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Morgana's Shoes

I tripped over someone being terribly amused and superior about the clothes and setting of the BBC TV series Merlin - again.   Oh dear, the clothes are not medieval!  Oh dear, the modern shoes!  Oh dear, the modern idiom!

This made me go hmmmmmm. After all, this is a story that probably has most of its roots set around 450-550ADish, in a period that is almost completely undocumented, for which even the archaeology is confused and confusing.

The written sources for those confused roots are from documents from almost 400 years later. And then, they provide no story that is in any way recognisable as the 'Arthurian story' as people think of it today -  and they don't mention Morgana, who may be in origin a goddess or a spirit rather than a historical person anyway.

Should Morgana be wearing shoes from 500AD?  From 450?  From 550?  Should she be wearing shoes from Somerset, or shoes from Newcastle, or shoes from Brittany?

Maybe she should be wearing shoes from the twelfth century, because of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or whatever kind of shoes the Welsh goddess Modron wore -  assuming we can find an appropriate archaeological or artistic reference for early British Goddess-shoes?  

Maybe, she should be wearing shoes from the first century BC, because in the French romances she has a liaison with Julius Caesar, or thirteenth century shoes, because that's when those romances were written, and so those shoes are probably what the writers would have visualised her wearing?

Or maybe her shoes should be from the fifteenth century, because Malory's version of the story is quite close to the one that is most familiar to us?  Or perhaps nineteenth century shoes would be best, to fit in with Walter Scott and Tennyson?

So far as I can see, we have a range of Possible Appropriate Shoes for Morgana that ranges well over a thousand years, and you could reasonably argue for two thousand.

Morgana is not a person from history, so I'm not sure why her shoes would be from history either.  The Arthurian legends are not history.  They have no 'authentic' time when they are set.   They are self-contradictory accretions of story that sprawl across so many centuries that almost nothing is consistent - not even the identity of the king, or of his enemies.   Mocking the inauthenticity of the shoes is a drop in the ocean when the entire story and all the people in it are inauthentic to any time period more specific than Yore.

The story and the characters are fantasy, not historical fiction.  The presence of griffons and the ability to cure everything with a decoction of comfrey may hint in this direction.

As I see it, there is this odd idea that history is history, and fantasy is fantasy, and anything before Tolkien must be history. But of course Tolkien didn't invent fantasy.  Fantasy is just what history used to be, before it decided to cut its hair and get a job.  I am undecided whether fantasy is nowadays history that has decided not to sell out, or if it is just history's weird hippy uncle that wanders around smoking odd things. 

Comments

( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
parrot_knight
18th Aug, 2013 22:47 (UTC)
I have been known to annoy fellow-historians (when I was actually in post) by musing on the job of the historian not involving destroying myths, only explaining them.
bunn
18th Aug, 2013 23:06 (UTC)
I'd make a terrible academic historian. I like stories way too much...

I wonder what a world with historytellers would be like, as opposed to a world with historians? Although I have a suspicion that the world may even now contain more historytellers than historians, but daren't admit it. :-D
(no subject) - parrot_knight - 18th Aug, 2013 23:12 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 11:53 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - parrot_knight - 20th Aug, 2013 01:11 (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
philmophlegm
19th Aug, 2013 08:15 (UTC)
Sir Thomas Malory meets Jack Vance!
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 14:47 (UTC) - Expand
marycatelli
19th Aug, 2013 01:22 (UTC)
I think Vera Chapman handled King Arthur best in modern novels. She plopped the entire High Middle Ages set-up into dawn of the Dark Ages Britain, straight from the romances, and ran with it.

What I really love is the "gritty" "realistic" ones that tell the true story -- and then throw Lancelot and Galahad into the mix as if they weren't added much letter. You get much the same effect with Robin Hood where we get the "realistic true story" treatment with Maid Marian, and Friar Tuck, and even Allan-a-Dale.
bunn
19th Aug, 2013 14:48 (UTC)
I should revisit Vera Chapman, I've not read her for years.... I'm having a bit of an Arthurian binge at the moment and reading lots of different retellings!
ningloreth
19th Aug, 2013 01:32 (UTC)
Fantasy is History on hallucinogens ;-)

I don't think it's real historians who worry about things like Morgana's shoes, because real historians recognise non-history and, in any case, know how little we know.

I've actually been criticised for giving elves underwear 'because people didn't wear underwear in the Middle Ages'* and for showing elves having affairs 'because you have to understand that elves are like Mediaeval Europeans' -- that was from someone who 'knew' about Mediaeval morality because she was a re-enactor. I pointed out that there was no such thing as a single, unified Mediaeval culture, and she went quiet (though I think she was thinking Victorian!Mediaeval).

* I've recently seen photographs of Mediaeval bras, so Eowyn now wears an 'under bodice', though the German term apparently translates as 'breast bags'.
wellinghall
19th Aug, 2013 07:39 (UTC)
In the Jackson films, Eowyn appears to be wearing very early-2000s underwear. In future, it's going to look as dated as Liz Taylor in Cleopatra.
(no subject) - philmophlegm - 19th Aug, 2013 08:17 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - 19th Aug, 2013 09:57 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellinghall - 21st Aug, 2013 10:14 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 09:31 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ningloreth - 19th Aug, 2013 10:43 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ningloreth - 19th Aug, 2013 10:29 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 12:03 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 14:49 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ningloreth - 19th Aug, 2013 21:05 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 21:09 (UTC) - Expand
lindahoyland
19th Aug, 2013 03:01 (UTC)
Thanks for making me smile.
bunn
19th Aug, 2013 14:39 (UTC)
Thank YOU for smiling! :-)
ladyofastolat
19th Aug, 2013 06:36 (UTC)
I love it when people object to things like Merlin for "departing from the original story," the "original story" being "whatever version of Arthurian legend I happened to read when I was 10." You get the same in folk song, too, when people get very sniffy about versions that "change the original," seemingly unaware of the fact that there is no original; 150 different versions were collected c. 1900, and doubtless 100,000 other slightly different ones existed, but went unrecorded. The whole point of folklore is that there is no One True Version, and every person/community/age puts their own spin in it - kind of like a Wikipedia in which all the older versions continue to exist alongside the newest one - but modern people seem to find this very hard to understand. They want their One True Original Correct Version, no matter what.

