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

July 16, 2013

Pugh and Aronstein, eds: The Disney Middle Ages

Tison Pugh and Susan Aronstein, eds. The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy Tale and Fantasy Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Reviewed by Russell A. Peck (

This collection of fourteen essays provides a balanced and often quite witty assessment of Disney’s films, TV shows, marketing strategies, theme parks, personal philosophies, pedagogy, social and political practices of Walt Disney and his Corporate Legacy. My remarks on the volume are descriptive. My goal is to give readers a detailed sense of the book’s contents, particularly ideas they might wish to pick up on to develop ideas of their own. Although the essays are sometimes marked by familiar criticism pertaining to Disney’s conservative rightwing politics, inherent racism, and gender biases, the authors do make considerable effort to appreciate the artistry and technical skills of Disney’s work, with thoughtful allowances for the integrity of the nostalgic vision of Disney fantasies and their imperialistic global messages. The collection speaks well to a scholarly audience, while, at the same time, addressing intelligently a broader audience that includes virtually anyone who has ever seen a Disney movie or TV program or been to a theme park — that is, about everyone who has grown up in America or elsewhere. The bibliography is excellent.

1. Tison Pugh’s Introduction, “Retroprogressive Medievalisms: Where Yesterday is Tomorrow Today,” introduces terminology to which most of the subsequent essays adhere to get at what Baudrillard calls Disney’s “play of illusions and phantasms”(1). Pugh emphasizes that all the essays in the volume “explore Disney’s mediation and re-creation of a fairy-tale and fantasy past, not to lament its exploitation of the Middle Ages for corporate ends, but to examine how and why these medieval visions prove so readily adaptable to themed entertainments many centuries after their creation” (2). Citing Hayden White on the manner in which historians give meaning in their narratives through an allegoresis of real events, Pugh proposes a similar theory behind Disney’s “overarching sense of play” that creates a hyperreality more true than factual to celebrate a “sacrosanct vision of children’s culture as perpetually innocent”: “It’s only for children, it’s only fantasy, it’s only a cartoon, and it’s just good business” (3). Pugh illustrates the basics of such a vision by discussing the theme-park rides designed around the film Pirates of the Caribbean, with its tropes of countercultural conformity and innocence that affect even the pirates themselves as they learn to conceive through the simplicity of children the possibilities of a happily ever after ending, that the theme parks pick upon in piratic extensions of ideological continuity between yesterday and tomorrow — familiar Disney identities that rob from each other to be perpetually “refabricated under a rubric of children’s innocence” (5).

Part I: Building a Better Middle Ages: Medievalism in the Parks.

2. Stephen Yandell, “Mapping the Happiest Place on Earth: Disney’s Medieval Cartography.” Disney parks prioritize the guests’ feelings of comfort and familiarity. The imagineers recognize that getting lost can be fun; as Eddie Sotto explains, “fear minus death equals fun” (22). The pleasurable state of being safely lost gives families the chance to explore the familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously, according to childhood fantasies. Yandell compares the layout of Fun Maps for Disney theme parks with the thirteenth-century Hereford mappaemundi, which places Eden (and the east) at the top, and Europe and Africa left and right at the bottom separated from Eden by the River Tanais (Don) and the River Nile and from each other by the Mediterranean. The Disney parks place Fantasyland at the top, Frontierland and Adventureland to the left, and Tomorrowland to the right, with Mainstreet U.S.A., which governs the flow of traffic into the central hub, in place of the Mediterranean. There are plenty of vacant spaces where one can get “lost,” but not really, what with the wanderer’s deep-seated familiarity with even the scariest places within the Disney world that lurk in the wanderer’s hearts and memories. Yandell relates films like Treasure Island to such a hub-and spoke layout of all Disney parks, citing Umberto Eco’s observation that “the pleasure of imitation . . . is one of the most innate [delights] in the human spirit” (29) to get at the delight of imitating imagination, as visitors proceed through the park according to directions of their own choosing, even according to one’s desire to be subversive while at the same time purchasing with real money treasures from the gift shops to enhance their fondest memories.

