witwer imagines that Gygax hated boot camp and was happy to be discharged for health reasons—but did Gygax himself discuss the experience? What did he learn from it? How did he see the role of war in human affairs? Empire of Imagination doesn’t answer these questions—and it raises too many more.

Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.

The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:

Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.

Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?

It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

Fortunately, Empire of Imagination is also the story of a business—a lurid cautionary tale that Witwer relates with enthusiasm. In 1973, when no gaming publishers wanted the original Dungeons & Dragons manuscript, Gygax and two fellow gamers incorporated TSR—”Tactical Studies Rules”—and published it themselves. Like any empire, TSR was soon rife with enmity, backstabbing, and strife. The untimely death of one of the founders in 1975 reverberated for years: An investor who bought his widow’s one-third share would introduce a family of executives who, as Witwer tells it, despised everything about the gaming world but its potential revenues. By the early ’80s, their preposterous excess was worthy of a Simpsons episode: In Hollywood, Gary Gygax was blowing millions on D&D-based entertainment prospects, leasing King Vidor’s mansion, and snorting cocaine in a private booth at the Playboy Club, while back in Wisconsin, the colleagues who despised him were funding shipwreck excavations and investing in real estate on the Isle of Man. When Gygax recaptures the company in a startling coup and writes a book that restores solvency to the land, the tale takes a hopeful turn—until one Hollywood hanger-on proves to be an enemy in disguise…

I like to believe that Gygax saw himself as a hero embroiled in a magnificent story of palace intrigue, but Empire of Imagination documents a vulgar reality: the first time anyone looked at the burgeoning geek subculture and saw the cash cow it could someday become. As such, it’s a parable of hubris and greed far different from the stories that sensitive outsiders once told about themselves. I’m not sure young people today can envision what it was like when this stuff was so far outside the mainstream that it was socially poisonous, when it spread like secret lore among strange boys who sought refuge and fellowship in its small, exciting world. We now know that the bookish misfits of yesteryear could be just as venal as anyone else, but it takes imagination to remember the daydreams and desperate optimism that drove them to find each other. Gary Gygax and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson collaborated by mail at a time when even long-distance phone calls between Wisconsin and Minnesota were prohibitively expensive, and the first big gaming convention Gygax organized in 1968 had fewer than a hundred attendees. No wonder their hopes found expression in medievalist fantasy: finding other kids who shared their interests was a genuine, ongoing quest.

The world has changed. Big companies have succeeded where TSR failed: they’ve learned to exploit the public’s appetite for fantasy through movies and literally endless video-game franchises, while fan artists and makers of memes do much of their promotion for free. Even most Renaissance festivals are now run by large entertainment corporations. Who’s doing the imagining for whom? Although Witwer is right to see Gary Gygax as a founding father of 21st-century popular culture, Empire of Imagination reminded me of a time when weird young people could be fantasists rather than customers first. For all the adventures awaiting them now, there’s one that kids can no longer experience, at least not through games: the thrill of helping map out something new.

“I’m so cool and calculated, alone in the modern world…”

It’s becoming a genre unto itself: the call by scholars of the Middle Ages to invigorate their fields by reaching out to new audiences. In the latest example at The Chronicle of Higher Education, medievalist and English professor Christine Schott asks an evergreen question—”[h]ow can literary scholarship make a claim for its value when its product reaches only the other members of its own narrow field?”—and writes with candor about her work:

Of course I have an interpretive argument about the marginalia I study, and I do not wish to abandon that side of the field either. I am reasonably capable of dressing up my theories about material culture, genre, and self-writing in fancy vocabulary, but I maintain that they are no smarter for being decked out in academic regalia. And when it comes down to it, I don’t want to write scholarship that my friends and nonacademic peers cannot understand.

Schott plucks a painfully abstruse passage from a 1993 book about literary theory and boils it down to a lovely, clear, informative sentence—a rare skill. I’ve considered the rebuttals by humanities scholars who claim that specialized fields need their own patois, and since my career isn’t at stake, I can say that I find those defenses bunk; you can dazzle your colleagues with rarefied terms without writing in a style that makes the rest of us laugh out loud. Schott is wise to be sensitive to outside perceptions:

When I talk to fellow scholars, I might frame my work as “the study of paratextual material in late medieval vernacular scribal culture.” Even I hate the sound of that sentence. Let me offer, instead, the version I gave my Aunt Bea, who once ventured to ask me what I work on. I told her, “I study the things that people wrote in the margins of books in medieval Iceland.” When I said that, Aunt Bea wasn’t exactly impressed, but she did understand exactly what I meant.

Actually, what she said was, “They give Ph.D.s for that sort of thing, huh?” A familiar response from anyone who, like my aunt, works in a nice, practical field like nursing. And yet I get excited by a reaction like hers, because that is a teaching moment.

Schott’s solution is “to write even our scholarly work for a popular audience.” That’s a great idea—but why be so conservative? After all, professionalism hasn’t smothered her joy:

I always launch into a litany of the wonderful things one finds in the margins of Icelandic manuscripts: poetry, proverbs, complaints (my pen is dull, I didn’t get enough fish to eat, my wife is mad at me and it’s not my fault — all real examples). Part of the value of my work as I see it, then, is simple translation: “nu kolnar mér á fingrunum” means nothing to most people. But “my fingers are getting cold” is both transparent and so delightfully human that people often comment on how un-foreign these complaints sound. I don’t think you should have to get an advanced degree to enjoy these little glimpses into long-forgotten lives.

Look at that: the enthusiasm that makes non-scholars light up, the humanism they crave but can rarely describe, and the simple eloquence of someone who is uniquely suited to give them both.

“When I suggest changing our target audience,” Schott writes, “what I’m really talking about is marketing, and we are rightly suspicious of treating intellectual pursuit as a commodity.” Those of us who’ve migrated from academia to writing and the arts understand those concerns. I get tired of hearing that we can’t be only writers anymore, that we need to become experts at marketing and branding. Call it advocacy, then; no one else is standing by to champion us, and clearly there are ways to do it that don’t cheapen your work. Heck, more than two million American teenagers have had a blast with poetry because a former Kool-Aid marketing executive knew when to stop taking and how to start doing.

