Reviews 2015

The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature

The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature. Clare Bradford. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 182 pages. $90.00 (hardback).

Clare Bradford’s The Middle Ages in Children’s Literature is part of the series Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, edited by Kerry Mallan and Clare Bradford. Bradford embarks on new territory in children’s literature criticism, looking at a wide-range of representations of the Middle Ages in contemporary children’s texts. Bradford acknowledges other works written from a children’s literature perspective which precede her, including Barbara Tepa Lupack’s Adapting the Arthurian Legends for Children (2004). However, much of this former work has come from medievalist studies, such as Stephanie Trigg’s Medievalism and the Gothic in Australian Culture (2006) and Velma Bourgeois Richmond’s Chaucer as Children's Literature (2004), making Bradford’s work foundational.

Due to the fact that the corpus texts are all written in a time far removed from the medieval, Bradford relies on Alan Robinson’s idea of the "present past"(qtd. in Bradford 11), i.e. writing about the past in order to effectively explore the present. For Bradford, "medievalist texts...are not 'about' the Middle Ages so much as 'about' the cultures and times in which they are produced" (2). In fact, the whole book alternates between examining texts in the light of the Middle Ages and modernity. The text’s scope is broad as Bradford looks at several different aspects of modern representations of medievalism, denoted by the seven different chapters, which begin at the broadest point of the spectrum ("Think about the Middle Ages") and ending with a more focused examination of humour in children’s literature ("The Laughable Middle Ages").

The corpus texts which Bradford uses cover a broad range, including picturebooks, children’s and YA novels, children’s films, and video games, and were produced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the vast majority from the past three decades. The characteristics of the medievalist texts chosen include fantasy which alludes to medievalist symbols (Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, 2004), the mythologized Middle Ages (Janice Elliott’s The Empty Throne, 1988), time travel between the Middle Ages and modernity (Lucy M. Boston’s The Stones of Green Knowe, 1976), and non-fiction (Terry Deary’s The Measly Middle Ages, 2013). Many of these choices are well-known, but Bradford carefully avoids discussing texts that have been over-researched. For example, in discussing the role of vampires in contemporary YA fiction, Bradford acknowledges Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series (2005-2008), but avoids an in-depth discussion of the widely discussed texts.

In her introduction, Bradford is careful to note the difference between the medieval and medievalism in the context of her study, counting the former as texts which were produced during the Middle Ages, and the latter as pertaining to texts which are set in or contain symbolism from the Middle Ages but which were written afterwards. This distinction sets up the rigorous tone of the study, as Bradford makes the case that contemporary literature written about the past is mostly about the present. This distancing, in effect, allows the author (and the reader) space to critique elements of society without necessarily realising that they are doing so. One such example is discussed in the chapter "Thinking about the Middle Ages": in Martin Baynton's Jane and the Dragon (1988). Jane, who longs to be a knight in a medieval society with restrictive gender roles, meets a dragon who fights only because he is also under societal obligation. The resolution involves them both getting what they want, not at all representative of the actual Middle Ages’s societal structure. Instead, as Bradford observes, the picturebook emphasises "many of the values and attitudes promoted to young girls in progressive contemporary societies" (23).

One of the weaker chapters in this otherwise solid piece of research is "Monstrous Bodies, Medievalist Inflexions." The chapter subject holds a lot of promise as Bradford notes that the use of monstrous bodies in texts for the young reflects not only the "cultural anxieties which hinge on rapid and unpredictable change [in society]," but also that the "audiences...themselves experience the bodily and psychological changes of puberty" (107). However, when Bradford discusses the texts specifically, the stories seem to take precedence over any argument being made. The section on fairies ("Mildly monstrous") is one of the more cohesive of the chapters, exploring the problematic fairy tale figures of the hag and young beauty in light of the "monstrous" male romantic leads, who are never portrayed as anything but heroes. However, the analysis of specific medievalist themes or motifs in these texts is often lost. In the chapter’s conclusion, Bradford even notes that the "deployment of medievalist elements is dispersed and allusive" (131), acknowledging the chapter’s tentative connection to the book’s overall theme.

Although the topics of the chapters are broad, Bradford is successful in building a convincing argument. One of the strongest is "Spatiality and the Medieval," wherein spaces typical of the Middle Ages, such as manor houses and gothic buildings, are explored as "inescapably hybrid, suggesting the politics and ideologies of different times and cultures" (63). The buildings are presented as offering a key link to the past, whether as a chance to act out the "heroism and adventure" of the "glamorised past" (65), such as in E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods (1901), or as justified racism accessed through medieval social structures connected to the gothic setting of Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy (2007). Bradford sets out to explore medievalism as it relates to modern society and succeeds in doing just that. Bradford’s command of the texts as well as the theoretical sources underscores her work, making it a notable introduction to the subject of the Middle Ages in children’s literature.

Ashley N. Reese
Independent researcher, USA