3. Martha Bayless, “Disney’s Castles and the Work of the Medieval in the Magic Kingdom.” The ultimate origin of Disney’s castles is the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, itself an unfinished story of romance, which Disney (and America, in works like The Little Princess and Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries) has transformed into a female domain, “a domestic space for the enactment of American female transfiguration” (40). Bayless explores Disney castles, particularly those of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, which serve the films in ways akin to the framing of medieval dream visions such as Pearl, Piers Plowman, and Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. Disney’s dream castles, rather than being martial fortifications, are sites made personal, child-centered places that reenact adult histories to celebrate the idea of family, home, and happy endings. Despite the fact that such a vision ignores commonplace real life evidence that, for most Americans, weddings and married life are no guarantee of such happiness, “within the smaller realm of the domestic, moments of play, transformation, and celebration are still possible. This is the promise of the castle” (54). Nowadays, even children know that.

4. Susan Aronstein, “Pilgrimage and Medieval Narrative Structures in Disney’s Parks.” Aronstein begins with Karal Marling’s unironic observation that “A trip to a Disney park is like going to heaven. A culmination of every dream and hope. A summation of the American life,” and proceeds to draw parallels with medieval pilgrimages that mix piety and the materialities of travel. She uses St. Gregory’s enthusiasm for souls inflamed with love adorned by elaborate imagination that plays out in Disney spaces, according to Mike Wallace, in ways akin to the Corpus Christi cycles. Aronstein imagines how V. A. Kolve’s chronicle of the mystery plays (thrilling for medievalists, at least) might be brought to bear upon the Disney experience as it transforms, as if by magic, Americans back into the verities of a dangerous frontier filled with the piety of adventure. Disneyland’s dark rides are “sermons in fiberglass” (62 ff.) that reaffirm the fairytale mythologies of childhood, from Neverland to the Jack stories. Aronstein concludes with remarks on the marketing of magic within Disneyland’s elaborate commercial systems. Just as medieval folk doted on the York Cycle for its pageantry, they also went there for the concessions — from yummy tidbits to maypoles and circle dancing   with their friends.

Part II: The Distorical Middle Ages. [“Distory” is “history” as Disney revisions it.]

5. Paul Sturtevant, “‘You don’t learn it deliberately, but you just know it from what you’ve seen’: British understandings of the medieval past gleaned from Disney’s fairy tales,” offers a fresh perspective quite different from other essays in the volume in that the Disney experience for British children is not like the American experience; for them there is less confusion about what’s really medieval and what Disney makes up. Sturtevant uses questionnaires distributed among elementary school age groups, who recognize immediately Disney’s skills at making up realities quite apart from the castles and medieval history they have grown up with and know so well. Still, they love the films and enjoy them as much as any children do for their fairies, magic, goblins, dragons, pirates, and cultural affinities, recognizable medievalisms through which Disney shapes their fantasies. Sturtevant does not mention it, but it could be that their growing up with British pantomimes may also help British children to appreciate, without being confused, the contradictions within Disney’s fantastic entertainment on both sides of the dim margins between childhood and adulthood. They have enjoyed such distortions since they were three years old, or younger, depending on the strength of granny’s back!

6. Erin Felicia Labbie, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Animation and Alchemy in Disney’s Medievalism.” Labbie juxtaposes the first Fantasia (1940) with the second (2010) to explore the interface between the animated Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1940) and the one with human actors (2010), using Disney’s TV episode on “The Story of Animated Drawing” to get at complex adjustments of imagination as technologies displace each other to enhance old ideas in new ways, a sophisticated alchemy with which we, well fed by TV, are quite at home. Mickey’s impatience with medieval alchemy, akin to the complaints of Chaucer’s yeoman in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, demonstrates admirably what Peggy Knapp calls the “image of alienated labor in the strongest sense . . . [where] capitalism is intent on making things more plentiful, bigger, less measurable on a scale based on the worker growing food” (107-08). Labbie concludes by relating the magic of alchemical creation to magical animation that captures dreams by what Pugh characterized as “retroprogesssion,” with the 2010 Sorcerer’s Apprentice reifying the original Fantasia through a different kind of animation, with “real/reel” people in a nonlinear cartoon of history and time.

