This paper could alternately be called medieval puns, or how many ways can you replace the word night with knight.
. . .
In the episode of Spongebob Squarepants, 1999 -, entitled "Dear Vikings," Mr. Krabs has introduced new Viking size drinks to the Krusty Krab. If you buy a Viking size, you get to wear the cardboard Viking helmet Mr. Krabs found in his attic. This prompts Spongebob to ask “What’s a Viking?” Krabs send Spongebob to know-it-all Squidward, who summarily dismisses Spongebob with his fake description:
“The Vikings were a race of scholars and scientists who lived even before Mr. Krabs was born. They are believed to have discovered ketchup, and enjoy dressing up their pets as chunks of masonry on the weekends. Their favourite movies are in black and white, and grown Vikings are known to collect socks, which they display and trade at monthly conventions called Sockengarten.” When Spongebob still has questions Squidward prompts him to write to the Vikings. When they get his letter, the Vikings descend on the Krusty Krab to enlighten Spongebob.
This episode uses the language of education to entertain. It is complete with violence, slapstick and bathroom humour, but it also uses the ubiquitous semiotic system for Vikings, cartoon or otherwise, including dragon ship, beards, axes, rough clothing and the horned Wagnerian helmet.[i] But most interestingly, having the description of Vikings come from supposed Vikings themselves, especially when compared to Squidward’s clearly made-up description, makes the depiction seem authoritative.
Cartoons may be (mostly) intended for children, but they are created by adults.[ii] When analyzing the text the analyzer must ask is this cartoon intended to entertain or to educate, or what balance is it striking between the two? What is it adults wish to impart to children? Education doesn’t just mean imparting values and teaching lessons, it can also mean adults sharing with children their conception of childhood, or at least child appropriate entertainment.
For example, take the animated cartoon Animaniacs, 1993-1998. This is clearly meant to entertain children, but it is also a tribute to earlier Warner Bros. cartoons - an embodiment of the wish of adults for children to have the same experience and relationship with cartoons that they had. You can market Animaniacs to adults and children because nostalgia is one of its key elements and because slapstick has universal appeal. When marketing an adult friendly version of childhood, it helps to pull forward tales that caught adult imagination when they were children. This is part of the appeal of the romantic and legendary interpretation of the Middle Ages into the twenty first century.
Adults will recognize the ‘Middle Ages’ at a glance. And through repetition of imagery, actions and characters, as well as through parental recognition, children come to that same recognition. Serialized animated cartoons shown on American television share certain signifiers of the European Middle Ages with other mediums. Each individual text uses the signifiers for different purposes, depending on the relationship between the institution producing it, the text and the audience.[iii] However, the signifiers that are used on American television seem to be a rather homogenous whole.[iv] Part of the richness of the cartoons that depict the Middle Ages, or that use these signifiers, is that without having to spend time on explanation, an animator can manipulate one symbol, like a castle, or action, like having characters joust, and in that one element imply a wealth of cultural precedent. The medieval history implicated in the cartoons Americans watch is so different from scholars understanding of the Middle Ages because the history of the interpretation of the Middle Ages is more important than medieval history itself. To create a world that is rich for children, either rich with education or with entertainment, producers of animated cartoons readily mix literature, fantasy and medieval history, drawing upon and manipulating a folk understanding of a mythical world called ‘the European Middle Ages.’
Reception of an animated Middle Ages
Over the last sixty years North American society has realized, after much debate, it is hard to define how much cartoons influence the thoughts and behaviour of children. A question like ‘how much do television cartoons shape children’s conception of the medieval?’ must ultimately be open-ended. In the media, the image from television cartoons competes and is complemented with that from video games, live action television, film and books.
But the ability of television to impact or mirror societal values, to sell products or to educate has already been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Producers aiming television at a younger viewing audience learned quickly that cartoons were an efficient means of accessing that audience, as live action series aimed at children did poorly in re-runs and were often ultimately less cost effective.[v] Cartoons consistently brought in ratings for the big network. The network competition for the Saturday Morning Cartoon viewers, not to mention the cultural weight of the phrase Saturday morning cartoons even in an age of ubiquitous access to any kind of television, sheds light on the power of the cartoon with young viewers.[vi] For the television generation animation became “the visual language by which it was assumed children were addressed. The television generation only essentially understood ‘animation’ as ‘the cartoon’ as it had been produced for children and for the children’s demographic.”[vii] Even in the last few decades, with the proliferation of cartoons decidedly not aimed at children, those programs are still more popular amongst younger audiences than live action programs also aimed at adults. Successful adult cartoons create meaning by perverting what we would expect to see in a cartoon aimed at children and playing on the public’s understanding of the cartoon genre.[viii]
That kind of humour is mirrored in Spongebob Squarepants when they pervert an adult medium for communicating with children, education, and use it for entertainment.
