I have often observed that Postmodern literature is very medieval. But this is the first year I have had trouble separating my pride in training up some medieval lit lovers and coaching the next generation of postmodern writers.
Let me back up. Postmodern literature (literature written after World War II—technically the literary movement that follows Modernism) is characterized by a sense of upending the rules of literature. In novels it can mean disregarding or breaking away from the Grand Narrative tradition—telling a story from a different perspective, or out of order, or with a narrator who is self-reflexive to the point of discussing how the book is progressing with the reader. Julian Barnes’s History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters tells the story of the great flood from the perspective of a woodworm. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler breaks up a self-reflexive narrative arc (where the Reader is a character) with ten other narratives– aborted “books” the Reader is trying to read.
Essentially, writing fiction becomes play.
How is Postmodernism medieval then?
Many of the tricks Postmodern authors use–playing with order of events, perspective, and amplifying the treatment of relatively small subjects—are all outlined as tricks to help one write in the blindingly contemporary (c. 1200-1215) Poetria Nova, The New Poetry of Geoffrey of Vinsauf. And Geoffrey says he got his best stuff from the Roman rhetorician, Cicero.
Geoffrey advocates taking a small subject like the love affair of one of the lesser known Trojan princes and telling that story as its own narrative. Something that got maybe four lines in The Iliad turns in to the Old French Romance of Troy, then Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, then William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. This is how medieval authors came up with new material.
It’s also how Postmodernists do the same thing.
It’s also how a significant number of my senior literature students made me particularly proud this quarter.
I taught an Introduction to Folklore class this spring. It had a pretty sweeping scope, from the “depth” text of the medieval Welsh Mabinogion, on which we spent nearly three weeks, to the “breadth” of an anthology of folktales from The Arabian Nights to the 20thcentury. Along the way I have students write an analytical paper, so they can figure out how these tales and conventions work well enough to explain it to others, and then they can choose to write more analyses or to write their own “folk tale,” since they know all about how it works.
What I got in several cases far exceeded my expectations. I got stories that made use not only of the folk motifs we studied in this class, but the literature and conventions some of them studied in other classes with me earlier in their careers. Some reused characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Old Norse myths. Some borrowed scenes from the Odyssey and Volsunga Saga. One told a tale (including Ovidian characters and fairy tale motifs) using tarot cards, a trope used by Calvino in his Castle of Crossed Destinies. One wrote a fairy tale for her second paper and then an analysis of her own tale for her final paper. Without my prompting, students took my assignment and ran with it in all manner of cool directions.
I am overjoyed and so very impressed. I am grateful. I am giddy. I am never going to stop giving students creative options. This kind of work means they’re not just learning the stories—they are—but they are also learning techniques, internalizing values, making the literature of the past their own. Nothing gives me more hope for a bright future than students who create boldly, applying what they learn to their own world, and ultimately imagining new worlds.
The kids are going to be ok, everyone. I promise.
(The image is the promotion image from the 2005 Terry Gilliam film The Brothers Grimm, which is also a Postmodern pastiche of multiple fairy tale sources, and this class’s last text.)