7. Rob Gossedge, “The Sword in the Stone: American Translatio and Disney’s Antimedievalism,” discusses Disney’s reluctance to undertake an Arthurian tale — “That king was a cuckold. Who the hell cares about a cuckold?” (117), though he purchased the rights to T. H. White’s story early on in 1940. But White’s “The Sword in the Stone” is largely a happy affair, and after the success of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (successful despite Disney’s refusal to give them rights to White’s first installment of what was to become The Once and Future King) and JFK’s picking up on the success of the musical as a marker of his presidency, Disney quite hurriedly produced their movie to open on Christmas day of 1963, mindful that the Kennedy’s were setting out to remodel the White House as a new Camelot, which, I would add, might account, in part, for the film’s antimedievalism: Disney and the Kennedy’s came from different sides of the aisle. Disney’s film picks up on the education theme of White’s story, but takes great liberties with what White took seriously, mocking White’s medieval tale repeatedly, what with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like dishwashing scene, the timely puns on the early 1960's, the squirrel romance not found in White, the greatly altered Mim episode, and jokes about “these backward medieval times” (125). The film avoids any hints of Wart’s birth and ancestry, a subject Disney did not want to touch. Wart’s speech is pure American, as opposed to Kay’s Cockney, which gives Arthur all the legitimacy he needs. Merlin, who can live in the future, insists that Wart get those silly medieval ideas out of his head, and Wart himself quickly learns of the backwardness of those times as he sets out to modernize his thoughts. When Merlin returns from his Bermuda vacation he encourages Wart — “‘Boy, boy, boy, you’ll become a legend. They’ll be writing books about you for centuries to come. Why they might even make a motion picture about you.’ Indeed ‘they’ did — many. But Disney’s Sword in the Stone, ultimately, was not really one of them” (129).

8. Kevin J. Harty, “Walt in Sherwood, or The Sheriff of Disneyland: Disney and the Film Legend of Robin Hood,” provides a detailed survey of the disneyification of the Robin Hood legend, hinted at in the Robin Hood typology that creeps into “The Sword in the Stone” in 1963, but was first explored in The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, dir. By Ken Annakin (1952), which plays upon fears of an enemy within, with a touch of sympathy for McCarthyism in its advocacy of social responsibility. In all the Disney productions, Robin is the quintessential good guy. None of their early Robin Hood efforts were big hits, though they experimented with mixed agendas that were in their ways even daring in their race and gender bending. In the Disney made-for-television adaptation of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, entitled A Knight in Camelot (1998), Hank Morgan is played by Whoopi Goldberg; this was followed in 2001 by Peter Hewitt’s Princess of Thieves, with Keira Knightly as Robin Hood’s daughter Gwen. Both films, first aired on The Wonderful World of Disney, give women considerable agency, going all the way back to The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, with Joan Rice as Marian. But the best known Disney Robin Hood is the animated film directed by Wolfgang Reitherman (1973), who also directed the animated The Sword in the Stone. Harty notes that Disney had been interested in the Reynard the Fox story from the mid-1930s, but worried about having a crook as his central protagonist. Such concerns fade, however, when the tale is combined with an animated Robin Hood narrative and the animals can be animals but good people simultaneously. Harty’s discussions of The Rocketeer and Princess of Thieves are particularly excellent, including insightful remarks on their conclusions, where Disney corporation’s courage of their convictions cops out, settling instead for the Disney doctrine of women being pretty and marriageable. All the films adhere to Disney’s dictum that “we want to have a point of view in our stories, not an obvious moral, but a worthwhile theme,” namely “opposition to tyranny and oppression, concern for the downtrodden and disempowered, and a happy ending” (149).

