Sunday, February 09, 2014

Winter is ...oh, never mind.

by Mary Kate Hurley

First, read Jeffrey's icy reflections on his trip to Winnipeg, and don't forget to help Eileen and Karl's new project as it gets underway. 

One of the things that I took for granted in New York was that I had access to colleagues at more universities than I ever bothered to count, all a mere train ride away.  So it has been particularly wonderful that the last two weekends have involved travel to see colleagues in Knoxville, TN, and Columbus.  I'll write more about my wonderful visit to the Marco Institute for the yearly manuscript workshop they host soon, but first I wanted to share my story from this weekend.  I took the hour and change trip up US-33 yesterday to visit Ohio State University, and participate in Game of Thrones Day, a remarkable event hosted by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at OSU that combined Renaissance Faire-type revelry and hands-on demonstrations with scholarly papers by academics from across the country.  I was invited by Travis Neel, a graduate student in English at OSU (who blogs here) to participate in a roundtable discussion with Laurie Finke (Kenyon College), Travis himself, and Haylie Swenson, a graduate student at GW.  Each of these three speakers made fascinating contributions to the discussion at hand, which was "Getting Medieval(ish):  Locating Our Enjoyment in the Middle Ages."  Haylie spoke eloquently to the assemblage of human and animal involved in the work of animation in Dragonheart; Travis gave a whirlwind tour of the problem of time in medievalism and Dolce & Gabbana's amazingly "medieval" fall fashion line; Laurie led us carefully through a consideration of what medievalism and nostalgia are, and raised a question I'd never thought of before, which is why we root for the aristocracy in the series -- the Starks aren't really all that much better than the Lannisters, are they? Wonderful and serious discussion followed.

To these ruminations I added this little bit of fun that I worked up on two of my favorite things: some rather amusing musicians known as Paul and Storm, and ideas of temporal heterogeneity. There was an accompanying slide show, but I think just viewing the video will give you  most of the stills you need to enjoy the paper.  I should say this is a bit indulgent, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek (I'm aware, of course, of the ritual nature of this apology, because I have read my Dinshaw).  But as I devoted a few stray hours to simply close-reading a video I'd seen multiple times, I was surprised at how much I was able to find in it.  I hope you enjoy reading the paper as much as I enjoyed writing it.  And so without further ado:

"If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again..." 

One of the ongoing debates surrounding George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is the sheer length of time that this text is taking, and has taken, to come into being.  Unlike the stories I normally study – Legends of Arthur in medieval French, Beowulf, the Life of Saint Swithun (no, trust me, it’s great) – this admittedly gargantuan work can be a strange experience for scholars used to not simply a work but an oeuvre, and an entire LIFE being complete not years but centuries before anyone ever thought to write about it.  As an Anglo-Saxonist, however, I’m somewhat familiar with works that are unfinished, even incomplete, in ruins. The analytical difficulty of the incomplete work, when combined with the idea of the “medieval” that permeates critical responses to A Song of Ice and Fire, is irresistible for this medievalist – and, it would seem, to parodists as well.

Prompting a response from the master of Sci-Fi/Fantasy himself (Neil Gaiman – who forced its creators to apologize to Martin onstage at ComiCon), the song that I will analyze today relies, for the most part, on a ludic idea of what the “medieval” can be.  Written by that dynamic duo of the “nerd rock” genre – Paul and Storm -- Write like the Wind is something of an anthem for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, especially those who are simultaneously enthralled by Martin’s work and all too acutely aware of the sheer amount of time that work is taking to come to fruition.

It’s worth watching in its entirety, so – enjoy.

What I’d argue about the video – fun as it undoubtedly is – is that it also creates a layered temporal effect, whereby we can recognize in Martin’s story of infighting and intrigue a dim reflection of the modern age, made palatable by its very remoteness.  The medieval in the video, as in our lives, has always been there, waiting to be released – whether by an insatiable addiction to George R.R. Martin’s books or our fury, potentially violent, at their taking “so goddamn long.”

The first intimation of Paul and Storm’s personal “inner-medieval” is the brief flash at 0:39, when they both appear in pseudo-medieval outfits.  These are the kind of Renaissance Faire outfits that will gradually take over the main narrative of the music video. The moment is nearly throw-away in its brevity, but the importance of these frames that picture the duo in Ren-Faire attire, juxtaposed with their normal-life, performance outfits, is symptomatic of the layering of time that this video creates.  A “Medieval” version of Paul and Storm – fighting in their fantasy oufits – exists contemporaneously with the “modern” singers who perform the song itself, and these two realities are layered one on another, until finally, we can’t really tell where the lines delimiting performance and life begin and end.

