Before diving into depictions of Merlin in medieval texts, film, and television, Natalia I. Petrovskaia offers a full-throated promotion and defense of academics tackling popular medievalism instead of the romanticized art and literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. While this field has grown considerably over the past 40 years, Petrovskaia offers some interesting arguments I haven’t heard before.
For example, the author correctly points out that
the common complaint of medievalists is the lack of information about anything other than the intellectual and political elites of the periods we examine. ((Natalia Petrovskaia, “The Fool and the Wise Man: The Legacy of the Two Merlins in Modern Culture,” in The Legacy of Courtly Literature: From Medieval to Contemporary Culture, eds. Deborah Nelson-Campbell and Rouben Cholakian (New York: Palgrave, 2017), 174.))
This is especially true, as academics are toiling to read between the lines of medieval texts for the inclusion of women, children, and people of color often excluded from traditional medieval history.
Yet the result of our habit, born of necessity, of focusing on the elites is that, when venturing into the modern world, the temptation is accordingly to stick with the familiar field of action and avoid the vast unchartered territories of mass-market popular culture, although it is unclear why it is difficult to write a scholarly essay about, for instance, a computer game. ((Petrovskaia 2017, 174.))
Of course, there are some academics tackling video games (e.g., Neomedievalism in the Media and Playing with the Past) and there are numerous historians who have tackled modern depictions of Merlin (e.g., see the works of Kevin J. Harty or Michael Torregrossa in Medievalism on Screen: An Annotated Bibliography).
Petrovskaia believes that medievalists should use the same skillset and experience used in analyzing medieval texts and apply it to medievalism. Why?
Our general perception of the common image of Merlin is guided by something other than the knowledge of medieval texts, and by something more than the classics that feature him. This is where the mass-market culture, and cinema and television in particular, come in. ((Petrovskaia 2017, 174.))
In addition, because Arthurian texts have such a wide array of dates and origins, there is “no single identifiable author.” ((Petrovskaia 2017, 174-175.)) Medieval texts are often the work of multiple authors over years, decades, and even centuries. Even where this is a single author, that author often cobbled some or all the text from other sources, or the author had inspirations.
Similarly, in films and television,
the amount of creative input and influence exerted by other individuals and organizations over time of production often results in effects not unlike scribal intervention over the centuries of transmission of medieval texts. ((Petrovskaia 2017, 175.))
The uniqueness of Petrovskaia’s argument is that the effort to analyze how and why those outside academia are appropriating the medieval world utilizes and hones the same skillset necessary to find the voice of the non-elite from the medieval world. Efforts with one could surely instruct the other.
You can read Petrovskaia’s paper on depictions of Merlin in The Legacy of Courtly Literature: From Medieval to Contemporary Culture (2017).