9. Amy Foster, “Futuristic Medievalisms and the U.S. Space Program in Disney’s Man in Space Trilogy and Unidentified Flying Oddball.” Foster deconstructs the Disney TV trilogy Man in Space, launched in 1955, and Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979), a space Odyssey based on Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, celebrating the superiority of US technology but ever so different from A Knight in Camelot. Disney was intensely interested in the American space exploration. Not only did he produce the TV trilogy; he also built space travel into the park Tomorrowlands with their various space rides. Disney used the television show Walt Disney’s Disneyland to promote spaceflight even before the U.S. government officially sponsored a federal space program. The Man in Space series premiered over two and a half years before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Disney had Willy Ley, Wernher Von Braun, and Heinz Haber appearing on his space programs to promote space flight, all three of whom saw TV as an outstanding means of promoting the space program, which was presented as “a Promethean struggle for survival” (157). Both Haber and Von Braun had been deeply involved with Hitler’s rocket program; Disney was masterful in sidestepping their Nazi histories in his “distorical” savvy. Foster discusses the traumas of the Vanguard disaster as Disney continued to promote the program and even to coerce U.S. presidents to support space exploration when they would have preferred other agendas. In Unidentified Flying Oddball Tom Trimble uses his technological advantages (including his spacesuit to avoid the dangers of being burnt at the stake) and, in the American way, validates the values of gadgets and technology. Disney believed in “glorifying ordinary Americans” (164), and Trimble is one of those who demonstrates that salvation lies in scientific advances capable of saving us from a rat infested medieval world so that we can invent a twenty-first century for the whole world.

Part III: Disney Princess Fantasy Faire.

10. Clare Bradford, “‘Where Happily Ever After Happens Every Day’: The Medievalisms of Disney’s Princesses.” Bradford discusses the “curious mixture of stiffness and seductiveness” of all the Disney princesses, regardless of race as they flutter their eyelashes, smile and laugh beguilingly, curtsey, and invite play by adjustment of their hand positions (171). They “naturalize and authorize traditional gender roles by deploying discourses of courtly love and narratives structured by the motif of the Fair Unknown” in search of a premodern patriarchal order that culminates in marriage (173). Bradford divides her presentation into three sections: “The Mists of Time(lessness): Cultural Capital and Disney’s Princesses”; “‘Some day my prince will come’: How to Be a Princess in Ten Easy Lessons”; and “‘My heart belongs to Daddy’: Fathers, Bad Boys, and Disney Princesses.” Her examples for discussion are the half dozen Disney fairy tale films, from Snow White and Cinderella to Beauty and the Beast, and recent films like Tangled and The Princess and the Frog. “Both the website and the films disclose cultural anxieties around gender and sexuality, anxieties that manifest in the contradictory discourses that swirl about them. Nowhere are these contradictions more apparent than in the ideological functions performed by Disney’s medievalisms” (186).

