An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 8, 2019

"Distortions of the past for ideological reasons tend to be dangerous": An Interview with Tim O'Neill

Tim O’Neill is author of the blog History for Atheists. He was interviewed for Medievally Speaking by Michael Evans, the journal’s associate editor.

Medievally Speaking: What led you to start the “History for Atheists” blog?

Tim O'Neill: I’ve been an atheist for all my adult life, so I was interested when atheism began to get media attention in the early 2000s with the emergence of the so-called “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens. I noticed a large number of blogs and online fora springing up devoted to atheism and to the anti-religious ideology of the New Atheists. As I began reading some of these regularly I noticed some recurring themes in discussions on them. There were some historical ideas that kept being presented as fact – that Christianity “caused the Dark Ages”, that the medieval Church “suppressed science”, that Christians “burned down the Great Library of Alexandria” and that Christian persecution of various scientists (Hypatia, Giordano Bruno and Galileo being the usual examples invoked) “set back progress” by hundreds of years and so on.

I found that most of the more enthusiastic proponents of these ideas came from backgrounds in science and had little to no history education past high school level. These were simply tropes they had picked up from popular culture and accepted as fact. So I began to contribute to these online to show why these ideas were simplistic or just plain wrong. Eventually I got tired of repeating myself, since the same claims kept coming up over and over, so I decided to start a blog where I could address these myths and misconceptions about history in detailed articles and so only have to do so once. History for Atheists was the result.

Could you tell us about your background in medieval studies? Did it influence your decision to engage with New Atheist myths about the past?

I have studied the Middle Ages since my teens but did so formally at university by studying history as an undergraduate and then Medieval English Literature in for my post-graduate specialisation. I’ve always straddled history and literature, given that I took a “New Historicist” approach to the study of late fourteenth century Middle English poetry for my Masters thesis. My study of medieval history has been fairly wide-ranging, with particular interest in the early Germanic peoples, the fall of the Western Empire, the survival and revival of ancient learning in the west and the history of science and intellectual history generally. But I have also dabbled in everything from learning medieval sword fencing techniques, the use of astrolabes and experimented with scribal arts and book production.

I suppose the fact that I have a fairly in-depth appreciation of the real Middle Ages made the high school level clichés many of my fellow atheists were depending on more annoying. Some of them rather liked the clichés and resisted my corrections, but many others (thankfully) have been happy to learn real history rather than clinging to myths.

A lot of the topics you address are relevant to medievalists, such as the myth of the destruction of classical learning by the medieval church. Do you see the denigration of the Middle Ages as central to New Atheist thinking?

It certainly seems so. By “New Atheists” I am referring to the strain of atheism that is not simply without any belief in God or gods, but which is also actively anti-religious and anti-theist. Many of these people assume and depend on a Whiggish conception of history as a matter of inevitable “progress” which is pushed forward by science and held back religion. They accept the nineteenth century “Draper-White Thesis” of an eternal warfare between science and religion without question and regard its rejection by modern historians as some kind of incomprehensible “revisionism”.

In this view, history is divided into “good” eras and “bad” ones. The good ones are where science and reason were upheld and advanced and the bad ones are where they were denied and suppressed. In this view, the Greeks and Romans are romanticized as noble, wise, rational, scientific and tolerant (despite them often being none of these things) and we post-Enlightenment moderns are seen as their intellectual and cultural heirs. All fairy tales like this need a villain, so in this one it is the Medieval Catholic Church, which destroyed Greco-Roman learning, suppressed science and dragged us all into a “dark age”. Denial and refutation of any of this is often met with highly emotional responses by these people, since this fiction is foundational to their whole world view. This is why I get so much hate mail and online abuse.

Why do you think myths about the Middle Ages, the “Dark Ages,” and the history of Christianity are so tenacious?

