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Medieval Manuscripts in ‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’

Guest post by Brandon W. Hawk

The new Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance revives Jim Henson’s creative landscape to audiences and opens up a new way to see the master storyteller’s world. Set in the time leading up to the events of the original film, this prequel series shows a wider look at the world known as Thra. Age of Resistance draws on a range of sources, including Henson’s imagination, a new production team, and a great legacy of fantasy storytelling. Like most fantasy, this series is influenced by popular ideas about the Middle Ages, bringing together reflections on the past, present, and future of Thra and our own world.

One way the medieval past manifests in Age of Resistance is through depictions of manuscripts like those in the Middle Ages. Just like the medieval period, the world of Thra is one where books are handwritten pieces of art, meant to preserve and pass down tradition. These manuscripts emphasize the power of leveraging knowledge for the social action of resistance against tyranny.

[Beware spoilers beyond this point!]

A creature among manuscript leaves and scrolls in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

A first look at books in Thra appears in the first episode, with the introduction of a great library in the Gelfling city of Ha’rar. Viewers are flown through a floor-level entrance into a massive library, complete with full bookshelves, tomes piled along walls, and booklets lying across the floor. This library holds a wealth of knowledge.

Manuscript books, loose pages, and booklets strewn across the floor of the Ha’rar library.

The book most prominently displayed at first is a large, folio-sized volume containing an astronomical chart and a miniature of “Mother Aughra” visually venerated the same way as a medieval icon of a saint.

Gelfling Brea studies a manuscript and copies parts into her commonplace book

It’s no wonder that manuscripts in Age of Resistance feature astronomy. The cosmos, time, and their symbolism have been at the heart of the world of The Dark Crystal from the beginning. In this series, these themes are again placed at the center.

Astronomical manuscripts from the Middle Ages are fascinating for how they portray medieval people’s views of themselves within a universal order. They demonstrate how medieval people saw themselves within greater systems of celestial spheres, complex calendars, and astrological signs that rule personal fates—all filled with mysteries beyond human knowledge. After all, looking to the heavens often reminds us that we are but a small part of a much larger universe.

Compare the astronomical diagram in Bea’s book to the one in London, British Library, Burney 224, folio 191v. British Library

Astronomy also provides symbolism for personal and collective identity in Age of Resistance. In many ways, these codices evoke connections between past, present, and future, as well as between individuals and the larger cosmos.

Along with the library at Ha’rar, the Gelfling Brea is introduced as a major character in the story because of her knowledge of books, and her curiosity for more. She comes from the Vapra clan of Gelfling, known for their intellect. It’s no coincidence that the first time she is introduced is in the Ha’rar library, engrossed in studying books. At several moments the story emphasizes her ability to read, write, and use her knowledge critically.

Brea writes in her commonplace book.

Brea is seen with a small manuscript like a commonplace book or florilegium, a type of volume for collecting information that began in antiquity and survives today in the forms of journals, diaries, and scrapbooks. She carries her commonplace book and collects information that will be helpful on her personal quest. Like medieval compilations, this florilegium is her way of taking the past and traditions from other books and refashioning them for herself. Brea is not a blind copyist, but a scribe looking to put her knowledge to use for the world around her.

Later in the episode, Brea pores over a book of what she calls “the Skeksis laws.” Again, like astronomy, law was a major aspect of medieval knowledge. Legal texts demonstrate the everyday lives of medieval people. Thousands of medieval manuscripts containing laws survive, and many of them were highly decorated.

Brea studies a book of Skeksis laws

For Brea, while seeking out a book of Skeksis laws, she also seeks out truth. Of course, since the laws are those of imperial tyrants imposing order through oppression, she finds only discontent. A key moment in episode one features Brea shouting, “I demand the truth!” In response, the manuscript she holds springs to life with a mystical vision that spurs her to action.

The Skeksis book of law comes to life.

Manuscripts in Age of Resistance are not merely props; they are symbols of what is already evident in the show’s title. Brea’s main critique of Skeksis laws are that they don’t make sense, and she begins to see intellectual cracks in the Skeksis empire’s system of oppressive tyranny. Older forms of order in Thra, built on natural science, have broken down, giving way to imperial control, even over knowledge. Audiences are reminded of this when Brea learns about the Skeksis library containing “tomes that go back a thousand trine”—but only a moment later one of the Skeksis declares to her, “That knowledge is forbidden.”

It is through Brea’s return to books that she gains courage to act against oppression. In a time when anti-intellectualism is rampant, white supremacists co-opt medieval imagery and far-right nationalists distort history for their own ends, Age of Resistance lays bare the stakes of knowledge and shifts the narrative. There is much to admire in its appeal to medieval manuscripts to pose knowledge and critical thinking as a key to the resistance of tyranny.

*****

Brandon W. Hawk is an Assistant Professor of English at Rhode Island College with specialization in medieval literature. He has written a variety of pieces about pop culture uses of the Middle Ages for his website, The Public Medievalist, Forces of Geek, and the Washington Post, and he is co-host of an ongoing video series on the same subject.

 

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Longwei

    September 15, 2019 at 5:49 am

    nice post.
    that one diagram looks exactly like a kabbalistic tree of life

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