Heroes and Heroin: From True Romance to Pulp Fiction

Caroline Jewers
When Marsellus Wallace, the black godfather of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), is about to exact revenge on Zed, one of the two redneck captors recently responsible for his rape, he declares ominously: "I'm gonna git Medieval on your ass" (108), a line which drew an instant comic response from the audiences I observed.' This film has become an instant classic, exerting a curious appeal that goes deeper than the movie's glossy packaging and dizzying narrative speed: its appeal lies in a capacity to strike several allusive and interpretive chords simultaneously. While it would be productive to explicate the film as a reflection of contemporary politics and mores, I am interested in the generic roots of Pulp Fiction's mass appeal, and the distant formal ancestor that, on analysis, proves to be a close relative. My intention is to "git medieval" and explore the complex connection between literature and film. What interests me here is film as narrative, and the subsequent relationship of filmic narrative and literary genre. Most particularly, I would like to explore Pulp Fiction and pulp fiction, that is to say the specific narrative of the film, and the film as emblematic of a broader category belonging to popular culture, and its relationship to the first great modern manifestation of popular fiction since antiquity-the medieval romance of chivalry. While I suggest there are similarities between elements of the film and elements found in specific romance texts, the aim is to highlight generic parallels that are in turn indicative of a narrative continuity that begins eight hundred years ago. By definition, what follows will thus appear both metonymic and metaphoric, in the hope of conveying that in significant ways bright celluloid and highly decorated manuscripts are both vehicles for glamorized archetypal plots that reflect the hopes, fears, and material aspirations of respective contemporary cultures, and how they both assimilate and aestheticize violence-to show that in their respective and consonant ways they "perform" culture. The point of comparing the two is not to detract from the post-modern novelty of Tarantino's film by placing it within some rigid canonic tradition, or to illustrate the dull truism that history39

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40 . Journal of Popular Culture

even literary history-is destined merely to repeat itself. However, I wish to illustrate how genres and texts resonate across cultural and temporal boundaries, and how the speculation they generate can challenge our perceptions. Their dialogic juxtapositions reveal new ways of illuminating our understanding of our own contested culture and that of the past. My example of quintessential medieval fiction will be mostly drawn from the works of Chretien de Troyes (fl.1160-85), who is the great stylist of Arthurian romance, and about whom little is known beyond his vivid and fashionable texts. His ability to shape his narratives to contemporary tastes and fantasies puts him in a similar category (and,
it must be said, higher class) to Tarantino.

In context, the surface medieval allusion made by Wallace at first strikes us as curiously anachronistic, except that it evokes a stereotypical, violent, comic-book Middle Ages parodied in that kinky, inquisitional torture scene: to "git medieval" is patently synonymous with achieving a level of physical violence grim even by the exacting standards of the vicious model of society created by Tarantino. On reflection, this is the least of the ways in which we might view the film as imbued with a certain medievalism, or rather, apt to recycle elements of fiction that stretch back beyond the recent cultural past. The justification for embarking on an analysis that makes a connection between the two is the author/director himself, who through his title and opening dictionary defmition invites us to consider extra- and metatextual issues related to literary/cinematographic form and substance, in order to explore the inner depths and extradiegetic possibilities of genre: "PULP (pulp) n.l. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter. 2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper" (foreword). In this supremely visually literate film, there is an initial identification with, and post-modern, reflexive awareness of literariness. It is a labyrinth of verbal and visual intertexts, and even defines itself as a book, albeit in the form of that lowest common denominator of generic taste. One of Tarantino's many visual gags underscores this: the copy of the cheap thriller Modesty Blaise that Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta, carries on his significant trips to the bathroom provides a playful reminder of the nature, substance, depth, and throw-away value of mass-market adventure stories: pulp fiction is the subject and the object of filmic reflection. Vega's particular choice of book is inspired by a distinctly B-movie remake by Joseph Losey (1966) from Peter O'Donnell's original cartoon strip, characterized by its gaudy violence and bodiceripper kitsch. It serves, in Lucien Dallenbach's terms, as a mirror in the text, or mise-en-abyme, as a narcissistic reflection of the whole work.

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At the heart of the medieval romance we fmd a modem preoccupation with literature as a self-referential and intertextual polished replica of reality and of itself. springs to the forefront of literary activity at precisely the time when feudalism tightens its efficient and often ruthless grip on the sociopolitical and economic state during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. scene from Chretien de Troyes' twelfth-century romance lVain. and materialistic urban culture since antiquity enjoys enough relative stability to embark on internal territorial wars largely designed to consolidate wealth and political ambition. Curious and frightened faces gaze down from corbels. and in a more overtly humorous way. 41 We could compare 'an analogous. as many commentators have observed. although more dignified. or being devoured by the forces of evil. and exterior Crusades that sought to reinforce strategic policies and ideological supremacy. Serene Virgins and images of an ordered world compete with sadistic scenes of torture and dismemberment: nature and human nature run riot in camivalesque humor and dark. at the same time there is the emergence of an urban and urbane burgeoning mercantile class that grew expert in the generation of great wealth and new technology. there is a dark side that expresses itself through the iconography of art and literature as the deep fear of imminent chaos: the cavernous. self-ironic. a replication of the enunciated text that sets up an intellectual game of mirrors. . and capitals: bearing the weight of heavy stone. and the building of increasingly sophisticated castles and cathedrals. sardonic satire. In a period of intense productivity on all fronts. and with men and angels wrestling demons. leisured. in which on arriving at the Chateau de Pesme Aventure (the Castle of Worst Adventure) the hero encounters the lord and lady of the castle listening to their daughter reading a chivalric romance in a garden. and death bring as ever-present forces that threaten to engulf and overwhelm progress and prosperity. gargoyles. All rights reserved. just as we do in Tarantino's film: in the turbulent world of violent proving and adventure there is a calm. Perhaps it is a condition of every society to fear that it is on Copyright © 2000. and a flowering intellectual pre-Renaissance in ever-mushrooming centers of art and thought. confluent cultural forces see the Romanesque give way to Gothic. violence.Heroes and Heroin . A general sense of social dynamism manifests itself in hybristic self-confidence. Yet at the same time. they also reveal the burden and menace that sickness. The first modem. Modesty Blaise fulfills the same function of blurring the line between art and illusion. bookish eye. monumental cathedrals whose spires reflect the lofty aspirations of the society that built them are covered with grotesques. and in the certainty of moral virtue and religious belief. while its conceit mimics and draws in the outside consumer of the narrative in parodic play. The French medieval romance.