So while we can’t determine the exact nature of the impact of cartoons, we can agree that it is part of what forms children’s understandings of the world they live in. It was the importance of cartoons in my life, and even in my choice to study the Middle Ages, that led me to this topic. And I will say that before I started university, my understanding of the Middle Ages looked mostly like these cartoons.
What constitutes the corpus of cartoons depicting the European Middle Ages? The Middle Ages itself is a time period spanning a thousand years and an entire continent. In addition, theatrical cartoons of the 1930s and 40s became a staple of television programming from the beginning.[ix] In 1949 the very first made for television cartoon was Crusader Rabbit.[x]
Since these very first cartoons, medieval or medieval-esque themes have captured the imaginations of children, animators and cartoon producers. So we are looking at a large corpus of cartoons from at least the last seventy years. In the last few decades, the proliferation of channels and ways to watch serialized television cartoons has resulted in an even greater body of work.
So do we count every instance of when someone is referred to as a King, a Prince or a Princess as a medievalism?
In my sample I have included any cartoon which portrays a world that is both feudal and chivalric. Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh in their introduction to Race Class, and Gender in ‘Medieval’ Cinema note that early texts “that labelled the European Middle ages as Feudal, Christian, and chivalric” have been discredited in favour of histories that are more specific to geographic localities and time periods.[xi] Producers and directors of newer media are not unaware of this, but the short hand that has been developed is based on that earlier interpretation, one still taught in many elementary schools as a basis upon which students or teachers can build on if they so choose. So anything that is openly feudal or chivalric, with a system of knights, compounds our understanding or at least portrayal of the Middle Ages.
And, as Chuckie says in Rugrats, 1991-2004, episode Faire Play, set at a Medieval Faire, “if they got castles and horsies and knights then they probably got dragons too.” We see the Middle Ages through the lens of all the intervening centuries, and all the literature, art and folk tales that have cropped up in the mean time. The semiotic system that includes the knight must include the dragon, even though the savvy kid is likely to know that that is fantasy or literature. Unless it was obviously referencing the Asian tradition, like American Dragon: Jake Long, 2005-2007, if the cartoon includes a dragon I include it in the list of ‘medieval’ cartoons. To create this list I started with the 2009 edition of The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons, by Jeff Lunberg, which details all the animated cartoons shown on American television stations, including imports from other countries. I looked for cartoons that had a medievalesque setting. Next I went through and tried to pinpoint ones that may have had a ‘medieval’ episode. The sample was limited to depictions of the European Middle Ages. This then raised the question of what to do with depictions of the Middle Eastern Middle Ages because of the obvious overlap with the European Middle Ages. While I could still be swayed either way, I decided not to include those depictions. So while I would include the episode of Disney’s Aladdin, 1994-1995, Dune Quixote, when Aladdin has been convinced that he is a knight that has to slay a dragon, I would not include the whole series.
The result for depictions of the universal Middle Ages is a semiotic system that represents a general ‘medieval’ period, with kings, knights, serfs, damsels, princesses, castles, chivalry, etc., etc., incorporating specific legendary and literary characters, and a separate semiotic system for ‘Vikings’ (never Norse), with few instances of appearances by legendary figures.
Here is an instance of the problem with the definition of animated ‘medieval’ cartoons. A few cartoons that are trying to actually show children what the European Middle Ages were really like include educational shows like Time Warp Trio, 2005-2006, TheTime Squad, 2001-2003, Histeria, 1998-2000, or Horrible Histories, 2001-2002. But again, historical education is very rarely the goal of the animated cartoon. Often, they manipulate the images in different ways to create different effects or rich settings, replete with their own built in cultural weight. Take the example of “Knighty Knight Bugs,” the 1955 Warner Bros. cartoon.
Bugs must go to the castle of the Black Knight to bring back the singing sword for the King and the Knights of the Round Table. The cartoon’s use of knights, kings, dragons, shields, castles, armour and a sword reinvents a medieval tale using signifiers that are already familiar to its audience. It is also referring to a story that its audience would understand as medieval, that of King Arthur and the Round Table. Even if the audience wasn’t aware that the origins of the tale are medieval, most audience would recognize the setting of those stories as ‘medieval.’ In fact the tradition surrounding the interpretation of King Arthur and his Knights informs much of the semiotic system. But then what about Disney’sAdventures of the Gummi Bears, 1985-1991?
