Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy

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Columbia University Press, 2003 - Literary Criticism - 521 pages
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Empire of Magic offers a genesis and genealogy for medieval romance and the King Arthur legend through the history of Europe's encounters with the East in crusades, travel, missionizing, and empire formation. It also produces definitions of "race" and "nation" for the medieval period and posits that the Middle Ages and medieval fantasies of race and religion have recently returned.

Drawing on feminist and gender theory, as well as cultural analyses of race, class, and colonialism, this provocative book revises our understanding of the beginnings of the nine hundred-year-old cultural genre we call romance, as well as the King Arthur legend. Geraldine Heng argues that romance arose in the twelfth century as a cultural response to the trauma and horror of taboo acts -- in particular the cannibalism committed by crusaders on the bodies of Muslim enemies in Syria during the First Crusade. From such encounters with the East, Heng suggests, sprang the fantastical episodes featuring King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle The History of the Kings of England, a work where history and fantasy collide and merge, each into the other, inventing crucial new examples and models for romances to come.

After locating the rise of romance and Arthurian legend in the contact zones of East and West, Heng demonstrates the adaptability of romance and its key role in the genesis of an English national identity. Discussing Jews, women, children, and sexuality in works like the romance of Richard Lionheart, stories of the saintly Constance, Arthurian chivralic literature, the legend of Prester John, and travel narratives, Heng shows how fantasy enabled audiences to work through issues of communal identity, race, color, class and alternative sexualities in socially sanctioned and safe modes of cultural discussion in which pleasure, not anxiety, was paramount. Romance also engaged with the threat of modernity in the late medieval period, as economic, social, and technological transformations occurred and awareness grew of a vastly enlarged world beyond Europe, one encompassing India, China, and Africa. Finally, Heng posits, romance locates England and Europe within an empire of magic and knowledge that surveys the world and makes it intelligible -- usable -- for the future.

Empire of Magic is expansive in scope, spanning the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, and detailed in coverage, examining various types of romance -- historical, national, popular, chivalric, family, and travel romances, among others -- to see how cultural fantasy responds to changing crises, pressures, and demands in a number of different ways. Boldly controversial, theoretically sophisticated, and historically rooted, Empire of Magic is a dramatic restaging of the role romance played in the culture of a period and world in ways that suggest how cultural fantasy still functions for us today.

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Have you ever wondered where the legend of King Arthur originally came from? Why, after a thousand years, is this romance so popular? With insights on subjects as diverse as King Arthur, Chaucer, and 9/11; Geraldine Heng's book "Empire of Magic" is an absolute tour de force that illuminates the secret history of medieval romance. Indeed, "Empire of Magic" is so shocking and engaging that it almost reads like a detective novel of sorts. Heng shows us the hidden (and sometimes horrifying) connections between medieval literature and medieval history in a way that is both unsettling and unforgettable. After all, who but a great detective could have uncovered links between the legend of King Arthur and acts of cannibalism committed by Christians during the first Crusade?
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in literature, history, or the Middle Ages, and is an incredible treat for anyone who likes intellectually stimulating reading of any variety. You will be amazed that reading about literature can be this mind-bending and fun.
Pick up this book. You won't regret it.
 

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About the author (2003)

Edward D. berkowitz is professor of history and public policy and public administration at George Washington University. He is the author of eight books and the editor of three collections. During the seventies he served as a staff member of the President's Commission for a National Agenda, helping President Carter plan for a second term that never came to be.

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