UW Students Collaborate with the EMP Museum for Their Upcoming Exhibit, "Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic"

Popular perceptions of what is “medieval” often go hand-in-hand with of “fantasy.” Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien penned his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the term “medieval” has grown to encompass wizards, epic quests, and other-worldly lands. Even traditional medieval romances such as the stories of King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are now better known by their more fantastical retellings. So when the EMP Museum inquired about UW scholars who could inform research for their upcoming “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic” exhibit, the Simpson Center’s Associate Director, Miriam Bartha, put them in touch with the Simpson Center-sponsored Medieval Studies Graduate Interest Group (MSGIG).

The graduate students who responded, Meagan Loftin (English) and Lane Eagles (Art History) were given the task of researching and developing mythic archetypes—representative personae used in fiction, such as the hermit, the warrior, the magician, or the maiden—to help guide visitors through the exhibit. We recently sat down with Meagan Loftin, one of the research assistants and MSGIG members, to talk about her experience helping develop the exhibit and get a sneak-peek of what’s in store!

SC: When you first became involved in the exhibit, you weren’t able to disclose much. But now that the opening day is near, can you tell us more about the project?

ML: The curators wanted to establish the archetypes of fantasy that are very familiar, and a lot of that ended up being “medieval” in nature because many of those archetypes come from medieval and classical stories. So that’s why I think they came to us, and it gave us a way to see how these character types have endured over such a long period. What people usually consider fantasy is “high fantasy,” so it’s very neo-medieval and you can see connections between characters. But the boundaries of fantasy are also very broad. For example, something like Winnie the Pooh can be considered fantasy. It becomes a bit harder to see the connections between, say, Eeyore and the medieval “shadow” character we researched for the exhibit. They’re such a disparate type of fantasy that I don’t think people would see the connection unless an archetype was created to show how such various characters are related.

What was your role in establishing and researching these archetypes?

We did the research for the archetypes, which involved finding original texts and literary references. , For some characters there would only be one text: Gandalf, for example, only appears in the work of Tolkien. But then there are characters who are much broader, and so we looked at a range of representations. The character of Loki, for example, appears in many different stories, old and new. So the question became which version do you focus on— Loki from the traditional Old Norse stories, or the modern character Loki from Marvel Comics?

So then you have to take into account how different lens affect the interpretation of that character is also interpreted through different lenses.

Right, and you can see it in something like the “trickster” archetype, which is a really interesting one because our collective idea of what the trickster is has changed over time. You can see that in the way that the character of Loki is portrayed in Norse mythology as compared to the modern version of Loki presented in the movies Thor and The Avengers. Today’s filmmakers seem to feel the need to justify the character’s position as the villain, something that nobody cared about in Norse mythology. For them, Loki was evil and a trickster, but there wasn’t a need to explain why.

As a medievalist, can you give us some insight as to why the medieval world lends itself so well to fantasy? It seems like a connection that’s been pretty well-cemented in popular culture. Does that relationship ever get frustrating for traditional medievalists?

The fact that medieval history is so far removed historically, and that there aren’t a lot of sources documenting it, means that the period lends itself to fantasy, because people want to fill in the gaps.

Fantasy is utopian. The medieval period is often represented as dirty and horrible: to call something “medieval” is derogatory. But the tales of this period facilitate a weird connection with dragons and damsels in distress, which is great because it gets students interested in the medieval era.

The link between fantasy and medieval history demands a certain re-education process. People tend to make assumptions about the Middle Ages based off fantasy movies, which perpetuate misinformation about—about the way women were supposed to act and how religion was perceived, for instance.. But, in the classroom, I think the re-education hurdle is a lot easier to get over than getting students interested in the Middle Ages in general. For me, it’s a much more enriching if students are already interested in medieval-inspired fantasy, and you can help them understand the history. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones could be an excellent gateway to learning about the War of the Roses, for instance. Something that may seem boring on paper can come to life if you help them understand connections and parallels: the character of Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones bears a resemblance to the historical figure Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI and one of the central figures of the War of the Roses—when students start to make connections like this, history can come alive.

Is there a particular area of the exhibition that you’re excited to see once it’s realized?

The jacket that David Bowie wore as Jareth the Goblin King in the film Labyrinth! Also, I believe that the museum plans to exhibit some original Tolkien manuscripts, too. I am very excited to see them.



The EMP Museum’s “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic” opens April 27, 2013, and will feature objects from movie classics such as Labyrinth and The Princess Bride to costumes from Xena: Warrior Princess and even manuscript pages from famous fantasy authors. Read more about the exhibit at EMP’s website. Tickets are available online for the opening night gala on April 26th, which will feature an archery contest, sword fighting demonstration by the Knights of Veritas, and much more.

And after you’ve experienced the exhibit, join the MSGIG for their annual reading of Beowulf on Wednesday, June 5th, at 3:30pm in Communications 202.

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