Piotr Spyra’s article “The Terror of the Threshold: Liminality and the Fairies of Sir Orfeo” provides an insightful and important reading of the text. Liminality, as a period of transition producing a threshold existence, what is often called the “betwixt and between,” has for many years prevailed anthropological studies of cultural rites of passage in which individuals transition to new positions or roles within their social hierarchy. With these new positions comes a new set of expected and appropriate cultural customs and values. This represents a time of anxiety and uncertainty as the expectations and view of who the individual was is no longer accepted but the expectations and view of how the individual should now be are not yet fully realized. This specific moment is the liminal space and crisis. Spyra’s application of this as a point of neither living nor dead, dead nor living encapsulates this anxiety well given that rites of passage do mark a symbolic death of the individual. Furthermore, I find his connection of this idea to the importance of temporality and it being something which is neither definitively good nor evil particularly useful when considering the fairy realm and those who seem to “haunt” it—the fairy king’s may victims. Spyra critiques some of the scholarship asserting the fairy realm and king as Hell and Satan indicating that there are many ways in which it appears like a palace of heaven (65), and how even Sir Orfeo first associates the surroundings as such. Given the realm’s removal from the human plane and yet connection with the green world, it surfaces as the liminal threshold of duality, neither one completely nor the other—perhaps it is both a heaven-like and hell-like world. We see this concept arise again with the many individuals who seem to reside there: many bodies which seem trapped in the moment of their deaths, such as from wounds from battles or death from childbirth. The concept of Heaven and Hell are inextricable from death, so comparisons of them and the fairy realm are not out of place. What is striking is the fact that the individuals appear in the throes of death, which resonates with the threshold, temporal, anxiety-ridden, and transformative characteristics of liminal space and marks the fairy realm as distinct from either Heaven or Hell. Interestingly, Victor Turner, whom Spyra acknowledges as an important anthropologist defining and extending the application of liminality in academic disciplines, recognizes that liminal spaces are meant to be transcended. Rites of passage mark the transition of the individual, so liminality is expected to be experienced but overcome, thus marking the new state of existence the individual assumes within their society. Sir Orfeo does manage to rescue Heurodis from the fairy realm and they return to their kingdom reassuming their position as monarchs. Therefore, both manage to transition out of their liminal existences. What I would be interested in researching further is the extent to which they have assumed new roles and values within their society as a result of their liminal passage.
I’m still a bit torn on how to interpret Marie de France’s lai “Bisclavret.” It follows the expected form of the lai, depicting love as suffering for all parties involved, but it is also a very gendered tale in which male and female suffer due to gendered punishments. Are the punishments fair? Are they equal? What commentary on marriage and gender is being made in this text? Basically, the husband’s punishment (being turned semi-permanently into a werewolf) is inflicted upon him by his wife (and his wife’s new love interest) because he kept a secret from her. The secret—of his turning into a werewolf once a month, of course—was kept, however, in relatively good conscience; he was afraid of revealing this personal flaw to his wife and did not want to upset her. The wife’s punishment, later in the tale, is losing her nose (and bearing children with no noses), inflicted by the werewolf as punishment for keeping him from turning back into a human and abandoning him for another man. Both punishments affect physical appearance. Bisclavret’s unappealing appearance as a wolf, however, doesn’t do him much disservice; the king and knights still take him in and he enters into the homosocial bond that gives no value to appearance. He is valued and cared for just as much when he is a wolf as when he is a man. The wife’s change in appearance is different, though. Women’s appearances contribute greatly to their domestic lives (acceptance by the husband) and public lives (acceptance by female social circle), and the fact that her children were born without noses (and all of them female!) seems a far more serious punishment than that inflicted on Bisclavret. On one hand, I’d like to lay blame on the wife for such a harsh punishment toward her husband for keeping a rather harmless secret. On the other hand, the tale can be read as the wife’s inability to make choices regarding her love life without outside judgement and subsequent punishment. Is this a tale of warning for women who choose to leave their husbands more than it is a tale of warning for husbands not to keep secrets from their wives? Rather than being merely an amusing commentary on marriage, I feel like “Bisclavret” leans toward commentary on the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors of the wife in relation to her husband.