The war, as I have said, severed the connection to the medieval past through the brutality it inflicted on the land it touched and on those who participated in it. The stories of Captain Nevill and those like him—and there are many—continuously remind us of this fact. They tell us it is most emphatically not dulce et decorum to pro patria mori. Their irony remains a perpetual critique, and irony has defined the genre of war literature ever since.
After the fire comes new growth. A new approach to medieval history arose from the narrative wasteland of the postwar period. The history of the Middle Ages written after the Great War does not manage to entirely escape the nationalistic and antiquarian impulses of the prewar period, but it is aware and wary of them. The scope of the narrative expands, and for the first time, scholars begin to take a serious interest in those on the margins of their sources: heretics, the poor, women. The 1920s saw the birth of the Annales school and the beginnings of American medieval scholarship (the Medieval Academy of America was founded in 1925). With these changes came a new emphasis on original sources and, thankfully, citation. An example: in 1927, Ernst Kantorowicz published his great biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite certainly reflected the nationalistic fervor that defined Kantorowicz and the late Wiemar milieu that shaped him, but the book was not simply another ‘great man’ history. Kantorowicz sought after what the Annalistes had begun to call ‘mentalité‘—an understanding of Frederick as a person, of how the emperor saw the world, and not a simple listing of great deeds and decisive victories. And Kantorowicz could back up his claims. When critics dismissed his book as a Romantic flight of fancy—a criticism which could have been rightly leveled at almost any work produced twenty years earlier—Kantorowicz responded with a massive Ergänzungsband listing his sources and defending his arguments.
This radical shift in the scholarly approach to the medieval period was a response to the criticism leveled at the Romantic imaginary by the Great War. The old tropes and assumptions could no longer be taken as givens; irony had turned them all on their heads. The practice of history shifted to compensate. The broader and less nationally-oriented approach constituted an acknowledgement that much of what had come before had been myth-making and not fact-finding. But the old impulse behind historical inquiry, the one that sought out the legendary past as a pathway to individual and national identity, had fulfilled a very basic human need. The new history of the postwar period could not satisfy it; it needed another outlet. Unable to place such narratives in a historical reality, we turned to myth, and we called this myth ‘fantasy’ to to emphasize its distance from (historical) truth. This re-positioning is evident in the major works of the two great fantasy authors of the postwar period: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis is straightforward in his allegory. With The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he extracted an old foundation myth—that of Christianity itself—and transported it into the fantasy setting of Narnia. By thus extracting Christianity from the wrapping of reality, Lewis removed it from debates over the historical Jesus and other such attempts at justification, allowing what he saw as the universality of the Christian message to shine through. Lewis’ story never happened, but it is still somehow true. Tolkien, by contrast, professed that he “cordially dislike[d] allegory in all its manifestations, and have always done so since [he] grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. [He] much preferred history, true or feigned.” The Lord of the Rings is indeed a feigned history, Tolkien’s creation myth for the world. The events of The Lord of the Rings never happened; it cannot be history, and, although it is certainly imbued with Tolkien’s ethos and approach to life, it is not allegorical—we have the author’s word on that. Instead, this “feigned history” is Tolkien’s attempt to establish a pleasing origin story, a way of providing the sources of behaviors, ideas, and even words. Linguists have long puzzled over the origins of one of the two known surviving pre-Celtic words, ‘ond’, which means ‘stone’. Tolkien gave ‘ond’ an origin within his world, where we find it in Gondor (Stone-Land). Similarly, the bucolic lifestyle of the hobbits gave a precedent for the kind of English country life Tolkien cherished; the different bloodlines of Men did the same for the wisdom and brutality we now see in human nature. In other words, Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth was the creation of and justification for his identity. Just as the prewar historians used history, so Tolkien used fantasy.
In recent decades, the divide between historical reality and fantastical identity has started to collapse. More and more, we see an emphasis on the historicity of fantasy. The marketing of popular television shows such as Game of Thrones or Vikings emphasizes their realism (a term which is fast developing into a code word for blood and sex) and their historical inspiration. Yet the tension created by the Great War, the expectation of ironic laughter, still remains. We cannot allow history to have unironic heroism, but we simultaneously seek those founding myths, and thus we generate the tensions we have already observed in literature and film. To return to the example of The Kingdom of Heaven, each of the two characters we encounter provides an outlet for one of these necessities: Balin preserves the noble ideal, the Patriarch of Jerusalem renders delicious, expected irony. We leave our encounter with the medieval once again reassured of the nobility of our origins and the perversity of history.