11. Kathleen Coyne Kelly, “Disney’s Medievalized Ecologies in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty.” Kelly’s quite wonder-filled essay works along the interface between technology and aesthetics where Disney excels so magnificently. She looks past the human characters to focus instead on Disney’s cinematic backgrounds — the natural settings and ecologies that evolve colorfully out of Ruskin, the pre-Raphaelites, Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, the Swedish illustrator Gustaf Adolf Tenggren (who worked for Disney in the late 1930s), and the American realist painter Robert Henri, following Henri’s dictum that “the great painter has something to say. He does not paint men, landscapes or furniture, but an idea” (191). In Snow White, one of Disney’s main ideas is conservationism, the “idea of a pristine, unspoiled nature to be used and enjoyed by all,” an idea that through his “medievalized nature” he “in a small but significant way, participated in mid-twentieth-century discourses on the environment” (191). Kelly offers a brief history of animation that leads into the complexity of the Disney Company’s innovations in camera work that film as many as seven layers of artwork, moving at different speeds to create a proto-3D “depth and dimension not seen before in animation” (192). Disney’s forests generate “a strong desire to be transported to them”; they exist “not some where, but some time,” borrowing words from Winston Churchill’s famous assessment of the legend of King Arthur: “It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides” (195). The Russian director Sergei Eisenstein called Snow White “the greatest movie ever made” (196), emphasizing its importance in bringing color and the sublime into the gray lives of post-depression American workers, slaving away at sweatshop jobs or rural projects not of their choosing. Kelly, in her discussion of “remediation and realism,” wittily reads Disney’s “exploitation of already known representations of the Middle Ages as a brilliant (and punning) application of the ‘natural’ law of conservation” (200). After all her smart discussions of Disney as conservationist in relation to other conservation movements in America, from H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963) to Max Yasgur’s Farm, Woodstock, and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, I am amused by Kelly’s gesture to distance herself from Walt in her notes: “It is a rare scholar who does not criticize Disney for sexist, racist, and classist representations. In agreement with such critiques, I find The Little Mermaid to be egregiously racist, speciesist, and obesist, and consider Tangled to be a facile, bourgeois exploitation of girl power” (204 n4) — home safe!

12. Ilan Michell-Smith, “The United Princesses of America: Ethnic Diversity and Cultural Purity in Disney’s Medieval Past.” This essay addresses questions surrounding the Disney Corporation’s efforts in the last two decades to provide ethnic diversity among its icons with non-white Princess movies, all of which are symbolically “medieval” in that they are set in a distory past, where the modern world has not yet arrived — Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, and The Princess and the Frog, the last (the most modern) being set in a New Orleans of the past. All of them, however, further Disney’s American and Eurocentric agendas. “The protagonists, despite their varying sociotemporal settings, are modern American girls who find themselves in conflict with ancient and repressive regimes, and so they together symbolize an inevitable mixed-race American culture that is emerging for all people, in all places, and at all times of the past.” Towards the end of each film the “traditional culture is compromised or even undone” (210). These free-form integration conflicts and contradictions typify in some ways a modern America, “where business women, soldiers, and activists can also be damsels in distress and decorated brides” (211), thereby getting at the trickiness of multiculturalism in America. The films tend to avoid complication by depicting white people, where they factor in, in distinct home areas of their own “to the point of rewriting colonization and conquest into a peaceful parting of the two groups” (213). The separation destabilizes the very concept of “Princess,” “because the Princesses themselves are kept irrevocably apart by their ethnicities and their specific and individual geographical settings” (214). Multiracial Disney princesses occupy a double identity even as “they take turns laughing and smiling as if they are all part of a single choreography of demure femininity” (214), what with their different skin colors evenly distributed (215). These contradictions become particularly evident on website presentations, where the princesses are separated as icons apart from their originary film stories where they have more distinctive and coherent identities, where they can sing of their sense of a whole new world, or lecture the men in their stories on what’s going on, or, like Tiana, reject “this old town” and its people who always “take the easy way,” even as she gets married at the end, still running her own show, albeit in homage to her father. Mitchell-Smith concludes by reminding us that children are quite “able to negotiate and manage their intake of ideas, and the consumption of culture might not be purely imitative,” that in these fantasy worlds “irresolvable tensions in contemporary American female identity can somehow coexist” (222) or be negotiated.

