Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Our Kalamazoo Sessions Update


Here (at last) are the details of our upcoming session for Kalamazoo in May. I append author-supplied abstracts below as well, but please note these may have changed drastically by conference time.

Michael Torregrossa

What Is the Magic of Merlin? The Appeal of the Wizard in the Contemporary World: In Celebration of the Tenth Anniversary of the Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages (A Roundtable)

Saturday, May 19 3:30-5:00 PM
Session 484 (Bernhard 204)

Sponsor: The Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages

Organizer: Michael A. Torregrossa, The Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages

Presider: Mikee Delony, Abilene Christian University 

Paper 1: “Merlin as Cultural Signifier”
Perry Neil Harrison, Baylor University 

The wizard Merlin is undoubtedly one of the figures of the Arthurian legend that has most thoroughly permeated the public consciousness. Appearing in scores of books, films, and television adaptations, the presence of the magician is an expected aspect during any telling of Arthur’s story, often accompanied by expectations of a very specific role within the narrative structure. Likewise, the character of Merlin has experienced a long tradition of academic scholarship, perhaps most recently in Stephen Knight’s 2009 monograph Merlin: Knowledge and Power Through the Ages.

Yet, while Merlin is among the oldest and most perpetually present figures seen within the Arthurian legend, the current image of the wizard in contemporary popular culture differs tremendously from his appearances in the earliest Arthurian texts. The purpose of this study is to examine the portrayals of Merlin during the earliest depictions in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings, specifically his depiction as a figure that relies upon alchemy and drugs to bring about change rather than direct magical spells. Specific attention will be given to these early depictions of Merlin are indicative of larger cultural views concerning the malleability of the bodily form. Similarly, some time will also be spent examining the cultural shifts that are illuminated by the evolution of the magician’s portrayals in literature and, subsequently, film and television.

Paper 2: “The Hanged Man: Odin as the Original Merlin Wizard”
Chris Fields, Abilene Christian University 

Merlin is often held up as the archetypical wizard character, but in truth he's just the progenitor of the modern idea of the wizard. Not only can his character be traced into the present day to figures like Gandalf, but his himself harkens back to the Urtext of the "old wizard" archetype, the Norse god Odin. For this paper I will discuss how elements of Odin's character survived the destruction of pagan Norse religion and culture and eventually found themselves into the modern wizard, exemplified by Merlin

Paper 3:  “The Trickster Tricked: Transgressive Technologies and Forbidden Knowledge in Merlin Representations”
Susan Jeffers, Independent Scholar 

This paper will look at the transgressive technologies of sharing power in recent adaptations of Merlin. Is all power or knowledge meant to be shared? What happens when power or knowledge is given, stolen, or shared? How does this affect the romantic relationships between, for example, Merlin and Nimue, or possibly Merlin and Arthur? This paper will consider these questions drawing on the ideas of Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler for support. It may suggest that contemporary audiences prefer romances involving individuals of equally matched power, but remain uncomfortable with threats to traditionally masculine authority.

Paper 4: “Merlin the Underdog: Re-Writing the Past in Arthurian Film and Television Adaptations”
Heidi Breuer, California State University, San Marcos

Adaptations of the Arthurian legend have enjoyed a continuous popularity in U.S. film and television throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.  During the two decades surrounding the turn of the 21st century, visual presentations of the Arthurian legend often utilize a rhetoric of colonization and oppression to cast the magical figures, especially Merlin (but less frequently, Morgan le Fay) as heroic underdogs who use magic to help restore justice to an oppressed group of Celtic natives.  Whereas representations like Excalibur (1981) emphasize Merlin’s role in helping Arthur colonize surrounding lands, many films and television series from the 1990s and 2000s (including Merlin 1998, The Mists of Avalon 2001, King Arthur 2004, and The Last Legion 2007) reposition Merlin as a pseudo-Celtic freedom fighter.  U.S. film and television producers and directors, in particular, have utilized the Arthurian legend in representations that function to erase what bell hooks has called “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” by imagining an innocent, white, pre-colonialist past.

Paper 5: “Merlin’s ‘The Eye of the Phoenix’: The Search for Significance in a Desacralized World”
Hannah Gracy, West Virginia University [WITHDRAWN]

The tale of the Fisher King has been passed on and reinterpreted for centuries, from traditional Arthurian legends to allusions in contemporary television shows such as Breaking Bad. As in the rest of the Arthurian saga, the magic inherent in the Fisher King's story is one facet that continues to fascinate literary, artistic, and historical enthusiasts. While the romanticized chivalry of the knights of Camelot has inspired countless interpretations and adaptations, the mystery in which the legends are steeped, particularly that of the Fisher King, owes much to the blurred lines between the supernatural and the easily explicable.

