The retelling of old tales is not simple reiteration. The old tales come instead in variations, which are “repetition with a difference” (Derrida). Modern science fiction and fantasy tales take advantage of older stories to add vividness and verisimilitude through allusions and borrowings. These revenants of earlier stories allow for a single reference to bring to mind a cornucopia of ideas, symbols, and themes already attached to the medieval text. This only happens, however, if the audience of the work has the frame of reference to recognize the stories and their implications; thus the existence of early medieval revenants implies a cultural literacy much more widespread than many academics perceive.
Fantasy frequently takes advantage of the allusion aspects of retelling by setting the story in medieval or seemingly medieval ages (Goodrich 165). Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon series does this. So does William Goldman’s book and its movie adaptation The Princess Bride. More recently J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has medievalisms within it, as the school is in a castle, and hearkens back to the medieval bestiaries with its collection of unusual pets.
This purposeful medievalism is not the end of the revenants in speculative fiction however. Instead, there are a plethora of textual referents with the most popular medieval revenants involving Arthur, Merlin, and other characters from the Arthurian tales. These, in fact, are so popular that there is a website which deals only with Arthur reinterpretations in comics (Arthur of the Comics Project Blog). Because the Arthurian tradition in science fiction and fantasy is so strong, I am going to ignore it completely. Otherwise you would be reading for hours just for a list of the works involving Arthur in modern popular fiction.
Instead, what I would like to point out is the popularity of ancient stories, which originally appeared in or were primarily popular in Old and Middle English, which have survived and been reintroduced into popular literature. According to Fradenburg, there appears to be a “vast popular knowledge” of medieval works (209), so that even with a non-Arthurian limitation, there are still myriads of texts that refer to earlier English-language literature, perhaps many of which I have not yet read or recognized. The ones I will point out, however, indicate that cultural literacy in the stories of the Western canon remains fairly high, at least among those writing and reading in the speculative fiction genres.
Cultural literacy must be strong within this audience because what use would a reference be if the referent were unintelligible to the readers? True, an archaic reference might add some prideful shine to a story for the author, but it would add nothing to the audience’s experience of the tale. Stories with failed references are usually failed stories. Thus, the fact that these revenants exist in popular literature attests to the continued resonance of these earlier stories in our culture, however they may have been transferred. Some, D’Arcens for example, even argue for a strong resurgence in medievalism, both in academia and in popular culture indicating a growing cultural literacy in terms of medieval history and texts (81).
Beowulf is a popular early source for speculative fiction borrowings. The use of Beowulf in modern science fiction and fantasy tales includes quotes from the poem itself, quotes in Old English, a character identified as Grendel whose story includes a historical discussion of the poem, and nomenclature from the epic. All of the authors discussed, while not mainstream, are successful science fiction and fantasy authors with multiple series in print; they include Christopher Stasheff; Patricia Briggs; Larry Niven, Steven Barnes, and Jerry Pournelle; David Weber; and Eric Flint.
In his book The Oathbound Wizard Christopher Stasheff uses quotes from Beowulf as an incantation for magical conjuring. The main character, Matt, a modern graduate student transported to a parallel and medieval universe, begins to quote from Beowulf during a battle. In this world poetry can be wielded by wizards to create those persons and events described in the poem. Matt invokes Grendel to stop a sorcerer’s magic and after putting Grendel to good use in defeating the sorcerer’s army, sends Grendel away, not to die, but to remain at home, with a slight change in the verse. When the others in Matt’s party asked how he managed to stop the evil warriors, he says, “That’s an old story… and a reasonably long one” (193).
Then he proceeds to tell it to them, though the lines he uses to start the story telling are not poetic, since he does not wish to invoke the horror once again, but a fairy tale beginning: “Once long ago and very far away, a hero named Hrothgar built him a hall, hight Heorot” (193). To this point Grendel had been the invocation, but the tale, as told off page, caused the troupe’s eyes to widen as they “listened to the wondrous tale of the hero Beowulf” (193). By telling the tale of Beowulf, Matt moves the focus away from his recent amazing actions and onto a more traditional warrior hero. Perhaps one would expect such repurposed tale-telling on Stasheff’s part, since he is a literature professor (Her Majesty’s Wizard 343), but as a literature professor one would also expect that he would understand the limitations of his audience’s knowledge of the work, and yet he invokes the fierce monstrousness of Grendel with no revealed explication. The characters in the book hear the story but the readers are expected to already know it.