Probably because they have deep roots in western culture, particularly in the Anglosphere. A lot of the ideas I’ve just outlined are not necessarily anti-theistic or even wholly anti-Christian in origin. They are specifically anti-Catholic. Since the English-speaking world has, knowingly or not, inherited a substantially Protestant cultural heritage, much of our popular culture’s ideas about the Middle Ages – a filthy, backward, dark age ruled over by corrupt theocrats – have their origins in sectarian polemic. This is why many elements of the myths about the Middle Ages – witch crazes, constant plagues, scientists being suppressed – are actually much later phenomena dating to the time of the Early Modern Period’s sectarian squabbling, but projected back onto the Middle Ages.

Then there is the strong influence of eighteenth and nineteenth century “free thinkers” on many popular ideas about the period. A distorted version of the Medieval Period was a whipping boy of anti-clerical and Deistic thinkers and writers in the Enlightenment and their Whiggish successors. So I am constantly tracing back erroneous ideas about the Middle Ages and finding them first argued by Gibbon, or Voltaire or nineteenth century polemicists like Robert Green Ingersoll or John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.

Finally, we have the more modern phenomenon of people getting their ideas about history from intellectual celebrities. So, celebrity scientists like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson – all of whom are very learned in their relevant scientific fields – make pronouncements on history which demonstrate they have no grasp of that field, but which are taken as gospel by those who trust their authority.

All these things make the myths about the Medieval period deep rooted in popular culture and so any refutation of them simply “feels wrong”, even before we get to the fact that those who accept them often have an ideological and emotional need for the myths to be true. This makes dislodging them difficult.

Has social media culture made matters worse? I’m thinking, for example, of those memes I keep seeing about the loss of the Library of Alexandria, or about Easter being named after the goddess Ishtar.

It’s hard to tell if this makes the problem worse or it just makes it more obvious to the rest of us. I’m fairly sure these ideas were widespread before the internet. Perhaps they spread more rapidly now.

What can medievalists (and historians and scholars of the past generally) do to better engage with the public to challenge misconceptions about history?

I find that while some people, as I’ve mentioned, have emotional biases and ideological commitments that make dislodging these myths difficult, others are open to changing their minds. The “Mythbusters” approach, where the myth is presented and then the alternative is laid out with reference to evidence-based arguments, is actually very persuasive for many people. People who aren’t tied to an ideological need to believe something often like being able to tell their friends “actually, that stuff about the Medieval Church killing all the cats and causing the Black Death is not true”.

Most of the myths about the Middle Ages in popular culture are based on nineteenth century understandings of the period. But the real study of the Medieval Period did not really get underway until the twentieth century. So popular culture is lagging behind scholarship by about a century. This means things like the realization that Medieval people did not, actually, think the earth was flat are only just beginning to permeate the popular sphere – I had a friend inform me of this the other day as though it was an amazing new discovery that I would be interested in. But people tend to get their understandings of history from novels and movies and until the producers of those start doing their homework better we will be stuck with the clichés and fairy tales.

You have written about the relationship between history and science, and “why history isn’t scientific.” Is it therefore impossible for historians to identify “true stories” or “real history”? And is it futile to try to debunk “bad history?”

No, because the fact that we can’t “prove” what happened in the past the way a scientist can prove something in physics doesn’t mean we can’t make an evidence-based argument to the best explanation. I can’t definitively “prove” that there was no vast massacre of cats that caused the Black Death, but I can show there is no evidence this happened, that medieval people liked and kept cats and did so partially because they controlled rodents and show how the “cat massacre” myth arose fairly recently. That’s debunking a piece of bad history and is usually suitably persuasive.

Medievally Speaking is devoted to the study of medievalism – the post-medieval reception of the Middle Ages. In the words of the sub-header, the blog “Encourag[es] Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages.” As a “medievalismist,” I sometimes find myself having to set aside my frustration at “wrong” history in – say – a film or novel to analyze it as a work of engagement with the medieval.  Do you think it is possible to do this with the “bad history” that you encounter? Or is “bad history” always a problem that needs to be challenged?

