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

May 24, 2016

Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Reviewed by Arthur Bahr (

Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh and most recent novel, The Buried Giant, is a frustrating one to read. Some part of this effect seems likely to be intentional, not just because Ishiguro can write beguilingly flowing stories when he chooses, but also because this book deals with two of the most frustrating aspects of human existence, memory and regret: the uncertainty of the former, the certainty of the latter, and the always vexed relation between them. Our frustration as readers, then, provides a way of empathizing with the characters whose struggles he recounts.

That’s the glass-half-full version, anyway. Sometimes—too often, for me—the novel was simply frustrating: slow, confusing, or both. The last sixty or so of its 317 pages pack considerable emotional punch, and Ishiguro’s prose is as lovely as ever, but there were many other moments when reading left me feeling aimless and abstracted, inclined simply to put the novel down and wander off. I would not have finished it if I hadn’t agreed to write this review; indeed, this review is overdue because I had a hard time finishing it. At some basic level, that can’t be a good thing to say about a piece of fiction.

But perhaps (glass-half-full speaking again) that too is part of the point. For it is precisely to escape the kind of mental and emotional fog that the novel’s opening pages created in me that the main characters, an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice, set off from their village in search of their grown son, of whom they have only vague and fleeting memories. Theirs is a very low-fantasy version of Britain, ca. 550 or so: post-Roman withdrawal, but before native Britons like Axl and Beatrice had been wholly displaced by the Saxons, who when we first meet them seem more like immigrants than conquerors. (That distinction gets addressed, at first only obliquely but with increasing power, over the course of the novel).

And so a quest is born: to find not just their son, but also their memories—of him and of their long, apparently happy marriage. It gradually emerges that the she-dragon Querig is somehow responsible for the mental haze in which inhabitants of the country seem generally to wander, so their own, personal quest becomes linked to the larger one of slaying the dragon and restoring the memories of the land and its people.

Any good quest needs companions, whom Axl and Beatrice duly acquire: the brave warrior Wistan, a Saxon by birth but raised among Britons; the strange Saxon child Edwin, who is on a mysterious family quest of his own; and ultimately Sir Gawain, nephew of the recently deceased King Arthur. From a medievalist’s perspective, the characterization of Sir Gawain is one of the least satisfying and frankly most irritating aspects of the book: old and possibly senile, his complaints about the weight of his armor and self-congratulatory non sequiturs about his own past heroism seem at first like comic relief straight out of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And when a monastery that grudgingly offers the travelers shelter proves to be hiding dark and bloody secrets, it’s hard to shake the impression that Ishiguro’s is a stereotyped, limited, and basically unsympathetic perspective on the medieval.

Thankfully, this dismissive attitude becomes more nuanced as the novel progresses, which is a big part of why the reading experience as a whole ultimately becomes more pleasurable. As Ishiguro (very fitfully) reveals more of these characters’ histories, it becomes clear that he is using Britain’s distant and quasi-legendary past as the setting for a didactic fairy-tale about the present: multiethnic societies should be celebrated, but we should be clear-sighted about the practical challenges that they pose; war and vengeance are horrible, but difficult either to eradicate or to forget; ideals are tricky things, worth fighting for but all too easily compromised by the fight. These are wholly conventional pieties of the secular-humanist intelligentsia, and in that sense unsatisfying to have dramatized at such length (don’t any of us who are even vaguely likely to read an Ishiguro novel always-already believe them?), but Ishiguro is a talented enough writer that he offers more than just virtue-signaling. Especially rewarding are his rare, almost reluctant forays into the supernatural; an encounter with pixies proves especially harrowing for its potent blend of the winsome and the malevolent. Fight scenes feel realistic and resolutely unglamorized: even warriors who appear to have the upper hand recognize that they might die, and they plan accordingly; spectators respect the seriousness of what takes place, and the episodes as a whole feel dramatic, affecting, and almost sacral.

