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Narratives of Contact: Global Perspectives in Medieval Literature

ENGL 222.601
Wednesday 5-8:00

From Game of Thrones and Marco Polo to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, many popular TV shows and movie franchises draw on fantasies of the medieval past. The “medieval” often conjures images of a brutish and backwards time before we evolved into a cultured, ethical present; while at the same time it offers us a world of welcome escape where magic, dragons, and wizards abound. This seminar will explore popular medievalism in modern media and their literary origins in the medieval period. In the first half of the course, we will read medieval romance and travel literature that showcase global perspectives in conflict and exchange. We will ask, how do these texts represent, navigate, and codify difference? In what ways do they produce or critique cultural exoticism and hierarchies of racial, ethnic, and religious identities? Readings will include Middle English romances such as King of Tars, Emare, and Bevis of Hampton; selections from the travel narratives of Marco Polo, John Mandeville, William of Rubruck, Benjamin of Tudelo, Eldad ha-Dani, and Rabban bar Sauma; and the letters of Prester John and Chisdai ibn Shaprut. In the second half of the course, we will turn to modern media and examine the use of the “medieval” in the geopolitics and cultural conceptions of our own time. In what ways, for example, does the Netflix Marco Polo series rely on a medieval past to reinscribe orientalist attitudes in the present? Assignments will include regular quizzes and reading responses, a collaborative project, and one 20-minute conference paper presentation.

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