It also uses knights, kings, dragons, shields, castles, armour and a squire, classic signifiers of the medieval, to create an entirely fantasy world where teddy bear like creatures use their ingenuity, teamwork and magic to help good humans and battle bad ones. The imagery and language used in the two different cartoons is extremely similar. The cartoon’s indebtedness to the media’s interpretations of the Middle Ages is clear. It is hard to count the Bugs Bunny cartoon and not count the Gummi Bears just because it doesn’t purport to represent a real Middle Ages, or a tale from the Middle Ages, because the Bugs Bunny one doesn’t really either. The signifiers are saying these events, while we have made them up, could have been long ago and far away in a world not entirely unlike our own. Ok, so we’ll count Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, but what about He-Man: Mastersof the Universe, 1983-1985, and She-Ra:Princess of Power, 1985?
At first my instinct told me yes, as did the internet, who when you ask it what are the best medieval cartoons, gives you the top ten medieval/fantasy cartoons. And yet, the grotesque villains, the space age technology, the brightly coloured fantasy worlds, the eighties hair cuts and sexualized cartoon characters suggest nothing particularly medieval. But if we compare He-Man to “Knighty Knight Bugs” there are surprising similarities.
Michael N. Salda, author of the article “Northern Lite: A Brief History of Animated Vikings,” notes that the singing sword in the Bugs Bunny cartoon is derivative of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, about a displaced Nordic prince who arrives at King Arthur’s court and the sword that is only awakened by its true master.[xii] In this case Bugs Bunny is the sword’s master. He-Man is indebted to the same tradition that Prince Valiant and MerryMelodies are drawing on when he draws power from his sword to become He-Man. He-Man’s sword is given to him by the mysterious sorceress of Castle Grayskull, calling up images of the Lady of the Lake and a sword symbolizing someone’s right to rule. He-Man also uses a version of castles, kings, armour and sorcerers. Most medievalists would agree that He-Man makes frequent and regular use of medievalisms, but does it count as a ‘medieval’ cartoon? This is the heart of a debate on neo-medievalisms that is unlikely to be resolved here. From a modernist perspective, I don’t think the creators set out to make something self-referentially medieval, they just drew on adventure stories that appeal to children. From a post-modernist perspective, is it perceived as medieval? All three cartoons draw on a semiotic system that represents the Middle Ages and all three cartoons are contributing to that system. He-Man contributes to our understanding of castles, kings, kingdoms, chivalry and powerful swords, all signifiers that have been used to mean Middle Ages for the last seventy years. So I have included it in my lists of medieval cartoons, but to make my arguments stronger in this paper I use examples that are more evidently and self-referentially medieval.
The animated Middle Ages
So according to this list, what does the European Middle Ages look like?
It’s very muddled. But all we have to do is look at the conference program to see that the signifiers of the medieval have become the signifiers of fantasy, not least of all thanks to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and the ease with which ‘questing’ lends itself to the narrative style of role playing, table top and video games.
TeenageMutant Ninja Turtles, 1987-1996, called “Shredder’s New Sword.”
TeenageMutant Ninja Turtles, 1987-1996, called “Shredder’s New Sword.”
The Turtles are in England visiting a museum. In the museum they see paintings referring to the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The setting of a museum, implying historical authority, would seemingly confuse the legend with history, but they explain in the context of the cartoon that King Arthur was just a story. Michelangelo exclaims: “You mean none of these knight dudes were real? Total bummer!.” Yet later, Shredder goes in search of the ‘real’ Excalibur, taking it from the ‘real’ graves of Arthur and Gwenevere. Shredder’s use of the sword causes the Middle Ages to be brought into the present. Leonardo says “people seemingly from medieval times have started to appear.” The drama of finding out that a legend is real (in the context of the internal reality of the television show) dictates the actions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the reaction of the audience to the legend become reality. When Arthur is brought to the present, so is his castle and court. The Turtles meet outside of Arthur’s castle, put on knights’ helmets and participate in a tournament with Shredder, Rocksteady and Bebob, complete with colourful tents and jousting equipment. Compare this image to others depicting the Middle Ages. When Leonardo calls what we see on screen ‘medieval’ he is lending authority to this interpretation of the Middle Ages. This authority is corroborated by the repetition of these signifiers in other cartoons and other media. In this episode legend and literature (King Arthur) is blending with history (the Middle Ages) in a world that accepts fantasy (magic swords and dragons) as a given element of the Middle Ages. It doesn’t matter that the whole setting of the show is fantasy (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), because in the internal reality of the show even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles acknowledge that this kind of fantasy is particular to the Middle Ages.
Likewise, in Peabody’s Improbable Histories’, 1959-1964, Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sherman use the Wayback Machine to travel through history.