And so my humble advice to medievalists is this: stop talking about hypothetical outreach and do something. Write a book for a trade press. Spin your scholarly insights into poems. Produce a podcast. Start a blog. Make YouTube videos or Vines or a novelty Twitter account. Stage a play. Lecture at your local Osher center. Pitch articles to trendy media outlets like NPR or The Atlantic. Translate texts for non-scholars. Give the good work of strangers the attention you wish your own were receiving. You decide where to draw your own line. After you stare down a few frowning peers, the way is less fraught than you think: You won’t make enough money to fret about your soul, and you’ll compromise your scholarship only if you pander to your audience or fail to beguile them with the promise of much larger worlds.

I’ve written before that if the circles of scholars, writers, and artists overlapped more than they do, we’d all benefit. Professor Schott sees that we’re in danger of entombment in our own narrow niches:

What is literary scholarship for if not to aid readers in appreciating, understanding, interpreting, and questioning the literature that they encounter? In writing for a tiny coterie of specialists, we may achieve great heights of intellectual pursuit, but we are generally preaching to the choir. If we are not content with our society turning into a post-literary world, then we have some proselytizing to do, to people like my Aunt Bea. That is not marketing, that is teaching.

Indeed it is, and I hope Schott will share her enthusiasm wherever she can. The right blend of scholarship and passion can hearten the rest of us with all the thrilling alchemy of art.

“Ah, you are in your prime, you’ve come of age…”

“Outreach” is the kale of academia: everyone agrees it’s healthy, but they’re not always eager to make it a part of their lives. My hat is off, then, to Richard Utz, a scholar of medievalism at Georgia Tech, for his willingness to ride out to the market square and kick around big questions about the state of his field. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published part of the plenary speech Utz delivered in May at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. I’ve been moving truckloads of books to a new home in the country, so this is my first chance to dig into the piece. Despite the stupid title the editors gave it—“Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists”—it’s a worthy start, even if I found myself cuisse-deep in the questions it raises.

Utz writes:

It is clearly time to lower the drawbridge from the ivory tower and reconnect with the public.

One way to do this is to intervene aggressively in the media when the French National Front appropriates Jeanne d’Arc, New Hampshire legislators feel textually beholden to the Magna Carta, British politicians combat contemporary jihadism with a late medieval treason law, or Prince Philip is appointed to a knighthood of the Order of Australia, a title the illustrious heritage of which dates back to ye olde 1975.

What does it mean to “intervene aggressively”: stand on the drawbridge and denounce sinful readings of history? By what criteria? It’s not a question of accuracy: Utz links to stories about European nationalists, British Conservatives, American Republicans, and cranky Prince Philip (as if they’re all the same) but later he praises the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA and its members have done tremendous work in material culture, folklore, and martial arts, but as an organization whose mission is often informally characterized as creating “the Middle Ages as it should have been,” it also has a fantasy wish-fulfillment faction, and it redacts a vital force in medieval culture: religion. Is that not at least potentially a problem for academia? Does the group get a pass from the Medievalist Police because they’re nicer or generally more liberal? I don’t want (or trust the proponents of) a medievalism that seeks to justify every facet of liberalism any more than one that serves as a conservative catechism or nationalist blueprint.

Even so, Utz sees promise in meeting at least certain elements of the public on their own turf:

Add these efforts together, and we medievalists might extricate ourselves from the isolationist confines of 19th- and 20th-century medieval studies and embrace a broader and more egalitarian mélange of academic and popular medievalisms. If we join ranks with the so-called amateurs, we will ensure a continued critical as well as affective engagement with medieval culture. In the process, we might revivify our discipline and contribute to the health of the humanities.

I respect Utz’s aims, but I’m skeptical of his plan. In the past eight years, I’ve written more than 160 blog posts about medievalism, a few of which have gone, if not viral, at least naggingly bacterial, including one about a Charlemagne quote from an Indiana Jones movie that’s drawn tens of thousands of readers. I’ve written both a middle-school textbook and a moderately successful midlist pop-history book about Charlemagne. I’ve given talks about Charlemagne at libraries, museums, and book festivals. I’ve promoted a book of medievalist poetry inspired by a Gothic cathedral. I’ve translated a Middle Scots romance and published shorter translations here on the blog and in scholarly and literary journals. I’ve even dabbled in applied paleobromatology and shared my clunky efforts at retro, medieval-themed instant photography. I did these things not to advance an academic career but because the Middle Ages provided a rich matière for the creative work that occupies my spare time—but if I had done these things as a scholar engaged in public outreach, or if academia had paid more attention to me, would it matter?

Utz writes as if the scholarly world is not just doomed, but scarcely deserving of survival:

The Society for Creative Anachronism has added more to our knowledge of medieval culture by practicing blacksmithing, re-enacting the Battle of Hastings, and performing historical dance than D.W. Robertson’s decision, albeit substantiated by learned footnotes, that all medieval art was created and needs to be read according to the principles of patristic exegesis. Similarly, Michel Guyot’s megaproject of rebuilding a medieval castle, Guédelon, from scratch over a 30-year period, based on 13th-century building plans and without modern technology, yields infinitely more information than another 50 essays obsessing about the authorship of the anonymous Nibelungenlied or Cantar de Mio Cid. Moreover, sites like medievalists.net and publicmedievalist.com communicate valuable information more effectively to academic and nonacademic audiences than dozens of academic journals accessible at subscribers-only sources like JSTOR or Project Muse.

Scholars have indeed failed to bushwhack through old-growth clichés to reach the public; the late Norman Cantor identified the problem more than 20 years ago. But Utz points out an important and underappreciated supply-and-demand clash:

[T]here is now a manifest discrepancy between the large number of students who request that we address their love of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and medieval-themed video and computer games on the one hand, and the decreasing number of medievalists hired to replace retiring colleagues on the other.

When I was an adjunct, the director of the English department started me off with one medieval lit course and laughed at my hope that there’d ever be more. In the decade that followed, student demand let me revive the other three medieval courses in the catalog. Now that I’m outside Utz’s drawbridge, I wonder if there shouldn’t be less talk about impressing the public and more effort to win over university bureaucrats, especially lapsed humanities scholars who act like they’re managing a Walmart distribution hub.