In her presentation of the Beowulf legend, the next author not only references the Beowulf poem, but offers an explication for the transformation of the Beowulf story from the true tale she relates to the literary epic we recognize today. She is not a literature professor, but studied history in college (Mike Briggs).
Patricia Briggs, in her Alpha and Omega werewolf series, references Grendel as background for the development of the mysterious werewolf leader, giving him a point of origin which is far more real and geographically located than others of his age.
In the book Cry Wolf, Bran, the Alpha werewolf of the North American continent, is trapped by a witch. During this horrible experience the readers are informed that this has happened to Bran before. Centuries earlier his witch-mother had him Changed into a werewolf. After his Change, he lived for years under her thumb and then, when he was able to break free and kill her, he went berserk. For decades, perhaps centuries, Bran as Grendel ravaged the area where he lived, destroying all humans who ventured into his forest. Then, in a slightly Monty Python-esque way, he got better and walked away from his aspect as Grendel in the form of a Welsh bard. In Briggs’s work there is no Beowulf, unless, in a not-yet-released publication, this hero turns out to be Bran’s, and thus Grendel’s, son, who is the one who helped Bran tame the “darkness within.”
Unlike Stasheff’s references to the poem, which are translations, Briggs uses an Old English quote to reference Grendel, “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfaeger,” but translates it when a character reasonably asks for its meaning. This is the only use of Old English in the series to date, yet its inclusion argues in favor of cultural literacy in that the language itself is one rarely studied outside of academic circles. In fact the use of the Old English, a visibly foreign language, requires that the readers understand something that my students have trouble with; Old English is not what Shakespeare spoke.
This common misunderstanding of what is meant by Old English will most likely change soon, because Mel Gibson is making a Viking movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which is being scripted in Old English and Old Norse (Faraci).
In her novel Briggs describes the changes between her tale and the epic poem by saying that the tale was a compilation; “Grendel owed something to Bran’s time as a beserker, as he did to other stories handed down over the centuries” (Cry Wolf 263). This explanation of why her story differs from the epic poem is a way of arguing for authenticity, which, in a fictional work, is seriously questionable anyway.
Another argument in favor of Beowulf being well-known within American culture comes from an unlikely trio of authors, Niven, Pournelle, and Barnes. Niven was a mathematician before becoming a writer. Pournelle has two Ph. D.s, one in psychology and the other in political science (Reisner). Barnes dropped out of college, with an uncompleted degree in communication arts (Govan).
These three men have a space odyssey, Legacy of Heorot, whch begins with a reference to Hrothgar’s hall in the title and progresses through a metamorphoses of alien life out of their watery home and onto land, becoming carnivorous grendels. The sequel specifically references the Old English poem with its title of Beowulf’s Children and a character in the book is Old Grendel, a mother and one of the carnivorous native life forms which is intelligent and eventually makes contact with the human aliens of the planet.
In David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, Beowulf is a planet, home of the most skilled geneticists in the human universe, and Grendel is the capital city. However, in the co-authored book Torch of Freedom the names also come into play as the characters of the poem. After it is discovered that the planet Beowulf is the target of a planned takeover, a character says, “you're going to see the rage of Beowulf unleashed in the universe” because the people of Beowulf will “finally take down Grendel,” and the response will be immediate “once they learn the monster has a mother after all” (Weber and Flint, chapter 63). In this novel, the genetically manipulative slavers are transformed into Grendel and the secretive cabal, which plans to take over the universe for the genetic purity of all and is the ruling force behind the slavers, is revealed as Grendel’s mother.
In this work we again find non-literature majors wielding Old English tales with a flourish. The authors are Eric Flint who had three years in a Ph. D. program in history before he quit (Flint) and David Weber who owned and operated a PR firm (“About”).
Most of these speculative fiction authors were not English literature specialists, yet their work hearkens very specifically to an Old English tale whose popularity re-emerged with Tolkien’s 1937 article, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.” They reference the poem without retelling the story, assuming that readers will understand the reference. This assumption indicates an expectation of cultural literacy at least in knowing the broad outlines of the tale of Beowulf.
