Friday, 14 February 2014

Was the Otherworld Journey Single or Return? Emotional Sociality in Medieval English Romance


Stephen Knight

This paper was written for a conference in mid 2013 held by the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Melbourne University where I am an Associate Investigator. It links to and develops from other work on  the representation and significance of emotionality in early medieval material, Irish, Welsh and French, and extends this into medieval English romance. Further papers will look at Malory and the late medieval sub-aristocratic material namely the Robin Hood ballads and the `king and subject’ poems.


1. Words for Social Pleasure

In medieval romances, here restricted for close analysis to Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal, but with a glance at Sir Gawain, the default socially positive state is one of mirthe or joie or solas. The general adjectives for the situation ranging from French courtois to English (or rather Scandinavian) menskful, and the personal ones noting women as lufsum – stressing emotionality -- and men as noble – stressing sociality. The instrumentally evaluative core of the mirthe/joie situation, ratified by reported deeds, is honour or worship (Anglo-Saxon-derived and French-derived words have almost equally currency here).

This lexicon is at once insistently social/general/collective in reference, and also essentially non-physical—there might be some material attributes implied in lufsum, a physical teleology of lovableness that may well be attributable to the dominantly masculine viewpoint, but even with lufsum the semantic ambience seems general rather than personalised.  

This verbally-delineated positive world of social emotion opens each text, is abandoned for other states, recurs in various ways, and is finally treated differently in the texts. Orfeo returns at the end to his world of feudal collective suprapersonal and socially emotional positives. But Launfal goes in a quite different direction to an alternative context with his otherworld lady: this state is both privatised (he cannot share it or he will destroy it) and yet it is also suprapersonal, indeed supersocial, royal, a fantasy of a high-emotion collectivity. Offstage here, yet shadowing this analysis,  and even critiquing it, Sir Gawain  returns to the world where collective generic value is expected, and indeed offered, but it is dissented to by the focal character, to some extent in terms of a religious or at least moralised perspective, a third way both personal and differently social. With this yes, this no (and Gawain’s maybe), about collectivised social emotion in the aristocratic world of romance, we have a thorough analysis of attitudes to emotion, social relations, and essentially to the outcomes of the dialectic of personal and public that appear to underlie both the realities and the cultural ideologies of medieval feudal culture. (By the way, or perhaps not, this paper sees no reason to continue the suppositious not to say spurious title of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Why not Sir Gawain and Sir Bercilak ? Or Sir Gawain and Morgan La Fay ? Medieval hero-focused romances routinely go by the name of the central character.)

Related to, even productive of, the dialectic of public and private at the core of the realities and the cultural ideology of medieval feudal culture, is the system by which the social bonds were the personal swearing of allegiance to a particular land-holding lord; and the processes of social evaluation rested on the status attained – at least in the cultural domain of the romances --  by personalised military or quasi-military success over other private combatants in tournaments or even in actual war. The high formality of the code of honour – as set out in immense detail in the Vulgate romances or in the Tristram book in Malory’s Morte d`Arthur -- depended on personal violence between men, just as the bonds of social constraint depended on swearing a specific personal but also public oath. Also the personal bond of marriage was itself the basis for social status, for men as well as women, as in Yvain. The dialectic of the personal and the public was both structural to the society and explored in the literature, notably in the  texts under consideration (and in Sir Gawain and in Malory), where public emotion is positive, private emotion is either subsumed within that generic coherence or an expression of severe dysfunction – and as all the heroes, especially Gawain, found, it is hard to find a way between the social emotion of courtly mirthe and the social dysfunction that caused the lonely misery of exile from society.

2. Sir Orfeo: Return Journey to the Otherworld

The rather grim story of Orpheus and Eurydice was more imperiously translated into the early medieval than most of the Matter of Rome the Great. Orfeo became a great harper who also happened to be both  king and knight, so asserting the reach and rationale of feudalism; the world where he found his beloved was not the dark classical underworld, but the bright alternative world of Celtic myth; and that last shift permitted the major appropriation – the beloved wife is regained.