I also wish Utz had clarified what he means when he says that students “request that we address their love” of the popular media of the moment. Do they want professors to pontificate about their favorite TV shows? That strikes me as a disheartening waste of brainpower and money—but my hope is that they want something more. Speaking as a kid whose medieval interests were partly rooted in childhood enthusiasm for fantasy games, I’d urge Utz and his colleagues to promise wonderful new realms to their students: history that illuminates human nature, the keys to unlocking eldritch languages, artistic and theological glimpses into the medieval mind—uncool things that endure deep within us long after entertainment companies neglect their latest love-child.

Utz alludes only briefly to “the health of the humanities.” I wish these discussions weren’t always so polar, with academia on one end and TV and video games on the other. What about other eclectic, unaffiliated souls? I’ve met or discovered the work of several such people: Lex Fajardo, author of Kid Beowulf, a series of all-ages graphic novels inspired by his love of world epics; Nancy Marie Brown, the admirably prolific author of mass-market books about the Lewis Chessmen, the Vikings, the Eddas, and Pope Sylvester II; remarkable medieval-inspired poets like Maryann Corbett and Becky Gould Gibson; or novelists like Tod Wodicka. I wonder: What would they do if they came to a scholarly conference? Would it still be a scholarly conference? Would scholars support them right back? Just as those retiring medievalists aren’t being replaced, writers and artists are watching their audiences fragment and shrink. The larger culture doesn’t care, but those of us who have never felt entirely at home on either side of the drawbridge would welcome new allies in seeking the true and the real. Sometimes it’s nice not to lurk in the moat.

“It seems the music keeps them quiet, there is no other way…”

No matter the ground that’s granted to you,
Whether sand-rotten or silt-riddled,
Whether shoots ripen in rich, sopping earth
To give their full and fattened yield,
Whether high hillsides or handily worked
Lowlands beckon, a level plain,
Or a valley roughened with veering slopes,
It cannot refuse to bring forth for you
Its native plants, provided that you
Don’t louse your labors with laziness…

Walahfrid Strabo (d.849), De Cultura Hortorum (my translation)

Someday I may do what the ninth-century abbot of Reichenau wouldn’t have recommended: cultivate a garden full of medieval European plants. Until then, I’ll revel in my 169 square feet of New World fecundity, a bee-friendly spider-riot of corn, peppers, cucumbers, collards, squash, and beans. I try to be the largest creature on my tenancy; narrow paths and high, uneven fences keep the deer far hence, and I banish chipmunks and mice with a clemency that would put St. Francis to shame.

Even so, my garden cried out for a medieval beastie—and a certain clever loved one of mine decided to oblige.

That’s the tarasque, a marvelous and horrifying creature from the folklore of medieval Provence. With the head of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, six bear’s legs, and a turtle shell, the tarasque ravaged the countryside, until St. Martha—the biblical Martha—lulled it with prayers and hymns and lured it into town. Terrified locals killed it, after which they regretted attacking a tame monster, converted to Christianity, and renamed their town in the monster’s honor.

That’s the story in the 13th-century Legenda Aurea, anyway, and it sure did last: I had a vague memory of encountering this critter in another context long ago, so I went back to the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual II from 1983 (don’t judge me) and found this fearsome fellow:

My tarasque is likewise domesticated—or at least domestic. Back in February, when the aforementioned loved one and I were in Memphis, an ice storm shut down the city. We were lucky to be stuck indoors with an assortment of local beer, including the Tarasque Saison from Wiseacre Brewing Company. I liked the can design, she’s got an inventive mind, and three months later, when we saw a garden store shamefully asking 20 bucks for whirligigs made out of nothing more than two beer cans, a wire hanger, and plastic straws, I heard a claim I’ve come not to doubt: “I could totally make that.”

And so a couple weeks ago, having mostly forgotten the matter, I opened a box to find a terrific surprise: a trace of modern medievalism, a souvenir from a recent adventure, and a thoughtful, handmade present all rigged up into one.

After we calibrate the spinning blades a little, the wind vane at the tail should inspire optimal whirling. My garden is now a bit more medieval, if not more dignified. So be it. Such is a blog post befitting July, when the weather is languid, the wind is lazy, and writerly ambition is as tame as a tarasque.

 

“We’ll wait in stone circles, ’til the force comes through…”

For most of us, inspiration is a whisper, slight and private—so I love when eccentrics with outsized visions find huge ways to share their obsessions with us. A few weeks ago, I discovered one such site in Pennsylvania; it’s literally monumental.

Along an uphill webwork of winding roads, you’ll find a stone circle and dozens of other menhirs, dolmens, and megaliths strewn across 17 acres of groves and paths. The park is a refuge for pilgrims to rest, roam, ponder, and (in my case) take snapshots with antique Polaroids, most of them as murky as whatever moved the soul in a nearby house to haul these huge stones into place.

Celtic nostalgia is cousin to medievalism; a kindred impulse shaped them both. As far back as the English constitutional debates of the 17th and 18th centuries—was the Norman Conquest legit?—the druids were in play. Supporters of Parliament wanted to show continuity from the Germanic Saxons, who were seen as practicing a sort of primitive democracy temporarily kiboshed in 1066; monarchists wanted to override their claims with a more ancient political inheritance from pre-Germanic Celtic Britons. With the druids in mind, boosters of the British Empire also saw proof that savage people could be conquered, colonized, and redeemed—although the Welsh and the Cornish soon showed the power of druids as defiant patriotic symbols instead.

In the 1760s, the discovery of an epic cycle by the ancient bard Ossian famously beguiled readers on both sides of the Atlantic; it was a fake by a Scottish poet, but the Celts of romance conquered and thrived. Students of medieval lit still read Arthurian legend in the wake of 20th-century scholars like Roger Loomis, who never failed to discern minute echoes of Celtic ritual on every interminable page. Since the 1980s, the comically prolific John and Caitlin Matthews have cranked out piles of books that nourished a neo-druid British counterculture with growing political heft.

In the United States, popular Celticism has been domesticated; as with medievalism, less is at stake, so we make it our own. You’ll find it in neopagan spirituality and in the nostalgia of Scottish and Irish ancestral pride—and, it seems, in the shady groves of eastern Pennsylvania.

