Sir Degare and Sir Launfal are some of the more mythic lays we’ve read that involve aspects of the real human world and the marvelous mythical world intertwined into the same story. This week’s reading has displayed fairies, dragons, and infinite wealth to name a few of the “imaginary” aspects we’ve seen. I think this blurring of the human and non-human world within the reading can be a great tool to allow us to gain a slightly less anthropocentric perspective.
By attempting to comprehend a setting in which a fairy-knight is the father of a human, as we see in Sir Degare, we can look at the two as equals, as opposed to seeing humans above and everything else below. Even if we do enter the reading with a human-centered perspective, claiming that the human characters are the only real aspects of the story, we must ask ourselves how real can the humans be if they are born of mythical creatures? Once we get past this boundary we can broaden our horizons to recognize everything in the story as an actor of equivalent significance, from Sir Degare’s ageless mother to Sir Launfal’s purse that contains endless amounts of money.
Family is a central part of the narrative in Sir Degaré. Abandoned as a child, Degaré’s main purpose is in the search for his family and, by extension, a respectable place in society.
Degaré attains knighthood through physical strength, but his journey as a character is more complex than rescuing an earl from a dragon or defeating a king in combat. In showing bravery and overcoming obstacles through sheer physical power, he is lead closer and closer to a reunion with his family. However, there are unforeseen complications. For example, he gains a marriage to his own mother (unbeknownst to him at the time) in his triumph over the king in battle.
It also struck me that the story was like an inverted version of the tragedy of Oedipus. Sir Degaré marries his mother, but realizes the error in time to avoid consummating the relationship. He fights his father in the end, but ultimately does not kill him. During the inevitable confrontation between father and son, a reconciliation occurs rather than the “standard” death of the father. This is an unusual outcome for a story dealing with issues of patrimony and quasi-incest. For instance, Mordred (the illegitimate son of King Arthur in Arthurian legend), kills his own father in battle.
In light of everything that happened in the story, the family situation is, at best, confusing. How could his mother reunite with the father in the end after she had been raped by the very same “fairy knight?” It seems like a happy ending until the implications of what they all mean to each other sinks in, which is to say: how do they all relate to one another? In fact, I would characterize the ending as curiously happy considering the seemingly uncomplicated reunion of his parents in conjunction with any lingering issues of resentment he should have felt toward them for abandoning him as a child.
For this week’s reading I wanted to make sure that I read Jane Bennett’s “The Force of Things” from Vibrant Matter before reading Sir Degare so that I could try to implement and better understand any of the concepts that I encountered in Bennett’s text while reading Sir Degare. I would say that this was a successful experiment, though I can’t say for certain whether or not I’m actually understanding the way that Bennett intended for her audience to.
Being interested in philosophy myself I paid close attention to what Bennett writes about ethics with regards to vital materialism. She writes about this “safety net” that vital materialism would create for humans who essentially do not meet the standards of other’s particular “model of personhood” (13). It is my understanding that Bennett thinks these people would not be made to suffer so much abuse when human bodies are thought of as things whose “status of the materiality of which we are composed” is considered on a greater scale down to the body’s mineralization and matter (11-3), and not just its entire composition as a whole. Meaning, each human body has more shared attributes than one would initially grant when evaluating on societal contexts/models of personhood alone i.e. the “Euro-American, bourgeois, theocentric” etc (13). The result, Bennett writes, is that vital materialism can “inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations” (13). Therefore, for an abusive individual to hurt another human body would be inflicting harm on themselves because they share the same network (13). This is Bennett’s “expanded notion of self-interest” (13), or at least how I have interpreted it.
So, I brought this interpretation with me into Sir Degare. Of course, while doing that, the scene that struck me the most was the rape scene (105-112). After reading Bennett I asked myself, “What was the fairy knight’s perception of Degare’s mother’s personhood? Was she, as a woman, beneath his particular model of respectable personhood? Could that be why he felt that he had the power and right to force himself upon her?” If I am at least halfway correct in my interpretation of Bennett I would say yes. If so, then, I think that Bennett would argue that if the fairy knight considered all that he shares with the woman on a material level he would be less likely to disturb the network that he shares with her. After all, as a consequence of this act Degare is conceived and brought into the network. Later on, Degare then tries to destroy the fairy knight in battle before realizing that it is his father (1010-1059). Had the fairy knight not disrupted (I don’t know if this is the right word to use here) the network that he shares with the woman he raped and in turn impregnated her, there would not have existed a knight as great as Degare who nearly cost the fairy knight his life. According to Bennett this is because “each human is a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, dangerously vibrant, matter” (Bennett 12-3) having the capacity to even destroy: Degare as a knight figure set out to conquer the fairy knight, and create:the woman as a mother creating life.