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jkbonafede
Dec 13, 2018
In Heroes, Saints, & Lovers
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.
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jkbonafede
Dec 11, 2018
In Heroes, Saints, & Lovers
I found Mary Leech’s discussion of “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” very insightful, especially the ways in which she illustrates how Dame Ragnell deviates from other loathly ladies. Leech acknowledges that she is unique in how she continues to “exert unladylike power until she dies” (213) and ultimately reverses acceptable gender roles within the society, Arthur’s court, after she transforms and becomes beautiful. This stands in stark opposition to the loathly lady tales that typically reinstate gender expectations once the lady transforms and becomes submissive to the knight who has granted her sovereignty. The comparison between Dame Ragnell as a loathly lady with vivid and extended anti-blazons in contrast to Sir Gawain who represents the impeccable chivalrous knight provides an interesting point of Leech’s application of Bahktin’s concept of the grotesque. Leech states that “The misshapen body of the Bahktinian grotesque displays what is usually hidden in the body—it’s interior—and in doing so challenges the boundaries of the body and the society from which that body emerges. The classical body is contained, confined, and hidden; the grotesque body defiantly revealed, and revealing” (214). This was striking to me in comparison to discussions regarding female saints and their beauty. It would seem that beauty is the physical manifestation of inner purity and goodness, but here the loathliness becomes the manifestation of something more sinister, or at least less appealing. The standards for what is and is not acceptable as generally established and maintained by the culture within the court. Leech continues her argument by noting that with the Bahkinian grotesque, as is typical with the loathly ladies, the horrific images of the ladies force society to confront the ideas informing why these images are horrifying within the cultural and societal framework (214).Typically, the loathliness of the woman who knows the answer is pitted against the knight who has erred, or behaved in a loathly manner, and is dependent on the lady’s help. However, given Gawain’s perfection as a knight, this appears not to be the case. Leech shifts her attention to Dame Ragnell’s influence over the men through her sexuality (Gawain) and chivalrous obligation (Arthur). Instead of her returning to the patriarchal control of women, their sexuality and agency, Leech notes how Dame Ragnell demonstrates that the “Feminine ability to tempt is stronger than the ability to control feminine agency” (226). The question becomes how anomalous was this idea during the time period? Given Dame Ragnell’s unique portrayal and conceptualization as a loathly lady, perhaps women’s ability to “tempt” and “control” or influence male “authorities” was just as rare and unique—they either stayed loathly or transformed and subdued; or, as Leech seems to emphasize, perhaps this was more common than was socially comfortable. Either way, Dame Ragnell could not exist forever, and so she dies only to be iconically immortalized (227) as a wife that better suits formal societal gender expectations.
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jkbonafede
Dec 10, 2018
In Heroes, Saints, & Lovers
Iris Ralph in her article “An Animal Studies and Ecocritical Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" raises an interesting comparison between the fox and Bertilak, which should not be ignored or subverted for the primary association of the hunted animal with the “hunted” Sir Gawain. While her attention to the poet’s emphasis on themes of honesty and deceit is significant, especially in the way she connects it to Bertilak, overall I find her argument to be flawed. Ralph promotes a critical shift in scholarly focus on animals within medieval texts. Rather than reading into animals as allegories or tropes for human beings and their (lesser) traits (432), an approach she finds both overly simplistic and reductive, scholars should be investigating animals within the reciprocal relationships they share with the other human characters. With regards to the fox, and animal Ralph thoroughly supports as both tricked and abused within the text given that it is only being hunted for the pleasure of killing for a trophy, Ralph appears to take a strong stance against traditional views which read such an animal as “an allegory for the human, particularly an allegory for the human failings of ‘slyness,’ ‘deceit,’ and ‘fraudulence’" (434). Yet, even as she is arguing for treating animals within texts on their own merits and with their own agency as “Actual animals” with “actual relations between humans” and their environment (434), she proceeds to make associations with the characters that mirror the type of analogous comparisons she is arguing against. For example, she notes how the fox in both its appearance and behavioral slyness, or deceitfulness, connects not only to Gawain, but also to Bertilak, if not more so, given how he deceives Gawain by tricking him into the game where they exchange their winnings and the overall beheading game since he is in fact the Greek Knight, as well as the fox and other animals in hunting them for pleasure (437). However, in stating that the “bushy red-bearded crafty Bertilak of Hautdesert . . . evokes the figural fox” (438), is she not simply reversing the analogous comparison—instead of the fox that evokes the human character failings (craftiness and deceit), it is the human character that evokes the fox? The assumption informing such a comparison indicates that foxes, both literary and real ones, are by nature sly and deceitful—and I’m not sure this statement can really be made without first extending metaphorical associations of human emotions, actions, and intentions to the animal, real or otherwise. Furthermore, by creating any comparison between the animals Ralph returns to the analogizing framework. Finally, Ralph's arguments would benefit from using more primary sources to support her claims involving the poet’s likely knowledge of and sympathy for “the many secular acts, bills, charters, ordinances, statutes, and other orders issuing from parliament or the crown in the fourteenth century that prohibited or curbed acts of cruelty to animals” (437). While on the surface this seems like striking evidence for the time period, Ralph fails to specifically identify or really discuss, by providing citations and analysis of the original documents, of any of the texts generally mentioned above. Overall, I found the article lacking evidentiary support and the assumptions a bit too overreaching in their assertion of animal sympathy for the time period.
