March 17: Romancing Sir Orfeo

In today’s reading, Olson delves into the possible themes that governed the Auchinleck’s compilatio, one of which involves the English “hero” narrative as an establishment of Anglo-Norman ancestry, owing validity to Norman authority.

In what ways would Sir Orfeo reflect a possible synthesis between different groups in the Auchinleck?

What’s the Story?

In Chapter 1 of Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, we go into detailed study surrounding the content and reproduction of Piers Plowman from scribe to scribe. In viewing these various manuscripts, the question is posed as to whether metrical changes are made by William Langland or Scribe D. It’s possible that the manuscripts in question were actually drafts written by Langland, as our texts says possibly drafted “without alliteration… then worked them up” (OUMEM 73).

If this is true, William Langland’s case study would have some curious implications for the creative writing process of the late fourteenth century. For one thing, it would mean that at least Langland was more preoccupied with the story he was telling than the poem’s metrical effects. Were Langland and other authors trapped in the popular genre of their era? Surely the intellectual community of Britain during this time was exposed to non-rhyming prose, whether it was verbal story telling or copies of ancient Greek prose. Of course, we do not have enough information to comment on the intentions behind Langland’s writing process, because he may have always intended for poetry to carry the final product. However, the question is worth asking considering the content of his poem; a clear message is being sent about the church as a corrupt governing body, so it would be interesting to see if poetry was the necessary medium for reaching a wider audience, while the content carries the weight.

The Cold War: Biblical Edition

Passus 18 of Piers Plowman presents a fascinating dynamic between the politics of Heaven and Hell. In conventional tales of the Fall, you have the bad guys who want God’s power, and the good guys who concede to God’s authority. The bad guys are just plain bad and the good guys appropriately win out.

We have something far more complex here with Passus 18, as Heaven and Hell seem to be ruled by separate, yet largely parallel, political orders. While heaven is home to the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Righteousness, Peace, Truth), Hell is governed by Lucifer, Satan, Goblin, and the Devil. The Daughters operate under a checks and balances system, as seen through the discourse between Mercy and Truth, where the two engage in rhetoric regarding redemption for souls in Hell before Truth calls upon Righteousness for her input, saying “Let’s rest here awhile, For she knows more than we do” (line 164-165). Following input from Righteousness and Peace, Book carries us to the subsequent “invasion” of hell. Although the committee of Daughters does not seem to have a direct influence on Christ’s invasion, it seems their discourse provides a necessary narrative representation of God’s decision making process. Considering Peace gets the last word among the Four, we are left with the impression that her explanation is the culmination of their discourse; God understands the complication of human folly and sends Christ to enact forgiveness.

Hell’s council, on the other hand, seem to be more at fault for their legislative ineptitude, despite the attention they give to the terms of agreement outlined subsequent to the Fall. Lucifer posits to the group that he has a right to the souls in Hell due to a contract with God that would commit sinners to Hell “if Adam ate the apple” (line 279). Satan and Goblin warn Lucifer, however, that his intervention as the deceitful snake could possibly be in violation of the contract. The Devil, who seems to be the informational authority on Heaven’s council, suggests that the agreement’s disbandment could lead to Hell losing its dead souls. Of course, this becomes the case.

This idea of Heaven and Hell as bodies governed by respective councils is by far my favorite representation of each realm’s authoritative structure, and most likely informs later interpretations such as that seen in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Twain’s Letters From the Earth.


Manuscript Mise-en-scene

In the Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts textbook chapter “The Power of Images,” there is much discussion revolving around the religious ethics behind images, but not a great deal of attention is paid to how these images change the readership experience. Take Piers Plowman, I was exposed to these images before we were assigned the reading, so my visualization is largely informed by the images now that I am reading. Would my Piers Plowman experience be different if I never saw them?

In observing the Prick of Conscience manuscript, the texts analyzes the apparent emotion with which the scribe also illustrates the story. The author demonstrates a desire for the manuscript to carry a significant aesthetic value, as the script form, color, and placement work in tandem to develop the story’s narrative. The OUMEM’s authors make note of the manuscript’s aesthetic as a priority for the script’s creator, claiming that they express “triumphant enthusiasm as having ‘delivered’ the poem” (OUMEM 200) a feat celebrated by the proud stork image at the story’s end. I think this idea is a part of an interesting conversation that continues to this day- is our experience with literature maximized or diminished by invoking our senses beyond text? For the time Prick of Conscience, Piers Plowman and others were produced, the use of illustrations was revolutionary for the reader experience. With every page, the narration was teamed with images which worked in tandem with text to tell a story, so the authors fully committed to this dynamic. In a way, this literary “experience” fits on a sensory spectrum that continues to stretch with time, as images, sounds and texts are continually merged in experimental ways through movies, shows and other mediums of entertainment. Thus, to this day we find ourselves space with literature not unlike that experienced in 14th century England.

Sir Gawain and Satire: A story of subtlety

It seems that much of the discourse revolving around Sir Gawain pertains to the moralistic conflict our protagonist faces by the story’s end. Although this conversation is significant in context of our typical understanding of knighthood and the tales preceding Sir Gawain, I think the author potentially produced this document in resistance to the chivalric narrative. In a way, the author takes the advantageous circumstances awarded to the preceding narratives and throw them away, sort of saying “okay, Knights of the Round Table, what now?”

It’s important to understand this form of satire as one which aims not to parody the chivalric value of the knights, but instead aims to test their chivalry when their “gaming” mentality is turned against them. In Sir Gawain’s case, he is completely at the mercy of the Green Knight, who seems to possess abilities which strip Sir Gawain of the types of agency normally afforded to knights in other tales.

The most obvious type of agency taken from Gawain is his ability to control through physical force. Gawain could be the biggest, strongest, fastest knight with the most effective weapons and armor in the game, but it would serve him no purpose against a man who survives decapitation of all injuries, and it does not bode well for him as a character whose archetypal victory should be “slaying” the enemy. We most notably see where this becomes an issue toward the end of the story, where Sir Gawain’s moral dilemma to take the green belt coincides with his dilemma over whether to accept the Green Knight’s evaluation. Moral issues aside, Sir Gawain’s survival comes at his dismay when he realizes the green belt was given as a part of the Green Knight’s grand design. It would have been one thing for Gawain to endure his enemy’s physical strike by his own cleverness, but for the “magic” to come from that very enemy only buttresses the level of control the Green Knight.

Although this sort of “bracketing” of control may not fit our notions of satire, I think there is something to be said of the truths our author reveals through the Green Knight. When Gawain goes back home, his fellow knights cannot help but to celebrate his return within the context of chivalric victory. Because they haven’t been subject to the control Gawain was subject to, Gawain is just left to think, “dude, you guys totally don’t get it.” I’m not sure if you can call that satire, but it’s pretty hilarious in my mind.