The feudal epic mixes the ethos of military conquest with regional and family politics. heiresses. and as a genre it extols the virtues of prowess. Journal of Popular Culture the verge of violent collapse. but the sombre iconography of medieval popular culture suggests a link with the disturbing images of modem times. ambitious loner who learns by his Copyright © 2000. as in texts like Raoul de Cambrai (last quarter of the twelfth century). Three heroes of Chretien reflect different prismatic refractions of this form of exemplary idealized knighthood: Yvain (in Le Chevalier au lion. although they play no substantial role. two main literary genres emerge. Arabic literature from North Africa and Spain. While the former may be considered an outgrowth of the epic. faithful love. The feudal epic makes slightly more room for them. Such vivid and violent texts present a world of knightly adventure with little encroachment into the magic realm of fantasy or of love. in which the struggle between good and evil is displaced into a typical conflict between the legitimate and illegitimate rivals for family lands. . leading to fame and often marriage. National epics like Roland tend to exclude women altogether. except as sisters. and material gain. All rights reserved. From the developing ethos of feudal chivalry in France. its narrative parameters are not always quite those of the national epic. which (under the influence of the sophisticated Southern courts. but of the often distant and imperious object of their affections. Its purposeful roots are founded in a limited form of realism perhaps best described as socio-political verisimilitude.1177-81) begins as the shallow. and makes its protagonists often less than heroic. and of the spreading cult of Marianism) placed the lady at the center of a literary. Raoul himself is not above haranging nuns in the most graphic language before burning and pillaging neighbouring town and convent alike in his quest for a just inheritance. amorous feudal hierarchy. This charming conceit permeates imaginative literature throughout the medieval period and long after its demise. but locates them in a more feminized lyrical universe influenced by the contemporary fashion for troubadour verse from Occitania. except as peripheral figures or decoration. Ovid. The valorization of women gave it an appeal to both sexes. c. represented by texts like the Chanson de Roland or Beowulf. The courtly romance blends elements of epic heroism and feudal knighthood. Knights in lyric and courtly romance were at the command not of a lord or king. It is most often a literature of self-improvement through physical trial and combat. the feudal epic (chanson de geste) and the romance.42 . as Erich Kohler suggests. was destined to encourage the landless noble young knights to seek their fortunes and glory. Chivalric romance. and conduits to wealth.

Yvain and Lancelot find return from an otherworld landscape and integration to court. In the Mort.a secular to a religious code of knighthood that takes him from being a clumsy ingenu to being an instrument of grace. Perceval (Le conte du Graal. merging backdrops that splice natural and cultured settings in the form of castles. The possibility of damnation and redemption is often a part of the romance: the greatest heroes are those that carry the capacity for change as well as the seeds of their own undoing. tournaments. . with its two possible means of demise. Some of the greatest examples are anonymous: the Queste del Saint Graal and La Mort le roi Artu (The Quest for the Holy Grail and The Death of King Arthur. while Chretien's Perceval remains in suspense in the unfmished story. they advance at a varying pace.Heroes and Heroin . or in pairs in counterpoint to Gawain. who becomes the yardstick of their progress. quickened and delayed by sudden obstacles. test the limits of the narrative paradigm. like the works of Chretien. Their adventures are stereotypical: a concatenated series of literal and allegorical episodes. also 1177-81). in the best Grail narrative. All three have separate trajectories that lead them from the court either singly. In the Queste. Vast cycles of romances proliferated throughout the Middle Ages in series of prequels (rather like the Phantom Menace) and sequels rather like popular films: many are second-rate recyclers of a few basic premises. or challenges. from the secular to the religious. we see secular chivalry straying from its moral path and finding incestuous conflagration in bloody civil war. set in a symbolic. who has no choice but to become a religious hermit and die after having achieved the ultimate quest. The greatest exempla. The adventure landscape is an important narrative element. 43 own folly and literal madness that altruism is a better model than selfishness for integration into the privileged world of the court.1181-85) makes the transition from. designed as moral tests or physical combats. and ravaged wastelands. and in each case some form of egotistical self-interest has to be overcome. Lastly. women figure both as temptresses and morally improving inspirers of Co ri ht © 2000. concealing forests. Chretien is the originator of Lancelot (Le Chevalier de la Charrette. spawning prolific lesser sequels to his adventures: however. In this text. even Perceval is superseded by the flawless Galahad. the Quest. alternate world of signs varying from the more realistic to the entirely supernatural. Rather after the fashion of a board game. who must combat pride and humble himself to the commands of Guenevere in order to become a worthy courtly lover. c. finding the Grail brings an end to the telos of chivalry: there are no more adventures to be had. towards a personal goal that usually includes the love and reward. All rights reserved. 1225-30) show the fmal stage in the development of the genre. . Eventually. information.