As I rested under a wooden awning, a golf cart came zipping down from the large modern house overlooking the stones. Behind the wheel was Bill, who founded the park in the 1970s. We talked about the inevitable breakdown of human institutions, the fleeting nature of the physical world, and the holy mischief of making places for future myth.

According to his book (for sale on the honor system in a nearby shed), Bill was a Presbyterian minister, but a series of dreams and mystical experiences on the Scottish island of Iona apparently turned him into a universalist. Since then, he’s busily created what is, at the very least, an ecumenical work of visionary landscape art. In addition to the main stone circle, his site includes a dolmen devoted to Thor, a path through a “faerie ring,” sacred male and female groves, a quirky bell tower inspired by an Ionian saint who was buried alive, stones for St. David and St. Brigid, and a lovely chapel to St. Columba, the Irishman who spread Christianity in Scotland.

[scanned, reversed Land Camera negative – the only good photo I got that day]

Although Bill welcomes the public from dawn to dusk and religious revelers on certain evenings, I’ve deliberately not used the name of the park to help preserve it just a little from search-engine omnipresence. “We had 600 people on the land over Memorial Day,” Bill told me—not ruefully, but with a glimmer of concern. With a huge, happy laugh, he said he sometimes tells his board that they ought to take down the entire website. He didn’t quite mean it, but I liked his reason. “People will still come,” he said, as if he’d known so since the dawn of time. “They’ll find it when they need it.”

“Unsheathe the blade within the voice…”

Is polysemy now unseemly? Two weeks ago, when historian Steve Muhlberger traveled to that great North American ent-moot, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, he found himself in the midst of “a lot of griping and grouching about the misuse and ambiguity of the word medieval.” In a lucid and laudably concise blog post, he calls out the problem behind the problem:

You would think that a bunch of scholars who by their very nature of their discipline are experts in the evolution of the meaning of words would by now have gotten over the fact that though it doesn’t make a lot of sense to call “the Middle Ages” by that term, and that coming up with a really good, chronological definition of those ages is impossible, we are stuck with the words medieval and Middle Ages anyway. But no . . .

Steve is a scholar of chivalric tournaments and an experienced combat reenactor, so he knows how to land a disarming blow:

This can be intensely irritating for people who know that certain phrases and analyses lost their cogency back in 1927 and want to talk about what their friends are doing in the field now. Nevertheless people whose business is words should really accept the fact that words like “medieval” have a number of popular meanings, and when one of them shows up in current discussion (when, for instance, a Game of Thrones shows up and is widely labelled as medieval, even though the world of Game of Thrones is not our earth at all), the fact can be dealt with a good-humored way. It certainly would reflect credit on any field where a good-humored approach was the norm.

It would indeed. Off campus, the world blissfully resists more than a century of scholarship—pop culture still depicts Vikings in huge horned helmets, for heaven’s sake—and I respectfully suggest that more scholars contemplate why this is so.

As the rare soul who’s read every volume of Studies in Medievalism, I’ve marveled at the field’s mania for nomenclature. Since at least 2009, contributors to the journal—and its sister publication The Year’s Work in Medievalism, and its annual conference, and a pricey new handbook of critical terms—have kicked around the meaning of “medievalism” and “neo-medievalism” until every syllable simpers for mercy. Because I write about medievalism not as a professional scholar but as a footloose amateur, I miss the many years of meaty articles explaining, say, how boys’ chivalric clubs helped inspire the American scouting movement or why we’re perpetually tempted to make Dante a mouthpiece for generational angst. Forged from an accidental alloy of romanticism, nostalgia, politics, religion, and wishful thinking, medievalism can’t help but have jagged edges. It’s tiring to hone terms of art so finely that they cease to exist in three dimensions; we may as well flaunt the imperfection.

When it comes to the matter of the merely medieval, here’s Steve Muhlberger again:

David Parry made the most sensible remark of the entire week when he pointed out that an imprecise word like medieval has a lot of cultural value for people who make their living interpreting that era. Indeed there is a financial payoff being associated with it.

What’s the worth of a timeworn coinage? Steve’s full blog post answers that question, with the suggestion that settling on terms can pay other, less measurable dividends too.

“We’ll find the speck of truth in each riddle…”

When you write a blog that focuses mostly on medievalism and poetry, you accept that you dwell in a narrow and unnoticed niche. Then a book subtitled “Eight Medievalist Poets” lands in your lap, and you revel in the rare pleasure of finally being somebody’s ideal reader. Published by Stairwell Books, a tiny but prolific Yorkshire-centric press, New Crops from Old Fields summons medievalists from Britain and America, most of them scholars of literature, and bids them sing. The resulting poems are often bookish, but not academic; they’re as vital as the era behind them once was.

Editor and contributor Oz Hardwick, for example, plays with a motley assortment of medieval tropes: pagan fertility, Christian prayer, Arthurian visions, Germanic adventurers—you name it. I can’t tell if his “Journey from the West” is a translation from an Old Norse poem by Sigvatr Þórðarson or just inspired by it, but this moving paean to homecoming after travel and toil is just serpentine enough to evoke skaldic poetry without being cryptic and cramped:

Wind’s servant, across the shifting hills
I return, richer in words and welcomes,
giving gifts undiminishing, gaining
grace of place, proud amongst peers.

I have fared far, fought clinging coils
of earth’s duplicitous dragon, found
home, the giver of true gifts:
one word resolves all riddles.

Another poem, “The Seafarer’s Return,” blurs the rhyme schemes of two types of sonnets and staggers the meter to capture the relief and grace of a second, harder-earned homecoming:

At your door I stand, tongue tied in weed,
footsore, with blistered palms and a distant stare,
my shoulders stooped with the weight of my journey. I need
more than I can ask. But first, share
these far-gathered gifts of shell and stone
whose value resides in the grace of you alone.

In Hardwick’s poetry, life teems just beneath the surface: the Green Man wakes for sex and then slumbers, obscene wooden beasts cavort in the choir at a Belgian basilica, and we beg to behold the true nature of things:

And I pray: not for the voice, not
for the touch, taste, sight, smell
of sound, but for the sharp annunciation
of fire, the heart’s bright kindling,
the understanding beyond understanding.