It depends. I sat and watched A Knight’s Tale the other day and enjoyed it immensely. As an accurate depiction of the Middle Ages it’s … well, it just isn’t one. But as a fun response to and, as you say, engagement with the period through a self-knowing and rather wry lens, it’s a great movie.

But the difference is that movies like this or, on a less knowing and deliberate level, something like Kingdom of Heaven, is the New Atheist ideologues I deal with are not “engaging with the Middle Ages”. They are fighting a culture war and using a distortion of the Middle Ages, presented as FACT, to do it. I’m actually not very interested in their culture war, but distortions of the past for ideological reasons tend to be dangerous, regardless of whether it is the Alt-Right or the New Atheists who are doing it.

In what future directions do you see your work taking you?

Various people have been urging me to write a book, so some of my blog articles are now being written with one eye on working them up into chapters. In the meantime, there are still very big topics for me to tackle, as I have yet to write articles on the myths surrounding the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria and the maelstrom of nonsense that swirls around the Galileo Affair. So I suspect I will be busy for a while yet.

February 7, 2019

[B]rex[it] quondam [B]rex[it]que futurus

[B]rex[it] quondam [B]rex[it]que futurus:
Joe Cormish’s The Kid Who Would Be King

Reviewed by
Kevin J. Harty

The Kid Who Would Be King reflects two hallmarks of Arthurian medievalism, the so-called Breton hope dating from the early twelfth century which promised that Arthur would return in Britain’s times of need, and continuing efforts to retell and reinvent any number of established Arthurian texts and tales for younger audiences, though Cormish’s film aims to be more than simply another example of Arthurian juvenilia.  The director’s earlier film, Attack the Block (2011), had slightly older teens fending off invading aliens from outer space.  The Kid Who Would Be King repeats the same basic narrative thread, but the aliens are zombies buried with Morgana in her subterranean lair, and Earth’s defenders, here recast as Knights of the Round Table, are younger than their counterparts in Attack the Block.

Film has embraced the idea of Arthur’s return in a time of need before.  Marcel Varnel’s 1942 King Arthur Was Gentleman casts the well-known comic actor Arthur Askey as Arthur King, a somewhat timid recruit in His Majesty’s army who finds a sword that he thinks is Excalibur and that he then uses to rally the troops in a film which can be seen as part of Britain’s national war effort.  Less interestingly, Richard Kurti’s lackluster 1994 comedy, Seaview Knights, reincarnates Arthur as a hapless taxi driver from Blackpool who sets off for London to save the country from the misrule of the Gray Knight (read John Major).

Even more frequently, film has expanded the canon of Arthurian juvenilia.  Examples include animated films such as Wolfgang Reitherman’s 1963 The Sword in the Stone and Frederik Du Chau’s 1998 Quest for Camelot; films with unexpected Arthurian connections such as Peter Werner’s 1995 Four Diamonds, Peter Chelsom’s 1998 The Mighty, and M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 The Sixth Sense; and a number of films based on Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.

The Kid Who Would Be King opens with an animated sequence retelling the medieval tale of Arthur from his pulling of the sword from the stone to his imprisoning of Morgana in a tangled subterranean lair.  Arthur’s success is due to his ability to turn enemies into allies, and Arthur promises to return should England in the future find itself home to a fractured and leaderless society.

The film then shifts to the present to tell the story of twelve-year old Alexander (Alex) Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), the victim, along with his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), of repeated school bullying at the hands of Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris).  In a nice touch, Alex lives on Malory Road. The film’s England is clearly more chaotic and unstable than it has been for centuries, and as Alex runs past a bank of newspaper boxes on his way to school, headline after headline proclaims that the situation is just as bad around the globe.  Bedders is more readily the object of school bullying than Alex. He is pudgy and East Indian, while Lance is tall, blonde and blue eyed; and Kaye is tall, athletic, black, and female. Bedders sees parallels for his relationship with Alex in cultural reference points appropriate for someone their age: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and even Shrek The Kid Who Would Be King bridging cinematic genres at times to become an Arthurian buddy film as well.