However. Although the audience of chivalric romances was relatively narrow. he apes its liter- Copyright © 2000. Whether in the hands of Virginia Woolf.44 . the eighteenth-century libertine. thence to the picaresque hero. Journal of Popular Culture heroic deeds. it inspires films. 1984) as examples. and its popularity has never faded: on the contrary. restricted to the upper classes who commissioned literature. many Arthurian films are less than successful. 1991). Voltaire's Candide. some of the more successful attempts update the romance rather than seek to reproduce the medieval original. which captures all the elements of experimental narrative and familiar episodic structure and combines them in an original and intelligent way. the chivalric romance generally gives a more prominent place to women. or in the form of board. and to the socially-climbing merchant classes. The very plasticity of the fundamental form of the romance makes it the most enduring of all genres.or video-games. soap operas and songs. Nowadays we define popular culture as that which appeals to the largest. Best of all. others like First Knight (Jerry Zucker. Most accessibly. The Voyager (Volker Schlondorff. 1991). and The Natural (Barry Levinson. bodice-ripping novels. David Lodge. Curiously. All rights reserved. since such a large percentage of the population was illiterate. Ironically. Culture was elitist: but chivalric romances (and the feudal epics with which they coexisted) still qualify as the equivalent of popular fiction. Umberto Eco. It is a short step from the chivalric hero of romance to Gargantua and Don Quixote. is Pulp Fiction. and does not exist in the same way. perhaps. but in Pulp Fiction. . or Italo Calvino. in contrast with the feudal epic. such fundamentals remain consistent. 1995) somehow fail to capture the lively spirit of the original texts even if they reproduce the desired period on screen. the basic pattern of romance is still with us. since they had the broadest appeal to the social strata who had access to them. even if (reflecting their historical status) they only enjoy a limited form of power to captivate and inspire. Here one could point to The Fisher-King (Terry Gilliam. Tarantino has already toyed with a form of romance in True Romance (1993). and the heroes and anti-heroes of the nineteenth-century novel. As a film auteur. and in a class of its own. to the social mix of those who lived and served in castles and courts. unrestricted number of people that can con- sume it: in medieval times a mass material culture was oral. it has undergone myriad rebirths. Its love-narrative inspires operas. and in the many medieval romances to post-date Chretien. and engaged in the production but not in the consumption of wealth. While John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) and Bresson's Lancelot du Lac (1974) enjoy critical success. such texts were nonetheless the popular fiction of their time.

where strength and the ability to wield weaponry determines survival and. the diners are places of human intersection. and on the struggle between good and evil in a grey world where wealth is seized and not earned. and essentially American. where the real and familiar meet the strange and surreal. in order to show how it illustrates elements of feudal epic. 45 ary model with skill in the remixing and realignment of cliches and conventions. subversive courtly romance. Copyright © 2000. burying the outward signs of their personalities in formal black ties and suits of the kind worn by Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction. it portrays a feudal world of struggle and selfinterest. exploiting the dangerous sense of self-destruction and redemption inherent in the best romance tradition. set on the violent margins of something resembling "normal" society. leading to the selfdestruction of the gang of assassins who have been infiltrated by an undercover police officer. Reservoir Dogs contains many elements found subsequently in Pulp Fiction. Inspired by Tarantino's stylistic exercise. and goes one step further. stripped of the veneer of nationally or socially redemptive ideals found in texts like the Chanson de Roland? Even in the case of Roland. making the story as much an incestuous rivalry for power as a narrative of exemplary Christian knighthood. situated in the kind of diner that seems to be a trademark of Tarantino's films. then the temptation to pursue those resonances as far as possible inevitably results. and a "hit" gone wrong. domestic. but since one underpinning of the film is to speculate on metanarrative. greed. . and is. Sleazy. Reservoir Dogs tells a not dissimilar simple story of honor.' The band of errant hit-men in Reservoir Dogs appear in the opening shot of the film seated at a parodic Round Table banquet scene. Perhaps more like Raoul de Cambrai. so that we can then go on to distinguish more clearly how its elements blend with the traits of the romance apparent in Pulp Fiction. essentially. and they function as the banquet scenes in Arthurian romance do in providing a springboard for action. it is useful to set out a few considerations about Tarantino's other cult classic. the theme of internal strife and violence offsets and frames the apocalyptic conflagration of the conflict between Christian and Saracen. All rights reserved. I would like to attempt a reading of Pulp Fiction as an inverted. and most particularly one with elements of a Grail romance twisted and embedded in it. suits described by Tarantino in a recent interview as being like armor. Reservoir Dogs (1992).status. also the victim of their brutality. Centered on loyalty and treachery. a contemporary form of feudal epic.Heroes and Heroin . First. plastic. and the deja-vu and d6ja-dit generated by reworking convention. tasteless. Reservoir Dogs sketches its individualistic characters with economy. This is not to suggest that Tarantino had medieval literature in mind when penning Pulp Fiction. betrayal.

the terminology for hamburgers in France. or as he puts it glibly: "Violence in real life is terrible. however. to characters who are no more than chess pieces. sickening. All rights reserved. It's just another colour to work with" (O'Hagen 13). and share a closed. White and Mr. Jules and Vincent. contemporary reality. yet fascinating and aestheticized form of ritualized violence that becomes a literary device. However. Tarantino's hit-men emerge from nowhere. using simple colors like Mr. and add artificialluster to. '60s. Whether this justifies Copyright © 2000. violence in the movies can be cool.46 . recalling. and throw the general shadiness of the hitmen's world into sharp relief. but most often colors are found ascribed to impersonal adversarial figures. For Chretien de Troyes. A tense humor pervades Tarantino's choice of palette. without personal history. monologic. the celluloid and vinyl '50s. whether in the form of narrative surprises or special effects. It is only the phenomenon of distancing emotion that makes the scenes acceptable and even enjoyable. the striking mixture of personal names and color epithets found in medieval fiction. a certain courtliness. and '70s seem to coexist with. the audience enters an altered plane. Tarantino's characters have little bond between them other than a curious code of chivalry that has a recognizable morality at its core. after all. are some knights Red Knights and others Black Knights? In the case of heroes. and a sense that society is structured by power and governed by violence. live in a romance world that broadens their language and range of registers to include discussions on the ethics of foot-massage. their nominative softness is sharply at odds with their physical hardness. Tarantino's films are pervaded with an almost surreal. perhaps. the hit-men's characters are mostly defined by function. A secondary effect of their anonymity is to distance us from them. into a slightly anachronistic representation of the present. the hitmen cloak themselves with pseudonyms. the Arthurian setting fulfills this same representational function. glamorous world that never was. so that to the viewer they are more or less like automata and cannot be identified with on human terms. it is when they wish to appear temporarily incognito. Journal of Popular Culture Like Jules and Vincent. where surrealism and the mysterious workings of magic are suddenly possible. In both cases. almost genteel sensibility. and the unfortunate gastronomic habits of pigs. . murderous obstacles that constitute a narrative problem to be solved by the hero. In Reservoir Dogs. since colors like pink and orange do little to conjure a portrait of epic machismo. Pink. with its nostalgia for a material. idiomatic language that mixes tough profanity with an incongruous. while in Tarantino's films. Similar to medieval literary knights. Why.

