Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ye Olde Couch Potato

Most people don’t get super excited at the mention of Medieval English literature. I am among the few people who do, however, and in an effort to proselytize a bit, here are a few fun things that make Middle English Lit a bit more accessible and entertaining. The main ingredient? Television. While using TV to entice audiences to care about medieval literature is, perhaps, a little shameless, medieval lit actually translates quite well to the screen (when in the hands of a good adapter). As for tracking down the two television shows mentioned, some episodes are available on YouTube, some from the public library, and some through sneaky internet means which I, of course, know nothing about.

The first show is the Canterbury Tales series from BBC. This series presents six stories from the Canterbury Tales, each rewritten in a contemporary setting. Popular tales, such as The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Knight’s Tale, are included, as well as some of the less frequently studied stories, such as The Sea Captain’s Tale and The Man of Law’s Tale. Each tale is adapted by a different director, giving each episode a very different feel and atmosphere. The two most daring and successful reinterpretations are The Knight’s Tale and The Pardoner’s Tale. In the original Canterbury Tales, The Knight’s Tale is one of the least interesting, sticking to a medieval romance form, and with little of Chaucer’s bawdy humour. In the BBC series, however, the tale’s two imprisoned knights are replaced with prison inmates, and the princess whom they both love and fight over is replaced with the prison’s literacy instructor. Rather than a stiff and dull romance, this tale is transformed into a moving piece about friendship, love, jealousy, and redemption in the contemporary world. The Pardoner’s Tale, on the other hand, recasts the greedy clan of buffoons on their way to kill Death with three disturbed and violent thieves and rapists. The ring leader, the most despicable of the three, crosses the moral line of even his band of criminals, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the downfall of all three characters. Because Chaucer’s original allegorical tale casts Death as a main, yet absent, character, and because the wild goose chase to find Death would be particularly unbelievable to a contemporary audience, this tale presents significant problems when it comes to adapting the story to a contemporary setting. For this reason, the re-telling of The Pardoner’s Tale is the most impressive, while also the saddest and most disturbing.

The second show is Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. Most people are familiar with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but may not know that one of the sources of the movie’s indisputable awesomeness was co-director Terry Jones’ background as a medievalist. In Medieval Lives, Jones combines his wit and knowledge of the medieval period to produce an engaging and funny look at medieval history, including frequent references to medieval texts. The episodes each focus on a well-known and stereotyped type of medieval person, such as king, minstrel, knight, or damsel, and then proceed to dismantle the stereotype to reveal a more accurate image of each medieval life. The episode about the medieval damsel is one of the best installments, with its nods to the Paston women’s letters, and its neat summary of The Book of Margery Kempe. The episode about kings is also entertaining, with Jones retelling the stories of three King Richards.

In addition to these two shows, BBC also has frequent specials about subjects such as manuscript illuminations or old maps, and the library (in Calgary, at least) has a wealth of other shows and movies about the period. While it may seem a little frivolous to pursue an education in medieval literature by sitting in front of the TV, I think the medium is actually quite fitting. Story tellers, visual representations in texts, and reading out loud to a group were all much more popular in the middle ages, so reproducing early texts and histories for television is actually quite appropriate. So, grab a bottle of mead, pull up a chair, and start watching.

Helen Hajnoczky is actually really interested in Margery Kempe, but promises not to talk about it all the time. Her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.

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