Hardwick’s craving for the cosmic highlights the fact that in an era of Ren faires, cosplay, and fantasy LARPing, popular medievalism often omits a crucial aspect of the Middle Ages—but in New Crops from Old Fields, religion is omnipresent. Hannah Stone, an expert on eastern Christianity, contributes poems inspired by desert hermits and the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, where “stiff robes chafe; their doctrines / don’t sit comfortably, either.” She’s capable of a lighter touch, too, as she shows in a funny, Browning-like soliloquy about a cat in a Mercian church, and in a poem that culminates in a call to pray for the soul of Worcester pilgrim reduced to a headless skeleton in boots.

Other pilgrims pace restlessly through this book: Jane Beal finds poetry when she visits landmarks in Rome, but her most striking entry in New Crops from Old Fields consists solely of questions Muslims and Jews asked her in the Holy Land. The poem is a remarkable distillation of the sort of grace and charity a pilgrimage should foster: a diminution of the self, and the generosity of letting others speak. Throughout her poetry, Beal makes the medieval personal—a fox on the roadside reminds her of the Reynard of fable, and she writes in the voices of Caedmon and Dante—and her destination is the answer to an intimate question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?”

Likewise, Joe Martyn Ricke recounts his eagerness to observe the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is how he finds himself in an Indiana church “with what felt like half a million Mexicans, / I mean at least a hundred of us standing and only one of us a very tall gringo.” His pilgrimage culminates in manic, ecstatic verse that wavers between dreamlike and drunk:

And it’s not exactly a miracle that everything smells like roses,
since there are perhaps a New Year’s Day parade’s worth of them
piled together under her feet. And, yes, sometimes the celestial music
is slightly out of tune or the trumpets are just obviously showing off.
But it really doesn’t matter about the roses or the guitars or the outfits
because you find yourself mumbling,
I’ve been bleeding a long time. Such a long time.

Elsewhere, Ricke takes a 15th-century lyric about Adam and “translates” it into a rambling, Beat-like poem that name-checks Harry Belafonte, while his “Four Sinful Hymns for the Love of Saint Mary Magdalene” imagine the biblical figure’s conversion and salvation from her own perspective, gritty and physical. Ricke is more playful than the other overtly religious poets in this book, but he’s never irreverent; his earthy exuberance is worthy of Chaucer.

Several poets in this collection show a strong commitment to form. M. Wendy Hennequin retells the story of Andromache as an Anglo-Saxon poet might have done, in lines that resemble Old English alliterative verse. In the rhyme-royal septets of “The Bard’s Tale,” an Irish maiden appears at Camelot at Christmastime and tells a story that astounds King Arthur. Her tale ends on an emotionally ambiguous note, as if it really were composed in another, less knowable time. “My scholar attempts to understand the past; my poet tries to sing with them,” Hennequin explains, and her knack for the latter is clear in a light and lovely ballade for a scribe who joyfully works through the night:

How glorious the colors, green and gold,
The black and scarlet, purple and the blue!
Though deep the night and bitter bites the cold,
And candles smoke, and colors shine untrue,
My dancing hands a woman’s face imbue
With living truth of spirit and of sight.
My hands in darkness work; my heart, in light.

Working furtively is a recurring theme in this book. I recalled Jane Chance from assigned readings in a graduate seminar on Beowulf, but I hadn’t known she was a poet; appropriately, her medieval-inspired poetry laments the strain of conflicting roles. In “The Night the Books Fell,” a shelf collapses when a retired scholar is a continent away. The ponderousness of her scholarly responsibilities by “the tough edge of discipline / slackened,” she is

relieved of the obligation
of learnedness
and granted the divine gift of
pleasure in being
simply
human.

In another poem, Chance gives voice to the unicorn in a tapestry at the Met. Chained to a tree, he too feels the weight of his work and is “tired of being symbolic”:

He’d like to sleep a little, or play with others,
leave town and get a little dirty,
have a cool drink, find a girl,
let down his horn.

Burdened scholars, restrained beasties, weary French women, moat-encircled ladies, costumes and masks—Chance’s take on academic life is poignant and personal but not self-pitying. “Given scholars’ training to maintain objectivity and the life of the mind, medievalism helps create an imaginary shield against personal revelation,” she warns in her introduction, but that doesn’t diminish the optimism of “Aventure,” in which a young knight sets out amid “the sun bursting on the horizon / like a promise / in the long summer of his youth.” Another poem, concise and original, likens the migration of animals on the Serengeti to the stained-glass sunlight and sense of belonging inside a cathedral. It also prompts a question: Is the Serengeti the subject, or the Gothic nave? The answer doesn’t matter: balancing them is the point, and Chance writes with a freedom and lightness for not having to choose between “you and the wildebeests / in endless repetition, season in and season out, / natural music in time, in time.”

Other poets in this collection wear their medievalism less showily, using the past to buttress poems about the here and now. Imitating Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines, Pam Clements casts snowy owls as feathered Vikings to dramatize the birds’ migration in vast numbers from the Arctic to the northeastern United States. In “Anhaga,” she draws upon words and concepts from Old English poetry for the lament of a Yankee in the antebellum South who sounded to me like a battlefield ghost:

Palmettos clap thin plats
where wind should keen and wail
that anyone so loved should have the gall to die.

Here, the go bare-legged in November
in fleshy-bosomed air
Anhaga, eardstapa —
it might be any season.

In “Wodewose,” Clements uses the Green Man, “Lord of Kudzu / and Dandelion,” to evoke the fecundity and lushness of a springtime trail, but the poem could easily be read with no understanding of the title—but then I think an adventurous reader could easily enjoy New Crops from Old Fields without any background in the Middle Ages at all. If published elsewhere, the eerie personal verses of A.J. Odasso probably wouldn’t strike most readers as the work of a medievalist, but they’re precise, haunting dream-visions with diction and alliteration inspired by late medieval poets. Odasso’s inclusion makes a worthwhile point: the medieval often lingers well below the surface, where it nourishes something peculiar and new.