for example. Moreover. then Pulp Fiction follows the pattern of the feminized chivalric romance. . one only has to look at the embroidered borders of the Bayeux tapestry. as Mr. and we are propelled back to the familiar. bodies are split in two. the artists became too overwhelmed by their own work to finish. we find graphic scenes that make the ear-slicing episode of Reservoir Dogs look tame. a close comparable phenomenon occurs in the Middle Ages. White. he cuts through the head from here to the back teeth and twists the blade in the wound. a fitting end for a group whose implosive and explosive world-view merits self-destruction. knights are disemboweled and dismembered. save for a little peripheral sentimentality and invocation of the eternally feminine (the initial discussion of Madonna's lyrics. filled with pathos and self-absorption. 47 the kind of violence and torture that Tarantino exploits is another matter. Orange. in a moment of ludicrous absurdity. For a further medieval correlative to epic violence. Looking. and yet the narrator can describe such episodes as marvelous and even beautiful. tinged with patent homoeroticism. limbs are lost in a welter of bloody slaughter. distorted. the hitmen slaughter each other. abstract.-Heroes and Heroin . taking place in a monolithic setting that excludes women. At the end of Reservoir Dogs. He grips Hauteclaire. Copyright © 2000. The Normans are indistinguishable from the English. structured very much like the frames of a film. and strikes Marganice on his pointed. there is a symbolic link with Roland and Olivier and countless male-bonded epic heroes.' In the world of the feudal epic. but it is clear that he taps a rich vein of fascination for both filmmakers and audiences alike. There is little description beyond the ritualized portrayal of battle: bodies lie twisted. paralleling the minimal role of ladies Aude and Bramimonde in Roland). as here: Olivier realises he is mortally wounded. where in the climactic battle scene the margins mirror the physical disintegration on the field and the dismembering of the feudal body politic that causes the conflict. Outside the popular culture of the late twentieth century. and all that remains is violence and confusion. All rights reserved. If Reservoir Dogs is in epic style. and become increasing naked. narcissistic epic ethos. whose blade was bloody. gold-adorned helmet. brains spill out. the dying policeman Marvin asks Freddy how he looks. or the discussion about the hard life of waitresses.. and grotesque until the viewer has the impression that where the panels break off. caresses the face of the dying Mr. at the violence inherent in the Chanson de Roland and many other medieval poems. When Harvey Keitel. flower decorations and precious stones fall to the ground. for example.

and like everything else in this film. Journal of Popular Culture In lighter tone and style. perhaps indicating that in an unjust society. under-representation in such a seedy universe may be flattering rather than insulting. and dispenses rough justice. Serious critiques can be made of Tarantino on grounds of racism in Pulp Fiction. there is an original twist. we see the same feudal world. the disfigured gangland underworld where Marsellus is king is the only realm over which he can govern. He wields power. comes across at many points there and in Pulp Fiction. where color operates on such a different level. The nature of representation is open for critique: however.48 . whereas our expectation. controls the local economy. it uses carefully spliced episodes that constitute a visual correlative of textual narrative interlace. The Fisher-King is mysteriously handicapped and redeemable. The driving forces in Pulp Fiction are race. his color intensified by the whiteness of his Band-Aid. without involving himself in the action unless forced to do so by circumstance. The act of rape thatincites Marsellus to "git medieval" is the most shocking in the film. unless the Band-Aid he wears on the back of his neck is more than a metaphor for his moral flaws. it is clear that Tarantino takes far greater pleasure in exacting revenge on the redneck captors. is that Vincent (John Travolta) will be redeemed. and following the traditional paradigm of knightly adventure. Quite how one interprets the Gimp is another matter. or an outward sign he has lost or sold his soul. As well as recalling the many paired knights of medieval fiction. whereas in Pulp Fiction he is black. mafioso-style character. The palette of colors used by Tarantino is pared down to black and white. but blatant and subtle commentary about who has power. who acts as a twisted parody of King Arthur. Jackson) is the one to survive. By exclusion and default. with problematic implications for the theme of race in the film. All ri hts reserved. the crimelord is the stereotypical white. and that it is perpetrated on him is significant in that it acts as a metaphor for racial exploitation. since Jules (Samuel L. . At the same time. and his very name implies an uneasy combination of imperial might and materialism. or perhaps the incapacitated Fisher-King of Grail romances. Tarantino does not overtly introduce the issue of race into Reservoir Dogs. Wallace is neither. class. for at least some of the time. so is the redemptive hero: it is unfortunate that he emblematizes and parodies gangland black vigilante heroes like Shaft. although even if the underworld kingpin is black. and Co ri ht © 2000. and how it is wielded. governed this time by Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In Reservoir Dogs. and most likely by the sacrifice of his partner. Jules and Vmcent illustrate the topos of black and white "buddies" that has been an enduring part of American popular culture since James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain.

and a more important distinction between those immoral and amoral parameters is that which distinguishes victors from victims. life is grey.1aThurman. UIJ. While the name Vincent Vega suggests something of the jaunty picaresque. Copyright © 2000. Jackson. John Travolta. Jules Winnfield Figure 1.Heroes and Heroin . in a feudal world tempered with female sensuality that lends the illusion of shifting the center of power and interest from men to women. 49 power. just as the masculine poles of epic shift towards the feminine in chivalric fiction under the influence of the aesthetics of courtly love. A Miramax Films Release © 1994. All rights reserved. Wallace presides over a shady court that functions as an anti-Round Table. who function as Chretien's heroes do. . Chief among Wallace's minions are Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega. Photo: Firooz Zahedi. Yankees at King Arthur's court: Samuel L. as well as being black and white. and Bruce Willis in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. and could apply to a whole range of characters including a mafia assassin.

