Jane Bennet redefines materiality in her book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Vibrant matter, she proposes, “is not the raw material for the creative activity of humans or God;” it has an existence of its own (xiii). Vibrant matter reclaims its materiality, and resists being objectified (defined in relation to a human subject). Shedding its objectivity, the new “thing” regains “a liveliness intrinsic to the materiality” (xvi). Bennett restores a material’s inherent agency – what she calls “thing power” (6). Agency, an ability to affect, is accompanied by “[a] capacity to be affected” (21). The power of materiality is not self contained, it participates in a “coexistence of mutual dependency with friction and violence between parts”: an assemblage (23). Bennett’s exciting concept of vibrant matter will guide my first reading of Sir Launfal. Tryamour, Sir Launfal’s fairy lover, is closely associated with lavish materiality. Whereas such an association seemingly objectifies her, I will use Bennett’s notion of thing-power to argue that materiality empowers her and secures her a position of power in a materialistic assemblage in which she has the most influence and allies.
Queer Theory redefines and reclaims the term “queer” like Vibrant Materialism does matter. David Savran explains that Queer Theory operates on a definition of queer that “signifies less a fixed identity than a principle of polysemy” (57). Queer no longer refers to a specific sect of sexual deviance, that is, but to an entire spectrum of underrepresented cultures, races, genders, and sexual orientations. This is, indeed, quite a claim, and I will test the limits of “queering” (the act of illuminating the fluidity of this spectrum) in Sir Launfal. Gender instability is apparent in the almost authoritative influence that Guenevere and Tryamour have over Arthur and Launfal (suggesting a gender role reversal in each relationship). Class is also represented as a fluctuating station in life, as Launfal’s good service goes unpaid and he descends into poverty (emasculating him in the process), while Guenevere’s ignoble behavior goes completely unpunished. Launfal’s eventual class restoration and Guenevere’s final humiliation suggests, though, that such stations in life are ultimately destined and re-secured by a social code – hardly a queer message. Race and culture is ambiguously represented in both Launfal and Tryamour. As a foreigner in Arthur’s kingdom, Launfal is easily (and, presumably, understandably) ostracized by court decorum and law. Tryamour’s mythical ethnicity (she is a fairy) makes her, oddly enough, both vulnerable and threatening. Though she must conduct her love and gift giving in self-conscious secrecy, once exposed she expresses her entitlement to her love, wealth, and beauty. Though she is marginalized by Arthur’s court, it is because of her superiority to it, not inferiority. Each instance of straying from the norm can be considered an instance of “queering.” So whereas Guenevere does not quite explicitly accuse Launfal of being homosexual as she does in Lanval, she finds other ways of “queering” him that are just as demeaning (considering the medieval, premodern understanding of homosexuality).
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.
Although these two stories may seem very different at first, upon a closer reading, there are many more fundamental similarities than one might originally think: the element of largesse and subsequent poverty, the failure of the gift giving system, an element of the marvelous, and the saving grace of a woman.
While reading Sir Launfal, I was reminded very much of Sir Cleges in that both men were extremely generous, and once the ability to be generous with their material possessions was gone, so were the friends. Launfal was so ashamed when he was not awarded gifts by the queen, he decided to leave and fell into poverty and then abandoned. Cleges was simply taken advantage of. He was eaten out of house and home due to all the parties he threw. Once he was no longer able to throw his parties, he too was abandoned by his friends. The material possessions (or lack thereof) in both stories determined whether the men not only felt like, but were recognized as, knights.
In both stories, there exists a failure of “the system” that led to the men’s impoverishment. In Cleges for example, there was no reciprocity of generosity. Cleges gave and gave and gave, but received nothing in return (nor did he expect to), making it impossible to sustain his way of life. In Launfal, the failure of the system falls on the shoulders of the queen. There was no reason to leave Launfal out of the gift giving; she just simply did not like him. This failure of the queen to distribute gifts fairly makes it impossible for Launfal to stick around, thus beginning his fall into poverty and shame.
Once the knights in both stories have suffered sufficiently, there enters an element of the marvelous. In Cleges, it is the appearance of the out of season cherries, and in Launfal, it is the fairy lover. These elements make it possible for the knights to regain their honor as well as their riches. Cleges is awarded properly after sharing the cherries with the king, and Launfal is awarded riches by his fairy lover and again redeemed by her in the end.
I can’t help but notice that these men would have been ultimately lost without the women in their lives. Cleges did not recognize the cherries as a good sign until his wife convinced him. He thought, in fact, that they were a bad omen. If she had not been around, would he have destroyed them and thus been in poverty forever? Launfal would have also stayed in poverty were it not for the gifts of his lover, and later on been executed did she not decide to show up. If the fairy never showed up in the first place, would Launfal have stayed in poverty, wallowing in pity? These knights in distress were saved by their damsels.