Major values attach to both harp and wife. Orfeo `most of ony thing Lovede the gle of harping’[1] (10-11) and not only as a spectator:  `himself lovede for to harpe’ (13) and he did it so well anyone who herd him `shulde thinke that he were In one of the joys of Paradis’ (20-1). The delight Orfeo felt is transmitted out as a generalised quasi-heavenly experience of communal delight. The harping will have parallel instrumental value in re-assembling the fragments of Orfeo’s public life. The harping is always social, even when he is alone. The harping codes the default nature of social emotion in this context .

The harp is one of his two loves. The other is Heurodis. She too is a generalised quality. She too is dialectic: she is not just looking lovely, `The fairest levedy for the nones That that might go on body and bones’ (29-30) she is `Ful of love and godenisse’ (31): the love of which she was a source had no malign propensities. The poem, often close to lyric in performing its effects, catches this when Orfeo expresses his `luf’ in assonance `O lef lif, what is te’ (78), and the climax of his lament is that social emotion is reversed from general love to personalised hate: her `lovesum’ (87) eyes, that that created love from and to her, i.e. were a source of collective love, have become agents of hate and look `so man doth on his fo’ (88)

Both of the royal lovers – and their royalty make them more than personal lovers -- express grief: they who as she says have `ever …y-loved’ (99) must now separate and she explains the royal visit from the otherworld, rich in the overt power of splendour – and without any expression of emotion on the part of the King of Fairy. He has social splendour in plenty, but no social emotion words like mirthe, or joy or solas. Orfeo’s grief is personally expressed in `”O we,” quath he, “allas, allas”’ (152) but is also public in its effect: he is `forlorn’ (103), lost, and will physically become lost. The Queen’s abduction is greeted with public grief  and by Orfeo with the swooning that is the climax of negative emotion and the sign that the distressed individual is therefore dysfunctional.

So he leaves, appointing his steward in his place and this too receives public grief, and they beg him no to go, but he went `so poverlich out of toun’ (212) – we may recall that `toun’ implies `civilisation’ not collection of buildings.. This too is new: classical Orpheus was not a king and just went off after his wife. Orfeo, however, is in total dysfunction. It might seem tempting to liken this to the running wild of Yvain, Launcelot and Tristan when love has gone totally wrong. But they did not allot their responsibilities or recommend arrangements after their death. And they had not totally lost their rightful ladies – they had just bungled an already awkward, even improper, situation or in Yvain’s case behaved idiotically, privileging male social emotion by going tournamenting with Gauvain over the richer, in every sense, amatory and royal  social emotion with Laudine.  

Why does Orfeo leave ? Is his love of Heurodis so strong he just can’t live without her ? That is a Romantic back projection. He can live without her, just not as a king. It is tempting to see beneath the innovative shape of Sir Orfeo at this point the Celtic tradition of sovereignty, that the king rules only by right of being married to the queen who bears genetic power, sofraniaeth.  In early Irish and Welsh, only a woman can do that – matrilinearity survives. This is not that story, but it has some of that feeling about it. And of course women of comparable power were not hard to imagine like Eleanor of Aquitaine, inheritor of the greatest duchy in Europe and successively queen of France and England. The point is there may be a more public, even political, element than we appreciate in Orfeo’s exile. Both Marie de France and Walter Map worked on the frontiers of Celtic and Anglo-Norman culture. People seem unaware Map is a Welsh cognomen, from Mab, son, with the characteristic Welsh fortis pronunciation heard as devoicing. Like Fluellen and the poys and the paggage.

Orfeo suffers for ten years and more. What does he feel ? We do not know. Feeling in these texts is interactive, people weep together or share those group words like joy and mirth and solace, or lament their absence. The last operates here. He sees `nothing that him liketh’(227) – the impersonal does the collectivising here. The animals have collective emotive power though  and `For joye’ (250) they gather round to hear him harping, because of its own collectivised quality -- `So miche melody was therin’ (254). The epistemological generality is worth stressing, it is so easy for moderns to miss. It is when Orfeo has the capacity to interact, that he can feel again: he sees the hunt and laughs: `ther is fair game’ (291)  – he feels something like `that hunting looks fun’. Heurodis weeps to see him – how does she know him in his changed state ? She sees some sign of the loss of their collective love, not the ragged and rugged ten-year outdoors exile. Note the resemblance to Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid where Orfeo too is stricken with grief, but this is because they have not spoken, not engaged in the collective action of recognising/realising  their love. In the absence of the shared life, he moves towards it: he is filled with social energy to rejoin human action to follow her. There is some parallel as a resocialisation story in Malory’s Tale of Sir Tristram: Launcelot in wild exile is attracted to a sword hanging on a tree, engages in fighting, and is eventually recuperated into human and chivalric order.