" Jules and Vincent are an unlikely Galahad and Lancelot. Butch will never be a Grail-knight: the closest he can come to grace is in the form of a Harley-Davidson chopper of the same name. of the kind first encountered as the gaste forest (waste forest) of Chretien's Conte du Graal. but Jules' name is reminiscent of the ritualized joust. in distress or otherwise: as a set of archetypes. while Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) fills the role of a Gawain figure. and their worldly and otherworldly presence serves to reinforce the virtual reality of the romance setting. All rights reserved. the world of the tournament. but he has an innate sense of honor. and the mysterious forest that is the locus for adventure in the medieval romance is transformed into something between an urban jungle and an archetypal Wasteland. and where feudal duty can mean collecting payment and self-sacrifice of a less honorable kind. The recognized dignity of some arms over others is a topos that goes back at least as far as the medieval period: losing weapons can humble a haughty knight or provide a comic incident to be later echoed in a serious combat scene.50 . . The characters' intersecting stories. Nor is Pulp Fiction without its essential share of damsels. and the notion of somehow "winning the field. No less than the Arthurian court. Vega conjures up the lone path of the aimless wanderer. Marcellus' gaudy clubland relies on indentured service to ensure its stability. a marginal figure. In Copyright © 2000. revealed with great humor when he selects a weapon with which to avenge himself on Zed and Maynard. worldly. bypassing lowly hammer and vulgar chainsaw for a more dignified samurai sword. who randomly appear to change the course of adventures. in which the knight recoups his honor-as does Chretien's Lancelot. trying to survive in an environment where the staged fight has supplanted the joust. Journal of Popular Culture evokes precious stones. and seen subsequently in Eliot's poetic reworking: a sterile environment in perpetual decline and therefore in constant need of redemption. such characters often take the form of ugly maidens. a successful. and the back projection is seen in evocative and disjunctive black and white. and the ethos of medieval chivalry. whose twilight existence is enhanced as she and Butch drive through town. there are usually liminal figures that act as signposts. As well as adding a tinge of mystery. or young women abandoned by a lover. interlace rather in the same complex way that medieval works of fiction do. they recall the female figures in medieval romance. chivalrous loner. along with the framing narrative of the irritating ingenus Hunny-Bunny and Pumpkin (a modem-day pair of courtly lovers with a sideline in armed robbery). like the sultry and exotic taxidriver. Esmarelda Villalobos. Some act as adjuvants. The diner and the nightclub replace the court setting. In medieval fiction.

Monster Joe. portrayed as the Wolf's unlikely consort. who is surely cast in the Queen Guenevere mold of French chivalric fiction. and most crucial medieval archetype. is a distant relative of the accommodating daughter of the minor noble. and uses the same qualities to exert power and influence over surrounding male characters. it is she. Mia finds a champion in Vincent Vega. whose function is to make the hero comfortable. where the seedy glamor of Los Angeles and the mirrorworld of the suburbs around Hollywood function as a back-lot Camelot. Romance settings abound in Pulp Fiction. suggesting a curious sublimation of feudal society). it is never her fault. Whatever her needs and demands. . but if there is one.' While the filmscript has some less than courtly descriptions of Raquel. All rights reserved.. beautiful. and brainless. The final. as if she were orchestrating events. Guenevere exerts a curious power over Lancelot and her captors. The short possessive adjective that makes up her name belies a fierce sense of independence: the world belongs to her as much as she belongs to any part of it. as Lancelot is obliged to demean himself in all sorts of ways (chiefly by leaping onto a cart) to go off to the mysterious realm of Gorre in search of his captured love. and married to the feudal lord. the land of ogres. Her main' function is to reveal the soft underside of the hard-bitten boxer. that of the fragile female. Lancelot undergoes many trials to win and rescue Guenevere. forgetting the gold watch).Heroes and Heroin . Raquel. and provide him with a change of horse. spoilt. She has many counterparts in medieval fiction. the film version shows him referring to her as "m'lady" (142) and handing her into his expensive car as they drive off to breakfast. the daughter of the junkyard owner.e. charming. This realm is a distorted mirrorworld of reality (the "normal" courtly world in this text as in others is Logres. 51 a similar fashion. There is more heroin than there are heroines in this film. seductive. is found in the central figure of Mia (Uma Thurman). vulnerable. where she observes and Copyright © 2000. exasperating. we have the memorable scene when Vincent arrives (to escort Mia to dinner and an unforgettable twist contest that has no counterpart in medieval fiction). Drawn together as much by circumstance and the seductiveness of power as by physical attraction. there is a parallel for their kind of relationship in Chretien's Lancelot and Guenevere. to elicit a syrupy courtliness from him. whatever she does wrong (i. Even incarcerated in her tower prison." Butch's girlfriend Fabian conforms to yet another stereotype found in medieval fiction. including deliberately throwing a tournament to prove his obedience. to act as a potential bride that he can refuse. and the setting far removed from Arthur's court where the lovers can act on their feelings with a greater sense of freedom.