Our teens are enrolled in the Dungate School, apparently a British public school with no other distinction than its Kentish-related name.  And opposite the school sits a building site for the yet-to-be-completed Bastion Estates.  Chased by Lance and Kay, Alex seeks refuge amid the site’s rubble, only to discover and dislodge the sword in the stone.  England now being, we are told, divided, fearful and leaderless, it is high time for an Arthurian return, even if the Arthur is a twelve-year old boy, desperate to find his father and to escape bullying from the likes of Lance and Kay.  Alex’s most prized possession is a book from his father, The Knights of the Round Table, attributed to M.A.B. Parker, and inscribed “To my once and future king. Dad.”  And with help from Bedders (and Google Translate), Alex links the sword to Excalibur, after deciphering the inscription on its handle: “The Sword of Arthur, Son of Tintagel.”

The drawing of the sword from the stone awakens Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), and summons Merlin (more properly Merlin Ambrosius Caledonius) who is variously a teenager (the truly remarkable Angus Imrie), a slightly befuddled old man living backwards (Patrick Stewart, who seems to have come along for the ride just to have some fun), and an owl.  To survive, Merlin needs occasional drafts of a magic potion made from beetle juice, beaver urine, and ground animal bones—coincidentally, they are the same ingredients of the special meal for sale at the local Lickin’ Chicken fast food outlet: cherry aide, vanilla ice cream, and chicken nuggets—if nothing else persuades moviegoers to avoid the Cineplex refreshment stand, this joke, repeated twice in the film, should. Disguised as Merton, a transfer student, the teenage Merlin shows up at Dungate and tells Alex and friends that Morgana has been awakened and that, within four days, during a solar eclipse, she and her army of zombie knights, the mortes miles, will rise up and rule a world now dominated by policies and politics that pit “people like us against people like them.”

Taking a cue from the story of Arthur told in his favorite book, Alex attempts to make allies of his enemies, and sets up a new round table—once the leaves on the drop down table in Lance’s dining room are raised.  The four decide to set out, with Merlin in all three of his forms in tow, for Tintagel, to find Alex’s long lost father, convinced that he will help them defeat Morgana.  In keeping with Arthurian tradition, the four adopt a chivalric code that requires them to honor those whom they love, to refrain from wanton offense, to speak the truth at all times, and to persevere in any enterprise until the very end.  The oath which they take to uphold their version of the code is not quite Sir Thomas Malory’s Pentecost Oath, but it will eventually serve a similar purpose in The Kid Who Would Be King to test the mettle of any would-be knight.

From left to right: Lance, Bedders, Alex, the younger Merlin, and Kaye.

Alex soon discovers that his father was haunted by demons—he was a violent drunkard—and abandoned him, the inscription in his Arthurian book having really been written by his mother (Mary Gough). At first disappointed, Alex rallies his classmates, and thanks to outfits purchased from a local costume shop, Pendragon Replica Weapons—located quite near the King Arthur’s Arms Pub and Inn—he leads his knights to Glastonbury Tor where they engage and, they think, defeat Morgana, who is only wounded rather than killed because Alex himself has violated the chivalric code in not honoring his mother by remaining angry with her for deceiving him about what really happened to his father.


Soon enough the stage is set for a more decisive battle which involves enlisting the help of all the students at Dungate, who come together having been knighted and armed, to battle Morgana and her mortes miles.  After much give and take, Alex beheads Morgana, and victory is declared, though the victory is local and small scale. The larger world is still filled with evil which turns people against each other, but, in a somewhat preachy, Pollyanna-esque finale to a film that is already running more than a bit too long, the older Merlin rewrites Alex’s Arthurian book—the author credit changes to M. A. Caledonius—to include Alex and his friends’ victory over Morgana.  Merlin then tells us that children have an abundance of inherent goodness and nobility and that the future is theirs. “There is a wise old soul in every child, and a foolish child in every old soul.”  Merlin assures Alex and his friends that “Excalibur may disappear, but you know what Excalibur stands . . . for.  A land is only as good as its leaders, and you will make excellent leaders.”