Orfeo arrives at the Otherworld court just like a knight or indeed a Welsh hero at a dangerous location – the porter is always crucial, liminal to social order and external exile. Shakespeare didn’t miss the tradition in Macbeth, though he played with it, his porter is socially both outside and ironically far inside. The people Orfeo sees, including Heurodis, are all alone, they are the dead and taken, isolated, out of their own social environment and not operating together in a new one. The Otherworld is always alienating in some way. But Orfeo has brought his remembered world with him and sees her as `his lef lif’ (382), verbally just as she was before she was abducted. The King has his own Otherworldly socialisation to receive resocialised Orfeo, taking pleasure from music in the company of the palace residents (not the still isolated dead and taken); and the King’s objection to an Orfeo-Heurodis reunion is based on a social, hierarchical reading of this notional couple, recognising Heurodis as `lovesum’ (436) and therefore it would be `lothlich’ (437) – hateful, just like her reaction  to the king’s original threat. But we find in this feudal appropriation of the Otherworld that he has to keep his word, as did the king of the classical Underworld, but not in such specifically feudal terms that insist it were `a wele fouler thing’ (440) to hear the king lie: `fouler’ here implies social degradation.

So Orfeo wins Heurodis and joins court collectivity again: `His wif he took by the hond’ (449). They do not speak; there is no expressed joint emotion; and there will not be any in the rest of the poem. No-one seems to have noticed this, or perhaps cared if they did. The secret title of this paper is `Were Heurodis and Orfeo pleased to be together again ?’ Towards the end we will hear of the steward’s `love’ of his lord (494), see `he fell aswoon to grounde’ (525) in thinking about his loss of his lord , and have that love specifically reciprocated by Orfeo (531), and the popular collective excitement and joy: `Glad they were of his live’ (559). The people weep to see king and queen again, presumably their joy deriving from noting they are together again: we hear that Orfeo and Heurodis `lived long afterward’ (571), and surely that time was happy and loving. But the words aren’t said to verify the renewed positive joint feelings of King and Queen.

How do we handle this unemotional – apparently autistic – treatment of  the totally loved wife and the totally loving husband in the final sequence? I fancy we could talk about trauma-theory if we wanted to perform that translatio studii that makes all medieval characters like nervy modern people, or at least nervy modern academics. I fancy we could talk formalistically about the constraints of the short text and the frequency of enigmatic, discussion-inviting, endings, we could pretend the author is teasing us as we like to when we can’t work something out. Or we could learn from our own study and see that the return from the otherworld here is a complete return to function – the harp is recognised, the royalty is still operative. The personal physical change of Orfeo is merely used as the basis for a plot-trick on the steward – we know Heurodis still looks the same. The story is not in fact about the feelings of the characters: their feelings have only in fact been the keys to the nature of the social dysfunction that is occurring and the emotions are expressed in socially functional mode; the joy of the loyal steward is a reverse example: he is so joyful he breaches his household stewardly duties and knocks the table over. That presages another social fact, that he will become king, not table-arranger. The delight of the court lies in the fact that:

They brought the Queen into the toun
With all maner menstracy.
Lord, there was grete melodye !
For joye they wepe with her eighe
That hem so sounde y-comen seighe. (564-8)

The emotion is publicly operative: it validates the operating function of an operating structure. King and Queen do not have personal feelings, except when they recognise the absence of social function, which is distressing. Emotion is social –  when the King of Fairy visited Heurodis he was in royal appropriative function, not in love, nor in lust, not a cause of petty private feelings. Now again for Orfeo and Heurodis royalty operates. Just as we will never know really why Orfeo go into the forest except that he was not-King, so we will never know what it feels like to be King and Queen. What it feels like is like being the cause of general joye and mirthe and solas.