In an excellent essay on the Indiana Jones trilogy. the connection of time to space is also merely technical. All rights reserved. as an artfully constructed space almost conscious of its unreal intersecting parameters: Time breaks down into a sequence of adventure fragments. controlling. just as they are about to enter the restaurant. and thus with a self-conscious. The most important target of the satire of this scene is directed not so much at war per se but at the artistic enshrinement of it in exaggerated epic style. and provides a commentary on the subgenre of films dealing with battle narratives and personal history so prevalent in the last twenty years in works like The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino.. Time and space enter a different dimension in Pulp Fiction. an adventure-time rather like that described by M.52 . recalling the many narrative framing devices and moments of authorial intervention used in medieval fiction that pull us back to the realization that we are dealing with text. texture. Mia and Vincent enter a timeless mythical space. To see what happens to normal. linear. and pokes fun at its linear. and image. We encounter here the same simultaneities and disjunctions in time. Journal of Popular Culture directs him through the artificial eyes of the video security system. where the infernal inanity of Hollywood fuses with a Dante-esque fast-food Limbo. rigid.. We also find oriental and fairy-tale motifs that are ultimately linked to the issue of identity: enchantments of every sort. which temporarily take a man out of the ordinary course of events and transport him to a strange world. . Bakhtin when referring to medieval chivalric romance. Vincent almost needs protecting from her more than he needs to protect her. artificial representation of reality as a charmed conceit. recto). 1986).. The choice of the watch is a deliberate and symbolic one for the way it deals with popular culture and the Vietnam War. Susan Aronstein points out that Spielberg's return to the Copyright © 2000. As if to remind us that nothing is real. one only has to contemplate the sordid and uncomfortable fate of Butch's family heirloom during his father's unfortunate incarceration as a prisoner of war. Mia designates Vincent a square by drawing a dotted box on screen. predatory gaze (see fig. lit by a neon sign proclaiming it. within which it is organized abstractly and technically. limited counterpart. M. heroic-epic time in this film. the same retardations. the same play with distance and proximity. and like Lancelot. to be the "Next best thing to a time machine" (38A. 2) is very much Guenevere's. Her cold. At the surreal diner Jackrabbit Slim's. Of particular interest is the romance-type use of time and space configured in the film. prophetically for the purposes of this thesis. (Bakhtin 151) Tarantino exploits this twilight world of adventure-time.

All rights reserved.Heroes and Heroin . . 53 Copyright © 2000.

. Aronstein says of Oliver North that "in spite of his plain green uniform and his Boy Scout sincerity. post-Bush years. in order to convince himself that no subsequent seduction is to take place. [he] appeared to many to be an Indiana Jones who had thrown his lot in with the Belloqs [i. the atmosphere is charged with eroticism as Mia soliloquizes to music in the dining room. that is-addressing the very heart of darkness that Spielberg's trilogy sidesteps. but Mia still needs to be saved from the otherworld. Aronstein shows how Indiana's career waxes and wanes with Ronald Reagan's. which in this case is the twilight zone of the trip. Tarantino bears out her hypothesis and seems to take up American cultural history where Spielberg leaves off-until we get to Private Ryan. and is embedded at the very core of Pulp Fiction. a less rigidly ideological form that proves to be a looser genre in all aspects. while he rehearses a chaste and chivalrous speech about morality and loyalty in the bathroom mirror. In Tarantino's vision. This satiric digression into epic stands out set against the charmed world and world-upside-down of the romance. allowing for the easier construction of an all-American hero: ''The trilogy returns America to the time when the Allies fought against Nazi Germany. For her.54 . Epic heroism in the post-Vietnam era seems a problematic concept. but Vincent effects an absurd. Captain Koons. The only magic here is the "magic" marker used to indicate the point of the needle's entry. Artificial escapism in the form of heroin displaces the magic and erotic tension of this romantic episode. the French archaeologist who collaborates with the Nazis in the retrieval of the Ark of the Covenant] of this world" (19). On returning to her house after dinner with Vincent. Her enlightening analysis shows how the Grail narrative and Spielberg's use of it illustrate a double quest the lost father and sense of nation. the orphaned boy's visit with Captain Koons is an awful parody of the father-quest and the search for national identity. is an Oliver in both implications of the name who has lost his Roland and his Charlemagne. but who clings to ideals that have become as tarnished as the watch he guards.. And indeed.e. this demystification of a heroic ideal leads to the final Grail quest necessary to redeem a tired ethos with a new spiritual reorientation. The monologic and monolithic epic frame is abandoned in favor of the dialogism of romance. The setting for Indiana's quests has the effect and advantage of bypassing the Vietnam period. free from the shadow of Vietnam and as secure as ever Arthur's court was in the moral right of its cultural code" (7). and Tarantino's protagonists thus play out the conceptual problem of heroism in the post-Reagan. Christopher Walken's character. Journal of Popular Culture heroic defiance of Nazi tyranny is a revealing one. a feat requiring skill with a hypodermic rather than a sword or lance. chivalrous Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.

While Tarantino uses a similar motif in True Romance. in the midst of the patent sordidness and illegality of drug culture. where the ill-but suggestively-named Lance. and film noir. especially in the initial encounter at his house. the blaxploitation films of the '70s. but recalling the ritual taboos of knighthood pertaining to the sanctity of equipment and horses. Hitchcock-style horror films. the drug dealer. and the author himself draw attention to the many sources. musicals. a bizarre discussion concerning the outrage Vincent feels at having his car paintwork vandalized (33) confirms the existence of a rigid set of rules. and the Ugly (Sergio Leone. reviewers. the Bad. In my opinion. 1941). In Pulp Fiction. 55 rescue of sorts. but the meaning and implication of Tarantino's case gives it much more in common with Dashiell Hammett's Falcon. The list of film genres it draws from is impressive: samurai films. Vincent just Copyright © 2000. After all. 1967). Vincent first sees it in the first scenes of the film. A classic example is to be found in Robert Aldrich's classic film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955). at the heart of literary culture.Heroes and Heroin . the basic blueprint of films like The Maltese Falcon is at the heart of Pulp Fiction. the other obvious correlative of Marsellus' briefcase is the sinister attache case from Repo Man (Alex Cox. created in 1930. which contains an unearthly force of destruction. visual quotations and homages in it. and John Huston. All rights reserved. 1966). many ways. 1984). but its contents fascinate more than they terrify. a number with biblical and apocalyptic implications. since the twelfth century.' But whether one takes Le Samurai' (Jean-Pierre Melville. kung fu films (referred to amusingly by some reviewers as chopsocky). and visually links disparate pasts of the story: the briefcase. The twisted code of chivalry at the heart of Pulp Fiction manifests itself throughout Vega's scenes with Lance. the combination of the case is 666. . the spaghetti Western and its traditional counterpart. The Good. a form of behavioral bienseance comically at odds with the criminal activities of most of the characters. I am not suggesting that medieval romance provides the most obvious connection with the narrative elements described in the film. which transforms a pulp novel of Micky Spillane's. 1931. although it could be argued. The script notes: "We can't see what's inside. commentators. and is the center of a hot pursuit by the main characters. where Vega buys heroin that he later shoots up on the premises: here. vigilante films. since one image and object dominates the unravelling of the narrative. or The Maltese Falcon (Rey del Ruth. when he and his partner are reclaiming Marsellus' property from some doomed college boys who are tragically out of their depth in a hit-man's world. a narrative pattern emerges that has been with us. and stretching back to classical antiquity. but a small glow emits from the case. fails.