Ultimately, The Buried Giant offers a version of one of the most durable medieval stories, for which the appearance of Sir Gawain as a character should have prepared us, his initially farcical appearance having been perhaps a red herring: King Arthur’s ideals have been undercut, partly by his own human frailty, and ultimately they prove as dead as he himself is when the novel opens. Camelot is no more, and perhaps never really was. The book’s brief, quasi-allegorical final chapter reinforces this central truth at a poignantly personal level. Here the confusion over exactly what transpires—elsewhere a source of irritated frustration—feels brilliantly true to the messy experience of life and love. It left me with the desire, not to reread, exactly, but to continue to digest and process what I’d just read—indeed, to write a review that I’d been avoiding. For the question that the novel poses is a real one, too often answered only superficially if at all: what do we sacrifice when we seek to recover the truth, and might the hazy complacency of forgetfulness not prove superior? If such questions sound like heresy, then Ishiguro’s novel—despite and perhaps because of its frustrations—is nevertheless worth reading, for I am less certain than when I began it of the answers to them.

Arthur Bahr
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

May 16, 2016

Bohemian Baby Boutique: Camelot Cloth Diaper Series

Bohemian Baby Boutique: Camelot Cloth Diaper series (Knoxville, TN)

Reviewed by Lindsey Simon-Jones (

At 8 p.m. on Monday, March 7, 2016, Bohemian Baby Boutique released the much anticipated follow-up to their exclusive Blueberry brand Arthur and Gwen cloth diapers: Merlin and Morgan. The series was a smash hit. The most popular style of the Merlin diaper sold out in less than 2 minutes. Both prints sold out in all but training diaper styles in about 10 minutes. Earlier that day, they had released the diaper for in-store sales at their Knoxville, Tennessee store. With a scheduled opening of 10 a.m., a line formed, according to an internet source who attended the sale, around 7 a.m.; Merlin and Morgan were sold out less than an hour after opening.
Cloth diapering is making a comeback, just as companies are leveraging social media and online sales to boost excitement and desire for exclusive (sold in limited quantities and available at only one store/boutique) and limited edition (sold more widely, but in limited supply) prints. One trend in the cloth diaper print craze has been for literary inspired diapers. For example, Abby’s Lane is producing a Smart Bottoms brand “Book Club” series (prints released or announced include Midsummer Night’s Dream, Black Beauty, Moby Dick, and Alice in Wonderland), while Lali’s Fluff Shop released a set of solid colored Smart Bottoms diapers  based on the house colors in the Harry Potter series. Cotton Babies has built their entire BumGenius brand on prints reflecting “geniuses” from all walks of life; their literary diaper prints include (Lewis) Carroll, Jules (Verne) and Harper (Lee). Clearly, there is a market for book and author themes in the cloth diaper community.
The market for cloth diapers is complex and varied. Many parents choose cloth diapers because their use significantly reduces the expense of diapering when compared to the lifetime costs of using disposable diapers. However, parents collecting (and using) exclusive prints from high-end diaper companies are likely not doing so solely for the economic advantages. Parents for whom the economic benefit is not a primary motivating factor may choose cloth diapers due to their concern for the environment (cloth diapers are often made from sustainable resources and their use significantly cuts down on landfill waste over the course of a child’s diapering years), hygiene (parents prefer absorbency made from natural, often organic materials over chemically enhanced materials and cloth diapering parents report fewer “blowouts” than disposable diaper users),  diaper rash (parents report significantly less diaper rash in cloth diapered children), and convenience (never worrying about running out of diapers or having to stockpile disposables). These families are likely educated, middle- to upper-middle class parents with some modicum of disposable income. They frequently describe themselves as “crunchy” and are likely interested in current trends in childrearing. Some see high-end, exclusive diapers as a kind of investment, given that such diapers often hold their value very well and can be resold when a child has potty-trained for 50%-75% of their original value. In the extreme, diaper “flippers” may collect and store exclusive prints, keeping them in their original packaging, with the intent of selling for higher-than-retail value in the future. The frenzy for exclusive and limited edition prints has made this possible.
With their Camelot series, Bohemian Baby Boutique seems to have hit on a particularly strong desire for medievalia in the larger community. According to the Bohemian Baby Boutique staff, they had only planned two diapers: a generic knight and princess. However, they named the prints Arthur and Gwen after the designs were finalized because they reminded one of the owners of the tales. Arthur and Gwen were released on December 15, 2015, and quickly became their most popular diapers. Due to the surprising and overwhelming popularity of Arthur and Gwen, the team decided to add two diapers to the set. After rereading some Arthurian tales, they settled on Merlin and Morgan (Morgana/Morgan Le Fay) to round out the series they called Camelot.
Demand for these diapers was (and remains) high. Almost immediately after the sale, a lucky few were able to sell their diapers on the secondary market for double or even triple the retail price (the organic Simplex style was the highest priced style, costing $35). And while fervor has died down some in the intervening months, any Camelot diaper offered for sale at a reasonable price (under 100% markup) on the Buy/Sell/Trade boards is almost immediately purchased (in fact, I bought a used Merlin organic Simplex for a bargain $42 just a few weeks ago). The Arthur diaper is still the most sought after, with Merlin a close second. Morgan and Gwen are also popular, but sales suffer because some parents are disinclined to put their male children in a purple or pink diaper featuring a princess or enchantress, while most parents of female children do not have the same reservations about a blue diaper with knights or wizards. Nevertheless, the skillful use of medieval and Arthurian images in this series is likely to generate continued interest in all of the diapers in this series.
With just the right proportion of whimsy and historicism, Bohemian Baby’s Camelot series does an excellent job appropriating popular medieval themes and incorporating imagery from both classic and popular Arthurian legends. The result is a complex representation of medievalism simultaneously appropriate for a child’s diaper and grounded enough in historical medievalism to be desirable to the novice and specialist alike.  Each diaper includes three main vignettes, featuring the main character of the diaper: Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, or Morgan. What follows is a close reading and description of each print’s use of the medievalia and Arthuriana.