In the course of their travels they visit Marco Polo, Richard the Lionhearted and Leif Ericson, but they also visit King Arthur and Robin Hood. Yes, it is possible that King Arthur and Robin Hood both had real origins, but Peabody and Sherman are definitely visiting the legends, which is confusing when we imagine that he is only visiting historical figures. Robin Hood is more like the Sir Walter Scott Robin Hood than any likely candidates for the real Robin Hood. The line between literature, legend and history is blurred.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman are not alone. Approximately 75% of the cartoons that have a recognizably medieval theme depict or reinvent aspects of the King Arthur or Robin Hood legends. This includes series where the only part of the legend left are some of the names and a ‘feudal code,’ like Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders, 1995-1996. This shows indebtedness to, and fascination with, these particular tales increases our sense of the Middle Ages as a legendary time. It seems also that depictions of these tales are self perpetuating. The more times King Arthur is portrayed, the more is implied by the reinterpretation of the legend. For instance, the series Blazing Dragons, 1996-1998, is clever because King Allfire and his knights of the square table are all dragons that must defend the kingdom from evil humans. The more we understand cartoons to be for children, the funnier it is when they are perverted for adults. Likewise, the fact that there are hundreds of classic portrayals of King Arthur and his Knights means that much of the humour of Blazing Dragons comes from the perversion of those classic portrayals. And yet, by implication, the series assumes that the signifiers are well known and ingrained in their audience. The pervasiveness of these tales, which overlap with literature, relates back to the idea that children are being brought to know the tales their parents enjoyed in ways adults will think are enjoyable for them. The first King Arthur cartoons would remind adults of the books they had read, and direct reference to this literature is made in the opening of Crusader Rabbit and in the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Knight Mare Hare,” 1955. Newer cartoons relate to the literature and to the earlier cartoons.
Similar signifiers, like castles at the end of winding roads, suits of armour and dragons serve different functions in cartoons depending on the intention of the cartoon or the relationship between the cartoon and the audience. For instance, we can look at the way that the Scooby Doo cartoons, over the years, have used the same symbols to accomplish different things.
The very first Scooby Doo Where are You?, 1969 – 1973, was called “What a Night for a Knight.” When a suit of armour goes missing from the museum the gang learns the legend of the Black Knight, who comes to life when the moon is full. The gang has a long chase scene with a black suit of armour with the red plumage on the top. The medieval here imparts gothic creepiness, and the hanging of shields and banners in the ‘medieval wing’ of the museum gives the legend a sense of history. In this first Scooby Doo series there is always some sort of internal logic used to explain how these American kids stumble upon this medieval imagery. The medieval imparts creepiness but also roots the legends in believability, so we see how the gang might believe there really was such a ghost.
Scooby Doo Show, 1976-1978. In the episode “Scared a lot in Camelot” the gang visits Shaggy’s uncle, who has brought the Camelot castle stone by stone back from England. So, there is a rational explanation for a castle in the United States, and Velma lends authority to this as an ‘accurate’ depiction of Camelot, calling it a “famous medieval court,” and saying that the inside “looks a lot like Camelot.” The villains dress themselves up as the Black Knight and Merlin. In this series they draw more freely on the same legend (both series make use of the Black Knight). The intent of the medievalisms is still creepiness and rooting the monster in a recognizable legend but the intensity has been increased.
Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo shorts, 1980 – 1982. In “Sir Scooby and the Black Knight,” no longer looking for a mystery, Shaggy and Scooby stumble on the medieval castle that they mistake for their hotel. The Black Knight appears again, but they mistake him for the hotel manager. In this edition of Scooby Doo it really is the Black Knight and spooky things do actually exist. So instead of grounding it in reality, in this case the medieval signifiers help establish a realm where magic may exist. But the images of the castle have not changed much. Likewise, in the episode “Excalibur Scooby” the castle is back, but this time we have the real Merlin, who needs a dog to complete his spell to get Excalibur back. Merlin may be wearing a different colour, but he looks similar to his earlier incarnation.
TheNew Scooby and Scrappy Doo show, 1983 – 1984, has an episode entitled “Wizards and Warlocks.” This time there is no real danger, except that the same imagery is now linked to a gaming world that Scrappy is a part of, supposedly a tribute to Dungeons and Dragons. The show is reflecting how the medieval imagery is used in the world outside of television, so Merlin and the castle mean the world of fantasy gaming, even though the imagery has not changed.
13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo, 1985, “Scoobra Kadoobra,” the same imagery is used again, but this time for an entirely fantasy world. The villain is the ‘Dark Ages Warlock’ Maldar the Malevolent, who is one of the fantasy creatures that Scooby, Scrappy, Shaggy and Dahpne have to catch. There is not even attempt to root the imagery in the real world, as there was in the early shows when they offered the explanation that they traveled to Europe or that the castle was brought over.
