“The Awntyrs off Arthur” and an Ambiguous Afterlife

The Knights of the Round Table and the Apparition of the Holy Grail

The Knights of the Round Table and the Apparition of the Holy Grail

The Awntyrs Off Arthur (Awnytrs) is an Arthurian Romance written in Middle English hyper-alliterative verse which is the most demanding and richly echoic style of verse in the English language. Each stanza is comprised of thirteen lines, which each line features four alliterative stresses, and adhere to the rhyming scheme ababababcdddc. From the title I anticipated that the poem would centre on King Arthur and it opened as I expected by focusing on King Arthur and his court embarking on a deer hunt. The poem’s initial focus gives way and settles instead on Sir Gawain and describes two episodes that he is part of. The first half of the poem recounts Sir Gawain and Queen Guinevere’s ghostly encounter with her mother, while the second half of the poem delineates a land dispute that arises between Sir Gawain and Sir Galeron of Galloway. My response will be focused on the first half of the poem and in this post I will be ruminating upon certain intriguing aspects associated with this ghostly encounter.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the Pearl Manuscript

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the Pearl Manuscript

The advent of Guinevere’s mother is described in Awntyrs as a phantasmagorical event: the hunt is abruptly stopped and the knights are plunged into darkness “The day wex als dirke/As hit were mydnight myrke” and they are forced to find shelter from the sudden stormy weather “Thay ranne faste to the roches, for reddoure of the raynne” (Awntyrs 75-76, 81). The approach of the ghost itself is described as a horrific and terror-inducing cacophony of “Yauland and yomerland, with many loude yelle/Hit yaules, hit yameres, with waymynges wete” (“Howling and wailing, with many a loud yell/It howls, it wails, with tearful lamentations”) (Awntyrs 86-87).  

Reading the passage preceding the ghost’s arrival I was struck by the following sentence, “There come a lowe one the loughe” (“There appeared a fire in the lake”) (Awntyrs 83). My previous studies on the treatment of monstrosity and monstrous landscapes within early and medieval English texts focused on a similar description within the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, “There every night a dire portent can be seen, fire on the flood”(Fulk 177). In the poem Beowulf this convergence of two disparate elements, fire and water, shroud the landscape in the “uncanny” and create a liminal landscape in which both Grendel and his mother could exist. Similarly, the combination of the gothic overtones and the “dire portent” or unnatural union between fire and water in Awntyrs associates the landscape Guinevere’s mother inhabits with the “uncanny” and effectively highlights and augments her monstrous or supernatural qualities.

Turne Wathelan: The site where this episode is to have occurred.

Turne Wathelan: The site where this episode is to have occurred.

The approach and appearance of Guinevere’s mother offer significant insights into the medieval perception of the afterlife. The ghost of Awntyrs does not descend from heaven, rather she is described as gliding towards Sir Gawain and Guinevere from the lake. The horizontal approach of the ghost is important because it symbolises her spiritual punishment, the inability to transcend this earthly realm, as a result of her sins “That is luf paramour, listes and delites/That has me light and laft logh in a lake” ([The cause] is sexual love, pleasure and delight/ That has brought me low and left me deep in a lake”) (Awntyrs 213-214). Her inability to transcend is reinforced by the ghost’s corporeal appearance which differs from modern connotations of ghost as ethereal beings.

The popular film Ghostbusters popularised the modern conception of a ghost as an incorporeal being.

The popular film Ghostbusters popularised the modern conception of a ghost as an incorporeal being.

In contrast to the incorporeal connotations the graphic passage which describes the ghost in Awntyrs is literally more grounded, in that it shares striking similarities with a decomposing corpse:

  • “Bare was the body and blak to the bone,/Al biclagged in clay uncomly cladde.” (“The body was bare and black to the bone, foully covered all [over] with clotted earth”) (Awntyrs 105-106).
  • “But on hide ne on huwe no heling hit hadde” (“But it had no skin no complexion no cover”) (Awntyrs 108).
  • “With eighen holked ful holle” (“With sunken, hollow eyes”) (Awntyrs 116).

The above description not only conveys the physical degradation associated with death but equally acts as a “Memento Mori” (Remember that you will die”), a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death and a lesson on the decomposing power of sin. The ambiguity in the language referring to Guinevere’s mother as a body and a “goste” inspired this post because I felt it evoked the sense of an ambiguous afterlife (Awntyrs 325). Her horizontal approach and her rotting corpse both strongly signify that Guinevere’s mother’s soul is still rooted in the land of the living.