This diaper features a pale blue background, a child-like, brunette knight representing Arthur and a horned, blue dragon. Rather than armor, the Arthur character appears to be wearing a not-entirely anachronistic pea coat, with a red belt, hose, and darker gloves and boots. His helmet is in the style of a late-medieval close helm, with a raised visor and two plumes, one green and one blue.
In one vignette, Arthur stands at-the-ready, with a sword to his side and shield in front of his body. In another, he happily rides the fire-breathing dragon, in flight. At first glance, the third vignette appears to show Arthur fighting the dragon; he stands before the beast with sword drawn. On closer inspection, however, the sword turns out to be a three-pronged fork on which the boy-knight is happily toasting marshmallows with the help of the obliging dragon’s fiery breath.
Arthur’s shield appears both as a stand-alone item and with the knight in the standing vignette; it is primarily red, with yellow edging and a yellow crown centered. The crown has three elongated prongs with small pearls at the top. It references a combination of an antique-style crown and a medieval earl’s crown.
Other medievalia fills print: a Norman-style castle with an arched drawbridge, portcullis, and red standard flying above with a centered, yellow crown (the same as on the knight’s shield found throughout the diaper); and a dark and light blue, vertical striped banner, or perhaps gonfalon, with the same yellow crown in its center and a pinked edge are also included. Void spaces are filled with a pair of pale yellow and green fern fronds and a large deciduous tree.


The background on this print is a more vibrant, cyan blue. The Merlin character on this print is patterned after familiar and popular representations of the wizard: he wears dark blue wizard’s robes with white and gold stars and matching pointed hat. He has a long white beard and holds a wizard’s staff with a crystal ball on the end. Merlin is accompanied by a flightless, green (unfortunately, neither red nor white) dragon with white horns and darker green bony plates along its spine (reminiscent of a stegosaurus).
In one vignette, Merlin happily smiles beside a frothing, purple cauldron; the cauldron is adorned with a crescent moon and stars (a similar moon and an assortment of stars fill the void areas throughout). In another, he stands with both arms raised aloft, holding his staff in one hand, appearing to have performed some sort of spell, as indicated by a helix of stars hovering just above the staff. In this set of images, Merlin is accompanied by a surprised looking, purple and white owl on a wooden perch (a nod to Disney’s representation of Merlin with his owl Archimedes, perhaps). In the third, and most whimsical, vignette, Merlin sits astride a sleeping version of the dragon while reading a small, purple book entitled “Dragon Training.” Whether accidental or intentional, the image of Merlin training his dragon picks up on modern representations of Merlin fighting and/or taming dragons both real and imagined.
The Merlin vignettes are interspersed with a gothic-medieval style castle with five towers and blue, pointed roofs. The drawbridge is also blue and is unfortified by a portcullis. Potion bottles appear in a set of three: dark blue, light blue and white; the white bottle also appears near the cauldron.