What’s New Scooby Doo?, 2002 – 2005, in the episode “Large Dragon at Large” we have the same imagery again, but this time it is at a medieval faire. Velma, our source of authority, tells us that “the Glasburgh renaissance fair is the only fair held at a real medieval castle, it’s totally authentic.” This is a ridiculous statement to medievalists, and also to the animators, who juxtapose this statement with a ‘Chaucer’s Churros’ wagon. There is a tongue in cheek jibe here at our current fascination with the concept of ‘authenticity.’ The world of medieval interpretation offers its own setting for mystery. The images, however, are still similar, but there is a self-reflexivity to their use not seen in the earlier series.
Scooby Doo, Mystery Incorporated, 2010 – , for “The Grasp of the Gnome.” In one of the cleverest appropriations of medieval imagery, someone is taking out people who have gone to the medieval fair dressed as pirates, instead of knights or damsels, because they are taking away from the historical accuracy of the fair. From my point of view it was a hilarious way to re-appropriate the medieval shorthand that had been used in Scooby Doo cartoons over the last fifty plus years.
I would hesitate to read the cartoons linearly, seeing development of an increasing sophistication in cartoon depictions of the Middle Ages over seventy years, because arguably the Improbable Histories are just as self-referential and self-deprecating as the last example of a Scooby Doo episode. What cartoons do do is represent aspects of the time in which they are produced. And as time progresses each cartoon has more animated precedents to draw upon. With the proliferation of television, and now internet channels, what we have are endless options to draw on, and a proliferation of ways to use the medieval imagery.[xiii]
This was a very general overview of a very large corpus. Much more can be done by looking specifically at many of the texts mentioned here. Modern audiences enjoy lists, so I hope to finish this one to the best of my ability and post it on my blog and then more widely on the internet where it can be added to or subtracted to as the collective will sees fit. Many things can be learned by combining these cartoons in different ways and by making more specific comparisons. Likewise, I have looked at cartoons shown in the United States. It could be interesting to compare this with what has been seen in other countries, or continents to see if there are any differences. Comparisons of the images between the countries that are producing the cartoons could also be very fruitful.
Animated cartoons use assumptions about the Middle Ages, or conventions of the interpretations of the Middle Ages to generate meaning in several different ways. A whole other paper could be written on the way they have been used to construct or deconstruct images of gender. That the shorthand for the Middle Ages was developed using literature, fantasy and folk tales as well as events and artifacts from medieval history means that the signifiers of the Middle Ages are particularly useful in generating literature, fantasy and loveable cartoon scenarios.
This Fall, 2012, the Cartoon Network is producing Dragons, a series based on the popular Dreamworks animated film How to Train your Dragon, 2010, showing the ongoing legacy of the ‘medieval’ cartoon on American channels.
What is definitely being passed on on American children’s television is a love of the Middle Ages, and frankly the more that it is mixed with fantasy the more this seems to be true. And I believe, as it did in my case, cartoons are going to continue to have a role in shaping a base or folk understanding of what the Middle Ages were.
[i] Michael N. Salda, “Northern Lite: A Brief History of Animated Vikings”, in The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, ed. by Kevin J. Harty (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011) 180.
[ii] David Buckingham, “Introduction: The Child and the Screen”, in Small Screens: Television for Children, ed. by David Buckingham (London: Leicester University Press, 2002) 6.
[iii] Buckingham 11.
[iv] Salda 191.
[v] Paul Wells, “‘Tell me about Your Id, When You Was a Kid, Yah!’: Animation and Children’s Television Culture” in Small Screens: Television for Children. ed. by David Buckingham (London: Leicester University Press, 2002) 65.
[vi] Jeff Lenburg, The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons. Third Edition (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009) 11-12.
[vii] Wells 67.
[viii] Helen Nixon, “South Park: Not in Front of the Children” in Small Screens: Television for Children, ed. by David Buckingham (London: Leicester University Press, 2002) 96.
[ix] Lenburg 8.
[x] Lenburg 9.
[xi] Tison Pugh and Lynn T. Ramey, “Introduction: Filming the “Other” Middle Ages”, in Race, Class, and Gender in “Medieval” Cinema. 1-14. Ed. by Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) 2.
[xii] Salda 180.
[xiii] Julian Sefton-Green, “Cementing the Virtual Relationship: Children’s TV Goes Online”, in Small Screens: Television for Children, ed. by David Buckingham (London: Leicester University Press, 2002) 185.
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