The Pressing of the Social Fabric on the Written Word

Despite ourselves and any great imagination we might purport to have, can we only ever really write within the parameters of our own time? That is, we may write outside of own century (backwards or forwards), or even our own decade, or closer still, yet are we always bound by the present of our own realities seeping into what we’ve written? Is there no escape?

I’ve recently been reading some 12th century romances, as you do: the type that comes ready installed on e-readers. I’ve waded through Erec et Enide (‘waded’ being the operative term) by Chrétien de Troyes, and am stealing myself for single sitting attempts at Cligès, Yvain and Lancelot, by the same author. I prepared myself, as it were, with the reading of Tristan and Iseult, albeit an early 20th century interpretation written by Joseph Bédier.

The story of the story, the legend, the tale written on top of the tale, all interests me and has done for some time. That we’re comprised of stories is something I come back to time and again. I’ve written my own modern-day take on Tristan and Iseult (Isolde) and so felt compelled to go back again to see how my version builds out from others’ takes. After due settling periods of written pieces, these comparisons are interesting exercises in themselves.

What struck me in the reading of both of the above authors’ works was how much a product of their (assumed) time they were. That is, Chrétien de Troyes attempts to deliver an idealised 12th century society, grafting on his Arthurian ideal; Bédier’s 1900 Tristan and Iseult resupposes the romance for his period. If Arthur even existed at all he may well have been some 6th century Romano-British chieftain; his ‘Round Table’ is actually a late 13th century or early 14th century artefact, created on the instigation of Edward I, later appropriated by Henry VIII who depicted himself on it as Arthur. In short, the Arthurian ideal was just that.

From such stirring stuff of legend comes tales that keep getting re-told. However, in both eras read of recently, the ideal is less than so when seen in our modern terms: women, for example, largely come across as merely objects with little or no desire other than to serve the ‘noble’ lords, knights and fathers or father figures. The idealised French chivalry depicted by Chrétien de Troyes leads this reader to actively want his Enide to show a spark, any spark, of life. This only happens when, forced to marry the Count of Limors after thinking Erec dead, she verbally attacks him. That she gets slapped for her efforts is fitting for how I feel about her, but doesn’t do the perspective on womankind any good at all. I very much needed Enide to punch the Count back (and wage some retributory action on many of the male characters too); sadly though, these are just not in keeping with the social mores of the time.

Herein lies the rub: despite Enide’s role in the middle section of the story as someone who warns Erec of dangers he hasn’t yet seen, albeit meekly, and against Erec’s explicit demands, and despite the author’s apparent message that women should, in fact, speak up, Chrétien de Troyes can only really write whilst pressed upon by the social layers of his own time. Women are loyal trophies; all noble men’s deeds are most excellent (even when slaying and butchering); defeated opponents become subservient unquestioning ‘servant friends’: the servitude of women should be matched by their pleasing physical attributes; the butchery of men should be seen as noble; the righteous defeat of opponents should result in effectively enslaving them under the guise of ‘friendship’.

It is an idealism based, perhaps, as a reaction to the immediate times. Scroll forwards to the 20th and 21st centuries. As an example of such rootedness, I think back to the first of the Star Trek franchise: Kirk et al regularly tackled matters pertaining to the social issues of the 1960s, yet those storylines were projected onto a 23rd century future.

Is it possible to write, be it for television or film scripts or for books and the like, outside of our own time? That is, the social mores of our own place in time press on us and, no matter how subtly, influence us: we may be blessed with great imaginations, but can we use those to leap out of everything that surrounds us in the now?