The Morgan diaper is awash in hues of purple. A lavender background gives way to a smiling Morgan-child, clothed in a tunic, long skirt and cape in a variety of darker purples. Morgan’s wild, pink and purple waves of hair are untamed by a golden diadem, inset with gemstones and adorned with a star centered on her forehead. A golden belt featuring the same dark star cinches the waist of her tunic.
Morgan’s vignettes all center around spell casting. In one, she sits, reading from a green book simply entitled “Spells” to a raven and two cats (one black and one purple/grey). In another, she conjures with a crystal ball held aloft in her left hand. In the other hand, she holds her staff, raised high, upon which the raven is perched; a second raven sits nearby. In the third, Morgan adds a black liquid from a black bottle into a dark blue cauldron accented with white stars; white steam and pink and purple bubbles are rising from the top; the raven, again, sits aloft her staff.
As noted above, the black cat and raven are predominantly featured on this diaper; the raven is featured in all three vignettes, and the black cat and raven have their own small scene, sitting together amongst the same type of ferny flowers seen in the other three prints. The raven may be in reference to Morgan’s sometimes-supposed origins in the Celtic goddess Morrigan, as well as to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of her as one who could shapeshift and fly. The cats reproduce the common image of the witch’s familiar. In addition to her animal companions, Morgan has a small, wooden hermit’s hut with a purple roof; its simplicity stands in stark contrast to the towering castles depicted in the other three designs. The rest of the print is filled with potion bottles of varying shapes, sizes, and colors, and star and crescent moon patterns that are very similar to those in the Merlin print.


The Gwen diaper print is set on a soft pink background. In it, Gwen wears a long-sleeved, tea-length, purple dress, with a fitted top and full skirt, and purple flats; her dress is accented by a pink belt and tights. The dress also features three small flowers of orange or white on the right side of the skirt. Her brunette hair is swept into a loose, side ponytail, clasped with a red bow. She has a broad smile and blushing cheeks in each portrait. She wears a golden crown with a flower in the same style as on her dress, centered; her crown features four prongs topped with red jewels.
The Gwen diaper seems to suffer most from its inception as a generic “princess” diaper, and her vignettes have little to do with the legends of the Guinevere characters. In one, she stands, with eyes closed, holding a small bird aloft; one of her legs is lifting up, as she stands in a modified, arabesque position. In another, she leads a dun colored horse with a vibrant purple main, tail, and hooves. The horse is wearing a simple, red noseband for a bridal, and has a matching red bow in its main, near one ear. Rather than a saddle, the horse wears a simple, pink blanket, adorned with the same small flowers that appear on Gwen’s dress (in purple), with red pompon tassels. Like Arthur, she also stands solitary; however, rather than a sword and shield, Gwen stands holding a bouquet of flowers to her nose, smiling as she breathes in their scent.

Gwen’s castle is a blend of the one in the Arthur and Merlin print, with a Norman center featuring purple windows, roofing, and an unfortified drawbridge. The windows are in mirror image of those on the Arthur castle (with the one on the right being placed higher than the one on the left). It flies a purple pennant with a white flower on a red pole. An array of flowers, ferns, hearts and a tree (perhaps a cherry blossom tree in bloom) fill the void spaces; importantly, these are the same fern fronds that appear on each diaper in the series.

Lindsey Simon-Jones
Pennsylvania State University, Fayette

March 12, 2016

Attar and Shutters, eds.: Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters

Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters, eds. Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Reviewed by Patricia Taylor (

Editors Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters have created an excellent collection on teaching cross-cultural encounters in courses focused on medieval and early modern culture. As the editors note in the introduction, the humanities are under suspicion from some critics for their relevancy to modern society at precisely the same time that businesses and politicians proclaim the importance of having workers that have cross-cultural and global acumen.  Attar and Shutter present a convincing case—or, more accurately, a series of convincing cases—that teaching the cross-cultural and global natures of the medieval and early modern world provide ample training ground for students to practice the specific forms of critical thinking, self-awareness, and flexibility that are required to move across and between cultures in the modern world. Attar, Shutters, and their contributors thus speak to the institutional relevance of teaching medieval and early modern cultures, as well as the humanities more broadly.