Works Cited

Fulk, R.D., ed. The Beowulf Manuscript. Trans. R.D. Fulk. London: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.

Hahn, T. ed. “The Awntyrs Off Arthur.” TEAMS Middle English Text Series.  N. p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb 2014.

Images Cited

Apparition Saint Graal. Scanned reproduction of a fifteenth century French Manuscript. 2006. King Arthur. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.

“The Ghostbusters Logo”. An Adobe illustration of the Ghostbusters logo. Ghostbusters (franchise). Wikimedia Commons. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.

Krapp, Alexander P. Wadling. Photograph. 2006. The Awntyrs off Arthure. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Pearl Manuscript. Illustration from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the late fourteenth century Pearl Manuscript (Cotton Nero A. x) in the British Library. 2012. King Arthur. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.

Advertisements

Liminality: The bond that ties the hero with the monster

The term “liminal” is derived from the Latin word “limen” meaning doorway or threshold. Originally used as an anthropological term by Victor Turner the term refers to that which is transitional or in between states (Ashley). Its later application to literature and to art is intrinsically linked to its function of providing a safe space for cultural release, in the ambiguous figure of the monster. In a world dominated by hostility and darkness the bodies of Grendel and Glámr provided safe spaces to express the customs and practices that were forbidden and prohibited within their respective societies. In this instance Bahktin advocated that the monster provided a liberation of all that was repressed or according to Cohen’s postulate “fear of the monster was really a kind of desire”; where the fantasies of aggression and inversion could be acted out through Grendel and Glámr’s harmful actions, yet were securely contained within the permanently liminal space that is the monster’s body (Cohen).

The monster's body provided safe spaces to express the customs and practices that were forbidden and prohibited within society.

The monster’s body provided safe spaces to express the customs and practices that were forbidden and prohibited within society.

The ability of both Grendel and Glámr to provide this release is due to their betwixt and between nature (Ashley). The character Glámr for instance was described as being asocial and a loner and in death he returns as a restless draugr, which essentially is a physically active dead being. Glámr as a draugr crosses the set boundaries of the natural world, or the ‘limen’ or ‘threshold’ dividing life and death (Byock 32). Similarly Grendel a “ an-genga” loner like Glámr is so ambiguously described that he is shrouded in the mystery of the abject and the uncanny (Fulk 114). Grendel is simultaneously described as a corporeal being of great strength and as a “scriðan sceadu-genga” (a shadow walker creeping) or as “deorc deaþ-scua” (death’s dark shadow) (Fulk 132, 96). Glámr’s liminal stance as a dead person with the semblance of life and the pervasive mysterious aspect of Grendel’s character, mean that both monsters are no longer restrained by the bonds of society and are therefore capable of acting out the fantasies of aggression that no human character could effectively do.

Monsters inhabited the marginal uninhabited regions of society, much like they decorate the margins of the Bayeaux Tapestry.

Monsters inhabited the marginal uninhabited regions of society, much like they decorate the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry.

     The ambiguous nature of the monster’s body allows them to “elude and slip through the network of classification” that defines our society and so they are excluded and left to decorate the margins of society, much like they decorated the margins of The Bayeux Tapestry or the Hereford Map (Ashley). The monsters inhabit the margins of our cultural space, the uninhabited and wild regions. In Beowulf Grendel “hæðstapa” and his mother are described as inhabiting “dygel lond”, a hidden or secret country, showing clearly how this space is not yet cultivated by civilization and is therefore beyond the borders of human knowledge (Fulk 176, 174). Surprisingly it’s not just that which is monstrous that occupies the liminal or marginal zones. As Mittman asserts both heroes and saints were conjoined with monstrosity in their decision to inhabit the dangerous or repellent zones like the fens (Mittman). Unlike Grendel the poems Guthlac A and Guthlac B show how Guthlac chose to voluntarily exclude himself from civilization by locating himself within the civilized and uninhabited geographical periphery: “he started inhabiting, alone, a hilly dwelling place” (Treharne). While Grendel and Glámr showed their ability to provide a release of that which is repressed for the good of society, Guthlac’s asceticism demonstrates the release that can be found by obtaining fresh perspectives when separated from society.

