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.

The Franklin’s Tale

The Franklin’s Tale depicts a love story that may remind you of some of the other courtly love stories we have read over the semester, especially those of Marie de France. However, Chaucer certainly features many details in this tale that differ from Marie’s depiction of a courtly love story.

What are some of the differences between Marie’s works and The Franklin’s Tale? Think beyond basic plot points into characterization, the role of women, what values seem to be most valued, etc.

March 21st

The three poems work to move the reader emotionally through a variety of rhetorical strategies, some of which include the use of certain motifs, symbols, and moral values to evoke meaning for the reader.

Though the poems are individual works and not necessarily related to each other, what common aspects are featured in the poems?  Compare either 2, or all 3 and look for common motifs, narrator traits, moral values, etc.

Feb 16 – Henryson

In the prologue, Henryson makes comments about the work he has created, referring back to Aesop’s fables many times, as well as informing the reader that Henryson’s goal is to make his fables pleasing to read and full of some lightness.

In the fables we read, what were some moments and passages that you found especially pleasing or light or even humorous? Why did they strike you?

Feb 14 – The Parliament of Fowls

Through the narrator, Chaucer extensively lists many characters present in the dreamland, many of whom represent or personify a larger concept. Chaucer additionally includes a very detailed list of all of the birds surrounding Nature. However, he describes certain birds in more detail, characterizing them both directly and indirectly through their speech and the revelation of their opinions regarding the matter of the “formel egle”.

What groups do various birds (the eagle, falcon, goose, etc.) represent? Is there a connection between the type of bird and the group being represented? Why does Chaucer choose to represent these groups and their thoughts through birds?