Wrapping up our brief overview of the history of speculative poetry, this post will take us into the 20th century. Beginning in the mid 1400s, the Age of Colonialism (also called the Age of Discovery, generally by the people doing the discovering and not by the people who were perfectly happy not having been “discovered” yet) is an important moment in the history of poetry because it marks the collection of “native” works along with the creation of pro-European propaganda about those works. It also coincides with the development of the printing press, and the broader circulation of literature and literacy in general.
Portuguese, Spanish, and eventually British invaders, settlers, and missionaries* traveled the world, planting their flags. The idea of courtly love – where a virtuous, charming, and heroic man completes quests in order to win the heart of the beautiful but disdainful woman – spreads throughout Europe, screwing up relationships for centuries to come. Troubadours write and sometimes sing these poems for wealthy patrons, so popular that poets couldn’t keep up with demand, making poetry profitable for a large number of people for the first time in recorded history. The Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, invented in the 13th century, grows more popular and is brought over to England by the 16th, just in time for Sir Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare to fall in love with it and make it their own. In the midst of all this… the perfect example of colonialist speculative verse is collected and popularized: the Arthurian legends.
Sir Thomas Malory started Morte d’Arthur while in prison in 1450 and finished it somewhere around 1470. The book contains some 13th century French stories, at least one Middle English tale, plus original writing by Malory. William Caxton introduced printing to England in 1475, and in 1485 printed Morte d’Arthur, which saw several reprintings – and changed every single time. The basics stayed the same: Arthur is the lost son of a great king, conceived and hidden through magic, rises up, unites and conquers, has mythic adventures, fucks his sister, tries to have his son killed but instead creates a nemesis, loses his wife to his best friend, and retires to Avalon when he’s near unto death. It’s recently become popular with American white supremacists**, who see a glorious, Jesus-like white man who ruled over all and brought prosperity to the land, but even in contemporary times it was used in Britain for the same purpose. The Welsh Annales Cambriae claims that in 516 Arthur was victorious in battle because he carried the True Cross for three days and three nights on his shoulders (though later works argue that it was a chip of the cross he wore in an amulet), making the British people the new Chosen of God. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 The History of the Kings of Britain paints Arthur as a man filled with so much goodness everyone just knew he was the right and true leader, but who also took over Ireland and Iceland so brutally*** that other kingdoms offered to surrender if he would only promise not to treat them the same way. This makes Arthur certain he should rule the world, so he conquers all of Europe and was about to conquer the Romans before Mordred tried to seize his throne.
The British spent several hundred years trying to get back this Arthurian empire, even though it never existed in the first place. Continue reading