Rolling, sunbathed meadows, pastures littered with sheep, their fleece as white as fresh snow, bare-foot children running through the not-so-dirty dirt road that weaves through a quaint village, comprised of wooden huts with straw roofs. Hard working men in plaid shirts labor in the radiant sun, forging, crafting, building. And all this is seen through the eyes of a comely knight-errant striding atop his gorgeous charger.
A pretty picture, to be sure, and one that most of us know all too well. Few things are more reassuring than the highly romaticised vision of the Medieval countryside. It’s simple, it’s naturalistic and wholly void of any sort of pretension or malignant thought. The Shire is a wonderful example of this very sentiment, a place of innocence in the face of the hardship and danger that grip the world around. And therein lies the allure of these tales, of this idyllic imagery – they are the pinnacle of escapism. Every one of us has, at some point in our lives, be it at a time of unbearable stress or existential desperation, dreamed of a simpler world, one where purpose is easy to discover, adventure hides behind every corner, as does opportunity, and social mobility is as quick and easy as wielding a blade in combat. To hell with the details, to hell with the technicalities of reality in the Middle Ages, historical accuracy needn’t have a central place in a fairy tale. Think of Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale – the story of a peasant that dons a knight’s suit of armor and takes part in jousting tournaments in said knight’s name, earning both himself and his friends coin and renown. The movie shamelessly borrows from true historical tales, as well as from other pieces of fiction. It combines classic rock (Queen, David Bowie) with a story that, at its core, is quintessential example of chivalric romance. It’s truly a dreamy experience (though, from a purely cinematic standpoint, it’s far from perfect).
But the desire for simplicity goes beyond the dream of a world that is easier to understand. In the age of the precariat, one wishes for a higher meaning, to discover his true calling in life, that which would fulfill and satisfy him. Economic insecurity turns man into machine, constantly performing repetitive tasks, until being summarily shut down. Wage stagnation and income inequality are some of the biggest hurdles that the generations to come must overcome, especially if the rise of the precariat class is to be stemmed – labor productivity grows much faster than wages and there are only so many hours in the day. In this climate of uncertainty and rampant class disproportion, it’s no wonder that the individual would look for reprieve in a magical place where the worker receives the fruits of his labor, where evil is black and good is white and one can easily hack evil to bits with their trusty sword if need be. Even nuanced works that borrow heavily from the history of Medieval Britain like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire feature a faction or party that is clearly morally superior and, sooner or later, receives a chance to retaliate, to exact vengeance upon those who wronged both it and the surrounding world.
The other crucial component of Medieval romanticism is the knight – typically a wanderer, lone wolf or one with a small pack, rarely displaying more than a limited array of emotional responses. The knights-errant are influential stoic characters, precursors to action movie badasses, as portrayed by the likes of Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wesley Snipes. And why is any of this particularly important? Because a strong character, one who is physically able and mentally sound, who lives a fulfilling life and is constantly confronted with something new, offers the opportunity for the reader, viewer, or player to live vicariously through this protagonist’s experiences. In an age where depression is becoming an ever more serious issue to public health, there is no wonder that some individuals turn to mediums such as gaming and film to explore aspects of life that are inaccessible to them in their current state. Becoming famed monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia in the Medieval Europe-inspired world of the Witcher offers something that a person suffering from severe anxiety or chronic depression may never experience otherwise. Likewise, watching The Seventh Seal, a film in which Max Von Sydow, a knight returning from the Crusades, finds Europe enveloped by the Black Plague and plays chess with Death, might bring the viewer closer to realizations that he’d never have reached himself, might even help him on a profoundly intellectual level.
Or maybe it’s all harmless diversion and my Occam’s razor simply hasn’t been sharpened in too long.