Pumpkin. but not to us. The Grail is always an incongruous. Inspired by crusader legend. and solid gold on the inside. Here." and essentially "a bum" (148). and Pumpkin. This indescribable beauty sits ill with the other description of the contents as Marsellus' dirty laundry. it recalls both the Maltese Falcon and its distant ancestor. it is a metaphor for the true character of its avenging hero. and it remains ineffable to Vincent. He then asks. The tarnished object is also symbolic of the possibility of redemption: dark and rough-cast on the outside. and its religious connotations are dissonant with the materialistic and secular wish-fulfillment fantasy of chivalric fiction. and thus to destabilize the central characters." to which the reply from Jules is affirmative. transfixed" (22). Aside from its potential for redeeming a tired and cliched world of convention from itself. Is it Marcellus's lost soul (is that what the Band-Aid means?). redemptive element. the Grail. We never see the case actually returned to Marsellus at Sally LeRoy's club (and here the regal and medieval resonances of the name are apparent. "It's beautiful. which is chronologically the last. but neither the characters in the film nor the audience ever get to see it. Galahad dies a hermit. described in the directions: "Jules flips the locks and opens the case revealing it to Pumpkin. Pumpkin's expression goes to amazement" (153). the Grail's chief property is to function in a very modem way to decenter the narrative by making its telos the ever-present pursuit of an impossible textual absence.56 . and inspires a luminous morality in the acquisitive darkness of the criminal underworld. anachronistic presence in medieval literature. and for the Grail-knight-Perceval in Chretien's tale. or being. a valuable statuette that becomes the object of a worldly quest. "like Caine in Kung Fu. and it functions much as the Grail does. their values and their world-view. . as Vincent puts it. Journal of Popular Culture stares at it." he replies. played by Humphrey Bogart. is particularly drawn to the case. who are the only ones to have seen inside. Chretien's tale breaks off before Perceval can finally ask the right question and achieve grace. All rights reserved. only a chosen few will approach or look upon it. who holds up the restaurant with his accomplice. "Is that what I think it is?. Among those elected to seek it. caught up in the ecstatic Copyright © 2000. the Falcon is the last symbolic vestige of the Templar order. and it reappears in the final restaurant scene that occurs earlier according to the "real" timeline. Jules. and Jules's redemption? In this regard. for there is something mystical and spiritually purifying about the case. since le roy is "the king") in the second scene of the film. Galahad in the anonymous Quest. The same light SHINES from the case. Its medieval associations are the vital. and Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction-it means separation from worldly things and a life spent in solitary meditation.

57 Copyright © 2000. . All rights reserved.Heroes and Heroin .

the signified reveals the signifier. the narrative text implies another text. the inference is that the presence of the case is somehow protective of its guardians. and reassesses the identity of the weak and of the shepherd. and while in the ensuing discussion. he argues that the text contains its own commentary and typology. All rights reserved. who are the evil men. Using the Quest as a model. It is Jules who is obsessed with Ezekiel 25: 17: The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. The knights' adventures reflect the presence of these two codes: Copyright © 2000. realization has been superceded by revelation: "Yeah. . where Jules and Vincent are repeatedly fired upon. but it is somehow spiritual. Jules Winnfield decides to quit his chosen profession and wander the earth. but reflection nevertheless. playin' the incident in my head. In a wry exegesis of the Bible passage. Contact with the case has altered an otherwise rigidly ordered universe. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. This phenomenon has been best characterized by Tzvetan Todorov. he concludes: "The truth is that you're the weak. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd" (158). There is a moment of generic introspection that reveals the flawed nature of the twisted chivalric underworld. Tarantino's Grail is not religious. shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness. Jules reconfigures his interpretation of who is the righteous man. Jules sees a miracle. The brilliance of Pulp Fiction is ultimately similar to the originality of the Grail narratives. with the result that the light emitted from its shiny contents has allowed the passage from moral blindness to insight. I was just sitting here drinking my coffee. inspiring sometimes ironic philosophical and moral reflection. and the dynamism of the story derives from the play between the two competing and complementary discourses. until after we relive the end of the initial hit in the apartment. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you: (25) This Old Testament severity is his prologue to killing. an instant where fiction turns in on itself to reveal a dark core. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. Vincent is convinced that it is all coincidence. Whatever its status as a latter-day Pandora's box. But I'm tryin'. when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity" (148). to bring a suggestive center to an essentially decentered narrative. in the name of charity and goodwill. eatin' my muffin. Blessed is he who. Journal of Popular Culture contemplation of divine mysteries.58 . In the final restaurant scene. but the bullets lodge in the wall behind them without causing injury. for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children.