Which is all kind of only tangentially relevant to Morgana's shoes. :-D
bunn
19th Aug, 2013 09:34 (UTC)
Is it a modern thing? It seems to me likely that 'the way MY Dad told the story' has spent a long time warring with 'Over in Winchcombe, they say X, the utter fools! ' :-D
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 09:39 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - parrot_knight - 20th Aug, 2013 01:16 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 20th Aug, 2013 07:28 (UTC) - Expand
wellinghall
19th Aug, 2013 07:38 (UTC)
We note that "Arthurian Mythos" is a near-anagram of "Anachronisms R Us" ...
bunn
19th Aug, 2013 09:01 (UTC)
*cheers loudly*

(well OK, heard it before. But it's still a good 'un :-D)
ladyofastolat
19th Aug, 2013 07:38 (UTC)
I've been Thinking in the shower (so, Long Comment alert!), and have decided that Fantasy and Historical Novel exist on a continuum, with a lot of blurring at the middle.

There's things like Robin of Sherwood, full of magic and the trappings of fantasy, yet anchored in a specific historical time (Prince John/Richard I).

Then there's the historical AU fantasy. I've read several set in the Crusades, in which the real historical events unfold pretty much as they did in reality, except for the fact there are elf mages throwing fireballs around.

There are things set 100% in a made-up world, but written by an author who has clearly decided that in terms of weaponry, costume etc. this world is exactly like England in 1317, and has clearly meticulously researched it.

There are Mills and Boon style "historical" romances, which bear very little resemblance whatsoever to any real history.

I've written historical AU fanfics myself, in which I've put modern day characters in the past, and I've scrupulously researched the period I'm setting it in... but make a conscious decision to have their all continue to talk in their modern day idiom and continue to sound like themselves.

There are apparently straight historical novels, that suddenly reveal on p. 495 that fortune telling is real and that witches have real power. Though this could be a case of the personal belief of the author, since if you believe in these things yourself, then their appearance in a "historical novel" doesn't make it fantasy.

Still not sure if this comment is relevant to Morgana's shoes, though. :-D
bunn
19th Aug, 2013 09:26 (UTC)
What about all the authoritative histories, (many told in wonderful Victorian sweeping prose) now considered hopelessly old-fashioned and incorrect?

I particularly wonder about the versions of history that have not so much been swept aside by new evidence, as those that have been revised because someone looked at exactly the same set of documents and came up with a different story for them. They seem to get no love! But if they are not history any more, then what are they?

I do like the 'straight historicals' that suddenly have a ghost or something, because it seems to me to be a form of fantasy in itself to have everyone behaving in a rational and scientificly-justified manner (maybe it's a form of science fiction?).

People with higher education in 21st century first world countries still see ghosts, spend money on crystals to stare into for healing, and worry about having forgotten their lucky pants, so it seems ...odd ... to have all the people in the first century proceeding in a more rational and reasonable manner.
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - 19th Aug, 2013 10:04 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 11:15 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - 19th Aug, 2013 11:36 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - 19th Aug, 2013 10:09 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 19th Aug, 2013 12:19 (UTC) - Expand
louisedennis
19th Aug, 2013 14:10 (UTC)
It always bemuses me when people criticize Merlin for lack of historical accuracy since, quite apart from anything else, that seemed to me to be something that Merlin very explicitly was not trying to do - it all seemed set up to evoke rather explicitly the "storybook middle ages" (where people are clean and live in shining pointy castles and have beautiful extravagant dresses) rather than the real middle ages.
bunn
19th Aug, 2013 14:54 (UTC)
Exactly! Not so much medieval (whatever period that word actually covers) as *storybook*.

I suppose people are entitled to gripe that they would prefer a properly-medieval Arthurian retelling to a storybook one, but it seems odd to confuse the two.

A modern audience might find a medieval version a bit baffling though. I can think of several post-Roman/Dark Age TV / film versions, and Excalibur and Monty Python are I suppose sort of Victorianish, but I can't think of a trying-to-be-high-medieval version.
(Deleted comment)
bunn
21st Aug, 2013 21:17 (UTC)
I can *cope* with cod-epic, as long as it doesn't blatantly misuse words, which ... not as uncommon as you'd hope. :-/
carmarthen
20th Aug, 2013 06:08 (UTC)
I really enjoy historically-grounded Arthurian stuff, in theory, and I'm okay with putting Lancelot in the Dark Ages if authors can come up with a way to do so that works within the setting they've chosen, but it's definitely not the only way to do Arthurian retellings--and pretty clearly not what the Merlin folks were going for.
bunn
21st Aug, 2013 21:19 (UTC)
Oh definitely - I think the joy of Arthuriana is that if you want to have Dark Age Lancelot then you jolly well can.
( 42 comments — Leave a comment )

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