The older Merlin and Alex.

The Kid Who Would Be King is filled with references to other examples of Arthuriana and to popular culture in general. A mother’s gift to her son of an Arthurian book informs Alan Crosland’s 1917 silent Knights of the Square Table.  Merlin’s enlisting school children to save the world from a reawakened and vengeful Morgana is the plot of Robert Tinnell’s 1995 Kids of the Round Table—another film in which the hero is a bullied boy named Alex. Morgana’s underworld imprisonment recalls that of Merlin in John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur.  Boorman’s film is also the inspiration, minus the operatic accompaniment, for all but one of the scenes in The Kid Who Would Be King in which the Lady of the Lake retrieves or returns Excalibur. The exception, in which Excalibur pops up out of a bathtub, echoes a similar scene in David Bourla’s 1986 The Knight Before Christmas. The teenage Merlin uses an Arthurian take on the power of the Force from the Star Wars franchise to convince adults to do what he wants them to do.  Both the younger and older Merlin sport Led Zepplin tee shirts in a nod to Guy Ritchie’s 2017 King Arthur, the trailer for which featured the band’s 1969 song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Bedders is dubbed Sir Bedders-vere.  Ferguson’s Morgana is at first a diminutive harpy worthy of Ray Harryhausen and subsequently something much, much larger that seems to have escaped from Game of Thrones. Tintagel and Glastonbury Tor are, of course, meccas for Arthurian tourism.

The politics of The Kid Who Would Be King are hardly subtle in light of current economic, political, religious and social upheavals both in Great Britain and across Europe that have fueled intolerance and suspicion and contributed to a rise in nationalism.   And although Brexit is never directly mentioned, it too hangs over the film’s depiction of an England riven by factionalism and fear, and thus in need of Arthur’s promised return.  The film’s antidote to such factionalism and fear is not especially profound or thought-provoking, but it does contain an unexpectedly royal echo.  The reigning monarch has twice, in her annual Christmas message and in a more recent speech in Norfolk, called upon her subjects to adopt more civility and compromise in their public and private lives: "Every generation faces fresh challenges and opportunities. . . . As we look for new answers in the modern age, I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture. . . . To me, these approaches are timeless, and I commend them to everyone.” (See the New York Times 26 January 2019: A4.)  Cornish’s film issues a similar call for civility and compromise, though whether his young heroes will be able to change the course of public discourse any more successfully than Her Majesty the Queen is highly doubtful, especially given the film’s more than dismal initial box office receipts which, according to Variety, promise a loss of close to $50 million for 20th Century Fox.

The Kid Who Would Be King directed and written by Joe Cornish; produced by Nira Park, Tim Bevan, and Eric Fellner; with Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, and Mary Gough; a 20th Century Fox release, presented in association with TSG Entertainment, of a Working Title Films/Big Talk Pictures production. 2019. Running time: 120 minutes.

Kevin J. Harty
LaSalle University

February 3, 2019

We Want Wall. We Want Knight. Not

We Want Wall. We Want Knight. Not. Medievalism and the Atlanta Super Bowl 

Richard Utz

In December, 2018, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made a baffling statement during an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. When pressed on her views on how to best protect the country’s borders, she stated: “From Congress I would ask for wall. We need wall.” While some observers read her statement as a moment of comic relief in the midst of a looming government shutdown and the resignation of the defense secretary, Nielsen’s perhaps stress-induced double elision of the definite article revealed how the “wall” had become a self-standing but extremely vague signifier for the larger political struggle about immigration.

