How to Slay a Dragon (and Reach a Public Audience)

If you ever fall asleep and wake up in a strange fantasy world, there is no reason to panic. Even if you have never rolled a d20 or published an article on Tolkien, you probably know you will be meeting your traveling party at an inn, dealing with a dragon or two, and feasting like it’s 1480 and you plan to commission a 124-folio illuminated manuscript account of your wedding that will also be printed for distribution to a wide public readership. [1] You know these things because a facsimile of the Middle Ages has been host to wizards, jinn, and paladins since Lord of Rings, since Gothic fiction, since 1000 Nights became 1001. And now you can know that medieval history holds all the answers you need to survive and triumph in a five-volume fantasy trilogy.

At least, this is the premise of my new book, How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages (Tiller Press, 2001). It is a handbook for heroes that uses fantasy tropes as allegory to teach medieval history–and a little bit about critical interpretation of sources along the way. Throughout the book, you take on the role of an illiterate peasant (a Chosen One?) called to a quest (slaying a dragon, saving the princess, figuring out what to do while the princess saves herself), and every chapter presents a common trope–the more magical, the better–as a problem to solve.

Befriending the Enchanted Forest might not be possible because enchanted forests do not exist, but Muslim and Christian rulers alike showed off their power and riches with silver forests filled with golden chirping automatons. Medieval patterns of evangelization and conversion demonstrate the exact opposite of Bringing the Old Gods Back, but the Sphinx guarded the desert outside the Fatimid capital, and Abu Ja’far al-Idrisi (d. 1251) wanted to know why. (Caliphs were more interested in staging races up the Great Pyramid and throwing torchlit parties at Giza.) If you have ever needed to survive some shrieking eels or use linguistic evidence to reconstruct Early English beacon warning systems, How to Slay a Dragon is the book for you.

From the standpoint of writing the book, on the other hand, one of the big advantages of working with an editor and sales team at a major publishing house was to see what did and did not appeal to them along the way. The ideas seem basic, especially from a classroom point of view, but the publishers’ explicit acknowledgment of them suggests both their necessity and a feeling that they are lacking in the overall public discourse on the Middle Ages.

The “medieval world”

It was vital to me to write about a “medieval world,” not just the western Europe that underlies traditional fantasy (or as I like to put it, A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to Fifteenth-Century Germany and Tenth-Century Cairo). What “medieval world” does and should mean in scholarship is constantly in flux, but I ultimately settled on a spiderweb approach: the economic and cultural networks that criss-crossed the world around the Mediterranean, with branches stretching out to the Sámi, Mali, Sumatra. My editor was thrilled that this approach acted as a counterpoint to narratives of the mythic white Middle Ages, and suggested that the push to diversify the fantasy genre has made average readers hungrier for a historical accuracy hunt in the medieval Islamic world as well.

Analyzing primary sources

Although most of the 1000-1500 word chapters bring together information from three to eight secondary sources and the occasional primary, several chapters zoom in on one or two primary sources, for example, John of Morigny’s Liber florum (“How to train a wizard”) and Bertrandon de la Brocquière’s Le Voyage de Outre-Mer (“How to cross the barren wastes”). [2] My editor thought readers would respond really well to my method of talking the reader through the source bit by bit, gradually revealing its own genre elements and how we should not take primary sources at face value.

Being specific about time, place, and origin

Because How to Slay a Dragon is essentially Medieval Studies 101 using a fantasy epic instead of a timeline as its narrative, I tried to be very specific about the time and place of every anecdote, event, or text. I was surprised at how strongly my editor stressed this point as well. But even more, she insisted that I include background information about primary sources. Once again, I think it’s a good lesson that people are hungry for firsthand access to actual medieval writing and material objects, but also to know how to understand them.

You, the hero

Throughout the process, the strength of the book’s quest through-narrative was the biggest point of contention between my editor and me. My original vision was to use the tropes as an excuse to talk about the “cool parts” of medieval history (need to cross a cursed swamp? Let me tell you about bathhouse ghosts and London’s public toilets). But the marketing team in particular pointed to the self-insert, immersive aspect of fantasy gaming (computer and tabletop) and even fanfiction, not just reading, in terms of how people engage medievalist fantasy. After all, as Tolkien himself pointed out in “On Fairy-Stories,” part of the eternal appeal of fantasy is the escape into another world–your escape.