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jkbonafede
Nov 30, 2018
In Heroes, Saints, & Lovers
Janet Knepper’s “A Bad Girl Will Love You to Death: Excessive Love in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Malory” presents an insightful analysis of chivalric love and the maid of Ascolot, specifically the maid’s inability to operate within a chivalric courtly love sign-system and the damage she therefore creates. Knepper clearly establishes the extent of gender normative expectations for the characters’ performances which were likely held by medieval audiences. It is the knight (male) who should be stricken by love or intense infatuation for a lady (female) due to his obsessive gazing and musing upon her fair qualities (229). While this excessive gazing and musing upon the object of love instils a deep wanting or desire that is deemed condemnable for male characters who, as the aggressor, should perform an active role in courtship, it is neither well-suited nor appropriate for female characters who must remain as the submissive object of the male’s desire. Knepper informs the reader that medieval attitudes towards women perceived them as excessive and undisciplined (230), so by reversing the courtly lovers gender performances the result is going to be bad. Within the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, Lancelot becomes the passive object of desire who pities the love-struck maid of Ascolot who fervently and foolishly pursues him to no avail. By applying this gender performance reversal and inevitable negative outcome, Knepper claims that the maid transgresses societal and by extension genre expectations that lead to an “unholy communion between love and death” (229). Knepper’s attention to how the text reinforces the maid’s transgression structurally is intriguing and insightful. She argues that the maid’s excessiveness in her infatuation is reinforced for audiences by the 11 lines in which it is described (230). The brevity showcases the intensity of the infatuation Lancelot stimulates for the maid, but the demure depictions of these feelings dismisses the noble and integral quality of such love. Furthermore, the maid initially lacks the traditional effictio granted to ladies of courtly romances, as well as any defining active agency granted to the male suitor. The maid is described solely as having a red face like a flower, but no other beauteous details like shining eyes or long golden hair—common tropes of many ladies within Arthurian romances (230). It is possible that the denial of these accoutrements speaks to the diminished integrity of her character: she is not the perfected courtly lady ideal, up to this point embodied if problematically by Queen Genevieve, and her manipulation of Lancelot to try attain and control his love are ignoble and constantly labeled as foolish. Even if we were to interpret her character with less sinister manipulation, it is clear through her actions and inability to adhere to the proper courtly sign-system that she does not truly belong and is out of her depths. Knepper further’s this idea by identifying how the maid is not named and appears only between the two male characters who control her: her uncle who is in charge of her (physical control) and Lancelot who distracts her (emotional control) (230). Given that the maid lacks active agency as the male suitor and fails to adhere to the submissive role of the desired lady, she is able to claim her role as a courtly lady only after her death. Knepper transitions her argument from the maid’s inability to adhere to the courtly romance sign-system to her fulfillment of it, but only after she had died and become a completely submissive body devoid of conscious agency. While Knepper reads the boat episode as a highly sexualized and dangerous adventure for King Arthur and Sir Gawain, what I find most intriguing is her attention to the poem’s juxtaposition of this scene. Much like how the poet structurally reinforces the maid’s excessiveness and foolishness in the brevity of lines attributed to her, and the subdued descriptions of her within them, here we see the boat interrupting the serious trial of Guinevere. Here Knepper claims that because she could not acquire desire through recognition in life, she can control the gaze of the knights in death as the boat seduces both Arthur and Gawain with its adornments and mystery (232). The shift in focus form Guinevere is significant in that she has maintained position as the proper courtly lady and lover of Lancelot, whom the maid cannot acquire or overthrow. The direct competition is heightened by the maid’s death ploy but given the circumstances it does create disturbing insights. Knepper claims that through Arthur’s and Gawain’s exploration of the death bower, they are seduced by the beauty of the courtly culture materialism and ideals, but subjected to the ugliness and anxieties that exist deep within it (234). This creates a connection back to Guinevere and the problems her adulterous affair with Lancelot poses to the kingdom and Round Table’s alliances and morals. In death, the maid finally captures the male gaze she has sought fruitlessly with Lancelot and the poet finally bestows her with the effictio she was previously denied. But for what aim? As a corpse she should not be the object of desire and a knight cannot attain a noble love with her. Knepper concludes that the Round Table is thereby implicated in “an economy of excess, death, and necrophilia” (235) which demonstrates that the maid is not necessarily an outlier character failing to fit in a generic and cultural sign-system, but that the system itself breeds a corruption that leads to real consequences: death.