During the ensuing discussion, various Democratic politicians denounced the wall as an ineffective “medieval” solution. President Trump countered that a medieval wall “worked then, and it works even better now.” As Paul Sturtevant commented in the Washington Post, this exchange about the medieval ‘nature’ of the wall showed how both political positions misread medieval culture from a an uninformed presentist perspective: “Critics of the wall used the term derisively. When they say something is ‘medieval,’ they are evoking the outdated image of the ‘dark ages,’ where everyone was muddy, bloody, backward and superstitious. … President Trump linked the wall to the Middle Ages, knowing that “for a significant portion of the American public, especially among his base, being ‘medieval’ is not a bad thing. Instead, it’s aspirational.” His invocation of “medieval” seems to speak directly to a white nationalist audience whose members have been coopting racist and masculinist readings of the medieval world for many years. Remember the violent demonstrations at Charlottesville, VA, in 2017?

I was struck by a similar intentional elision of historical specificity and dog whistle referentiality when, some days ago, the widely known ‘Bud Knight’ began to be projected onto the still only half-finished 101 Marietta Street Building in Atlanta as part of the city’s public celebrations for the Super Bowl LIII. [Thanks to medievalist © Daniel Kline for the photo] This year’s ‘Bud Knight’ is an extension of Anheuser-Busch InBev corporation’s “Dilly Dilly” trilogy of medieval-themed Super Bowl ads which, according to research done at Humboldt University, Germany, and Stanford University, continue to sustain companies’ branding and sales efforts long after the actual sports event for which they are produced. Thus, the 2018 medievalist ad investment may well have increased Budweiser sales by as much as 3.9 percent and revenues by as much as 4.7 percent as the Super Bowl ads continued to run during the post-event weeks. It is clear that these impressive 2018 numbers convinced Anheuser-Bush InBev that the campaign might work even across multiple years.

Megan Arnot has recently provided a revealing assessment of the ‘Bud Knight’ and several other medieval-themed ads by Capital One, Gillette, the U.S. Marines, INTEL, Miller Lite, and Pepsi for The Public Medievalist: She concludes: “Advertising sells you an image of yourself, improved by their product.” Therefore, in order to make the typical Super Bowl audience purchase more Bud Light, offering them an image of martial and virile manhood is a tried and proven option. Of course, the advertisers don’t want to exclude women entirely: “But the focus is still on masculinity, particularly a martial or virile masculinity. In [the case of the ‘Bud Knight’ ads], masculinity does not have to mean a life that women can’t participate in. But men are always the majority of the central figures: the heroes, the kings, the knights. Though women may be present, the focus is on male figures—when they are not objects, women should be participating as one of the boys.”

If advocates of the “We Want Wall” campaign use it to rally President Trump’s electoral base with the help of a medievalist reference, Anheuser-Busch’s revival of the ‘We Want [Bud] Knight’ for Super Bowl LIII seems to follow a similar strategy, one geared towards an audience with a similar image of a martial and virile Middle Ages. I wonder, however, if the company and its ad agency realize that the vague reference to the imagined continuities between medieval knights and 21st century football players and their fans may dredge up some unintended associations. After all, this year’s Super Bowl doesn’t take place in Minneapolis, MN but in Atlanta, GA, and for the U.S. South the history of knighthood is invariably linked with the history of slavery. Southern political leaders and plantation owners in the nineteenth and early twentieth century anchored their practices with numerous specific references to the Middle Ages, and the Southern belle and the Southern gentleman constructed their identities based on those of the medieval (English or Scottish) courtly Lord and Lady. If you don’t believe me, here is what Mark Twain had to say about the influence of Walter Scott’s historical novels (for example Ivanhoe) as a ‘cause’ for the U.S. Civil War in his Life on the Mississippi:

