venerdì 26 febbraio 2010


Arthur, Merlin and love magic

The potency of romance through the ages and the enduring importance of speaking truth to power
Carolyne Larrington
Medieval romance created and authorized the making of fictions in Western literature. Its preoccupations – the failure of idealism in social institutions, the self-realization of the individual, the tensions and anxieties within the family, the agency of women, and the pressures of masculinity – reappear throughout the centuries, in the successor to romance, the novel, as well as in a multitude of other media from primetime television to opera. Romance’s varied contexts, its long history and its development into new forms in the twenty-first century, whether drawing on the national myth of Arthur or on the popular plots of romances such as “Sir Gowther”, in which a devil sires a baby on a desperate mother, all provide, as these four books show, fertile ground for thinking about our past, our present and our future.

One might be forgiven for thinking that Chaucer was not fond of romance. His devastating parody of the popular metrical romance “The Tale of Sir Thopas”, which is his character’s contribution to The Canterbury Tales, may have done more than adverse modern critical judgements to suggest the low status of the tail-rhyme subgenre. Yet Chaucer’s parody is affectionate: he compares his hero to a string of other English romance heroes: “Men speken of romances of prys / Of Horn Child . . . / Of Beves and Sir Gy, / Of Sir Lybeux and Pleyndamour / But Sir Thopas, he bereth the flour / Of roial chivalry”. Chaucer explores the literary possibilities of the genre elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales, adding at least four other examples to his curtailed experiment in tail-rhyme romance.

Among the secular genres in medieval literary culture, romance was by far the most popular and the most influential. Over a period of some 400 years, collections of romance catered for the tastes of both the nobility and those who aspired to noble status. From its earliest appearance in medieval literature a broadly defined category – its name derived from the simple fact of its being composed in a vernacular language rather than Latin – romance told tales of the adventures of noble men and women. Although it often claimed to take its impetus from history, many romances were highly fictionalized, allowing free play to the authors’ imaginations. Romance had no necessary connection to “romance” in the modern Mills and Boon sense; though romances might often end with a wedding, they need not be about love per se. Romance developed first in French as a mirror in which a European warrior-caste saw itself reflected as a courtly and chivalric aristocracy whose pursuit of honour was tempered by attentiveness to women, ritualized fighting with members of the same class, and a determination to face every danger. Romance, whether Arthurian or popular (the two are not mutually exclusive), may operate chiefly in the realm of fiction, but contemporary social concerns often manifest themselves in the episodes of knightly derring-do.

The four recent books reviewed here take different approaches to medieval romance and its reception. In Love Cures: Healing and love magic in Old French romance, Laine Doggett restricts her discussion to a group of important twelfth-century French romances. Stephen Knight offers a history of Merlin, from his earliest appearances in Welsh poetry to the recent BBC television series, and concentrates on the relationship between the sage and the king, as “speaking truth to power”. Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton’s collection of essays, A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance, aims to provide new reading contexts for the popular romances of medieval England. The Cambridge Companion to Arthurian Legend has as ambitious a scope as Knight’s Merlin, reaching back to the period after the retreat of the Romans from the British Isles, when the historical Arthur would have lived had he lived at all, to Spamalot in 2005.

Doggett’s book makes large claims for a hitherto unregarded connection between romance and contemporary society. Looking closely at twelfth-century romances, and, by way of comparison, the thirteenth-century “Roman du Silence”, Doggett argues that the depiction of various noblewomen, notably Iseult and her mother from the Tristan legend, as possessing healing skills draws on historical practice: the tradition of unofficial healers, whom she calls “empirics”, whose knowledge of herbs and salves was passed down through the generations. The role of the romance heroine in healing the knight’s injuries overlaps with her granting him her love, so that at first healing and loving go hand in hand. Only later, as medical knowledge becomes the preserve of university- educated men and female empirics are excluded from practice through professional regulation, does the idea that women literally cure their lovers dissolve into a metaphorical understanding of the beloved as healing the wounds made by Cupid. Nor, Doggett stresses, should we assume that magic is at work in the healing process; the distinction between magical remedies – or the love potion of Tristan and Iseult – and effective drugs would almost certainly be differently understood by the medieval audience.

Doggett’s book has some repetitive passages; the arguments for the existence of female empirics is reiterated in different chapters, and there are some very lengthy quotations. However, the study carefully makes the argument that, along with elements which we might now consider fantastical, romance deploys concepts from contemporary medieval cultures. Thus individual romances can contribute evidence to the history of medicine, and indeed the histories of magic and of love, if attentively read.