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jkbonafede
Nov 30, 2018
In Heroes, Saints, & Lovers
Christoper Dean’s comparison of King Arthur and Sir Gawain as character complements in the Alliterative Morte Arthur brings up an important discussion of chivalry and chivalric expectations for medieval romance. By analyzing the characters as a two-pronged approach to understanding the poet’s representation of late medieval aristocratic culture and noble ideals, he avoids the popular condemnation violence and male bravado in the text and focuses on its function and merits instead. While excessive force and what appears to be unfettered violence abounds throughout the text, the destruction is brings in the final episode (the battle against Mordred) has perhaps all too often be used as the definitive critique for the text; however, up until Arthur receives news of Mordred’s usurpation, violence has provided Arthur, his knights, the kingdom, and other kingdoms many benefits. Chivalry, by its very definition and practice, involves violence. Dean is appropriate in his positive critiques of the poet’s representations of King Arthur’s and Sir Gawain’s behavior in that each utilize violence to fit their hierarchical role, which together provide a complete image of romance aristocracy. Dean identifies how the two characters, despite having an intensely important bond, are often not present at the same time within the poem. This is a very striking detail to me and I believe that Dean provides a qualified explanation for why this decision may have been made. Dean establishes that the two kinds of motivations and expectations of the characters differ in strategic ways: Arthur, as a king, must act within political dimensions seeking counsel from his Round Table (many of them kings under his overlordship), directing statesman and issuing other embassy directives, and ultimately inspiring his knights by personal example, while Gawain’s leadership is in signaling his fitness as a knight in service to Arthur (117). By separating the character’s episodes within the romance, the poet is better able to emblazon each within their respective role, and this may even provide an explanation for why Gawain seems to fail where Arthur succeeds. Dean argues that while Arthur and Gawain both demonstrate their prowess and dominance by defeating “larger-than-life foes” (118), again their status positions provide important contextualization for why the scenes develop the way they do. Gawain insults but is overlooked by Emperor Lucius on the battlefield because it is Arthur’s duty as king to defeat him. Meanwhile, the legitimacy of Arthur’s disparaging remarks to Lucius’ embassadors and declaration of war is confined by the power he single-handedly exhibits during the battle and defeat of the giant, which liberates the people at Michael’s Mount. Furthermore, Gawain goes off on his own and encounters Sir Priamus. Here Dean notes that the poet shifts gears and presents a standard romance adventure where our errant knight, Sir Gawain, challenges, defeats, and converts the otherwise lethal Priamus, kin of Alexander the Great (120-121). This serves to emphasize Gawain’s role as the chivalric knight who should be focused on status, loyalty to his crown and most importantly to God. Similarly, Gawain’s initial engagement with Mordred and his army on British shores fits his chivalric duties to Arthur as well. Dean’s argument implies that Gawain’s beastly descriptions are a poetic trope for a heroic knight realizing that he will die without accomplishing his purpose in vanquishing the foe (122). While the ferocity of his fighting mirrors chivalric expectations of martial skills and their active demonstrations, Dean moments that this description does not diminish the nobility of his mental state in seeking to achieve such chivalric ideals (123). After all, the story of Arthur and the Round Table has one inevitable fate, and as king, it is Arthur’s duty to slay his usurper. While Dean’s emphasis on chivalric ideals and the different obligations between a king and his knight are extremely effective in surveying the use violence within the text, his final points about the final deaths leaves out some critical issues and ambiguity involving the way violence functions. Gawain’s death by Mordred’s hands is problematic in that it represents a point where fate intercedes over the knight’s actual skills. Furthermore, the loss of Gawain is devastating to King Arthur’s legacy since he would serve as the heir-apparent, which complicates the character’s otherwise commitment to selfish chivalric goals. Additionally, Mordred meets Arthur on the battlefield with Clarent, the ceremonial sword used for dubbing knights and entitling kings. Given that he fights Arthur with it and delivers him his death-blow first raises a legitimate question as to Arthur’s legitimacy as king. Since violence is intrinsically connected to the entire poem’s structure, the questioning of its legitimacy, which is initially raised in Arthur’s dream and dream analysis, is physically tested here. Arthur manages to hew Mordred’s sword hand and run him through, but this is after he has already been mortally wounded. This detail seems to imply a compromised but restructured hierarchy on the battlefield: Arthur must fall, but Mordred, the evil antagonist, will not survive and thus victoriously supersede him as king. Neither character shall rule legitimately from this point forward. Given the ambiguity of legitimacy and its connection to violence, the issue of a just war surfaces—this is after all the common critique of Arthur, including the philosophers who interpret his dream of Fortune’s wheel. The ideas of a God and Church sanctioned war was popular throughout the middle ages given the circulation of Cicero’s and Augustine’s ideas involving a just versus unjust war. This was taken up again during the crusades. For war, and by extension violence, to be just, it must be sanctioned by God and the Church and aim at establishing peace through the thwarting of enemies. While Arthur’s war against Mordred seemingly fits this premise, his initial interest in conquests abroad, including Rome, may have been overreaching—a critique certainly laid on him during his dream analysis and taken up by contemporary medieval scholars.
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jkbonafede
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