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it– would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Walk the streets of Atlanta, and you can trace the remnants of the mentality Twain (admittedly exaggeratedly) laments: Visit Margaret Mitchell House, and you may understand how Mitchell’s famed 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind, and its 1939 movie version yearn back to “…a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind….” Or stop by Rhodes Hall on Peachtree Street, a now musealized former private residence modeled after a medieval castle in 1905. It romanticizes the Lost Cause, its generals, politicians, and slavery in a series of magnificently produced painted glass windows. Rhodes Hall’s massive Romanesque Revival stone walls were (aptly) constructed with boulders extracted from Stone Mountain, a commanding geographical presence, 1,686 feet tall and 3.8 miles in base circumference, only 16 miles outside of the center of Atlanta. In 1915, stirred by the nostalgic depiction of the nineteenth-century history of the (first) Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation, activist William Simmons, together with over a dozen other men, revived the Klan on Thanksgiving Day, 1915, by igniting a flaming cross on top of the mountain. Stone Mountain also features the well-known gigantic three-acre relief sculpture, 400 feet above the ground, and inaugurated as recently as 1970, of Confederate icons Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, together with these cavaliers’ favorite horses, “Blackjack,” “Traveller,” and “Little Sorrel.” While owned by the State of Georgia, Stone Mountain has been transformed into a theme park with various seasonal events that attract c. four million annual visitors, more than any other place in the state. Except for its street address, 1000 Robert E. Lee Blvd, and the stone relief, the company has almost completely cleansed the site of its unpleasant racist history. However, this hasn’t kept ever new groups of neo-Nazis, Klan members, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Neo-Confederate Leaguers, and members of the heavily armed Georgia Security Force III% from reviving, most visibly during the 2016 Rock Stone Mountain event, the Confederate history of Stone Mountain and invite “every able bodied soul of our race” to defend “these lands of green glens, rolling hills, and deep glades” from “being purposely flooded with hordes of raping scoundrels.” The 2016 event was thwarted by the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, All Out ATL, and other counter protest groups, who easily outnumbered the right-wing groups and reclaimed Stone Mountain’s symbolic presence.

Tonight, on the evening of the Super Bowl, the 3,600 acre amusement park section of Stone Mountain is closed because, as Atlanta’s WSB-TV 2 reports, the owners of the park felt they could not provide sufficient security at the site. Park officials had known since November that white supremacists were planning a rally close to the widely televised Super Bowl. “Officials had been considering closing the park for at least a week after the group vowed to hold the rally despite being denied a permit. On Thursday, that group announced they had canceled their rally amid infighting and fears for personal safety.” According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, a small group of left-wing activists showed up on Saturday, despite the park closure. As they marched, they shouted “Good night, alt right” and “Death to the Klan,” burned a Klansman in effigy, and sported signs with slogans like “Sandblast Stone Mountain,” “Death to the KKK” and “Dixie be damned.” As a medievalist, who sees the connections among the above medievalisms, my own sign would probably have red, “We Don’t Want Knight.”

This is the context within which the famed ‘Bud Knight’ is making its reappearance in the 2019 Atlanta Skyline and at Super Bowl LIII. Unlike the harmless pun that brought us the Knights Inn hotel chain, the ‘Bud Knight’ needs to be recognized for what he is, even if he masquerades as just another fun superhero to please ‘the boys’.

Postscript: I wrote this entry and published it intentionally right before the Super Bowl game began. And then I witnessed one of the smartest and surprising commercial mashups between the Budweiser and Game of Thrones brands: Sir Gregor Clegane of GoT fame entered the world of the Bud Knight and simply killed him off.  In GoT, Sir Gregor is known as "The Mountain," a giant of a man who serves the evil queen Cersei. The mashup may have delivered us from "Knight", but now we have "Mountain" instead. And here in Atlanta, in light of the history and symbolic heritage of Stone Mountain, the mashup feels more like a step back towards 1915 than progress toward a world with less violence and racism.     

Richard Utz