3. Sir Launfal: The Otherworld Returns for You

Like Sir Orfeo, this poem comes out of twelfth-century French into later English, but here there is an ultimate source by Marie de France. This is at time clearly a source even at the verbal level, but there are some English changes – notable is a much longer and more painful period of distress for the knight before he meets his fairy lady, a sequence which English critics have felt related to anxiety about low social status (a touch of autobiographical projection here perhaps) but the English story amplifies the kind of exile that Launfal finds himself in before his Fairy adventures. There are also some interesting minor changes at the very end, as will be noted later.

Essentially Sir Launfal is Sir Orfeo played upside down, as musical scholars often say when discussing previously unnoticed relationships between items. From the start to the finish it traverses the same terrain as Sir Orfeo, but consistently in a reversed mode which provides the big finish when the otherworld steps in and Launfal disappears to a non-feudal but super-courtly personal collective otherworldly delight with the true love of Tryamour (as `true love’ the name is an Anglo-French creole: she is unnamed in Marie de France).

If Sir Orfeo was royal fantasy this is knightly fantasy. It starts with Arthur at `Kardevyle’, perhaps Carlisle, though I prefer Chester, Caer de Ville, Castletown in Welsh/Norman creole -- perhaps an authorial joke. There all operates in the correct socialised emotive collectivity - `With joye and greet solas’ (9). The knights are themselves listed like a team and we focus on Launfal who equally has public values, of `his largesse and his bounté’ (31). He is the king’s steward for ten years (is that a conscious hint that this reverses Sir Orfeo ?), but when Arthur marries Guinevere negative personal emotion merges – he `likede her nought’ (44) though the reason is itself collective – she was taking lovers already. She replies with a personalised negative indicator in the collective mode – there is no present for Launfal and he has personal feeling as a result: `That grevede him many a sithe.’ (72) So Launfal invents another form of isolation – the death of his father – to justify his isolative leaving of the court, though Arthur, collective king as ever, insists he take two royal nephews with him as a trace of courtly society. These are Sir Huwe and Sir John, who will leave Launfal when he is really poor, though they will conceal his dysfunctional state and in fact report him to King and Queen as having `Moche worchip and greet honour’ (163)  -- but she is privately very pained, this re-asserting her failure to belong correctly to the emotionally positive evaluative ensemble. These nephews are an interesting feature, appearing to be what Macherey calls the `strain’ feature that reveals ideology within the text. Chester has invented these nephews for the sequence – as you hear Arthur speak you think Launfal is to be mightily supported by Gawain and Gyheries or Agrafain (all listed early and Agrafain having no negative connotations, like the common early French positive references to him). Launfal’s lonely misery is not like Orfeo’s  classical and Celtic style intervention by an ineluctable force: it is as in the case of the other dysfunctional knights like Yvain, a  rift caused by the failure to moderate the personal-public dialectic of the social-emotive world.Here it is a failing of the court system to hold together, though Arthur tries to resolve the strains. Chestre has made Guinevere the agent of this crisis, bringing forward her malice from the end: in Marie here it is just general envy of Lanval’s excellence that leads to Arthur slighting him as he has received no praise of him.

This is emphasised by the reason Launfal becomes so poor: when he arrives at Caerleon (and topographically his journey is curiously like a reverse of Sir Gawain’s), especially if he has left Chester, because he is not part of the royal regime he is excluded from the extended Arthurian largesse. The sub-courtly mayor stigmatises him because Launfal reports he is not now part of the honour of Arthur’s world, and so he is banished to a sort of pariah’s outhouse. At this treatment Launfal laughs, but it is in `scorn inough’ (116) – he is shaping an emotionally asserted separate position for himself – and he even behaves accordingly, `So savagelich his good he besette That he ward in greet dette’ (130-1): he did not behave with courtly largesse, but out of control, asocial. The word `savagelich’ means `of the woods’, `wild’, so out of courtly order – even ahuman.