If I were forced at sword-point to gripe about New Crops from Old Fields, I might mention the introductions provided by each poet: most of them are too jargony and too reluctant to let the poetry stand on its own. But so what? The range and heft of these poems surprised me—and as someone with a bias toward formalism, I was cheered to find free verse that was free for good poetic reasons. As scholars who work line by line through texts in eldritch languages, these poets brood over words—what they mean, what they insinuate, how they sound on the tongue. What they do with that lore is delightful. The Middle Ages are a golden trove strewn with trinkets and bones; this book proves it’s a blessing instead of a curse.

“…with this really ragged notion that you’d return…”

“I don’t much like poetry. Never have.” So declares Rod Dreher on the first page of How Dante Can Save Your Life, a memoir about that least sensational of modern experiences: reading a medieval book. As Dreher works his way through the Divine Comedy, he finds out how wrong he was—about poetry, about his family, about his failure to love as his religion demands. I’m tempted to call this book Dante and the Art of Fanboat Maintenance, but I can’t recall another recent example of a hesitant reader coming to Dante on such quirky and personal terms. People often use medievalism to escape their lives; Dreher looks to a medieval poet to help him find his again.

By his own telling, Dreher reached middle age feeling dreary and lost. After several years as a big-city journalist and pundit, he had moved with his wife and children back to his Louisiana hometown, where he never fit in. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, he butted heads with his family, especially his father, a sportsman and mechanic who loved him but was ill-equipped to have a bookish philosophy geek as a son. Dreher’s homecoming weighed him down with fatigue, depression, and chronic mononucleosis; a long religious journey from “mild, neighborly Methodism” to Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy brought little peace.

And then, in 2013, he picked up the Jean and Robert Hollander translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

This medieval masterpiece, perhaps the greatest poem ever written, reached me when I thought I was unreachable, and lit the way out of a dark wood of depression, confusion, and a stress-released autoimmune disease that, had it persisted, would have dangerously degraded my health.

Dante helped me understand the mistakes and mistaken beliefs that brought me to this dead end. He showed me that I had the power to change, and revealed to me how to do so. Most important of all, the poet gave me a renewed vision of life.

Like Dante, Dreher recounts his journey so others can find their way out of gloom:

Dante Alighieri wrote a book explaining how to do this—a user’s manual for the soul, you might call it—and cast it into the sea of time. There it remained, bobbing on the currents, until I came across it on a shelf I rarely browse in a bookstore I almost never visit. It was a message in a bottle. It was a sign. It was a gift and a source of grace that redeemed my exile and turned a tragedy that very nearly broke me into my own divina commedia—a story with a happy ending.

Although Dreher delved into scholarship to understand Dante more completely, his approach to the Divine Comedy is academically unfashionable. “This is not a literary analysis, it is a personal view,” he explains. “It’s a self-help book for people who may not read self-help books, but who are curious and delight in journeys of self-discovery along roads not often taken.”

The notion that medieval literature has therapeutic value will strike some readers as strange, but Dreher’s intentions aren’t trivial, nor are they unprecedented: Americans have long looked to Dante for fortitude and hope. In a 1983 issue of Studies of Medievalism devoted to Dante in the modern world, editor Kathleen Verduin explains that many 19th-century Americans saw Dante as a proto-Protestant. The Transcendentalists were beguiled by him; Hawthorne alluded to him; Melville found him “the infernal guide to ever-deepening realms of moral complexity”; Longfellow sought solace in translating him; and Charles Eliot Norton promoted his work at Harvard, founded an academic society around him, and praised him for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears suggests that 19th-century America craved Dante’s moral certainty:

Nor was fascination with Dante confined to the Brahmin few. The poet was acclaimed and interpreted by critics in the established press, eulogized and imitated by dozens of magazine versifiers. The Dante vogue pointed not only to aestheticism or vaporous romanticism, but to widespread moral and religious concerns . . . By ignoring the scholastic superstructure of the Divine Comedy, commentators were able to join Dante with simpler medieval types. Like the saints and peasants, he became a prophet of spiritual certainty in an uncertain, excessively tolerant age.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure), or you can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

Dreher doesn’t singlehandedly rescue Dante from pop-culture hell, but he does re-baptize him—even as he sincerely hopes to intrigue and even assist the secular:

Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and to be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding one’s own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold onto their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.

Dreher is so moved by the Divine Comedy that he hopes to share Dante’s poem with everyone, but I wonder how many irreligious readers will want to accompany him to Paradiso by way of this book’s many Christian lessons:

The pilgrim Dante’s journey teaches him that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If everyone, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they loved themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome our passions and our ego, to make room for the transforming love of God.

If the life Dante saves may be your own, then it’s one in which the spiritual, the physical, and the emotional prove inseparable. For that reason, Dreher didn’t trek through the Divine Comedy alone; he leaned on his priest and his therapist, and his attempt to deal with his problems by walking parallel paths shapes the tone and approach of this book. Each chapter ends with a bald recapitulation of the lesson, pithy paragraphs sequestered in a box that make this otherwise beautifully designed hardcover (with a cloth cover from a 1596 edition of Dante, color art on the endpapers, and well-placed Gustave Doré illustrations) look like a mass-market self-help book. Dreher writes clearly and his lessons are plain, so these summations feel superfluous and a little condescending.

Because Dreher is a brainy writer with rich material to draw from, I was disappointed when he sometimes fell back on trite self-help metaphors that poorly serve his profound subject: “What you do with that suffering determines whether or not you remain an earthbound caterpillar or metamorphose into a butterfly”—or: “When you are the captain of your own soul, though, and have cast aside all the maritime charts showing you the safe route through dark waters, navigating only by your own stars, it’s easy to make a shipwreck of your life.”

By contrast, here he is in full force, writing with conviction and insight:

Without quite realizing what was happening to me, I gave myself over completely to Dante, absorbing the personalities of his figures and identifying with them as I considered how my life and my sins were like theirs. Brunetto Latini, that marvelous egotist, reminded me of a favorite professor, charming and vain. Put him in an ice cream suit and give him a bourbon-filled julep cup and Farinata, a bastard of peacock magnificence, could hold court on the front porch of a Feliciana plantation manse. All of these people, these medieval Tuscans the wayfaring poet met on the road, were so alien yet so familiar. At times I felt like the pilgrim standing before the bas-reliefs on the holy mountain, not entirely sure if these figures were living or dead.

