Past and Present

  • M. J. Toswell (Editor) and Anna Czamowus (Editor)
    Medievalism in English Canadian Literature: From Richardson to Atwood. D. S. Brewer (purchase at
Reviewed by Carole Gerson

The notion that medievalism constitutes a significant aspect of English Canadian literature at first seems rather startling. Before arriving at medievalism, readers of Canadian Literature might conjure up an alphabet of other “isms,” from antimodernism to Zionism, that could serve as unifying threads for selected aspects of Canadian culture. Medievalism in Canada is the seventeenth volume in a European series on medievalism whose topics range from the Norman Conquest to the Game of Thrones. The genealogy of this book owes much to a project headed by art historian Kathryn Brush, whose edited multidisciplinary volume, Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier (2010), offers a wide sweep of medieval traces in Canada’s cultural history, from the Gothic Revival architecture that typifies older public buildings to configurations of the Viking presence in North America, to links between Europeans’ conceptions of Indigeneity and the New World in relation to their views of their own medieval past.


To distinguish a Canadian medievalism that differs from that of other settler cultures (such as Australia), the introduction by editors M. J. Toswell and Anna Czarnowus points to “the double sense of Canada as involving the French and the English” (7). Hence a glaring absence from this book is attention to French Canada—once regarded as “The Old World of America” (Gerson 110)—in the writings of English Canadians such as The Golden Dog (1877), William Kirby’s monumental historical novel that idealizes the feudalism of New France, which appears only in a footnote on page 37.


Several of this book’s essays effectively remind us that the Victorian medieval revival in English literature appealed to nineteenth-century Canadian poets as a link to the old world of Europe. D. M. R. Bentley’s meticulous examination of Archibald Lampman’s archive and unpublished works demonstrates how Lampman was at times directly inspired by primary medieval texts, including Scandinavian sources, as well as by the popular Victorian medievalism of such writers as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. In a complementary essay, Brian Johnson analyzes William Wilfred Campbell’s medievalist tragedy Mordred as both an expression of his “admiration for and identification with the British literary tradition represented especially by Malory, Tennyson, and Shakespeare” (70) and “the bearer of Campbell’s largely unvoiced resentment against an imperial centre of value that threatens to dismiss, or even simply ignore, his bid for recognition as a ‘universal’ literary artist” (78-79). Less expected is Laurel Ryan’s discussion of the Orientalism that appears in about ten per cent of the hundreds of stories that she has identified as medievalist that were published in English Canadian periodicals between 1789 and 1900.


In this volume, the Canadian writer most intimately involved with “direct medievalism” (10)—i.e., first-hand engagement with medieval texts—is Earle Birney, whose career as a Chaucerian scholar inflected his self-construction as a poet and man of letters. Drawing on extensive research, M. J. Toswell argues that Birney “modelled his public role on Chaucer” (116) in that his dissertation on Chaucerian irony influenced not only the style and content of his own poems, but also his public persona as a creative writer and public disseminator of literary and social values.


In most of these essays, the medievalism under discussion is more familiar as the “notional medievalism” (9) of Gothicism, an asynchronous approach to the past that is represented in fairly conventional allusions to and reconstructions of medieval history and culture to suit the needs and interests of assorted authors across the centuries, from Julia Beckwith Hart and John Richardson early in the nineteenth-century to Guy Gavriel Kay and Patrick deWitt at the beginning of the twenty-first. This point is persuasively made in David Watt’s analysis of the “Collegiate Gothic” as “both an architectural style and generic marker” (110) in relation to Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels. While critics such as Margot Northey, Justin Edwards, and Cynthia Sugars have effectively argued that there is a distinctively Canadian strain of Gothicism, it is less evident that the same can be said of medievalism. For example, Michael Fox’s tracing of medieval roots in deWitt’s 2015 parodic fairy/folk tale Undermajordomo Minor, by finding parallels with Tolkien’s references to Beowulf, tells us as much about Tolkien (whom deWitt may well have read) as about Undermajordomo Minor. Indeed, Cory James Rushton’s comment that “Canada’s medievalism is rooted in British culture but heavily inflected by that of America, to the extent that a Canadian medievalism can be difficult to delineate” (146) is well illustrated by his analysis of Kit Pearson’s A Perfect Gentle Knight (2007), in which the source of the Arthurian game played by the children in a bereft Vancouver family is explicitly identified as Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur (1880). It is intriguing to see what expert medievalists can find in books like Pearson’s, whose medieval references are filtered through layers of popular culture.


Despite arguments that sometimes feel laboured, each of the essays in the collection represents a serious critical effort that brings unexpected perspectives into the CanLit arena, as when Dominika Ruszkiewicz’s essay on “Margaret Atwood’s Symbolic Cannibalism” reminds us that Atwood’s omnivorous cultural vocabulary occasionally includes medieval images and tropes. Altogether, the overall impression left by this book accords with the conclusion of Ewa Drab’s analysis of Kay’s fantasy novel, Ysabel. Drab concedes that despite the occasional inclusion of Canadian characters, fictions from writers like Kay are best understood as “cosmopolitan fantasy,” which she further describes as “universal and international works written by Canadian writers with no intention to imbue their fiction with the sense of Canadianness” because “their medievalist fantasy does not have any nationality” (188). Rather than a book about Canadian medievalism, this volume offers an eclectic collection of instances in which English Canadian authors deploy various links to earlier times, reminding us of the complex historical web in which this country’s literary imagination is implicitly entangled.


Works Cited

Brush, Kathryn, editor. Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier. Museum London and the McIntosh Gallery, 2010.

Edwards, Justin B. Gothic Canada: Reading the Spectre of a National Literature. U of Alberta P, 2010.

Gerson, Carole. A Purer Taste: The Reading and Writing of Fiction in English in Nineteenth-Century Canada. U of Toronto P, 1989.

Northey, Margot. The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction. U of Toronto P, 1976.

Sugars, Cynthia. Canadian Gothic: Literature, History, and the Spectre of Self-Invention. U of Wales P, 2014.

This review “Past and Present” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 191-193.

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