In his asocial state one woman is generous to lonely Launfal: the mayor’s daughter invites him to dine with her, another para-collective moment like Arthur sending the nephews with him. He declines because he cannot dress properly for public identity: but being a knight he can operate in function alone and borrows a horse. But she is only a shadow of his privately helping lady to come. His wretched solitary state frustrates her partial socialisation. His state is not enough even for knightly riding: because he has no `knave other squier’ (212) to help him get ready, he can only ride  with `litill pride’ (213), and the horse slips: are the lack of service and the accident connected ? Is the equipment not fixed right, the shoes not checked properly? The detail is a telling brief instance of the way the knight depended on his own little social world of service, usually kept off stage in romance. Launfal, and his horse, find it is very hard to be really alone.

As Launfal sits alone in the forest `in symplité’ (226) , which Sands glosses as `innocence’ but more relevantly means  being free from pride and socially lowly, he is naturally `in sorow and sore’ (229), alone, miserable,  feeling his dysfunction as we never knew that Orfeo did – but then he was a king in waiting for return. Launfal’s ontological status is truly violated, and his release is epistemologically just as asocial. Just a quarter of the way into the poem, the Otherworld ladies arrive, and very fine they are even for Otherworld ladies. They do public power like nobody else could. The change of gender for the fairy rout is itself interesting: this outfit belongs to the `The King’s daughter of Olyroun’ or in Marie de France, `Avalon’, in Welsh, the Isle of Apples. Perhaps the gender-change is just to permit Launfal to escape as lover: a King or Prince of the Otherworld could hardly strike the same accord as Tryamour does. She sets aside `Al my joye’ (302)  – her Otherworld royal social life it would seem: she too is isolated like him  -- because she loves him more that `King neither emperoure’ (306), her natural partners. She too is alone, it’s just that being Princess of the Otherworld alone is far grander, in the collective splendour category, like being King in the human world. Launfal reciprocates her love, kisses her, calls her `Sweting’ (311) and he sees this imaginary pairing as a social collective -- `I am to thin honour’ (312). She will equip him suitably to his public honour, as well as provide her own private physical delights, starting that night.

 Then comes the trick by which it all operates, a medieval version of the Hitchcockian MacGuffin.  He can, she says, always have total access to her, but always `privily’ (355) – and it follows that her existence and his access to her must be totally private. There is usually a structural trick about the Otherworld – it might not get hot or cold there, or like the first hunt in Sir Orfeo, it maybe silent, for the assembly of Bendigeidfran’s head you can’t open the door towards England, or as for Pwyll there maybe unexplained requirements that the visitor mysteriously fulfils. Only here is the Otherworld given a specific social alterity and made entirely a private world – though also a richly public one in its provisions. It is a private asocial world with all the collective emotive trimmings of the public world. In Marie their world is simply the unnamed lady’s condition, much like her imperious whims in invoking Lanval and then sending him away. For Orfeo the Otherworld was not imaginary at all: it worked by public systems, that is how he won Heurodis back, and even in his exile the animals were a form of society: his isolation was merely a cessation of  social life where only music was capable of any connections. But for Launfal the Otherworld is an alternative and epistemologically competing world, based on a different concept of actuality and value. It is as much an inner world as an Other world, and it both trumps and recuperates the public Arthurian world. Maybe it has, in Bourdieu’s terms, social meaning as a movement towards a bourgeois habitus, but it has no language other than that of aristocracy unlike say the King and Subject ballads or the Robin Hood ballads.

It operates splendidly with its internalised external values: there is a magnificent tournament at Caerleon with splendid performance by the hero, followed by him wining the European chivalric Cup by defeating in Italy the mighty  champion Sir Valentine (literally mighty, he is fifteen feet tall). When Launfal is back home and so great a lord `With solas and with plawe’ (612: `plawe’ is a variant for `joye’), firmly back in the saddle of collective emotion, Arthur hears of it and, never having wanted him to be an exile in the first place, invites him to Camelot to act as steward at a major feast. This should ring a bell. The parallel in narrative terms is another knight with mighty powers deriving from a source parallel to Arthurian chivalry who is invited to Camelot but things go wrong –  Perceval, having developed his status as the Grail knight, sets up an alternative domain that cannot in fact be linked to Arthur’s world. Sir Launfal is also imagining another domain of value, albeit without the rich clerical support of the Grail myth, which will soon consume the north Welsh real Holy Fool and construct the clerically perfect two-dimensional Galahad in his place.