The book offers twelve essays by scholars and faculty in a wide range of disciplines, including art history, theater, Italian, French, English, and Latin and Iberian Studies. Each essay articulates a theoretical and pedagogical basis for addressing the stakes and difficulties of teaching cross-cultural encounters in a particular discipline, and then proceeds from the underlying theory to examples of syllabi, pedagogical approaches, class discussions, and specific assignments. The courses described are both undergraduate and graduate, and from a wide range of institutions with a variety of student demographics.

The central conceit of the book is that cross-cultural encounters are not simply synchronic, but also diachronic, and that historical distance can be a feature, not a bug, when teaching cross-cultural encounters. The book is broken into three major sections: the first six essays describe how the authors teach examples of synchronic cultural encounters, while the next five describe how faculty link synchronic encounters to diachronic ones. The final two essays focus primarily on diachronic encounters. While breaking the essays into these groups is appealing on the surface, when reading the volume, it became increasingly clear that it was not nearly as necessary or accurate as it appears: every essay in the opening section offers reflections on the diachronic cross-cultural encounters between students and texts, and often other diachronic encounters as well. Elizabeth Pentland’s essay, “Teaching English Travel Writing from 1500 to the Present” describes a course that explicitly sets up comparisons between modern and early modern travel literature, and Seth Kimmel explains in “Andalusian Iberias: from Spanish to Iberian Literature” how his course takes advantage of the fact that “especially since September 11, 2001, students come to classes on the history and representation of pre-modern Christians, Muslims, and Jews aware that contemporary politics of religion shape interpretations of the past” (22).  
While every essay offers something of import to teachers in particular disciplines, what is perhaps most encouraging about the book as a whole is the way it reminds us that both our students’ and our own discomfort can be productive in the classroom. The theme of comfort and discomfort appears over and over in the collection. Most obvious and useful are the numerous essays that offer different ways to help address students’ discomforts when encountering texts from different cultures. Julie Scheck’s essay, “Stranger than Fiction: Early Modern Travel Narratives and the Antiracist Classroom,” describes how the distancing effect of teaching early modern literature is an important first step in helping students become comfortable and more productive when discussing race, but she also rightly insists that the historical distance of early modern texts can accidentally perpetuate racism if faculty do not resist the potential “minimizing” effect by connecting early modern texts to contemporary parallels (97). Other essays, such as Ambereen Dadabhoy’s “The Moor of America,” productively follow this line of thought by describing how faculty can avoid such minimizing. Dadabhoy’s essay describes how she paired Othello with a discussion of the discourse surrounding President Barak Obama. 
The collection repeatedly reminds faculty that their own discomfort can be equally as important as student discomfort, and that teaching to our own discomforts can increase student learning. For example, in “A Journey through the Silk Road in a Cosmopolitan Classroom,” Kyunghee Pyun writes that “I was always more comfortable staying away from current political issues,” but that the course’s content pushed class discussion into productive, useful, and even “sensitive” explorations of “humanitarian causes and the difficulty of maintaining a delicate balance of power in the post-9/11 era” (66). Other essays highlight how an instructor’s own discomfort stepping outside a traditional area of expertise can actually produce the opportunity for students to bring their own expertise—as immigrants, as speakers of other languages, as coming from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds—to create a more cross-cultural classroom. As our classrooms become sites of increasing diversity, teaching even where we lack authority and expertise can create the conditions for a truly student-centered cross-cultural experience.

The diversity of disciplines and approaches represented in the collection also proves a great boon for the reader. For example, as an English literature specialist, I found the approaches to teaching cross-cultural encounters through the materiality of different disciplines particularly useful in two essays: Pyun’s essay which discusses cross-cultural encounters through art history, and Jenna Soleo-Shanks’s “Resurrecting Callimachus: Pop Music, Puppets, and the Necessity of Performance in Teaching Medieval Drama,” which describes a performance-based pedagogy for teaching medieval Italian drama. The editors state in the introduction that they hope to “encourage interdisciplinary conversation, itself a vital, if sometimes lacking, form of cross-cultural encounter within academia” (9). I believe they have succeeded on this point, and I hope others will take up their call as well. Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross Cultural Encounters offers much that can encourage both faculty and students to understand their classrooms as sites of cross-cultural encounters with the medieval and early modern past. It is a much-needed resource, though as the editors themselves point out, it only scratches the surface of what is possible and needed.

Patricia Taylor
Georgia Institute of Technology