Although the first three points are foundational to how I, a medieval historian, approach the Middle Ages, I find it significant that my editor and marketing team believe so strongly in their place in books aimed at a popular audience. And if you are interested, of course, I invite you to see an example of how they can play out in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] The text and its illuminations are translated in Jane Bridgeman, The Celebrations at Pesaro for the Marriage of Costanzo Sforza & Camilla Marzano d’Aragona (26 – 30 May 1475) (Brepols, 2013).

[2] Claire Fanger and Nicholas Watson (eds.), John of Morigny: Liber florum celestis doctrine / The Flowers of Heavenly Teaching: An Edition and Commentary (Brepols, 2016); C. H. Schefer (ed.), Le Voyage d’outremer de Bertrandon de la Broquière (Ernest Leroux, 1892).

The Green Knight: Another Medievalist’s Review

After almost forty-years without a major motion picture adaption, David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) was much anticipated and made quite a splash, but pulled mixed reviews from scholars and critics.

The film’s primary source material, the medieval alliterative poem Gawain and the Green Knight, happens to be my personal favorite work in Middle English, my favorite Arthurian romance and my second favorite work of medieval literature following only Beowulf. Indeed, because I find both the story and poetics so fascinating, my very first blog explored possible functions of the bob and wheel in Gawain and the Green Knight. I have always read the poem as a tale of a hero brought low and the three conclusions offered by the Green Knight, Gawain himself and King Arthur’s court provide a variety of interpretations from recognition of the hero’s humanity to his feelings of failure and shame to the merriment and celebration of his chivalry by king and court.

Images of Arthur, Guinevere, Gawain & the decapitated Green Knight in British Library, Cotton Nero MS a.x f.94v

The poem’s concatenation on themes (such as schame “shame” emphasized in the “bob and wheel” structure) drives these points home but also mimics the psychological experience of anxiety and a nagging, internal monologue. The mystery of the enigmatic Green Knight haunts the entire tale. The parallelism, especially between Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as the playful emphasis on games, exchanges and hunts produces a thrilling, at times dizzying, narrative that is rich with implication and subterfuge.

Gawain confronts the Green Knight in the Green Chapel in British Library, Cotton Nero MS a.x f.129v.

Often with modern film adaptions of medieval literature, directors and producers make what I consider to be a fatal mistake of perceiving virtually every medieval tale as an action movie. In my view, this fundamental bias plagues every film adaption of the poem to date, and when I learned Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) was under production and forthcoming, I will admit I was rather skeptical. However, even from the trailer, it seemed—at least to me—this adaption of the medieval poem might get some things right which previous film adaptions like Stephen Weeks’s Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1984) staring the late Sean Connery as the Green Knight did not seem to pick up on. When The Green Knight was released in theaters, I went to see it, making it the only film I have seen in a movie theater since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, it did not disappoint.

Many other medievalists and film critics have reviewed this much-anticipated film, some wishing there was more of an action movie component, others criticizing the Mallory-esque titling and expanded episodes in the film, and still others praising the film’s orientation as a “coming of age” tale, its attention to detail and how film makes themes such as Gawain’s shame and chivalry intriguing to modern audiences. Personally, I loved it.

Dev Patel stars as Gawain in the film David Lowery’s The Green Knight (A24 Films, 2021).

There were some odd decisions which I did not quite understand such as the introduction of a talking fox (a feature of medieval beast fables, but appearing nowhere in the film’s Middle English source). Similarly, demoting Gawain from the status of knight made little sense to me and rather than as an egoistic knight displaying hubris, Gawain appears as a desperate and neglected aspirer doomed to a life of psychological trauma. The humanization of Gawain was apparent throughout, and Dev Patel gives a stunning performance in his role as Gawain, but the arch of his character is somewhat flattened due to these changes in Gawain’s status and characterization. Still, overall, this movie hits the nail on the head for me.

The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) upon entering Arthur’s court in David Lowery’s The Green Knight (A24 Films, 2021).

In particular, the Green Knight is in full green man form and spot on. The story is presented not as an action movie but as a psychological thriller. Emphasis on games, exchanges and hunts is imbedded throughout the movie. The visual components from cinematography to mise-en-scène are eye-popping as the film frequently displayed surreal imagery to create a psychedelic mysticism associated with the Green Knight as well as Morgan Le Fay and Gawain’s quest as a whole. Additionally King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are shown as diminished in their old age, and this generates a sort of magical realism within the film.

Lady Bertilak (Alicia Vikander) gifting the magical green girdle to Gawain (Dev Patel) in Lowery’s The Green Knight (A24 Films, 2021).