Launfal enjoys the `merthe and moch honour’ (628) at Arthur’s court (not named as Kardevyle now or even Camelot: we later – 965 -- find it is Caerleon),  so much that Guinevere notices his capacity to `daunce large’ (647), an intriguing challenge for a translator -- `dance in an ultra-lordly manner’ perhaps, and she decides  `I love him as my lif’ (654). Her access to disruptive personal emotion is being ratcheted up, but still targeting Launfal. Previously she just had picked up he disapproved of her: now she goes dialectic and asserts she loves him, but, keeping to her disruptive individualism,  instead of the social `lof/lif’ assonance she offers her individual death in default of him: they cannot have a life of love in fact because of her public status.  He rejects her in terms of public courtly values: `I nell be traitoure day ne night, Be God, that al may stere.’ (683-4). Guinevere responds in hyper-personal terms: `Thou lovist no woman ne no woman the – Thou were worthy forelore.’ (689-90) – she wishes on him the forlorn exclusion experience that Orfeo suffered. And Launfal, though `sore ashamed’ (691) which is a collective emotion, answers her in terms of his private, quasi-public world and love – and so exposes it to destruction.

But Launfal also expresses the challenge of his Tryamour world as well, the challenge of this poem to the possibility that the narrative of chivalric honour can be restored. He does not say to the queen she is fairer than you: he says she is fairer `Than thou evir leidest thin ay upon’ (695) and, the clincher, that even her `lothlokste maide’ (the most opposite of `lovesum’) `Might bet be a quene Than thou, in all thy live.’ (697-99).  Guinevere’s personal misdeeds and plotting is what makes her an unsuitable queen (this is a simpler version than Malory, where she remains noble and redeemable), and Launfal’s inner other world is better than this public world riven with error, as was that of Perceval and Galahad, but it had its own fabricated world, Christianity operating even more elaborately and allegedly permanently than the world of Tryamour.

Guinevere’s anger, vengeance, misrepresentation all operate in the public system. She lays emotional-laden public values on the line to Arthur, perhaps formally undercut by running over a stanza break:

                        `Sire, curtais if thou were,

                        Or if thou lovedest thin honoure,
I shuld be awreke of that traitoure’ (918-20)

Arthur is required to exercise the values of the court, and also to internalise his value of honour as love, because this  anti-social individual who is bothering her (she omits it is because she has individually bothered him) is, because she is Queen, being cast as a traitor, so excluded from the social world. The private versus public shuffle works, and Arthur will have him hung and drawn (not quartered here). But the internal world has also pronounced its judgement and everything has gone. Even Launfal’s armour has turned from its Otherworldly white to emotively mournful black. His grief for loss of `joye’ and his `blissful berde’ (748. 750) climaxes properly in a swoon (he no longer has access to individual inner riches, just collective nullity), and he is arrested.

But collective systems leak: the private is always a dialectic weakness to the public. Guinevere has a `los’ (790) – reputation, itself a public feature  -- for serial adultery, and so Launfal is by the knights who are appointed in judgement given the right to produce his evidence in a year and a fortnight. Launfal knows he can do nothing to save his life; only with `So greet sorowe’ (823) can he face the apparently certain prospect that `he wold his heed forego’ (826) – the shadow of Sir Gawain seems to fall across the text in terms of seemingly inevitable outcome.