The video is interspersed with footage of “medieval” Paul and Storm running wildly through the countryside on their way to a “final” confrontation – footage I think is meant to be reminiscent of the now-famous “Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli running” scenes of The Lord of the Rings, another medievalism-filled movie.  The effect is undeniable – the two singers rush toward one another just  they also rush towards their inevitable fate vis-à-vis Martin’s books – the “seed” that grows “into an addiction that held me right down to my bones.”  At 1:15, the knight’s helmet that Paul wears as they rock out to “please give us boiled leather, and sigils, and steel” marks another moment where the duo cross over the fantasy/reality line – he wears the helmet with  normal clothing, based on Storm’s attire in the admittedly brief scene.
The presence of Jeff Lewis, who wanders in and out of scenes, plays various instruments, and – most importantly – reads the mock-up version of A Dance with Dragons throughout the video, intimates a sense of the ubiquity of this fantasy life.  He does not involve himself in Paul and Storm’s “medieval” antics, but any astute observer will recognize the intertext of the moment. Lewis’s previous starring role was in a hit music video for nerd-girl Felicia Day’s web series The Guild, “Do You Wanna Date my Avatar?”, which was itself a parody of the medievalism inherent in games like World of Warcraft. Note the number of times he appears between the singing duo:  at the outset of the video, as they introduce their theme, he looks at both of them impassively.  At 1:03, he holds his guitar somewhat uncomfortably, not ready to join in their refrain (perhaps because he is still too exhausted from the reading he completed at the beginning of the video?). A mere six seconds later, he reappears, coming between Paul and Storm as they sing, and wandering through the background paging through the tome; at 1:16, he joins them to play a dice game that seems reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons, and in his next scene, he again throws the dice himself for another game– these two moments, taken together, seem to mark an entry into the world that Paul and Storm are creating in their medievalism.  At 1:53, he eats that ubiquitous sign of a “real” medieval faire – a turkey leg.  He joins the duo in a toast at the two minute mark, following directly on the line about Shakespeare’s artistic production rate.

Following Lewis through his journey towards the medieval is interesting, but it’s hardly the most important part of video’s medievalism.  In the second verse, the melding of medieval and modern continue, with nods both to medieval tropes and the medievalists who write them.  Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (an Anglo-Saxonist and Middle English specialist, respectively) make the list of fantasy greats who have written their stories in less time than Martin.  Importantly, the overlap between science fiction and fantasy medievalism is hinted at in the list – George Lucas, after all, took “nearly three decades on Star Wars, and we all know how that one turned out in the end.”  As Lewis wanders (again!) through the background of the video, Paul and Storm reach the crux of their argument for haste: “If you keep writing so slow,” they tell Martin, “you’ll hold up the HBO show.”

Martin’s glacial pace in writing the series was well known for fans of the fantasy books.  However, the pace of the books’ production was never quite so ubiquitously problematic until Game of Thrones became a runaway hit on HBO in 2011.  Bringing the work to the attention of non-self-identifying nerds became the impulse for a much more widespread dissatisfaction with Martin’s pace of writing.  Regardless of how HBO resolves this matter (most probably by departing from the series more than they already have), the fact that this show was such a hit underscores the implicit argument of the video itself – while they do so in parody, Paul and Storm create a convincing argument for the way that non-traditional “nerds” find the medievalism of the series so appealing.  They love it, because it’s already a part of them.

By the end of their video, medieval Paul and Storm are engaged in a contest that ends in a stalemate. Tossing aside shields, they draw swords, then bigger swords, then multiple swords, a gigantic axe, a pistol, a semi-automatic rifle, and finally a lightsabre, before Storm pulls the ultimate victory of medievalism – that turkey leg.  With it, he manages to knock out Paul, winning the erstwhile battle.  The final scenes include mock fighting, head injuries via turkey leg, some rather lame dancing, and finally Storm having embraced his new, victorious role, sitting in a mock-up of the iron throne.  He earns that throne as a result of the victory he just won over Paul; however, if you remember the beginning of the video, you’ll also remember that vacancy sign on the iron throne from the very first scenes in the faux-medieval layer of the video.  Our protagonist, it would seem, has finally come full circle.

The allegory – if you’ll permit me a medievalist-ism -- is clear: people who are not traditionally “nerdy,” and who may very well never have heard of Martin before the HBO series premiered, find the medieval only in its last iteration – that is, in the television series. And yet, it has in fact been there waiting for them all along.  These two “nerd rockers” – “cool” singers with guitars who open for Jonathan Coulton --  have all the while harbored a desire for another time, when they were knights doing battle.  In this, they stand in for everyone, nerds and non-nerds alike.  They were prepared for this other time because it’s co-extant with their own – Martin’s medievalism, or at least a real-world parallel to it, exists in counterpoint with modern time. Time, layered in reality and fantasy alike, has always been heterogeneous, with elements of the medieval – real and unreal – coexisting with our technological modernity.  We’re always already medieval – medievalists, and medievalism-junkies – especially, it would seem, when Winter is Coming.

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