13. Allison Craven, “Esmeralda of Notre-Dame: The Gypsy in Medieval View from Hugo to Disney.” After a review of Hugo’s basic plot and his own medievalisms, Craven explores the spectacle of Notre-Dame itself as a virtual character on its own, while reviewing the numerous earlier film versions of Hunchback. Disney’s animated story is not the first Hunchback for children (there is an Australian one), but it is the best known and is not unique in dealing with dark themes (nota bene, Mulan, the Disney Tarzan, and Atlantis, all films more for adolescents and adults). But, Craven argues, the violence is softened: Quasi does not kill Frollo; rather the villain brings about his own demise, thereby preserving the innocence of a Disney hero. “Disney’s hunchback is regressed to Laughton’s pre-Oedipal child; thus, the sexual threat to Esmeralda . . . is thoroughly attributed by Disney to Frollo,” thereby emphasizing Esmeralda’s sexual maturity and self-possession while at the same time developing the “staple figures of teenage fiction, the outsider and the underdog” of Quasi’s “self-actualization” (233). Esmeralda’s fatal attraction for Phoebus “is adapted by Disney as a lively chemistry and . . . they are initially on opposite sides until Phoebus rebels and joins Esmeralda’s quest, and is then rescued several times by Esmeralda and owes his life to her,” whereby a bond between them is expanded into a sequel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II: The Secret of the Bell, in which Phoebus and Esmeralda have a child, Zephyr, “a rare instance in Disney or any children’s media in which principal characters reproduce” (234). Craven’s analysis concludes with “Gypsy Magic: Esmeralda and the Exotic Art of Animation,” which relates Quasi’s bedazzled youth with his doll replica of Esmeralda and his toy city which charms Esmeralda, amazed by how much room he has, then goes on to compare the film’s exoticism with that of Aladdin and other oriental tales as Disney mediates modernity with medievalism.

14. Maria Sachiko Cecire, “Reality Remixed: Neomedieval Princess Culture in Disney’s Enchanted.” Cecire discusses Enchanted (2007) as if it were a kind of medieval cento. She does not use this term, and I doubt that anyone at Disney ever heard of this form of medievalism, but it fits her discussion well. A cento is a text made up of lines from an earlier work rearranged to make a new work through a reconfiguration of allusions. Cecire’s point is that much of the pleasure one experiences in seeing the new film (Enchanted) stems from recognition of the revoicing and refitting of earlier Disney materials, like a simultaneous recalling of the past and the future. “Enchanted’s play on the medievalisms of previous Disney fairy-tale films yields neomedievalisms that are self-aware and even further abstracted from the Middle Ages than their sources . . . constructs [that] participate in the postmodern techniques of fragmentation: anachronism, pastiche, bricolage,” as Robinson and Clements suggest (244). The pop-up book shot at the beginning is particularly apt for this film in which Disney allusions perpetually pop up to enfold this intricately self-conscious plot of “textual poaching” in the fields of fan fiction and fan art, as Disney employs “fannish recombinatory techniques to ‘make sense’ of Disney’s legacy in a contemporary context” (248). Director Kevin Lima admits that “there are so many Disney references in Enchanted that he ‘doesn’t know if there’s a number,’ but states that ‘you could watch this movie a hundred times and still find things’” (248). Lima notes, for example that the troll in the opening animation wears a loin cloth made up of various princess dresses and purple earrings pinched from “Ariel’s shell bra” in The Little Mermaid (249). Enchanted celebrates female intuition and creativity, but does not undermine the persistent patriarchal positions of earlier Disney films, which, Cecire suggests, damages the film’s legacy and economic potential (255). She concludes with an interesting speculation: In 2010 Disney Pictures announced that Tangled would be its last traditional Princess film “for the foreseeable future.” However, the first season of Once Upon a Time, produced by Disney has been the most popular Sunday night show on TV for adults between 18-34 and women between 18-49. “Like Enchanted, Once Upon a Time encourages viewers to be textual poachers, actively seeking out the neomedieval possibilities in mundane modernity and recombining them to reveal the hidden Disney Princess narratives embedded in everyday life” (257-58). So maybe there will not be new Princess film for a while, but their legacy lives on.

Russell A. Peck
University of Rochester