Dreher may not be writing a Christian apologia, but he does argue strenuously for a matter of faith I find to be true: that we’re separated from medieval people by fashion and time, but we’re one with them in our comically defective humanity.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is more than a defense and interpretation of a great poem. It’s a memoir of one man trying to find a religion where he feels at home; a record of overcoming physical and spiritual malaise; a compelling account of a subtle but pernicious family conflict; and a candid confession of one man’s failings and sins. It’s an uncomfortably intimate book, but full of surprises: At one point, Dreher even tells an eerie bayou ghost story! It comes out of nowhere, a reminder that real life isn’t as tidy as literature, but rich in mysteries beyond our understanding.

Put off by the self-help angle, a friend asked me if she should skip Dreher’s book and go straight to Dante instead. Readers at ease with medieval thinking should probably do just that, but others who shrink from a gust of obscure names and notions may find this book a worthy prelude. Lucid and accessible, How Dante Can Save Your Life is aimed less at aesthetically minded literary types like me and more at folks like Dreher’s dad—intelligent but reluctant readers who rarely let themselves be moved by art. Fittingly, Dreher uses that gulf in his family to try to bridge a similar chasm in the culture, bringing the Divine Comedy to those who’d never otherwise give it a look. “You will not be the same after reading it,” he insists. “How could you be? All of life is in there.”

“The eyes all rollin’ round and round into a distant gaze…”

From English churches to Gothic synagogues, I’ve found plenty of medievalism in Georgia—but when I trekked deeper into the state two weeks ago to visit Flannery O’Connor’s farmstead, I expected to encounter the Middle Ages only as an abstraction. At Andalusia, O’Connor read medieval saints’ lives and studied St. Thomas Aquinas, but it seems she wasn’t the only medievalist in the history of Milledgeville, Georgia. Before spending a quiet afternoon on O’Connor’s farm, I drove into town for lunch and was startled to spot a huge and wholly tangible monument to the South’s obsession with the medieval: castle, cathedral, and parliament all piled up into one.

This handsome but peculiar building housed the Georgia legislature from its construction in 1807 until 1868, when the state capital moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta. Destroyed by fire in 1941 and later restored, it’s now the heart of the Georgia Military College campus and the home of Georgia’s Old Capital Museum.

Tourism websites claim it was the first Gothic Revival public building in the United States, and they may well be right. This castle-capital was indeed ahead of its time, both in the South and nationwide: John Adams is on record as reading Sir Walter Scott only later, in 1820; theaters in New Orleans adapted Scott’s work for the stage in the decade that followed; and the medieval-ish tales of Washington Irving thrived in the 1820s and ’30s and beyond. I’d love to know what specifically moved Major General Jett Thomas, who would go on to fight in the War of 1812, to make the Georgia statehouse a castle, but chivalry was surely on his mind, and this building shows just how early a militaristic medievalism took root in the South.

The shorter north and south sides of the building, with porticoes added in 1835, show its layered insistence on medieval roots: Gothic windows, tracery, niches, and castellated battlements with pinnacles that scream “the Middle Ages” even if they don’t quite belong there.

The rest of the campus flaunts the medieval with an unwavering sense of mission: even a dumpy little mail building has a castellated roof. Most striking, though, are the campus gates. Blind arches, skinny niches for absent statues, give them an almost religious air…

…which makes sense. “So redolent indeed with historic associations is the atmosphere of this ancient seat of hospitality that the very streets of this old town are like fragrant aisles in some old cathedral,” declared a 1913 guidebook to Georgia landmarks. Antebellum Southerners of high social standing treated the medieval with just that sort of reverence, and Louisiana even built its own castellated capitol building in Baton Rouge four decades later, much to the chagrin of Mark Twain.

“Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building,” Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi in 1883, “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.” I can’t find any thoughts by Twain on the Milledgeville capitol, but I don’t doubt he would have deplored it as another example of Southerners’ obsession with chivalric tournaments, romantic tales, and a mythologized past they never doubted was their heritage.

Today, Milledgeville is sleepy on a Sunday afternoon, but the students who scurry past the old capitol building on weekdays are a living legacy of 19th-century medievalism. Georgia Military College includes a middle school, a high school, and a junior college where students can earn a commission in the Army, so when you pass through those gates you’re entering a shrine to old chivalric virtues. New knights will pair patriotic faith with military might; empty niches wait in solemnity to honor them as saints.

“Asking for more only got us where we are today…”

A while back, two poets independently responded to my gargoyle-poem book by asking me if I knew Maryann Corbett. I didn’t, but when I looked her up, I was pleasantly stunned to find someone whose modus operandi I understood: a poet who tends to the formal, a medievalist who holds a non-academic day job. Her latest book, Mid Evil, collects only 40 poems, but together they show how we frame our yearnings with fragments of the past—both the world’s and our own.

At first, all I saw was Corbett’s medievalism. Mid Evil takes its title from a poem about an blasé student’s chronic misspellings; the book also includes poems about studying medieval manuscripts, facing cancer in light of Cathar heresies, seeing The Return of the King with costumed teenagers, and imagining J.R.R. Tolkien’s inner life. Corbett is a skilled translator, so Mid Evil includes modern English versions of several medieval poems: the Old English “Deor” and three Exeter Book riddles, all of them in a form that recalls Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines; two balades from the French of Christine de Pizan; and verses from Alcuin about a nightingale, rendered in a meter that evokes the long Latin lines of the original.

When medievalism inspires new works of art, I’m intrigued and delighted, so I might have decided that all this was enough. On a hunch, though, I decided to read Mid Evil not as a miscellany but as a collection with purposeful organization. What emerged was an even more meaningful book: the story of a halting but ongoing pilgrimage.

Appropriately, Mid Evil opens with two poems in which old books provoke unexpected emotion. In “Paleography,” Corbett describes the intermingled confusion and enthusiasm that comes from trying to read 16th-century handwriting, which leaves her feeling “like the child who listened, puzzled / by the cries in the next room.” She lets the reader decide whether her experience is a sign of cosmic immaturity or a rare opportunity for the renewal she later craves. In “Hand,” she finds a colophon in a Middle English manuscript that reads “pray for him that made this book,” which pits skepticism against faith but leads Corbett to contemplate the actual, physical existence of the long-dead scribe and to “wonder how long the bones of a hand would last.”