For some, the movie will perhaps be too vulgar or too artsy-fartsy. Others, expecting to watch Gawain’s epic battles, may likewise be disappointed. Nevertheless, I agree with reviewers who observe a notable affinity between the medieval source and this modern rendition. In my opinion, Lowery’s The Green Knight represents a modern film adaption like few others: one that has its finger on the pulse of the medieval poem which inspired its creation.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame


Digital Text

Gawain and the Green Knight. Middle English Compendium: Middle English Poetic Corpus (2/2/2019).


Modern English Translation

Deane, Paul. Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. Alliteration.net: The Pearl Poet (1999).

Digitized Manuscript & Shelfmark

London, British Library, Cotton Nero MS a.x f.94v-130r.

Further Reading

Brody, Richard. “The Green Knight, Reviewed: David Lowery’s Boldly Modern Revision of a Medieval Legend.” The New Yorker: The Front Row (8/3/2021).

Cybulskie, Danièle. “Medieval Movie Review: The Green Knight.” Medievalists.net (7/2021).

Dahm, Murray. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the Movies.” Medievalists.net (1/2021).

Fahey, Richard. “Bobbing For Answers.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame: Medieval Institute (2/26/2015).

Grady, Constance. “The Magic, Sex, and Violence of the 14th-century Poem Behind The Green Knight.” Vox (7/29/2021).

Harty, Kevin J. “The Green Knight, dir. David Lowery (2021).” Medievally Speaking (8/10/2021).

Hilmo, Maidie. “The Colors of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript: The Questions that Launched a Scientific Analysis.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame: Medieval Institute (1/12/2014).

Johnson, Weldon B.How ‘The Green Knight,’ Set in the Days of King Arthur, Takes a Modern Look at Masculinity.” Arizona Central (7/28/2021).

Lawson, Richard. “The Green Knight Is This Summer’s Best Medieval Meditation on Death.” Vanity Fair (7/28/2021).

Martin, Elyse & Sean Rubin. “Chivalry and Medieval Ambiguity in The Green Knight.” Tor (8/10/2020).

—. “Medievalists Ask Five Questions About A24’s The Green Knight.” Tor (6/1/2020).

Nelson, Ingrid. “The Green Knight” and The Green Knight.” Medium.com (7/28/2021).

Olsen, MarkChang, JustinYamato, Jen. “Did You Love or Loathe ‘The Green Knight’? Either Way, You’re Not Alone.” Los Angelos Times (8/7/2021).

Ouellette, Jennifer.Review: The Green Knight Weaves a Compelling Coming-of-age Fantasy Quest.” Ars technica (7/31/2021).

Perry, David M. & Matthew Gabriele. “The Green Knight Adopts a Medieval Approach to ‘Modern’ Problems.” Smithsonian Magazine (8/23/2021).

Trigg, Stephanie. “The Poem Behind The Green Knight.” Pursuit (8/27/2021).

Wilkinson, Alissa. “The Green Knight is Glorious and a Little Baffling. Let’s Untangle It.” Vox (7/30/2021).

The Late Medieval Clerical Proletariat & the Vocational Crisis in Modern Academia

Educational training was the cornerstone of ecclesiastical and monastic life in the early medieval period, with the aim of producing knowledgeable clergy, who might then serve as spiritual and intellectual shepherds for their population. However, as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton explains in her recent monograph, The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry, because universities in the late Middle Ages were turning out more clergy than the church could hire in beneficed positions, many found themselves experiencing a crisis of vocation. Kerby-Fulton argues that this crisis produces a “clerical proletariat” many of whom ultimately become civil servants, secretaries in great households, writing office clerks, or casual liturgical laborers, especially in London. She shows how this crisis of mass underemployment is further exacerbated by pluralism (the unethical practice of hogging multiple benefices).

Beneficed priests were in a privileged position: they received both income from parish holdings and wealth from the church. Although medieval universities were producing highly educated clergy, there were more qualified candidates than ever before, while at the same time, beneficed priests were sometimes acquiring multiple benefices and then outsourcing the work of delivering the mass and managing the church operations to poorer paid vicars, chaplains and lesser church officials, while pocketing most of the money themselves.

