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Playing Merlin: Authorship from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Neomedievalisms
By Keith Russo
PhD Dissertation, Western Michigan University, 2019
Abstract: The twenty-first century is the age of new media for old stories. Just as film, television, and print have adapted medieval literature into movies like Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, video games have produced new versions of Arthurian tales whose mysterious origins blur the distinction between history and myth. Many academics are concerned with the authenticity of the various representations of the Middle Ages and the “historical” Arthur and Merlin and label any post-medieval adaptation as an “anachronistic” medievalism.
However, electronic texts have provided a different focus: studying the multiplicity of rewritings of those names through the many different texts, genres, and media. The discourse of the innumerable different versions for the last millennium can be deemed as “playing” with the texts, according to Jean-François Lyotard’s game theory. Not only should this thread of study be acknowledged but encouraged. The reinvention of an older story into a new form is the essence of medieval literary authorship: borrowing from one’s sources to innovate a fresh version of the established story. Just as modern writers of every genre have adapted the most famous medieval characters, medieval writers played with their sources to produce their own myths.
Interestingly, the writers of each new version of the Arthurian legend have chosen Merlin as their avatar: he functions in each text as historian, author, and prophet. Merlin embodies the author’s struggle between myth and history, the relationship among the past, present, and future, and the process of reinventing old stories for the modern moment’s needs. Just as a player uses digital representation to interact with a game, popular and academic Arthurian authors have always been playing as Merlin. Beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s three works, The Historia Regum Britanniae, Prophetiae Merlini, and the Vita Merlini, and continuing through medieval texts, like the Roman de Brut, the Prose Merlin, and the Morte Darthur, this study demonstrates that there was never an authentic Merlin, but rather a series of representations of fables that masquerade as history. The final chapter explores medievalism(s) of print, film, and game to demonstrate that the way in which those technologies reinvent Merlin and Arthur’s kingdom are similar to their medieval authors’ negotiations of authority and innovation.