Recently, I was on the Steampunk Scholar, reading through his many writings on Steampunk. Eventually, I came to his posts where he dealt with some of his criticisms which he received over at Ferratbrain. In short, a writer over there took issue with how the Steampunk Scholar arrived at his thesis—that what we call ‘steampunk’ is not actually a genre but rather an aesthetic. Reading through both the scholar’s incomplete response and the critic’s original remarks, I felt compelled to think on how Arthuriana functioned as a genre or aesthetic.
Now, I must say this: I do not care much about genre. I am mildly fascinated by aesthetics, but not by genre. Why is because I am one of those post-structuralists who does not believe that genre can be fitted into any inherent niche; what constituted one genre, may, to another, constitute something wholly different. The difference between genre, sub-genre, and how one should differentiate just is not something which fascinates me as the debate often trickles down into hair-splitting. I hold that there is something loosely defined as genre, in the sense, that there is a sizable difference between what we call “High Fantasy” and “Space Opera,” and that each of those specific sub-genres belong to something which is, in turn, a sort of umbrella term for its numerous subsets, but beyond that, I care not for trying to create a totality out of fragments.
So, when it comes to the Arthurian tradition, what do we have? Should it be classified as a genre or perhaps as an aesthetic?
Paradoxically, I feel that Arthuriana can be both. Yet also more paradoxically, neither.
Let me explain.
In the Middle Ages, it is no doubt that the Arthurian legend constituted a genre; much scholarship has elucidated how numerous texts—Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian Romances, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur—were either hugely influential on the legend or were outright blockbusters when it came to circulation. People clearly used the legend to promote political agendas as well as riddling out the great moral questions of life. Part of what I feel constitutes a genre (or sub-genre) is how to reacts to the social-material reality of its day, how it interacts with both the past and future. The medieval King Arthur mythos did this and more, creating a thread which, as controversial as it sounds, came to rival that of Jesus Christ.
But, and here is where it gets sticky: if in the Middle Ages the Arthurian legend constituted a genre, then it probably no longer even constitutes a sub-genre (or however it is you want to define those ambiguous terms).
Why this is, is very muddled. But it has to do with cultural fragmentation and the decay of late capitalism. Essentially, what we see from the Early Modern Period onwards, is an increasing cannibalization of the Arthurian tradition; it becomes hacked piecemeal and integrated into numerous different genres and aesthetics, its own originality as a moral or political genre, or as a Christianized aesthetic, vanished.
Whereas back in the medieval period you could clearly see people use the Arthurian tradition for their own moral or political ends, while retaining the characters, settings, and basic narrative outline, we do not see this (as much) in our own epoch; rather, what we see is an act whereupon the Arthurian canon has become a kind of literary means of subsistence for other genres and aesthetics.
Essentially, the Arthurian idea has become fodder: crime shows, modern romances, dramas, action-adventures, and more, all use pieces of the Arthurian tradition, but rarely anything more than that. So, Arthuriana has become inspiration rather than content in itself.
Contemporary texts either appropriate fragments of the text—pushing the Roundtable idea of unity, the titular female villain as a recurring antagonist with vague ties to Morgan le Fay, serendipitously named characters, etc. – in order to make their own text seem clever and intertextual, or, fail this, they cleave out narrative devices, such as the Holy Grail vis-a-vie the Fisher King, to augment their own morality tale or piece of political theater.
Aesthetically, we no longer see something which is a clearly defined Arthurian aesthetic (arguably one never existed since the medieval Arthurian idea was so heavily steeped in a Christian coating). As I said before, what could be vaguely defined as an aesthetic, has become subject to thievery by the other genres—a uniquely decorated, and important, cup becomes the Holy Grail, Sir Gawain’s Christianized armor is transmogrified into revolutionary modernity (A t-shirt with a political symbol on it), while King Arthur is reduced to any authority figure with a crown or pre-destined fate/career path. But, today, this appropriation takes on a deeper quality due in no small part to J.R.R Tolkien, but more specifically, Peter Jackson.
During the sixties and seventies, as we know, is when The Lord of the Rings truly came into its own. Imitators of all stripes started to write their own stories based loosely from or inspired by Tolkien’s original works. This is what we typically call the birth of so-called “High Fantasy”. It is fantasy with tall, battle ready elves, some kind of goblin/orc-foe, perhaps some trinket or weapon which needs to be destroyed, and a great evil rising on the horizon. If the Arthurian idea was a blockbuster in the Middle Ages, then the Tolkien idea is our epoch’s blockbuster, our own Arthurian idea reimagined.
But this presents a problem since the Arthurian idea has not vanished: Arthurian texts still remain and there still is a great deal of interest in both the King Arthur legend, Arthur-figure, and his narrative mythos. The Arthurian and Tolkien ideas co-exist. Neither has died.
I am not going to try and sketch out all of the difference between these two ideas, as that is really the work of some ambitious Ph.D. candidate (of which, I am not), but I will call attention to how powerfully Peter Jackson’s imaginings have retrospectively altered what we see as fantasy, to the degree, where the lines of demarcation between Tolkien and King Arthur have been blurred.
To me, it seems that writers are fusing both traditions together. They are taking parts from each and ending up with a hybrid form; after Peter Jackson’s re-telling, we have a Tolkien-inspired aesthetic which disseminated itself through popular culture. Once disseminated, young millennial imaginations, especially when they came of age, started to explore the Tolkien idea through their own encounters with prior fantasy (i.e., the Arthurian tradition). Whether or not that they knew they were encountering the Arthurian tradition is not relevant, as we see a focus on battle-elves, orc-creatures, and the like, while trappings of the Arthurian legend have been retained; today, it is hard to even differentiate the two influences since each are generic enough to blend into one another, yet just unique enough to warrant investigation by genre historians. The end result, of course, is that we have now a Tolkien-Arthurian Frankenstein’s monster which no one knows what to do with.
But, again, this is not to say that what is called the Arthurian-idea does not exist on its own, because it does, it is just that it has been greatly altered.
Modern Arthuriana is no longer interested, per se, of the Arthurian legend in itself. What modern writers are interested in is re-telling the Arthurian legend so as to deconstruct its conservatism.
Some writers, yes, use it as a re-telling to justify some long-lost conservative world which never was, such as T.H White, but others, such as Merriam Zimmer Bradley, use the legend to push a feminist reading and flesh-out the female subjectivity trapped within the mother text. But that is the point: that whether it is a feminist, Queer, or Post-colonial reading, contemporary writers, by and large, tend to only associate with the legend insofar as it acts as a template for their own politicized fantasy world.
Because of this, the aesthetic—whatever could really be called as such— becomes lost in the author’s own Frankensteinian aesthetic—it becomes less about the genre (Tolkien-Arthurian), less about the aesthetic, and more about the fusion of genre into aesthetic (and vice versa). The sign-systems are de-functionalized; whatever it meant to write a neo-Arthurian text or a neo-Tolkien text, no longer matters when compared to the author utilizing tropes and conventions from whatever ideas they borrow in order to build their own fantasy world re-imagined from pilfered pieces of other ideas.
Due to everything above, I do not see a great deal of reason as to why issues of genre and aesthetic should be thought of in relation to the Arthurian tradition. I am certainly not going to deride anyone who does think of these things, since, after all, an erudite investigation could yield fantastic results. It is just that for my own interests, in studying on the medieval and modern collide, genre and aesthetic are not as important as understanding the conceptual framework for how the legend survived into the modern and found its own expression among the ruins of postmodernity.