Kerby-Fulton argues that this sharp increase in qualified clergy and decrease in beneficed positions, resulted not only in a vocational crisis and the creations of a clerical proletariat, but ultimately in a resurgence in Middle English poetry, as this class of clerks saw more opportunities for writing English because they were working for the laity, though many still worked with Latin (or French) documents all day long. Figures like Thomas Hoccleve, a late medieval poet-clerk, comment regularly on the financial struggles and tenuous existences of the unbeneficed clerical proletariat, observable in his poem “The Complaint” which states:

Thomas Hoccleve’s Signature; Durham University Library MS Cosin V.III.9, f.95r.

I oones fro Westminstir cam,
Vexid ful grevously with thoughtful hete,
Thus thoughte I: ‘A greet fool I am
This pavyment a-daies thus to bete
And in and oute laboure faste and swete,
Wondringe and hevinesse to purchace,
Sithen I stonde out of al favour and grace.

“When once I came from Westminster, very bitterly troubled with burning anxiety, I thought like this: ‘I am a great fool to beat these streets like this every day and to work doggedly and sweat indoors and outdoors, in order to earn nothing but restlessness and misery, since I am fallen out of all good fortune and grace.’” (Jenni Nuttall, 183-189).
In this passage, we learn how Hoccleve is very upset with his vocational prospects (184), and he deems himself a greet fool “great fool” (185) for working endless and performing in and oute laboure faste and swete “firm and sweaty labor, indoors and outdoors” (187) with nothing to show for it but wondringe and hevinesse “wandering and hardship” (188).

Thomas Hoccleve presents ‘The Regiment of Princes’ to King Henry V; British Library, MS Royal 17, D.vi f.40r.

Similarly, in his poem, The Regiment of Princes, Hoccleve laments how he initially pursued the priesthood but ultimately forgoes these dreams and instead marries. Hoccleve describes his vocational rollercoaster, emphasizing that at first he sought Aftir sum benefice “after some benefice” but states that whan noon cam, / By procees I me weddid atte laste, “when none came, in time, I did wed at last” (1452-53). Moreover, Hoccleve stresses that his initial reluctance to marry is specifically because he long held hopes of a career as a beneficed priest, explaining that I whilom thoghte / Han been a preest “for a while I thought I would have been a priest” (1447-48). In both poems, Hoccleve expresses his frustration with the vocational crisis of underemployment which produces the clerical proletariat that Kerby-Fulton examines in her book.

Members of the clerical proletariat loom large in Middle English literary culture, and various characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, including the Clerk of Oxenford, the hapless lover and parish clerk, Absolon (in the “Miller’s Tale“), and the noble Parson, who is perhaps the most virtuous figure on the pilgrimage. Similarly, William Langland (the author of Piers Plowman) was such a clerk, and likely so were the authors of the Owl and Nightingale and Laȝamon’s Brut. The University of Pennsylvania Press notes that “Taking in proletarian themes, including class, meritocracy, the abuse of children (“Choristers’ Lament”), the gig economy, precarity, and the breaking of intellectual elites (Book of Margery Kempe), The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry speaks to both past and present employment urgencies.”

Author portrait of Laȝamon in British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A.ix., f.3.

Indeed, many modern untenured scholars (including myself), who work three or more academic jobs to pay the bills, will surely identify with the position Hoccleve voices in his complaint. As Kerby-Fulton insightfully observes in her book, the circumstances outlined in this late Middle English poem closely resemble the current crisis of vocation within modern academia, where well-paying tenured faculty positions are disappearing as the universities seek to outsource more and more of the work of education to adjunct professors, the modern equivalent of the late medieval clerical proletariat. Meanwhile, universities continue to produce an endless stream of highly skilled and qualified professionals, many of whom will sadly face chronic underemployment and even possible unemployment as a result of over-qualification and unethical practices now embedded in our private university system that is seemingly more concerned with profits than with the future of the academy.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame


Further Reading & Selected Bibliography

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Harvard University: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2021.

Hoccleve, Thomas. The Regiment of Princes, ed. Charles R. Blyth. University of Rochester: TEAMS Middle English Text Series, 1999.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.

Laȝamon. Laȝamon’s Brut. Western Michigan University: Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, 2019.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman, ed. Robert Adams, Patricia R. Bart, et. al. Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, 1994.

Nuttall, Jenni, trans. “Hoccleve’s ‘Complaint’: An Open-Access Prose Translation.” International Hoccleve Society, 2015.

Varnam, Laura, trans. “The Complaint Paramount [The Superlative Complaint] by Thomas Hoccleve.” Dr Laura Varnam, 2019.