When he says he can do nothing to save himself – like Orfeo his incapacity will be rewarded by the story  and not himself – the king asks for a judgement.  But the public system is not always direct, it can attempt to divert its brutality. There is another deferral, like the king sending his nephews and the mayor’s daughter lending him a horse. The Earl of Cornwall (a place which has a para-royal, possibly alternative authority, status in the Arthurian world, this is the origin of Cador, Gorlois, Constantine – and Guinevere) says they would themselves receive `Greet shame’ (841) to damn `that gantilman That hath be hende and fre’ (842-3). Launfal’s public honour has been so good it would reverse upon those who destroyed it with execution. This is new: in Marie it is because only the king has accused Lanval that evidence is required (that is an early medieval French issue: the lords want him to be a fainéant). And in any case Lanval’s fate will only be to be banished. Here, as with the steward remaining loyal to Orfeo, the public system strains in its own terms to escape its distress. So the Earl recommends `Out of lond Launfal shall fle.’ (846)

And so he will, but not because the Earl or the King dictate. The Otherworld, and the narrative, take over the tangled dialectic of public and private at Arthur’s court. The slow, climactic, authoritative build-up of the Otherworld arrivals asserts its own case for the power of alternative fantasy. With maidens like that, and an organisation like that, who would not put his faith in his own personal true lover Tryamour and her power to replicate in internal mode a far superior external world, including the will to forgive breaching her McGuffin. She rides alone, but proclaims her alternative power though her gold and jewelled crown and in the splendour of herself – when she unveils, in a climax of quasi-public privacy, `That lofsom lemede light’ (942). She retains power: when Launfal sees her he does not say I am saved. He says `She mighte me of my balis bete, Yef that lady wolde.’ (971-2). And her privately available version of public power does punishment too. Guinevere had  said, perhaps unwisely, to the judges, when Launfal was required to produce his lady `Yif he bringeth a fairere thinge, Put out my eyn gray.’ (809-10) But Tryamour runs the show now, not the judges or the King, and takes her at her word: she `blew on her swich a breth That never eft might she se.’ (1007-08).

Tryamour, ladies and Launfal leave in their alterative Otherworld grandeur, correctly denoted as being a simulacrum of public social emotion: `With solas and with pride’ (1019-20) they go to the `jolif ile’ (1022) of Olyroun where Launfal maintains chivalric life: you can hear his horse neigh, you can see him ride, you can even go and joust with him. He remains `That noble knight’ (1034), just as Orfeo returned to honoured kingship, but this is not an Otherworld journey that supports the continuing status quo in our feudal world. Where Marie de France reasons for telling a no-return Otherworld journey had no doubt to do with her gender, and perhaps also with her investment in the power of the Celtic material, Chestre’s version appears to relate to late medieval scepticism about the whole feudal-courtly structure and its cultural capital.


4. Sir Gawain: The Unforgettable Otherworld Journey

Celtic cultural products go in threes, and there is a completing part of this triskel of adventures, though unfamiliarity with the Celtic otherworld and its effects have tended to let it languish in favour of an Avalon of modern-style identity politics. As has been suggested here and there, Sir Gawain can be read as an otherworld return, and one that intriguingly combines the structure of the Sir Orfeo return with the dissent of the Sir Launfal single journey. In that magical bright castle after the cold journey of isolation,  and combining at Hautdesert both the nasty mayor and the (untrustworthy) over-courteous mayor; but we also find both Tryamour and Guinevere, in a more complex distribution of femininity. But which is which ? Gawain is finally like a Launfal who has been to theological college, and Arthur remains his blandly cheery and misguided self (and Marie’s Lanval was offered no year plus for his rendezvous with death, had the Gawain poet read/heard Chestre ?). At the end of Sir Gawain the collective public applause is challenged by the private dissent, now empowered by the force of Christian confession, that para-inner judgement that previously only worked for Perceval’s own super-evaluative exile from court. There were  even traitors at Troy as the poet drily, slyly, notes.

This Otherworld tour has shown  not only the fetching matching reversing pair of Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal, but also suggests the great complex poem Sir Gawain has more in it than has yet been seen. We could travel further – somewhere in all this is Rhiannon, both old and young, educator of well-born idiots, figure of sovereignty, horse goddess and great queen (Welsh Rigantona is Morrigan in Irish: she is also Morgan).But it may be enough just now to rest after our journey, still in function, but having learned a bit, even if only what, or whom, to avoid.



[1]  References to Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal are taken from Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Donald B. Sands, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, omitting his recurrent and distracting use of exclamation marks.

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