The Companion to Medieval Popular Romance deals mostly with romance in English, with some examples from Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French understood in England after the Norman Conquest. Radulescu and Rushton, like many of their contributors, take their cue from Nicola McDonald’s rallying cry in her introduction to Pulp Fictions of Medieval England (2004), to reconsider the popular romances as exemplifying “that which is essential to all provocative literature, the interrogation of the norms that order and regulate our lives”. McDonald is interested in the academy’s discomfort with the unsettling and shocking in the popular romance. She adduces the gripping narrative of “Sir Gowther”, mentioned above, in which the devil’s offspring, a delinquent child, gnaws off his mother’s nipple when she breastfeeds him, kills several of his wet-nurses and in adolescence rapes convents full of nuns and forces friars to jump off cliffs, yet achieves absolution for his sins and wins a princess.

Other tales deal with the extraordinary luck of being chosen for love and unimaginable riches by a beautiful fairy mistress, or explore the tensions between a knight’s love for his best friend and his bond with his children, when the friend’s leprosy can only be cured by the children’s blood. The Companion is, however, not concerned with rehabilitating the individual romances, a task already taken on in several recent essay collections; it prefers to explore more general questions about the romances’ medieval contexts, and to examine their later reception. Outstanding essays here are Phillipa Hardman’s argument that the youthful protagonists in many English romances, including (as Helen Cooper has noted), a good number of feisty heroines, offer imaginative role models for young readers and Karl Reichl’s re-examination of the discussion of what kinds of oral contexts can safely be posited for texts which have been preserved for us only in written form.

Maldwyn Mills and Gillian Rogers look at manuscript collections of popular romances, noting how tales, which were composed in the twelfth century for courtly Anglo-Norman audiences, are rendered into English and collected in fifteenthcentury household miscellanies such as the Thornton manuscript. This manuscript (now MS Lincoln Cathedral 91) gives a snapshot of the kinds of reading matter, both religious and secular, that the Thornton household found entertaining. In another essay, Ad Putter succeeds in making metre and rhythm compelling, showing how some metrical forms, like the one parodied by Chaucer in “The Tale of Sir Thopas”, can produce striking poetic effects when listened to with a sympathetic ear.

Other chapters in the collection cast new light on familiar topics, such as gender or the popular topic of nationalism in what was already a multicultural island. What is most innovative about this Companion is not so much the revelation that popular romance can be fun, or that it shares tropes with Star Wars, but its discussion of material objects: it examines actual manuscripts and their contents, and the recurrent lists of popular romance heroes found in various medieval texts, even, as noted above, in “Sir Thopas”, showing that these low-status, but well-loved, stories left their mark on high literary culture.

The welcome new addition to the authoritative Cambridge Companion series traces Arthurian narrative from history through pseudo-history to romance, and on into the post-medieval centuries. The first half of the book traces the development of the legend in English and French tradition, by century from the twelfth century onwards. This works well for the first four chronological chapters; the limited number of significant texts or text collections in each period allows space for eminent scholars such as John Burrow to write at some length on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the other Gawain romances, and for Barry Windeatt to give a detailed commentary on Malory’s Morte Darthur. Ad Putter’s chapter on the twelfth century is a masterpiece of compression, covering Geoffrey of Monmouth, the French and English translations of his work, and the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, while Jane Taylor gives a lively and informative account of the French Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles in the thirteenth-century chapter.

Once the milestone of Malory is passed, however, the two chapters on the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are taken at a gallop. Norris Lacy notes that the great bibliography of Arthurian writing, the Arthurian Annals indicates that 80 per cent of everything written on Arthur has been produced since 1900; an attempt to give a representative overview of the poems, novels, plays, films, musicals and ephemera produced in recent years leaves space only for a one-line critical verdict. Lacy detects a growing tendency towards humour, debunking and disillusionment, though, as he sensibly notes, the inherent flaws in the Camelot project were perceived from the earliest days of the Round Table. Many readers will share Lacy’s judgement that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the most successful Arthurian film yet made; he notes that the film “creates humour in the name of, but not necessarily at the expense of, the story of Arthur and the Grail Quest”. The twenty-first century seems to have heralded a revival of interest in the Grail; Umberto Eco, is, as ever, ahead of the trend with his marvellous novel Baudolino (2002), his return to the fully imagined medieval world of The Name of the Rose (1983).

The second half of the Companion traces several different themes from the Arthurian corpus. Elizabeth Archibald shows that medieval romance had already begun to question chivalric ideology; a critical appraisal of the system is not purely the province of the heirs of Don Quixote. Making his first appearance in the French Prose Tristan, the disaffected knight Sir Dinadan is prone to asking his fellow knights why they choose to fight against unfavourable odds, and why they are so obsessed with serving their ladies. A comic high point in Malory comes when Dinadan is made to dress in women’s clothing, a spectacle which amuses Queen Guenevere so much that she falls on the floor laughing, “and so dede all that there was”. Archibald points out that Dinadan’s view of chivalry, despite being both the butt and the source of comedy, is “honest but not destructive”. Jane Gilbert draws parallels between the world created in what she calls “Arthurian discourse” and online virtual worlds such as “Second Life”. “Arthur World” always exists in a past which cannot be recovered by readers or writers. Nor can its residents ever capture the originary perfect moment, the “brief shining spot” of “Camelot the musical”, when the Round Table was complete, before its destruction was ineluctably written by the choices made by its constituents: particularly in the disastrous conception of Mordred.

