“Reading, Writing, Rowling” Episode 32: “Re-Enchanted: Medievalism, Children’s Literature, and Fantasy”
Discover the origins, influence, and magic of medievalist children’s fantasy literature in our conversation with Dr. Maria Sachiko Cecire about her new book, Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century (University of Minnesota Press).
In this episode, Katy and Emily talk with Dr. Maria Cecire (Director of the Center for Experimental Humanities at Bard College) about the importance of “minor” literary genres: medieval literature, children’s literature, and fantasy literature. Childhood and the European Middle Ages alike are often scorned as undeveloped periods of irrationalism and immaturity, but they are also important origin times during which the adult and the modern world are formed. Magic, belief, and innocence can be emphasized (against science, rationalism, and experience) in literatures directed toward these formative developmental periods. These “trivial” literary genres ultimately have a tremendous impact on our expectations for ourselves and our world, making childhood and the Middle Ages a common “psychological landscape,” Maria says, that becomes a focal point for our collective hopes and fears.
In the spirit of the season, we also connect contemporary ideas about Christmas with these ideas about medievalism, magic, and childhood. Both fantasy children’s literature and many of the “traditions” of Christmas celebration allow a bridge for adults into the enchanted realm of belief so characteristic of childhood. We consider the explicit references to Christmas in children’s fantasy literature, like Harry Potter, and its literary use as a portal for enchantment and belief.
Maria explains that the Anglo-medieval fantasy world typical of twentieth-century children’s literature came from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s development of a medievalist curriculum at Oxford University that influenced generations of fiction authors (including Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, and Philip Pullman). Maria also describes having “the moment” when she realized that she herself was not represented in this world, and so we explore the modern consequences of this specific, “white magic” vision of the British past. At the same time the British Empire was dwindling, these fantasy novels helped to create an “empire of the mind” in which an imagined English medieval past became and has continued to be extraordinarily influential. We talk about how Harry Potter follows on but also in some ways challenges this tradition.
If you’re looking for some magical “re-enchantment” this holiday season, don’t miss this episode or Dr. Cecire’s brilliant book!