In July, uber-cool film studio A24 released The Green Knight in theatres, but with the new school year starting and sweater weather approaching, I feel there’s no better time to delve into an old Arthurian legend than autumn (except maybe Christmas, when the story takes place). If you haven’t seen the film, it is an adaptation of an anonymously-penned chivalric romance from Medieval England about Sir Gawain (one the famed Knights of the Round Table). And if you have seen the film, you’re probably like, “what in the world did I just watch?”
Arthurian legends in media are in no short supply. We all at least vaguely know the names King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Excalibur, right? You might have seen Disney’s The Sword in the Stone as a child (featuring, iconically, a Converse-wearing Merlin), or maybe the old parody staple, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government”). More recently, there was BBC’s Merlin, in which the titular wizard is a young man when he befriends the weirdly jock-like Arthur (cue shipping). Historically, the old tales have been interpreted in countless paintings as well (you might recognize this one especially, of Elaine of Astolat, harboring an unrequited love for Lancelot). No matter the version, they’re always recognizable as being Arthurian. The departure from that recognition, from the usual tropes, names, and places, is what makes The Green Knight such a bizarre, and modern, take.
When Lorde dropped onto the scene with 2013’s Pure Heroine, she was a strange, dark, enigmatic force. A 16 year old from New Zealand, her signature sound of slow drums and deep beats shook up the music charts (her competition: Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers—even the “Harlem Shake” made it onto the charts). “Royals” signaled an exciting direction for chartable music, one not predicated only on exuberant silliness but that made space for something a little darker, a little deeper, a little quasi-gothy. She was a weirdo before Jughead made the claim, with effortless cool. The heavy, slow beat-and-clap of “Royals” and “Team” became a real thing. It’s not for nothing that literal David Bowie called her sound “the future of music”—and of course, he was right.
With her follow-up album Melodrama, Lorde built on her previous sound and reputation for idiosyncrasy. In a recent article detailing just why Lorde’s music seems so different from contemporary pop music, Time got into the actual structure of her biggest hits, which employ the difficultly-named “mixolydian mode”. As someone who doesn’t understand music theory, this doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but it essentially means she’s adopting a scale historically used in blues and rock unexpectedly in pop music. Pop is incredibly formulaic (that’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s a successful genre for a reason), but we love Lorde precisely for bucking that formula and still making it work. Think of the song “Green Light”, which shifts to a surprise chord at the pre-chorus (“But I hear sounds in my mind…”), a shift that doesn’t make sense in pop theory but one that gives the song its unsettling power. She is always tightly in control of her sound, sure-footed in her formula-breaking. Melodrama was not as commercially successful as Pure Heroine, but Lorde’s artistic influence carries on in current chart toppers like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. It’s very hard, for example, to hear the swelling bridge of “drivers license”, with its layered voices and slow claps, and not think of Lorde.
Earlier this year I wrote about the hype machine and its influence on the book industry (and on our own subsequent reactions to the hyped books). In that post, I talked about how Instagram (“Bookstagram”), YouTube (“BookTube”), and Goodreads all contribute to the success of certain books. But, in my ignorance of the app, I neglected to pay tribute to the actual behemoth in the hype game: TikTok.
Confession: as an organization comprised mainly of adults, staff at the library are not as TikTok-literate as some of our younger patrons. A lot of us were scratching our heads as to why, for example, The Song of Achilles—a book published in 2011—currently has a combined total of 115 holds (and our neighbour to the south, the Toronto Public Library, boasts a total of 1911 holds). I mean, it’s a great book, but why the sudden burst in popularity? The story behind this is the same for titles like We Were Liars (2014), They Both Die at the End (2017), and One of Us is Lying (2017), which all have disproportionately long waitlists for how long they’ve been out. And the story is, to put it simply, that someone cried about them on TikTok.
Influence on book popularity often comes from outside the literary world. At the library, we know that if a book is adapted into a film or television show, the hold list will jump astronomically (if anyone is still interested in reading the first book of the Bridgerton series, it looks like it’s finally available). Same thing happens when a celebrity endorses a book, or if an author goes on TV to talk about their work (this is particularly true for health-related topics like dieting and aging). So it’s not surprising that social media would be a similar force. But where Instagram users pitch books via artfully arranged, hyper-controlled, aesthetically conscious images, and where YouTube creators talk about books for anywhere from 5-30 minutes, TikTokers create short, quick videos pivoting almost entirely on emotional reactions: “books that will make you sob” is a popular topic, and often features people wailing dramatically into the camera. In an interview with the New York Times on the topic, the director of books at Barnes & Noble shared the following tidbit: “These creators are unafraid to be open and emotional about the books that make them cry and sob or scream or become so angry they throw it across the room, and it becomes this very emotional 45-second video that people immediately connect with.”