The Power of Nature on the Ordinary: How Nature Denotes Importance in Literature

The examination of nature in literature is a longstanding tradition of literary criticism; critics have often examined the effects of setting, the figure of Mother Nature as a personified force, the presence of animal sidekicks and guides in works both modern and ancient. However, in our examination of these forces we typically look at what nature does for the story, but we often forget to consider another hugely important function of nature in what it does for the reader. How does nature catch our attention? How does it signify what is and is not important for the reader to remember? Can nature elevate a character to the reader? Does nature have the power to alter a reader’s opinion or view of a text, person, or story as a whole? In this paper, I will seek to answer these questions as I delve into the notion that nature denotes positive importance in a text; I will argue that if a reader wants to find that which is extraordinary, that which is noteworthy, they should look to natural forces being their guide to this presence in a text. I will exemplify this in a close reading analysis of several passages and scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, and the Seven Fables of Robert Henryson. In addition to these texts, I will examine the works of various literary critics, in an effort to gain insight on various interpretations of certain symbols or scenes in the various texts. I will also frame the contextual situation of nature in the Medieval era by including research from medievalists specializing in the field of ecocriticism, such as Jeffrey Cohen’s article “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages” as a way to convey not only what the modern reader thinks of the nature present in these texts, but how the medieval reader would have perceived them as well.

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