In Corbett’s poetry, such relics are forever surprising us; they suggest a larger, more more challenging context to our lives. A teacup, for example, is a tribute to centuries of human activity—slavery, alchemy, religion, myth—culminating in the morning sip that affords the poet a moment of peace. A blue bowl tells the story of the aging and the dead and holds memories of a loud, insulting father:

“Depression glass.” Imagine it: her mother,
using that gimcrack thing for sixty years,
remembering how a speechless misery feels.
A kind of sore the mind keeps picking at.
I think she’s kept a lot of things like that.

And see, the mother’s still around. That’s why
she hasn’t sold it yet to an antique store.
I’ve often told her that would be a mercy.
Honey, it would. That’s what collecting’s for.
Restoring things. We clear the clouds away
so people see good things for what they are.

If mundane objects can resonate with meaning, so can our lives, as long as we’re open to seeing them as stories. In “The Return of the King Screens at Midnight at the Multiplex,” Corbett’s disputatio between skepticism and faith takes on a secular cast as she notes a conflict familiar to medievalists: the detached study of the scholar versus the playfulness of the costumed fan. She realizes it’s not a conflict at all, but reason for an overdue reprimand:

And I
am riven in the dark, remembering
how, long ago, I swore the only way

into these glamours was to learn to sing
in ancient grammar. Oh my misspent youth:
As well escape your life with imagining

as riddle through the words of some dead mouth.

Settling into her theater seat, she bids herself “[t]o hear the tale that salves the sting of truth” and to think about the fleeting value of fantasy and escapism. “So make your minds / more bloody,” she later exhorts girls shopping for Halloween costumes at Goodwill, hoping they’ll revel in pretending to be monsters. Otherwise, they’ll miss a youthful opportunity, however modest, to experience something beyond themselves, like the hapless undergraduate of “Mid Evil”:

And the last blow is this, your final exam,
in which, over and over, you call the course
mid evil literature. Yes, I suppose
for you that is the word. We both are lost here,
mapless in Middle Earth and muddling through.
You’ll claim your paper. Mild civilities
will be exchanged, and then you’ll lope away,
a sad C minus in your grip ensuring
we’re done. It’s mid-December. Snow will fall—
hrim ond hrið, but no one says that now,
since this is the sphere of Time, beneath the moon,
where everything must change, and where the poems
evaporate like hoar-frost in the sun.

Poems, movies, stories, myths—they shore us against aimlessness, but they also nudge us toward generosity. Faced with a storyteller in “The Pandhandler’s Tale,” Corbett puts aside her reservations and welcomes “the willing suspension of disbelief, / which lets us yield ourselves to the tale of wonder,” even though she only ends up attracting more panhandlers. The experience is real regardless; we’ve avoided a mystery, perhaps even a moment of grace, by assuming a story is false. Imagining one of the Brothers Grimm rewriting tales told by a cowherd’s wife, Corbett wonders: “Does it matter / that now we know how far from truth it falls?” A poem about Abelard and Eloise finds fault with all parties, but encourages interpretation: “What can we know? Perhaps less love than pride / led to their woes. Read their own words. Decide.”

But myth, fantasy, stories, and scholarship all have their limitations, as Corbett makes clear in several poems with a tragic edge. A fond memory of watching the rousing “Victory at Sea” on television in the 1950s darkens with the adult realization that the veteran who was dozing in a nearby armchair likely saw horrific things; simple stories are for children. The myths in fashion magazines prove useless decades after our teenage years; a mysteriously returned gift from a daughter’s long-ago lover shocks us out of our personal fables and into complex reality. Even history itself has limited value: in “The Historian Considers the End Time,” a scholar wracked by cancer is tempted by the Cathars’ heresy of the evil of the body, but her medievalism is useless. She can only hope to leave behind scant relics that give meaning to someone else:

They must, those thirteenth-century prelates,
have known it with a blazing certainty,
the truth he’s going to know then, when he hugs
the clothes that hold her fragrance, when his chest knots
as he cleans her closet, when months past the funeral
he finds in a broom strands of the long, dark hair.

So what do we do when the shadow of nothingness looms? All of Corbett’s thematic strands rise and converge in “Sing, My Tongue,” the final section of Mid Evil. These seven poems find strength and revelation in singing as Corbett invites us to join her in church. “On Singing the Exultet” puts us in the choir at the start of the Easter Vigil, where the singer marvels at the audacity of what she is about to do:

It’s candlelight that makes it possible.
How otherwise could you, with your puny pipes,
expect to do this? yell to the end of space—
where air won’t carry sound—and order the nebulae
Exult? But here you are: you’re going to dare it.

Even feeling insignificant implies a cosmic context for our lives, as “the light of the unforeseen”

burnishes a quiet table
where lover and beloved look at each other
weighing a question that will change the world.
That has already changed it.

In these closing poems, Corbett grapples with doubt while singing at a funeral; one page later, she crashes to earth after the high of singing Mozart with an orchestra in a cathedral. “I’ve come to feel / how all my feasts are haunted,” she says after a child interrupts her attempt to find focus in church, and she falls back on translating Alcuin, who exhorts the nightingale to sing without end: “Sour as my soul had become, you could fill it with honeying sweetness.” She ends on a note of fatigue, physical and spiritual, but despite being disheartened by “wheezing gasps where nothing is inspired,” she still hopes for profundity:

I want it back: the confidence in air—
ruah, pneuma, spiritus—the breath
that stirs the vocal folds of nuns in choir.
The breath that Is. The sound of something there
guiding this gusty round of birth and death.
The rush of driving wind. The tongues of fire.

Mid Evil starts with scholarly study and ends in a wish for religious exultation; it begins with writing and ends in song, becoming a prayer for inspiration, confidence, purpose, and grace. Whether that prayer can or will receive an answer remains, for Corbett, an open question, but she comes to a conclusion I gladly endorse: that myth and medievalism are promising places to start.