Though Beowulf is a major literary poem which is frequently referenced in science fiction and fantasy literature, there are other early revenants, even Old English revenants.
For example, in one of the 1634 series, Eric Flint, with his coauthor Virginia DeMarce, references Judith. In this section of The Ram Rebellion there is the tale of a woman taken unwillingly into a sexual relationship and her willingness to kill the man who forced her into this situation. The text specifically identifies this female character with “Judith with the head of Holofernes” (691). (I recognize that this is possibly a misidentification of the deuterocanonical book of Judith and there is some justification for that argument, since the Judith of the story offers to pierce his brain with a spike, which is what Jael did to Sisera in the Old Testament book of Judges (4). In that case, this is an argument against biblical literacy since the two stories are conflated.)
Medieval legends also offer fodder for science fiction and fantasy stories. These can range from tales which were written down in the middle ages to those which were said to have taken place during the medieval era.
Two tales which were originally written down in the 1260 text Golden Legend appear in Gordon R. Dickson’s Dragon and the George series. The first is the story of St. George and the dragon while the second is the story of the flight of the biblical Jesus and his family to Egypt.
In The Dragon and the George humans are called Georges in honor of the Knight of the Red Cross, as preserved in the 1260 Golden Legend. The main character is transformed into a dragon and finds out what dragons think of the Georges, making alliances with them along the way.
The other medieval revenant used in this series by Dickson is the retelling of the flight of the Christ child and his family to Egypt, where they are met by dragons. This story, which can be found in Pseudo-Matthew chapter 18, was popularized in Golden Legend and is used to great effect in The Earl, the Troll, and the Dragon.
The same book uses the story of Wenceslas, an early king of Bohemia, to allow an atheist to properly celebrate a medieval Christmas. The main character is called upon to sing a Christian Christmas carol and, not wanting to offend, chooses “Good King Wenceslas” which is reproduced in its entirety in the novel.
The tales of Wenceslas include an accompanying legend that says he sleeps with a group of knights in the mountain ready to come out at need to protect the homeland. This tale has also been associated with Charlemagne and it is the Charlemagne version that Christopher Stasheff uses in his book The Oathbound Wizard. The series takes place in an alternate universe just a few generations past Charlemagne, and in this novel, Charlemagne and his knights are waiting in a mountain cave to awaken at need. In fact, they rouse a bit from their slumbers when Charlemagne’s heir brings the main character for training in the knightly virtues.
The same series also includes popular medieval tale of Prester John, a legendary Christian king who ruled a kingdom in the East. In The Feline Wizard Prester John is a much-sought-after king who rules a very enlightened and isolated kingdom.
In the first book in this series, Christopher Stasheff said he intended to present Catholicism as it was believed in medieval Europe (Her Majesty’s Wizard 343). Thus there is a purposeful medievalism in the novels which allows for the invocation of earlier tales. But the appearance of the literary revenants argues that Stasheff, at least, believes that his audience will already be familiar with the tales.
The multiplicity of revenants from early medieval works, of which those mentioned are but a handful, indicates that there is an expectation of cultural literacy regarding these texts. Certainly the multiple variations of Beowulf indicate that its influence goes far beyond the English literature classroom. Perhaps Stasheff, as an English academic, assumes a far greater cultural literacy than the average author, but even authors outside of academia reference and engage with early medieval texts, thus reintegrating them into popular culture and reinforcing their importance.
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Briggs, Mike. “The Obligatory Biography.” Patricia Briggs.com. 2005. Web. 2 February 2010.
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D’Arcens, Louise. “Deconstruction and the Medieval Indefinite Article: The Undecidable Medievalism of Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale.” Parergon 25.2, 80-98. 2008. Web. 14 December 2009.
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Goodrich, Peter. “Magical Medievalisms and the Fairy Tale in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence.” The Lion and the Unicorn, 12.2, 165-177. December 1988. Web. 2 January 2010.
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---. The Legacy of Heorot. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. Print.
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Stasheff, Christopher. The Feline Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 2000. Print.
---. Her Majesty’s Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 1986. Print.
---. The Oathbound Wizard. New York: Del Rey, 2004. Print.
Weber, David and Eric Flint. Torch of Freedom. Wake Forest, NC: Baen Books, 2009. Ebook.