Gilbert also discusses how the “good” can be as difficult to identify in early romance, as it is in the modern computer game; gamers encountering a new creature know “we can hit it, kiss it or ask it a question”, so the adventuring knight is always facing new challenges, failing (or partially succeeding), but always – at least until the final catastrophe – living to fight another day. Peggy McCracken takes up the unusual theme of the adulterous French version of Arthur, who is always being taken in by pretty women with designs on his person or kingdom; the English Arthur is very much less susceptible. Chapters on imperial politics, religion and magic and on Arthurian geography complete this readable and thoughtfully assembled collection.

Merlin of course appears frequently in the Cambridge Companion, but he has a history of his own. Stephen Knight begins by outlining the combination of ancient Northern and Welsh traditions giving rise to the hybrid figure of Merlin the madman of the woods, and Merlin the prophet, an embodiment of pure wisdom. Knight gives full weight to Merlin as the traumatized survivor of the battle of Arfderydd, in which Merlin’s lord, and his sister’s son are killed; Merlin retreats – as he frequently does through his long history – from public life into a forest isolation which tips him over the edge of sanity, his only confidant an apple tree, or in another early Welsh poem, a little pig. Knight frames Merlin’s career in terms of the different functions he performs in successive periods. The medieval Merlin is predominantly an advice-giver, bringing prophetic knowledge of what is to come and adding a modicum of political sense to his dealings with Arthur and his royal predecessors. As in the Cambridge Companion, the fewer texts which survive from the earlier periods allow more expansive and always acute analysis; Knight demonstrates that the role of “grand vizier”, the king’s closest counsellor, whose supernaturally attained wisdom is inevitably respected, becomes scaled down by the fifteenth century, reflecting the changing structures of power; the king’s decision-making is no longer determined by personal links to his advisers.

The realization by Elizabethan historians that neither Arthur nor Merlin had a historical existence reconfigures the early modern Merlin as political prophet and proto-technologist. Considered under the rubric of Cleverness, this Merlin guarantees the imperial destiny of Britain in The Faerie Queene, but he also works with devils and creates quasi-magical devices: a diamond shield and a brazen wall surrounding Carmarthen. In the following centuries, this humanist scientist finds himself in some odd company, descending into low culture to fraternize with pantomime figures like Tom Thumb, or, more grandly, presiding over a “Hermitage” or cottage of learning, built in 1735 for George II’s queen, Caroline. Here he features as the central figure among six other life-size wax images, mostly representing historical and imaginary learned women.

The Romantics rediscover the Celtic Merlin; Knight offers a close reading of Tennyson’s Merlin, before embarking on his final section: “International Merlin”, in which Merlin embodies Education. Here T. H. White’s tutor-wizard is a key figure, but, perhaps inevitably, the scope of this section, covering Merlin’s appearances in French and German as well as anglophone culture leaves the reader breathless as one-line summaries come on apace. So Nicol Williamson plays Merlin in John Boorman’s film Excalibur as “an eccentric bully”; the Merlin figure in Robertson Davies’s The Lyre of Orpheus (1998) who narrates this subtle and inventive novel is “a sadly reduced, self-knowing form of modern Merlin”, the lessons mediated by the website for the BBC Merlin series are mere “electronic substitutes for knowledge”. Knight ends his history with a brief but heartfelt warning that the dialectical relationship between knowledge and truth and the public institutions of power remains crucial to both the academy and to the health of the body politic. The last Merlin-figure invoked is the weapons inspector, Dr David Kelly. Once again an indirect victim of war trauma, Kelly’s lonely apparent suicide in woods near Oxford removed for ever the chance of hearing what truths he might have had to say to the Blair government bent on the invasion of Iraq. Speaking truth to power remains a dangerous, yet absolutely vital, role in both old and emerging democracies.

Laine E. Doggett
Healing and love magic in Old French romance
256pp. Pennsylvania State University Press. $75; distributed in the UK by Marston Books. £61.95.
978 0 271 03531 4

Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton, editors
209pp. Brewer. £50.
978 1 84384 192 0

Stephen Knight
Knowledge and power through the ages
288pp. Cornell University Press. $27.95; distributed in the UK by NBN. £18.95.
978 0 8014 4365 7

Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter, editors
261pp. Cambridge University Press. £50 (US $90).
978 0 521 67788 2

Carolyne Larrington is Tutor in Old and Middle English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Her book King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and her sisters in Arthurian tradition was published in 2006, and her translation of The Poetic Edda in 2008.