The mere presence of Jules. but potentially redeemed' Jules. the conceptual form and narrative parameters have not altered greatly with each new complex refabrication. linguistic. the same can be argued for Pulp Fiction. springs from a deep necessity that is still apparently meaningful even to modern audiences who have never read Chretien de Troyes or his contemporaries. capable of being molded into some new. and introduces errant knights.Heroes and Heroin . Moral. . When he takes the figure of a feudal lord. who fall between salvation and damnation. . shapeless matter becomes not so much formless as protean. And yet the reason that the film Co ri ht © 2000. In Pulp Fiction. as well as its "code" of love and adventure. whereas in the filmic representation of Tarantino. with similar interpretive implications for producing a transcendent form: Vincent is the doomed. he explodes the form outwards towards meta-narrative. and nothing to lose. and cultural codes evolve. In the simultaneity of personal quests. damsels. The elements adhere thanks to the fundamental form of the romance. If the signification of such texts has changed. what was once pulp becomes papier machi. worldly figure we are meant to compare with the ambiguous. a strong sense of generic intertextuality resonates far beyond its own time and literary space. and the suggestion of greater. the reverse is true. the vehicle remains recognizably the same. while Galahad's can be termed ritualistic (70). All rights reserved. and their divergent paths point to the literal and figurative planes they open in the text. On a lesser scale. The point of the preceding arguments is to show that the chivalric romance form has been with us since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the narrative pattern it created in the form of the questing hero in a symbolic landscape. but if the tenor alters. like Lancelot. or belonging to a symbolic order that points to a higher. although in this case not necessarily deeper. meaning takes Pulp Fiction beyond the parameters it establishes for itself in the opening frames. which lends its archetypal characterization and symbolic landscape. and a superficially casual yet finely wrought structure that is ever-experimental in its use of time and space. In essence. 59 some characters have run-of-the-mill adventures that are purely narrative. more complex meaning. the interesting knights in Grail texts are those weak and human characters. the result is quite different: just as the title suggests. This is not to say that it "means" the same as a medieval romance does: works like Chretien's tend towards the resolution of chaos into order and integration. such that the soft. an original form made up of a plethora of disparate texts. original shape. and a quest motif. moist. not to mention a whole paradigm of conventions. and who have everything to gain. Galahad's unblemished record makes him of less exemplary value than his more earthly counterparts.

Vincent fires twice at Copyright © 2000. and where the briefcase finishes up. Brandist sun colp. dunt li aciers fut bruns. but it is to be disposed of rather than provided. The older and wiser hero will not be Vincent or ~allace. The casual teleology of romance masks precise narrative aims. 4 Oliver sent que a mort est ferut. Beth Schultz of the University of Kansas for encouraging this project. they always manage to alter the audience's horizon of expectation. Trenchet la teste d'ici qu'as denz menuz. and by making the Arthurian world implode under its own self-generative weight in an immoral resolution." pp. Journal of Popular Culture has such a particular impact is that it transcends the cliched "B" movie in the way that medieval romance writers made their fiction so much more than the articulation of convention: in addition to being deeply intertextual. The dialectic wavering between damnation and redemption is an essential part of the romance: Pulp Fiction is an excellent example of how the resulting moral dynamism can still be used efficiently. agut. Fiert Marganices sur l'elme a or. tlaisse 146.. Marsellus Wallace declares his anachronistic intentions to "git medieval" de profundis: he is. in The Dialogic Imagination. unaware of the appropriateness of his words. I am thinking in particular of Bakhtin's formulation in "Epic and Novel. transportation is still an issue. but Jules Winnfield. 3-40. a conspiracy in which each small element takes part from setting to characterization. the romance of chivalry recognises that Hell needs to be harrowed before any personal transfiguration can take place. the audience never knows. I would like to thank Dr... that's my armor" (17). In the filmscript. who departs like a street-wise Galahad to walk the earth in search of enlightenment. Tient Halteclere. in the form of the car in which Vincent has accidentally shot Marvin. si l'ad mort abatut. . E flurs e cristaus en acraventet jus. by tending toward the moral resolution of the Grail quest. Wolf. of course. 100) ~In the movie. All rights reserved.60 . 3"Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction": "When Jean-Pierre Melville was making his crime films. and which has just been cleaned up at Jimmie's house with the assistance of the mysterious Mr. . Notes 'All references to the text of the film are drawn from the paperback edition of the filmscript. he talked about how it was important that his characters have a suit of armor . The black suits in Pulp Fiction. Better than any other genre. 2In defining epic. The genre as a whole played itself out in two main ways.

Todorov." The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. trans." Cinema Journal 34. director Ken Russell reviews two recent studies of Tarantino and mentions the contentious discovery of the Urquelle of Reservoir Dogs: "Who would have guessed that the inspiration for Reservoir Dogs was an obscure gangster movie called City of Fire. haphazard nature of existence. William C. Paris: Seuil. Albert. partMerlin figure. 13-14. Wolf himself. M. 1995). made in Hong Kong by one Ringo Lam?" (5).4 (Summer 1995)." La Poetique de la Prose. but the second is designed to "put him out of his misery" (117). Tarantino. "Not Exactly a Knight: Arthurian Narrative and Recuperative Politics in the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson. All ri hts reserved. "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel: Notes Toward a Historical Poetics. David. in a review in the London Sunday Times (1 Oct. Works Cited Aronstein. 1968. Quentin. 1981. The Complete Romances of Chretien de Troyes. New York: Miramax Booksl Hyperion. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. The film version.Heroes and Heroin . Dallenbach. M. Sean. 59-80. Bakhtin. Caroline Jewers is an associate professor of French at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. we might look on him as a part-knight. ed. Lucien. Pulp Fiction: A Quentin Tarantino Screenplay. Bakhtin. It is a deliberate act of violence that leads to blood being splattered over the interior of the car. -. Cop ri ht © 2000. Ed. and is the omniscient intelligence behind the unfolding of events. "La quete du recit: Le Graal." Sight and Sound 4. and trans. 6As for Mr. The first is a careless shot. Austin: U of Texas P. 1977. "Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction. Calin. 61 Marvin. 1994.11 (1994): 16-18." The Times Magazine (London) 15 Oct. which presents the incident as an accident during a conversation that opposes fate and acts of God against the random. La Queste del Saint Graal. O'Hagen. Tzvetan. Staines. . M. 1971. La Chanson de Roland. Susan. 84-258. Paris: Seuil. 1990. since he possesses the ability to make things magically disappear. Le Rectt speculaire: Essai sur la mise-en-abyme. Pauphilet. Paris: ChampionlCFMA 33 (1978). 1994: 10. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP. works much better visually and verbally. 'As if to underline the fundamental filmic intertextuality of Tarantino's films. "X Offender.