The hall in literature can be interpreted as a social and cultural microcosm for civilization.

The hall in literature can be interpreted as a social and cultural microcosm for civilization.

     Photograph taken by Malene Thyssen.

More significant than their marginal locations is the visits paid by Grendel and Glámr to the Heorot or Thorhallsstead. Taking the halls as a social and cultural microcosm for civilization, the menacing crossing of both Grendel and Glámr over these thresholds are symbolic of how monsters function as “Harbingers of Catergory Crises” by smashing the distinctions separating the included from the excluded (Cohen). Glámr and Grettir’s struggle in Thorshallsstead is particularly symbolic as it shows that in Grettir’s success in thrusting Glámr outside the doorway, he falls out with him; falling from the social hub of human society, into the exile and exclusion designated to the realm of the monstrous. Sayers asserts that the root of Grettir’s true terror of Glámr’s gaze is the possession of knowledge from the other side and how it signifies the start of his descent from ambiguous hero to ambiguous monster (Sayers).

The hero is defined by his relationship with monsters. Without monsters like Grendel and Glamr, the hero has no socially acceptable forum for his power and therefore no other role that society would deem valuable.

The hero is defined by his relationship with monsters. Without monsters the hero has no socially acceptable forum for his power and therefore no other role that society would deem valuable.

     The relevance of heroes to liminality is due to the fact that their existence is contingent on monsters. Like monsters, the heroes Beowulf and Grettir are separated from other men because of their excessive size and strength. We are told that Beowulf was the strongest of all men living at that time and that Grendal had never met with a “mund-griþe maran” (Fulk 134). The distinguishing factor between the hero and the monster is the hero’s ability to use his excessive strength in the service of those weaker than himself. Both Grettir and Beowulf define themselves as professional heroes that augment their career by going out to the “frecne stow” and “æl-wihta eard” and encountering the monsters (Fulk 176, 184). Without Grendel and Glámr and the smörgåsbord of monsters the hero has no socially acceptable forum for his power and therefore no other role that society would deem valuable.

Despite being conceptually and geographically marginalized to the peripheries of the mind and society the monsters of liminality always return and infiltrate the centre of civilization, because they are “fundamentally essential” to our understanding of our own ambiguous human nature (Tolkien 261).

Works Cited

Ashley, Kathleen M., ed. Victor Turner and The Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Print.

Byock, Jesse, trans. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.

Fulk, R.D., ed. The Beowulf Manuscript. Trans. R.D. Fulk. London: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.

Mittman, Asa Simon. Maps and Monsters in Medieval England. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Sayers, William. “The Alien and Alienated as Unquiet Dead in the Sagas of the Icelanders.” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. London: Oxford University Press, 1936. Print.

Treharne, Elaine, ed. Old and Middle English c.890 – c.1400: An Anthology. Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Images Cited

Myrabella. “The Bayeux Tapestry – Scene 57: The Death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings”. Photograph. 2007. Bayeux Tapestry. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

Skelton, J.R. Stories of Beowulf. “Grendel”. 1908 Illustration. 2010. Grendel. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

Skelton, J. R. Stories of Beowulf. “Carrying Grendel’s head”. 1908 Illustration. 2010. Children’s Book Illustration. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

Thyssen, Malene. Fyrkat Hus Stor. Photograph. 2002. Mead Hall. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

 

 

 

Boaring Medievalist

Blog and homepage of Thijs Porck

Borderlines XXI

Authority in the Medieval and Early Modern World

For the Wynn

a blog about medieval manuscripts, by Kate Thomas

Medieval Marginalia

Exploring Medieval Folklore, Literature and Archaeology.

phdchatucc

CACSSS PhD Informal Gathering

Selim28

Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature

josullivan.org

James O'Sullivan Ph.D., M.A., M.Sc. | teacher, publisher, writer

Wellcome Collection Blog

The blog for the incurably curious

Windows & Wardrobes.

A trek through the world of children's films and literature.

wordplega

Old English Literature and Other Interests.

Marilyn's Meandering Mind

Historian- Freelance Aritist - Painter and Digital Artist

Digital Material

National University of Ireland, Galway. 21-22 May 2015.

Google Ancient Places

Finding Ancient Mediterranean Places in Literature

Languages, Myths and Finds

Exploring Norse and Viking heritage in communities around Britain and Ireland

The Long View

Texts in context