The Merlin television series has recently seized on a new interpretation of the Fisher King in the episode “The Eye of the Phoenix”, an interpretation in which the wounded king is a sorcerer whose magic has kept him barely clinging to life through the centuries as his land turns to rot. In encountering the Fisher King, young Merlin realizes that he alone possesses the skills necessary to save Camelot in its coming time of peril. The fact that Merlin must hide his magic both in the Fisher King episode and throughout the series is a unique take on the Arthurian saga, in which for the most part magic and Christianity coexist with each other in a world of clear lines dividing good from evil. This need to hide one’s innate abilities parallels the increasing desacralization of modern American culture, a desacralization shown by my paper to suppress the human quest for significance as something nonexistent and therefore unachievable.

While the desire for one’s existence to matter is nothing new, Merlin shares the ways in which the individual’s continued search for significance has evolved in the twenty-first century. Although science continues to explain away many of the world's mysteries, this in no way has lessened humanity's search for the unknown or the unexplainable. Thus, rather than disappearing into the vaults of myth, the legends of Merlin and other magic-wielders, individuals who make their own significance, have gained prominence in twenty-first century America. This may seem incongruous at first with an increasingly forward-looking and secularized culture, but my paper will demonstrate that the obsession in Merlin with the secret practicing of magic parallels humanity’s continued, albeit at times embarrassed, search for significance in a continually desacralized world. This quest is epitomized in the tale of the Fisher King, a man shown in Merlin to have outlived the days of magic and mystery but who still desperately desires his life to have meaning.

Paper 6: “The Case of Merlin as an Illustration of Postmodernism in the Francophone Graphic Novel”
Clotilde E. Landais, Purdue University 

The figure of Merlin, either per se or under different avatars of the archetypal wizard, is a central figure in contemporary Fantasy: since the medieval Arthurian legend, Merlin has been present in many novels and short-stories, but also in other forms of narrative, such as movies and TV shows, songs, and graphic novels.

In most of these representations, Merlin or his counterparts are presented as the hero figure from the proto-legend: in Robert de Boron’s Estoire de Merlin, the wizard fathered by the devil chooses to do God’s work and places his great powers at the service of the kingdom of Logres. Across centuries, the character of Merlin evolves into the archetype of the good wizard, a mentor figure with infinite powers and infinite knowledge.

However, there are some exceptions to this representation, and the Francophone graphic novel is a case in point. Series such as Merlin by Joann Sfar and José Luis Munuera (Dargaud, 1999-2003) which imagines Merlin’s childhood, or Kaamelott by Alexandre Astier and Steven Dupré (Casterman, 2006-) which re-tells the Arthurian legend, present the wizard’s figure in a different light. Sfar and Astier’s Merlins are indeed depicted as anti-heroes, but not because they are evil – which could have been explained by some versions of Merlin’s medieval legend, such as Robert de Boron’s Prose Lancelot in which the wizard is said to have never done a good deed in his life. Sfar and Astier’s representations of Merlin are different because deeply anchored in humor: even though the wizard characters have the courage and the good will of their medieval model, they usually lack his powerful skills and extended knowledge and are characterized instead by clumsiness and foolishness.

Such a parodistic rewriting of a classic works, with notably the transformation of a hero figure into an anti-heroic one, is characteristic of the playfulness of postmodernism (see for instance Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. NY: Routledge, 2004). This presentation will show that, through the deconstruction of Merlin’s figure, the Francophone graphic novel anchors itself in postmodernism and in a self-reflection on the Fantasy genre and its motifs. The wizard figure is indeed a key motif in Fantasy, and its parody in the graphic novel – Merlin being the archetype of such a figure – is all the more significant that it does not occur as often in other media, such as the novel.

The graphic novel has always served as a critical tool of the society, especially in Belgium and in France. As the graphic novel is still considered a popular genre in these cultures which value intellectual qualities above all, I suggest that this parodistic rewriting of a figure such as Merlin, which embodies absolute knowledge, reflects a need for legitimacy. This inclusion of postmodern mechanisms in the Francophone graphic novel is thus a way to strengthen its literary identity and to assimilate itself into mainstream literature.

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